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SOAS into Senate House: What’s Happening?

Impression of Mezzanine, Senate House (Image: SOAS)
Impression of Mezzanine, Senate House (Image: SOAS)

Caitlin Shewell-Cooper, BA Swahili and English

In 2012 SOAS were granted preferred bidder status on the North Block of the University of London building Senate House. Building work began in Summer 2014, and since then work has continued on a new block for SOAS which will mark a new chapter in the development of the university, as Vernon Square closes and the campus is unified. It is impossible to miss the huge boards opposite the main SOAS building in Russell Square, but what is going on behind them?

Senate House is the large imposing white building just opposite SOAS and is the administrative centre of the University of London, as well as being home to Senate House Library which houses over 3 million books. It was also the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, appeared on the television programme Jeeves and Wooster, and has featured as Moscow Interpol HQ in the 2013 film Fast and Furious 6. If you’re a University of London Student (as a SOAS student you are!) you can access the library and rent out books for free making it a great alternative to SOAS library. Although dwarfed by many London buildings today, Senate House, a library, was London’s first skyscraper. Take that, Canary Warf.

But what will the new Senate House block offer? The building itself will house a mixture of teaching spaces, ‘breakout’ space, academic offices and open plan office space, all state of the art. Furthermore, a new student ‘hub’ located in Senate House will unite student services that are currently split between Russell and Vernon Square, in theory improving student experience with administration and other services as there will be more 20 minute walks between campuses in order to resolve an administrative issue. In 2014 the Alphawood Foundation Chicago gave £20 million gift to SOAS which includes £5 million toward the development of the ‘architecturally impressive’ central atrium at the heart of Senate House block. In recognition, this glass-roofed central space, designed to be a ‘dynamic student social and learning hub’, will be named the Fred Eychaner Atrium. There will also be large lecture theatre called the Alumni Lecture Theatre, and contributions have been made towards this lecture theatre by SOAS alumni. They were given the opportunity to have their name of the wall as part of a SOAS decal in return for a donation of £50, and for a donation of £500 a chair in the lecture theatre dedicated to them. The Senate House North Block project is central to SOAS’ current Centenary Fundraising Campaign.

It is unclear what will be available in terms of commercial services; obviously the closure of Vernon Square means the closure of the Student Union shop there. According to the North Block website, a ‘café’ will be included, but it has not been specified what kind of café, which organisation will run it or who will work there. It remains to be seen whether a new SU shop could be opened in Senate House, and if not, whether this will result in a reduction in student employment in their SU, which would be disappointing. The increase in number and quality of facilities will mean that the SOAS student body will have room to increase by 25%.

Efforts have been ensure the building project is environmentally friendly; concrete from the building site has been recycled in other projects in London. What is Happening Now? New SOAS director Valerie Amos tweeted on the 15th of September that she had “Visited site of new building today. Exciting. Will open in #SOAS centenary year and improve the student experience” [@ValerieAmos on Twitter. 15/09/15] The big development currently is that the atrium roof is being installed, the idea being that the roof will create a bright and spacious area where people can relax or study, whilst protected from the rain.

SOAS will continue to use the Vernon Square building until Summer 2016, following this a new buyer will hopefully take over the building. As of March 2015 Vernon Square was advertised in the Estates Gazette and SOAS are also targeting buyers independently of this. The Unite halls on site, Elizabeth Croll House, will be unaffected by the sale. Current planning regulations stipulate that Vernon Square can only be sold as a building for education purposes, but if this cannot be realised SOAS will discuss further options with Islington Council planning officers. The money raised through the sale of Vernon Square will be reinvested in the school, in theory benefiting it.

We know that the block will be ready to open in ‘Summer 2016’, coinciding with the centenary year of SOAS’ existence. It is unclear exactly when this will occur, varying sources suggest June, July or again simply Summer. However, it will be open for full use as part of the university from the beginning of the academic year in September 2016. It is an exciting time for SOAS which will bring some changes, but the idea is the new Senate House block will help to maintain and develop SOAS’ unique atmosphere and bring new opportunities for future students. Here’s hoping.

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