The solemnity of youth and enchanted garden of the arts

When London University was established in Bloomsbury its Vice President, William Beveridge, set out his ambition to create a space that:

“could not have been built by any earlier generation than this, and can only be at home in London.’ It ‘will knit the University together, make it more conscious of itself and its purpose… it means a chance to enrich London – to give London at its heart not just streets and shops… but a great architectural feature … it should recall to us, the clear cut relevance of science, the light-heartedness and solemnity of youth and the enchanted garden of the arts.”

That was 1926. A decade ago Guardian columnist and former National Trust chair Simon Jenkins felt compelled to describe the “enclave” of Bloomsbury as “London’s academic campus, its Harvard Yard” – before adding the stinging rejoinder “of which it is a miserable parody” ruined by rat-run traffic and poor 60s modernist buildings creating “one of the bleakest parts of central London”.

Well, things never looked quite so dire to us at Marchmont Voice. And yet – who could deny Jenkins’ rebukes about the failure of the streets to work as pedestrian space, the lack of anything to draw attention to cultural treasures in the Percival David or Petrie Museums, the car parking and chicken wire that surrounded the elegant Georgian squares of Woburn and Gordon.

Spin forward a decade and some of the streets are starting to work – there may be knock-on consequences on other roads, but few would contend that Tavistock Place and the Marchmont St junction have become much more pedestrian, as well as cycle, friendly during the year-long trial to close it to west bound traffic. Before that, the Byng Place scheme signalled at least an intent to use public space for more than traffic, and both Gordon Square and Torrington Square have been improved with Heritage Lottery grants.

And now – we have the University of London Bloomsbury Masterplan, eventual confirmation that UoL is assuming responsibility for setting an urban vision for the neighbourhood. And there’s plenty, we think, to admire: a new gateway building on Byng Place; grass and trees in Malet St and Montague Place; completion of the 4th Quadrant of Senate House; car parking cleared from Woburn Square; a spruced up Torrington Square.

The main downsides reported from the consultation in November centred on plans for Senate House, where the proposed ‘pavilions’ on both entrances look a superfluous conceit to many. There’s also a need to make sure one of those hidden London secrets, the pedestrian route underneath Senate House, is retained. And the area mustn’t start to feel too much like a University campus.

We look forward to next steps.


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