University of London at Senate House

Natalia Fantetti
Natalia Fantetti
IES PhD Candidate

Senate House is somewhere that will be familiar to all of us at the School of Advanced Study, for the great, granite slab of a building is the place that we call our academic home. It encompasses the majority of the SAS Institutes, as well as our beloved Senate House Library.

Clocking in at 210 feet (or 64m) high and consisting of 19 floors, it is very much the imposing guardian of Bloomsbury, keeping a watchful eye over the many students and academics weaving in and out of various college buildings. 

Completed in an Art Deco style in 1937, its exteriors have received the full gamut of critical opinions, ranging from Evelyn Waugh’s description of it as “the vast bulk of London University insulting the autumnal sky”, to functionalist architect Erich Mendelsohn saying that he was “very much taken and am convinced that there is no finer building in London”.

Ministry of Information at Senate House

There is certainly something of the government-esque of the exterior, which perhaps makes it unsurprising that it was once the home of the Ministry of Information, the department responsible for publicity and propaganda in WW2. In some respects, the interiors contrast markedly with what is going on outside, in some places being airy and flushed with light, and in others rather more cosy with dark panelled wooden features and light fittings contemporary to its original opening date.

The 1939 poster was never officially released in WW2

It all makes for a university building that is at once traditional and modern, paying homage to the past as much as looking to the future, in a way that seems to parallel the research process itself.

Hollywood at Senate House

It is not only researchers who have access to the architectural delights of the building, though this other category may find their view of it has been somewhat mediated by another person. That is to say that Senate House is something of a pop culture icon in both literature and film. It served as the inspiration for both Graham Greene’s novel The Ministry of Fear (1943), and perhaps more famously, as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Eagle-eyed viewers might also be able to catch glimpses of the edifice in the film version of Orwell’s novel, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, or on the small screen in Killing Eve, to name but a few. Clearly, the surroundings of our university have proved to be rather chameleonic. So next time you’re walking through one of the many corridors, just imagine whose footsteps you may be walking in.

Written by Natalia Fantetti, IES PhD Candidate

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