One of the most interesting focuses of the Bloomsbury Festival 2013 (15-20 October) was the Senate House of the University of London. Located in Malet street right next the British Museum, the building (19 floors and 210 feet high) is the administrative centre of the school and includes the library of the university located from the 4th floor upwards.
The School of Advanced Study (SAS) supported by the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund, organized a program of up to 40 events hosted in and around Senate House such as exhibitions, lectures and workshops where the building itself became the protagonist of the festival.
This program brought attention to the interesting history and design of the building in order to change its public image. In fact, a positive narration has been the key behind the SAS program in order to rediscover the role and image of the building under a new light. During the festival, the building was the centre of the Ministry of Communication, a fictitious political organization that paraphrased the Ministry of Information, which used the building during the Second World War and controlled the release of information and media.
With the institution of a Ministry of Communication during the festival, the School of Advanced Study intended to promote an open vision of the institution in contrast with the authoritarianism with which the building has been associated during the war and which inspired George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in his famous book Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This democratic aspect of the building and institution re-launched by the SAS reconnects to the initial program of the building as administration headquarters of the University of London. In fact, the university itself was meant to be different from traditional institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, and to be distinguished from them for a more democratic and less elite character, which also allowed a broader participation and involvement of international students. The building, realized between 1932 and 1937, was designed and built along this line of intentions. From the choice of the architect, Charles Holden – who was popular in London for the design of many underground stations – to the style and location next to the British Museum, the Senate House was meant to be more than an ordinary office building.
The Art Deco style of the Senate House is considered to belong to a light version of modernism which incorporates technologically advanced techniques with traditional models and motifs. The language of modern architecture often associated with socialism and oriented towards a democratic development of urban space can be certainly read in line with a more open idea behind the initial institution of the University of London.
Nevertheless the building design has been often associated with architectural forms typical or either Nazi or Communist regimes. Probably, other than the presence of the Ministry of Information during the war, the reason for this interpretation might have been the fact that the building tower was the second tallest building in London in the 30s.
Amongst the activities aimed at converting such old-fashioned interpretation towards a positive reading of the Senate House, were the Ministry of Communication exhibition, a guided tour of the building and the Orwellian garden installation where artist Alex Beeching laid out an Orwellin office reclaimed by leaf, tendril and flowers. Finally one of the most radical initiatives was to commission Andy Day, a parkour photographer, and athletes of Parkour Generations to transform the sober character of the Senate House into a dynamic image through artistic and physical performance.
Certainly these activities are temporary gestures, yet strong enough to put the Senate House under a new light. Openness and transparency of knowledge of the Ministry of Communication, instead of the biased narrative of the Ministry of Information, promote the coexistence of different points of view and centres of knowledge rather than imposing a unique cultural power. In this sense, the spirit behind the initiative, even dating back to the early stages and history of the building, is post-colonial in attitude.
What are the benefits of initiatives like this for the institution and the public?