Thursday 30 January 2020


A guest post by Arthur T

BBC’s New Broadcasting House, London - An Imperious, Impervious Façade

On the 7th June 2013 Her Majesty The Queen opened the new extensions to Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London. She was shown around the new building by the then recently appointed Director General Tony Hall. This extension was designed as the HQ of a new structure to the BBC which includes other centres at Salford, and Glasgow. Changes were already in progress at the start of Lord Hall’s tenure, but over the last seven years or so, the corporate identity of the BBC has been consolidated in the form of its key buildings and their locations.

The London-Manchester-Glasgow axis was first introduced into the newspaper industry by Lord Beaverbrook in the 1930s. The Daily Express building in Manchester was the second of three similar regional buildings for Beaverbrook Associated Newspapers Ltd, with others in London and Glasgow. The building design allowed for awareness of the printing operations carried out there to be projected by a: ’glass box’ concept. The Manchester design is considered to be the best example of the three Beaverbrook buildings. The printing hall floor was raised to loading deck level, allowing partial views of the printing hall as well. This arrangement made a spectacular sight particularly at night when the presses were in full flow producing the next day’s papers, and the hall was brightly illuminated. Partly by the design of the buildings, the Daily Express sought to engage with the public as they were able to witness the production process - and not simply see the product. The glass façade here provided transparency.

This new BBC corporate structure was established in order to cut down the autonomy of the Centres in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, by making them more easily controlled from the London hub.

The former New Broadcasting House, on Oxford Road, Manchester housed BBC North West, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Religion and Ethics Department. It was known as a Network Production Centre, along with Birmingham (at the now demolished Pebble Mill), and Broadcasting House, Bristol. Under the restructuring plans, operations from Oxford Road were transferred to Media City UK in Salford and to Glasgow.

The effect of the restructuring, particularly in the choice of buildings was to distance the BBC from its audience in a physical sense as well as operationally. The clue is in the name BBC, but in judging the BBC against other ‘Corporates’, they exhibit nearly all of the negative attributes of that group. The glass façades are indeed impervious - to wind and rain, yes, but also to criticism, complaints, exchange of views, freedom of information, number of staff, size of payroll, direction of their investments and many other details of information that big companies, also ‘Corporates’, are obliged to disclose.

As a result of restructuring, much loved buildings faced the axe:

The BBC Television Centre at White City in west London 

BBC Television Centre was the first such building of its kind in the UK. It was designed by Graham Dawbarn from 1949 and constructed between 1953 and 1960. Its design famously began life on the ‘back of an envelope’, when Dawbarn of architects Norman & Dawbarn scribbled the questionmark shape. This shape evolved into the building itself. The BBC’s own civil engineer, Marmaduke Tudsbery, who had been responsible for engineering at Broadcasting House, was also involved in the design and construction of the Television Centre.

The Television Centre was occupied by the BBC from 1960. Most of the TV output came from here. The building featured the well-known central circular block around which the studios, offices and News Centre were located.

John Piper produced a mural which dominated the Reception area, a squarish area fitted out in a 1960s style of bright colours with contemporary light fittings and furniture. Just as Broadcasting House had been a symbol of all that was modern in the early days of radio broadcasts, the BBC TV Centre sought to convey similar sentiments from the new home of television. Many of the longrunning shows broadcast by the BBC had their home here.

At the centre of the block, in a hard-paved courtyard, was a sculpture of Helios made by Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones, intended to represent the Greek god of the sun, which symbolised the broadcast of tv waves around the world. At Helios’ feet are two reclining figures representing sound and vision - to convey the spirit of excitement and optimism of the broadcasting medium of TV. Huxley-Jones produced another work along similar optimistic lines in 1963, the Joy of Life Fountain, not far away in London’s Hyde Park.

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London 

Not the axe exactly, but extended to the extent that its original character was lost. Lt. Col. George Val Myer (1883-1959) was appointed as the architect. It was agreed that Val Myer would continue to work on the project for the BBC, but in conjunction with the BBC’s own civil engineer, Marmaduke Tudsbery.

At the time, sound recording and broadcast was the principal purpose of the BBC. Television was in its very early stages of development, and any work associated with TV was handled at Alexandra Palace, a few miles away in North London. The overarching requirement for Val Myer and Tudsbery’s design was the elimination of extraneous sound from the recording studios, either mechanically transmitted or airborne, both from inside the building and from the adjacent streets, or from neighbouring buildings, or from underground. Without windows which would let in sound from outside, the studios therefore needed to be served with ducted air, but the ductwork itself could carry sound from one studio to another.

The solution was to position the sound studios within a central tower built massively out of brickwork without any steel framing, which may have caused mechanical transmission of sound. Owing to the weight of this central tower and the studios it supported, Staffordshire blue ‘metallic’ bricks were used due to their high firing temperature and their increased density when compared to stock bricks. The outer walls of the tower are 1.4 m thick at the base level. The Concert Hall the largest of the recording studios was designed to project beyond the tower limits, and its structure was carried on twin fabricated steel plate girders 3m deep.

Conventional steel framing clad with Portland stone was used for the outside walls of the building. Over the front entrance of Broadcasting House stand the statues of Prospero and Ariel (from Shakespeare's last play The Tempest), by Modernist sculptor Eric Gill. Ariel is a spirit of the air who, because he refused to serve the witch, Sycorax, was imprisoned in a tree until rescued by Prospero.

