Commissioned as the first purpose-built home and central headquarters of the University of London, Senate House welcomed its first occupants in 1936, a century after the University was granted its Charter. It was designed as the centrepiece of architect Charles Holden’s plan for a campus that, in the words of visionary Vice-Chancellor William Beveridge, would be “something that could not have been built by any earlier generation than this… an academic island in swirling tides of traffic, a world of learning in a world of affairs.”
Ranked among the capital’s earliest skyscrapers and clad in Portland Stone, Senate House is home to the University’s world-famous library, as well as administrative offices and meeting rooms. It was the first large-scale building in the country to be heated by electricity, using an early form of storage heater. The offices were naturally ventilated, but an early form of air conditioning was installed in the main public rooms.
After 70 years, during which Senate House was used in wartime by the Ministry of Information (a development that is said to have inspired George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four), Holden’s Grade II* listed masterpiece was in need of attention. A multi-million pound refurbishment programme, begun in 2006, provided the building with modern, upgraded and more cohesive office space, improved meeting and teaching facilities and new and enhanced library resources.
The University of London’s original remit of overseeing examinations has evolved into the provision of a wide range of value-added activities and services for its 19 autonomous Colleges of outstanding reputation. These services range from distance learning and research facilitation to career development advice and information technology solutions. Today, Senate House is not simply an icon of 20th century architecture, it is equipped for the next stage of the University’s evolution.