The Building

The building

Thus the architect (Lieut.-Col. G. Val Myer, F.R.I.B.A., with whom was associated Mr. M. T. Tudsbery, M.Inst.C.E., the B.B.C.’s Civil Engineer) was faced with a difficult problem, which was complicated by the B.B.C.’s insistence on the necessity of ensuring that the many studios which the building was to contain should be entirely insulated from sounds coming from within or without the building, a further complication being the necessity of ventilating the studios in a manner which would not interfere with the insulation. The other main requirement was the provision of a large number of offices lighted by daylight and easily adjustable internally to the changing requirements of the staff. As the result of an exhaustive examination of the various possible ways of combining these essentials within the limitations imposed by the shape and size of the site, the solution of the problem was found in the ingenious expedient of dispensing altogether with the light-well or quadrangle commonly found in the centre of a building of this shape, and arranging the offices in the form of an outer shell round an inner core containing the studios, for which artificial light was no disadvantage. In this way the offices would be made to act as an insulating area between the studios and the streets, and the problem of noise from outside the building would thus be automatically solved. There remained the problem of internal insulation, and particularly the danger of noise being carried from one studio to another, either by the steel stanchions normally used in modern building or by the ventilating ducts. To meet this difficulty, vertical steel stanchions were eliminated from the main walls of the central core, or ‘Tower’, which was planned as a separate building within the outer shell and constructed almost entirely of brick, with an outer wall of great thickness to ensure the necessary insulation and stability. As a further precaution it was arranged that the studio groups should, where possible, be separated by floors of rooms like the Music Library, the Stationery Store, etc., which neither create noise nor are disturbed by it. 

In describing the plan of the building and the difficulties which were encountered in the general disposition of its parts, it may be of interest to quote the opinion1 of Professor C. H. Reilly, of the Architectural Department of Liverpool University:

The programme in this case was obviously a unique and inspiring one; a problem, indeed, to fire the imagination of the architect and all concerned. The main purpose of the building was to provide a group of insulated concert halls and studios, from which music and messages of every kind would be sent out world-wide, and that, not as an effort of private enterprise, as in some other countries, but as representing the nation. That, at any rate, is how that part of the programme would appeal to the architect, seeking, as he must always do, to give the noblest possible expression to his client’s building. Subsidiary to this central function of the new building, but actually occupying a great deal more floor space, was ordinary office accommodation for the six hundred-odd persons in one way or another organizing this new and exciting public service. Such office space, of course, like nearly everything else, is capable of fine architectural expression, but it will be admitted at once that it does not offer a new or unusual programme. It is, indeed, the programme which most of the buildings in the central areas of all large towns are designed to answer. This office accommodation, therefore, should not be permitted, if the site were sufficiently large, to overwhelm the more distinctive portion of the building. That it has not entirely done so in the new B.B.C. building is a great tribute to the architect. Colonel G. Val Myer. In spite of having to wrap his studio block completely round with offices, so that, externally, the most distinctive portion of his structure does not show at all, except for the short length of plain walling with seven small roundels in it at the top of the Portland Place front and the three small steel receiving aerials on the roof, he has certainly managed to give to his building a different air to that of the ordinary office block, and to suggest that it serves some new purpose. 

1 In an article in The Listener, July 13, 1932

The Exterior

View from the roof looking towards the park
2 ❧ The view from the roof looking north towards Hampstead. The photograph has been taken by an 'infra-red' camera, which gives clearness of detail at great distances. It also has the effect of showing green objects, like the trees in Regent's Park in the foreground, as dazzling white.

The exterior

Describing the exterior of the building, Professor Reilly says:

The architect has taken the big curved front to Portland Place and modelled it in a series of flat vertical planes rising sheer from the pavement but balanced about a central axis. The windows in their long ranges emphasize admirably the curve of the front. Probably out of sympathy for the surrounding buildings, he has not turned them into long continuous sheets of glass in the modern way, but has given each the ordinary vertical shape. He has even filled them with bars, in these days of plate glass, to obtain a contrasting texture with his plain stone surfaces. These great stone cliffs of his, rising, as it were, one behind the other from a base modulated by a range of larger windows, a band of wave ornament, and a central strongly marked balcony, but with no crowning cornice, give an aspiring look to the building well in keeping with its central function. 

Such ornament as there is, the decorative coat of arms and the interesting frieze of birds and rays of light on the balcony front, designed by the architect, and the impressive reliefs by Mr. Eric Gill at the base of the two bays flanking the Portland Place front, are, like the building itself, restrained and forceful.

A distinctive feature of the elevation is the group of aerial masts which undoubtedly help the building to express its function in an obvious manner. The two masts on the highest part of the roof carry the aerial of the ultra-short-wave transmitter with which the B.B.C. is at present conducting experiments. The third mast on the lower roof at the front of the building is a spare one. Small receiving aerials are slung in various places on the roof, their positions being altered experimentally from time to time. 

There are four flagstaffs on the building, two on the western side at the eighth floor level, and two spare ones on the eastern at the fourth floor level, where the roof begins to recede. The flagstaff at the north-west corner flies the Union Jack, that at the south-west the B.B.C.’s own flag. This flag, in accordance with heraldic practice, is what may be described as a rectangular version of the shield in the B.B.C.’s coat of arms. On an azure field representing the ether, the Earth is floating among the seven planets, broadcasting being represented by a golden ring encircling the globe.

The great surface area of the western face is relieved partly by vertical breaks in the massing of the windows, and partly by a carved balcony on the third floor, the B.B.C. coat of arms between the third and fourth floors, and groups of sculpture at appropriate places on the level of the first floor. The carving of the B.B.C. coat of arms, and of the ‘birds of the air’ and ‘wave’ symbols on the balcony, were executed in accordance with designs made by the architect. The four external groups of sculpture were entrusted to Mr. Eric Gill, the distinguished sculptor and letter-carver. Mr. Gill accepted the B.B.C.’s suggestion that the literary subject of the carvings should be Shakespeare’s Ariel, who, as the invisible spirit of the air, might well serve as a personification of broadcasting. The two panels on the west front show ‘Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety’, and ‘Ariel hearing celestial music’; and a panel over the entrance on the east side represents ‘Ariel piping to children’. The most important group, that intended for the niche above the main entrance, shows Prospero, Ariel’s master, sending him out into the world.

Directly above this group, at the seventh floor level, is a rectangular clock which is chimeless in the ordinary sense, but with the aid of a special amplifier and loudspeaker is able to reproduce the chimes of Big Ben at their natural strength at such times as they are being broadcast in the ordinary way. It is probable, however, that in practice the chimes will only be used once a day at a definite hour.

The scheme for the exterior of Broadcasting House includes floral decoration in the form of window-boxes lining the balconies at the eighth floor on the west front, and the third and fifth floors on the south front. These will be kept filled with plants such as daffodils, geraniums, and chrysanthemums in season. Conical bay-trees, which will be renewed once a year, form a background to the flowers on the balcony at the eighth floor level on the west front and at the fifth floor level on the south.

The Entrance Hall

The Entrance Hall

The main entrance has, appropriately, been placed at the centre of the rounded façade towards Upper Regent Street. On entering, the visitor finds himself in a fine, spacious, semicircular hall, with lifts and doorways opposite. His eye is at once caught by Eric Gill’s statue of the Sower, a man broadcasting seed, and the Latin inscription over the central arch. On the left is the counter of the B.B.C. Bookshop; on the right the reception desk. The walls and pillars are faced with Hopton-Wood stone, a beautiful pinky-grey English limestone, rather like granite in texture, but made up of innumerable fossil shells. Its surface qualities, which have made it a favourite among modern sculptors, are shown to advantage by the massive square pillars devoid of all ornament. The hall is lighted in a modern way by reflected light from the ceiling. In the words of Professor Reilly:

The semicircle is defined by a range of strong piers with space behind, on one side, for a counter. This space is where the site, with its odd potato-like oudine, overlaps the semicircle and shows that, in the interior here, the architect very ably has turned his difficulties to account. The outside, of course, had to follow the oudine of the potato. With land of enormous value per square foot, architecture has, as things are to-day, to take a humble place. However, in the interior of this Entrance Hall, where the architect was able, by this device of a semicircle of piers, to free himself, the architecture is strong, simple and modern in the sense that it does not rely on traditional motives for its appeal. 

Immediately behind this Entrance Hall is the great central core of the building, following the outline of the site and surrounded from top to bottom by a thick wall. This is the central studio block, and, once the artists have passed into it from the Entrance Hall, they cross no administrative portion of the building. Their cloak rooms, rest rooms, refreshment rooms and lavatories and, of course, all their studios and concert halls, are within it, artificially lit and ventilated. . . . When the artists have finished their work, they pass out the same way. If however, instead of going through the central doors for the artists, one goes to the right or to the left, or takes the corresponding stairs or lifts, one enters at any floor the long office corridor which completely encircles the studio block. This corridor serves the layer, one room thick, of offices which everywhere occupies the external face of the building. Being, from the tightness of the site, necessarily rather narrow and, consequently, low, it also serves to carry in its ceiling the trunks bringing fresh, cleaned, warmed or cooled air, as may be desired, to the studios.

A mirrored rest area with chairs and a sofa, tables and a bookshelf
3 ❧ THE CONCERT HALL GREEN ROOM, by courtesy of Docker Bros., Ladywood, Birmingham.