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Diary: Touch of glass for Senate House as new atrium is planned at Bloomsbury’s iconic skyscraper

Atrium impression: the new-look at Senate House

Published: 13 March, 2014

IT was London’s first skyscraper, a triumph of Art Deco design that is Grade II*-listed and has become a celebrated landmark in Bloomsbury.

Now the University of London’s Senate House is having the builders in as the School of African and Oriental Studies plans a major project to use part of the famous building to teach new students. 

The imposing building famously inspired George Orwell when he was penning 1984: he based the soaring Ministry of Truth on its towering edifice. 

As part of a two-year, £20million project, architects Mace have designed a glass atrium to cover a courtyard.

The university say the new atrium will be “…designed to be a dynamic student social and learning hub”.

Designed by Charles Holden, when it first opened Senate House was celebrated as a welcome  Modernist addition to the Georgian squares of Bloomsbury. And no expense was spared: the exterior was faced with Portland Stone, while inside included Travertine marble – the unique Italian limestone used in places such as St Peter’s in Rome. Other architectural features included panelling in both English walnut and south American cypress. 

Engineering was also groundbreaking: Holden used a form of storage heating previously never installed in large buildings. 

Its striking looks mean it is not only an inspiring place for academics and students. It has provided the backdrop for movies and TV shows: from Emma Thompson’s children’s film Nanny McPhee to Sir Ian McKellen’s celebrated film version of Richard III, its striking design has fulfilled the needs for many location managers. More sinisterly, Adolf Hitler said if the invasion of Britain was successful he would use Senate House as the centre of his government. 

The northern block SOAS has taken over has been empty for nearly a decade after other university services moved elsewhere and will be used to increase the school’s student body by 25 per cent in the coming years. 

Project manager Keith Jennings told Diary that the scheme was giving a focal point for Bloomsbury’s colleges. He said: “It is difficult to imagine how London was when it was first built. 

“It was the tallest building in London at the time. 

“The only thing that came close was St Paul’s Cathedral. They were doing these types of things in New York but not in London.”

When the foundations were laid, the upper floors of the 18-storey building were not legally allowed to be used.

“The London Buildings Act said you could only go up to nine storeys and not occupy anything higher. But Holden believed that would change – and by the time it was finished the law had been altered.”

The project has given architects both a challenge to preserve what is loved about Senate House but improve it too. 

Mr Jennings said: “We looked at what is good about it and what needed to be preserved. Then there are things that are really dated. For example, the building uses electric panel heaters – and has the carbon footprint of a small town.” He added: “It… was designed to be used in the same way the quads and cloisters at Oxford and Cambridge were .”

Work will start soon and the university hopes it will be ready by January 2016.

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