Dark city: the architectural imaginaries of Senate House
Thoroughfare through the foyer of Senate House
Buildings possessing a formidable character elicit contradictory responses: on the one hand, their size, symmetry and sense of power appeal to some as dignified and serene; on the other, the very same qualities can induce fear and loathing – the building perceived as totalitarian in its material and formal arrogance. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Senate House took such a hold on the imagination of many both during and after its use as the UK government’s Ministry of Information in the Second World War. Temporarily relinquishing its role as the symbolic centre of enlightened knowledge, the building instead became the centre of war publicity and propaganda against the Nazis, a site of subterfuge, censorship, and creativity in the service of the war effort. Both Graham Greene and, more famously, George Orwell, would seize on Senate House’s wartime function and extrapolate the building’s imaginative possibilities: whether as the dark heart of an international spying network in Greene’s novel The Ministry of Fear (1943), or the even darker heart of a future totalitarian dystopia in Orwell’s Nineteenth-Eighty-Four (1949). Likewise, in Evelyn Waugh’s wartime novel Put Out More Flags (1942), the building’s ‘gross mass of machinery’ protected ‘all the secrets of the services’. In a different vein, in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), Senate House operates as the last remaining vestige of governmental authority in a post-apocalyptic London, where most of the population have been blinded by a sublime but deadly atmospheric light show.
Senate House (the Ministry of Truth) as seen in Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984
These fictions point to the power of certain buildings as vehicles of the imagination – architecture that can be explored in the mind as much as in the flesh. In Orwell’s case, Senate House clearly represented an extraordinarily concentrated image of totalitarian politics, perhaps on account of his wife working there during the war for the Censorship Department. In Orwell’s terrifying dystopia, the dimensions of the building are magnified enormously: not only does Senate House – Orwell’s ironicially-named Ministry of Truth – grow to 300 feet high, it is also replicated in three other buildings of similar size and appearance (the ministries of Love, Peace and Plenty). In one sense, Orwell’s collection of outsized Senate Houses reflects Holden’s original plan for a much larger complex of buildings; in another, it completely inverts the supposed enlightened vision of its architect. Orwell clearly recognised that imposing buildings are haunted by an undercurrent of violence that seems to enhance their imaginative charge. He invites us to ask whether the survival of Senate House during the London Blitz was a result of its solid construction or of the Nazi’s desire to make the building their Party’s headquarters once Britain had been invaded and conquered.
Pristine marble in the ground-floor interior
Out through the in door?
Of course, Senate House was only the Ministry of Information for a few short years; today, it’s used everyday by thousands of students and academics as a place of leaning, holding within it the central library of the University of London, occupying several floors in the central tower. Yet, as a visitor to the building – as I always am – there is a pervasive air of authority that emanates from its spaces and textures: whether in the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ portals through which one passes in order to reach the building; the imposing anonymity of the marble covered atrium that admits visitors and passersby at the bottom of the tower; the polished immaculate floors of the grand interior lecture halls that magnify sounds and enhance their imposing sense of order; or the identical stairwells with their obtuse signage that disorientates. Immaculate symmetry and imposing order may reassure those coming into the building to study that their pursuit of knowledge is significant and sanctified; for others, it instills a sense of alienation and subordination. And I for one have only ever got lost in Senate House.
Doors may be unaccountably locked at any time
Outside the building, on the pillar that carries the ‘In’ command, are spray-painted stencils that offer different injunctions: from the rhetorical clarity of ‘Burn Cuts’ to the unreadable text that accompanies ‘Rest in Peace’, with an invitation to the ‘The Future of Nightlife’ adding to this haphazard linguistic meld. The command is, of course, central to the world of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four, whether the emblazoned signs proclaiming that ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ or the newspeak and doublethink pumped out in unending bellicose images and sounds. Yet, as these small tokens of resistance demonstrate, the rhetoric of power, whether embodied in a state or in buildings, is always being undermined by a counter-rhetoric that calls into question the vision of seamless order. It remains a moot point as to whether one kind of rhetoric requires the other; but there is no doubt that the imagination works powerfully, if darkly, in the spaces opened up in between.
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