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Charles Holden’s vision for Bloomsbury: how the architect designed a new infrastructure for education


For its first 100 years, the University of London led a nomadic existence – it occupied rooms at various sites around London, each of which it quickly outgrew. In the 1930s, when the time finally came to build its first central campus in Bloomsbury, the University turned to Charles Holden (1875-1960).

University of London estate

In the 1920s, Holden had a hand in no fewer than 48 tube stations. He also designed the imposing tower at 55 Broadway – London's first skyscraper and, until 2020, the headquarters for the London Underground – and he was shortlisted to design the Bloomsbury campus after giving Sir Edwin Deller, then-Principal of the University, a tour of the building. Holden was appointed in 1931 to develop not only the new headquarters for the University but its entire estate from the British Museum to Gordon Square.

Holden’s brief from the University (where Deller and William Beveridge led the central committee) was to take what he had learned from designing the infrastructure for transportation and create a new infrastructure for education. Their collective vision for Bloomsbury was a knowledge cluster that would be visible and accessible to all, based on access to information – an ethos very much in keeping with the University of London’s mission.

The original plan consisted of a single structure stretching from Montague Place to Torrington Street, with a central corridor linked by a series of wings and courtyards – one for each federation member. The scheme was to be topped by two towers; the taller Senate House and a smaller one to the north. Holden’s ambitious scheme developed from this ‘spinal plan’ to a ‘balanced structure’ with free-standing buildings, and construction began in 1932 – but a lack of funds and the advent of WWII saw the design gradually cut back, and only Senate House and its Library were completed in 1937.

In 1944, Hamburg’s famous Warburg Institute was given in trust to the University of London and was initially housed in South Kensington’s Imperial Institute. When that site was cleared to make way for Imperial College, Holden was asked to design a new home for the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in Woburn Square, on the northern edge of the new Bloomsbury campus – serving as a kind of gatehouse to the never-built entrance to the University.

The building was originally conceived as a single structure with a shared wing and two courtyards. While the Courtauld went elsewhere, the Warburg Institute opened there in 1958, as Holden’s final project. Senate House and the Warburg Institute (both home to world-class libraries) not only serve as the bookends of the Bloomsbury campus but mark the beginning and end of Holden’s work for the University.

Some 60 years later, the Institute embarked on a complete renovation and extension: the Warburg Renaissance (as the project is known) will be completed in May 2024. As the renovation of the Warburg reaches completion and the Senate House Library Transformation Project is launched, two concurrent public exhibitions offer an inspiring glimpse of Holden’s original vision: