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A new era for Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus

Birkbeck has now acquired the Student Central building adjacent to the College’s main site in Bloomsbury. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Matthew Innes, explains how the acquisition will transform the experience of Birkbeck students and staff as well as renew Sir William Beveridge’s original vision of creating a campus which enriched the city, supporting ‘a civic university for the…millions of greater London….an academic island in swirling tides…a world of learning in a world of affairs’.

Construction of Birkbeck College Malet Street Building. Planning for the building began in the 1930s and it was built between 1947-1952.

Birkbeck, the University and the Bloomsbury site

The University of London acquired its current site in Bloomsbury in the 1920s to consolidate its disparate administrative offices. Prior to this, the University’s central offices were in South Kensington, alongside the museums and were housed in the Imperial Institute (now Imperial College).  Vice-Chancellor, Sir William Beveridge – the social reformer whose 1942 report was to provide the blueprint for the post-war Welfare State – was fond of recounting how, when he first took up his post at the LSE, he had asked a cabby to take him to the University of London. The cabby had looked blank and then volunteered ‘you mean the place near the Royal School of Needlework’.

Beveridge’s determination to create a central site for the University, which captured the mission of ‘a University for the nation and the world’, came at the end of a significant period of change for both Birkbeck and the University of London. This was the logical conclusion of the reforms that had been introduced following Lord Haldane’s Report into the University of London, which had created a more co-ordinated structure as well as championing Birkbeck’s long awaited admission as a college of the University. Haldane – who held the distinction of having served in both the last Liberal government and the first Labour Cabinet – went on to become President of Birkbeck, which at this date occupied Breams Building in Holborn.

A large block of land immediately north of the British Museum was acquired for the new University site, stretching from Montague Place to Byng Place. The initial plans were for a single complex encompassing the entire site, with a series of wings and courtyards emanating from a central spine, a perimeter facade and two towers, with the current Senate House landmark echoed by a slightly smaller structure at the northern end of current Torrington Square.

Funding shortages and the Second World War meant that the original scheme was never completed in its entirety, with the current Senate House building only filling the southern half of the site. Although the University Principal was tragically killed in a building accident when inspecting the works with other University officials in 1936, Senate House was completed in 1937, rapidly to find fame as the wartime home of the Ministry of Information as well as one of London’s most iconic buildings.

After the War and a direct hit on Breams Building by a V2 flying bomb, Birkbeck found a new home on part of the undeveloped Malet Street-Torrington Square site in 1952. Further neighbouring locations were acquired by the University to house other member institutions such as SOAS and the IoE.

Birkbeck future

Following the acquisition of the former Student Central building, Birkbeck will have expanded to fill a majority of the never-realised northern half of the University’s original Bloomsbury site. With a continuous run of buildings along the Malet Street side of Torrington Square, and the Toddlerlab, Babylab and Clore building opposite, Birkbeck now has the opportunity to create a central campus focused on a consolidated Torrington Square core site, an inclusive environment focused on the needs of our students and open to the broader Bloomsbury and University community.

As our successful bid for the Student Central building pointed out, this acquisition places Birkbeck’s access mission and a student community reflective of London’s diversity, at the heart of the University’s Bloomsbury campus. Our aim is to provide the state-of-the-art teaching, learning and social facilities that our students deserve to support them to succeed and thrive.

The additional space takes us a huge step closer to our aim to deliver all of our teaching in Birkbeck-owned facilities, responding to student and staff feedback that teaching in dispersed rented venues has a huge negative impact on their learning experience, student retention and academic outcomes. We will also ensure that students can easily access the services and support they need and we will move the Students Union to a prominent, more accessible and visible, location.

This is the biggest change for Birkbeck since it moved to Bloomsbury in 1952. With the acquisition of the new building, Birkbeck now occupies most of the northern half of the site for which Beveridge and his contemporaries planned so ambitiously. It is a remarkable outcome for a small institution that has had more than its share of crises.

Beveridge and Haldane in their different ways envisaged a distinctively modern University. As we approach our bicentenary and plan a new consolidated and open Birkbeck campus, we too should aim ‘to give London at its heart not just more streets and shops’ and aspire to create ‘an academic island in swirling tides… a world of learning in a world of affairs.’

It is exciting to think that, via a circuitous route we have become the inheritors of Beveridge’s vision, in the new context of a 21st Century metropolis recovering from Brexit and COVID.

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