Prospero is interpreted as a draped and bearded figure, symbolic of wisdom and benevolence. Ariel is conceived as a young child holding in his right hand a pipe on which he plays unearthly music. Perhaps, though, Gill had a larger theme. Prospero is a very Biblical figure and the hands and feet of Ariel carry the marks of the stigmata.

Maybe Gill's intention was to represent God the Father presenting God the Son to the world. The same depiction of God the Son being presented to the world can be seen in works by other Modernist sculptors for example, Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child at St Matthew’s Northampton or Sir Jacob Epstein’s Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square, London. The decoration on the balcony and the carving of the BBC coat of arms above it were executed by E. Aumonier to the designs of the architect Val Myer. The coat of arms incorporates the BBC's motto ‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’.

In addition to the sculpture above the main entrance Eric Gill produced three further carvings featuring Shakespeare's Ariel, who, as the invisible spirit of the air, could serve as a personification of radio broadcasting.

Internally, the all-important sound studios were designed by leading architects of the day, including Serge Chermayeff, Wells Coates, Edward Maufe, who designed The Chapel Studio, and went on to design Guildford Cathedral, and Val Myer himself who designed the Concert Hall.


Nicholas Pevsner described the post WWII rebuilding of The Bank of Building as an act of vandalism. By keeping just the perimeter colonnade of the original John Soane design, the current Herbert Baker design was an imposition. The same can be said of the recent extensions to Broadcasting House. The quintessentially British or English Val Myer design is dwarfed by an addition which is some three times the size of the original. We might have expected the BBC to have commissioned an up-and-coming visionary young architect, but no, after MacCormac Jamieson Prichard were replaced as architects, they instead elected to appoint what must be the epitome of corporate firms, Sheppard Robson, already well-known to the BBC for their design of Media City UK, Salford.

Lost is the individuality of Auntie’s quirky home with its modernist design, and memorable features. In its place is a fortress of stale, uninspired cityscape that could find a place in any global city. The unwelcoming building with its insipid sea-green colouring symbolises the barriers that the BBC have established between the licence-paying public and their own skewed view of their place in the world.

Stability in the UK has nearly always depended upon three pillars - Church, Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy. From their secure fortress, the BBC through deliberate choices seek to destabilise and destroy all that, one would assume, their history would make them hold dear. Christianity is high on the list requiring as requiring to be picked apart. Val Myer’s designs respected Christian traditions, whilst responding to the exciting challenges of the then new broadcasting technologies. The new beast requires diversity and positive discrimination which would deny traditional values. The corporate identity with its own form of brand management has taken over.

The trend is set to continue. London, Salford, Glasgow. Why Salford and not the already established Pebble Mill? Could it be as simple as political hue? Rebecca Long-Bailey is the MP for Salford and Eccles. At the end of HS2, with the possible Labour Leader close by, Salford must feel much more comfortable than they would have in the traditionally Conservative Edgbaston area of Birmingham. The same could be said for the choice of Glasgow ahead of Edinburgh. We need to start talking about BBC Heartlands. A new BBC Wales HQ is fast becoming operational. The decision to locate in Cardiff and not Bangor or Aberystwyth when by the Scottish example the Capital is not necessarily the only choice might have to do with the proximity to the research facilities of nearby Cardiff University. Maybe it’s a general trend because Channel 4 are opening a ‘Northern’ base in Leeds.

BBC Heartlands - including Channel 4’s are most-likely anti Brexit Labour voting areas - but not near the Red Wall of traditional northern Labour seats, more likely close to the metro-liberal Corbyn/Momentum identifiers. It might be cynical to believe that within the BBC Heartlands, support and protest groups are readily available at the drop of a hat, and that as in London protests comprising ‘hundreds of thousands’ can be called upon to perform.

From The Guardian, 24th January 2019: ‘BBC consider setting up international base in Belgium after Brexit’:

… ‘BBC spokesperson said: “BBC Studios, a commercial arm of the BBC, operates a number of bespoke TV channels outside of [sic] the UK, including some that are broadcast in the EU. We will be keeping the situation under close review to ensure that we can continue to best serve our audiences in any changed regulatory environment”.

… It’s an old story now, but probably about to return to the fore.

Evidently, the BBC Heartlands extend to the EU. Why Brussels and not Milan or Barcelona? The BBC’s corporate identity fits very snugly within the façades of other internationally styled EU centres of bureaucratic excess. The Corporate Collectives scream ‘Keep Out’. The impervious glass buildings of Sheppard Robson design, whilst suggesting transparency as might have been the case in the 1930s, now form an impenetrable barrier designed to keep all but the ‘BubbleDwellers’ at bay.


  1. BBC Pebble Mill was opened in 1971 and demolished in 2005.

    Perhaps you mean the Mailbox?

    1. No, I did mean Pebble Mill. It was an important centre for both radio and TV - serving the UK's second city. You don't hear that description of Birmingham much these days. Reasons for vacating Pebble Mill are given as 'problems with the lease'. That sounds like an excuse to me. I have no doubt that the plans for restructuring, in the way it has been done, were decided upon and in place prior to 2004 when Pebble Mill was vacated after just 33 years.

  2. BBC Wales new BH in Cardiff is a pure vanity project, not fit for purpose as a broadcast centre in any way,shape or form.
    Quote "BBC Wales HQ is fast becoming operational"
    No, it is fast becoming a technical catastrophe !

    1. Foster and Partners' building has a very similar look to the Nimes Art Gallery and Library. There's plenty of glass, but with little transparency what is being hidden? 'a technical catastrophe' perhaps another reason for the corporate 'Keep Out'.


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