Friday, 13 July 2012

Bush House and the Beeb

Yesterday, the BBC World Service made its final broadcast from Bush House. This stunning building on Aldwych was built in the 1920s as a trade centre for an American, Irving T Bush to designs by the architect Harvey W Corbett. Due to economic decline, however, it was never used for its original purpose, and was altered to standard office use instead. In 1940, during World War II, the BBC moved in. Its World Service has been based there ever since but from today, it will be moving out of Bush House and joining the rest of the BBC in a new extension at the headquarters, Broadcasting House on Portland Place.

I was fortunate enough to see inside Bush House last September, during Open House weekend. Unfortunately, for security reasons, we were unable to take photographs. As such, the pictures below are sourced from the BBC itself. I do, however, still have the fact sheets we were given, so I can share some tit bits with you.

Bush House was constructed to very high standards and on completion was declared the most expensive building in the world. It was considered by some at the time to be too 'American' in style. I, however, think it is fabulous. Constructed of Portland stone on a steel frame with marble clad public areas and Indian hardwood floors, it has that wonderful, monolithic, early twentieth-century classical style. The interiors have a lovely wave motif, because of its original trade centre intention, which is picked up in various places and materials, and feels very Art Deco (which is always going to make me happy).

In 1923 the American artist Malvina Hoffman was commissioned to make Bush House a symbol of American and English friendship. The words "To the friendship of English-speaking people" had already been carved above the door to the main entrance to the building.  Hoffman added the two male figures, representing Great Britain and America. They stand either side of an altar embossed with a Celtic Cross and each holds a flaming torch and a shield - England's decorated with a lion and America's with an eagle.

The original method of heating on the landing areas remains to this day. The innovative system involved radiators concealed behind the walls with grilles set into the stone to serve as outlets. Bush House was also one of the first buildings in London to have central courtyards to give light to the back offices. Even better, it has a swimming pool in the basement. This was covered over and the room converted into a studio by the BBC. Imagine what an untouched treasure may be revealed if that inserted floor is lifted by the new tenants...

An article in 1940 called Bush House "A Modern City Under One Roof". Its range of "unequalled services" included a restaurant and grill room (fully licensed), a hairdresser (ladies' and men's), a doctor, a dentist, an X-ray and massage clinic, banks, cablegram office, post office, dressing rooms, a badminton court and large car parks. Crucially, in this time of war, there were also deep air-raid shelters, designed to take the whole weight of the building in the event of a collapse.

A bomb did fall on Aldwych in 1944, sadly resulting in some casualties at Bush House. Extensive damage was incurred (although fortunately not a full "collapse"). This included the loss of one of the aforementioned statue's arms. And he remained limbless until a wealthy American visiting his daughter at the London School of Economics in the 1970s saw his predicament. The statues are made of Indiana limestone, and he just happened to work at the Indiana Limestone Company, so persuaded them to send over a replacement arm, and the stonemason to fix it.

Taking a step backwards, the BBC World Service began in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service. At the beginning of World War II,  it was broadcasting in eight languages, including English. By the end, it was broadcasting in over 40 languages. During the war, some of the leaders of Europe's Nazi-occupied countries broadcast to their citizens from Bush House. General Charles de Gaulle was included amongst them.

My understanding (and please comment and correct me if I'm wrong!) is that the BBC World Service has continued to select its languages based on the need to reach people around the world who live in countries where there is limited access to neutral information. For instance, during the Cold War, there was more focus on broadcasting to eastern European audiences. People often had to listen covertly but, if they were willing to take that risk, could find out what was going on beyond the Iron Curtain. The choice of languages is certainly not to do with the most commonly spoken languages, as evidenced by looking at their list of current languages.

Finally, if you'd like to hear a little bit more about Bush House during World War II, you can listen to this programme.

Bush House in 1943

So, this is truly the end of an era for the BBC and its World Service staff, as they move out of their long-standing home. Personally, I'd be devastated to leaving such an amazing building...


  1. A really interesting post - thanks!
    They're auctioning everything from the building off at the above link, it seems. I thought they might have dug some reeeeeally old stuff out from the archives, but sadly, by Lot 500 (when I gave up) I hadn't found any!!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! And how on earth did you manage to find that auction site? Yes, it doesn't look like there's any Art Deco lovelies up for sale. I would love to get some of the "on air" lights and such, but I'm sure they'll go for more than I'm willing to bid!

  2. enjoyed this :)
    do you know who the new owners are?

    1. It's a Japanese company called... *rifles around for fact sheet* Kato Kagaku. I know nothing about them... But I do know that the BBC only ever had it on lease but there's been a few different owners while they've been tenants.

    2. I'm hoping that Kato Kagaku commission my company to do a conservation statement for the building before the new tenants move in though. Perhaps I should contact them (whoever they are) and offer our services...

  3. That is all so interesting, but also I agree, sad for the workers there to be moving from such an artistic building with so much history. I love the two male statues and their symbolism above the entrance - and the story of the American who came to the rescue of another statue who'd lost an arm. Love the BBC World Service and all that it does! I always think of Terry Waite, kidnapped and imprisoned for maybe 5 years, almost 4 in solitary, when negotiating release of hostages in Beirut in 1987. When he did get a radio, surprisingly he was allowed to listen to the World Service and thus was a part of keeping him sane. I wonder who says, in that quintessentially English voice "This is the BBC World Service"?

    1. I didn't know about Terry Waite. Thanks for sharing your story too!