David Owens – My Favourite Building

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What is it?

The British Museum.

Do you think that’s an obvious choice – or do you reckon it’s a hidden gem?

Dead obvious – it’s a big grand building in the middle of Bloomsbury!

Any honourable mentions?

I’m from the sticks, and the most (only!) interesting public buildings we have tend to be churches. It’s a bit hackneyed to say so, and not to be too Donald Sinden about it, but they’re really very striking buildings – little islands of medieval (or earlier) architecture surrounded by modern housing. I’m not very religious but I do find them strangely fascinating…

Dishonourable mentions?

Just North from the British Museum is the University of London Senate House – a big grey monolith that George Orwell apparently used as the basis for the Ministry of Truth in ‘1984’. It does have a great air of foreboding. When I was at University nearby I did try and use the library to work in. It wasn’t very conducive. Ironically, when I’d finished University I had to contact someone at Room 101 of Senate House for some minor administrative detail – all a bit creepy!

Can you tell us a little about its history?

Well I could, but it’s told much better on the Wikipedia page. It’s become bigger and grander over several iterations across the last couple of centuries. Of course, some of the contents are quite controversial to put it mildly (think of the Elgin Marbles for a start) with many resulting from the days of Empire, but if you can put all that aside and just look at the architecture it’s as if an enormous temple was dropped into central London.

One change that’s happened in my lifetime is the covering of the central courtyard with a glass domed roof. In this country we can be guilty of either knocking down historic old buildings entirely (Euston and, very nearly, St Pancras) or preserving them in aspic. The changes to the British Museum are an exception to that rule, and are a huge improvement. When I was at college, the British Library reading room was inaccessible to mere mortals such as I (you had to be working on a PhD to gain admittance) but now it’s not only accessible but integrated into the building as a whole by the Great Court.

What about your history with the building – what was your first memory of it?

I went to university nearby and used to visit all the time. I remember an amazing exhibition of drawings by Raphael in one of the side rooms – I couldn’t believe we got to see that sort of thing for free.

In later years I’d often pop in when I was down in London, and the Great Courtyard is a good place to meet up with friends. And now I’m with Sharpes the office is close enough to go to visit it at lunchtime.

Is it the inside or outside that does it for you?

A bit of both, although I do love the fact that even the back door is guarded by huge stone lions.

How do you think the lawyers felt about it?

It’s evolved over time, so it must have been a long series of variations to a building of national and international importance – must have been a nightmare!

Nothing’s perfect though, is there anything you would change about it?

The queue to clear security checks…

Do you think it will last?

It has an amazing capacity and openness to evolve, so I don’t see why not.

Have you got any others to tick off?

Lots – Angkor Wat, Petra, the Pyramids…

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