An architectural tour of The National Archives leads to some surprising discoveries

I’m going to keep this post short and sweet, so that it acts as a conduit into a longer post about the treasures housed inside The National Archives – home to the bulk of this nation’s records. It’s a resource that, shamefully, I have only got to know recently and wish I’d explored far sooner.

Not only is the Archives the official archive and publisher for the UK government, England and Wales, it hosts fascinating exhibitions; I can highly recommend ‘Protect and Survive: Britain’s Cold War Revealed’: another post coming soon! It also offers an amazing programme of talks and events; I very much enjoyed Dame Stella Rimington’s recent address.

I arrived for my architectural tour on a sunny Sunday afternoon, curious to find out more about a building that its greatest fans would describe as unprepossessing, despite its scenic Kew location.

During our tour, we were given access to parts of the building where the public aren’t usually allowed – always a thrill – and taken up on to the roof. Lee, our very friendly and informative guide, shared lots of snippets about this example of Brutalism, which, so I learned, was a ground breaker in more ways than one.

The newer of the two buildings which comprise the Archives is surprisingly light and airy (if of less note historically) and it was through that 1990s imposter that we journeyed on to the roof, through a room full of files marked, intriguingly, ‘Document to be seen only under supervision’. There isn’t, truth be told, an awful lot to see from the roof once you’re up there, other than some nice houses, but it does afford views of the original 1977 building.

Ah, the 1970s. Or: the decade that taste forgot, as I like to think of it (and I lived through it, so I should know. I am yet to forgive my mother for the clothes she dressed me in). It never ceases to amaze me, how many hideous buildings in London house the most beautiful contents, the Barbican and the National Theatre among them. Concrete, concrete…and more concrete. I am not a fan of Brutalism, as you may have gathered.

In fairness, and as Lee pointed out, it was a very different era and money was tight; the types of investment we take for granted now simply weren’t available then. And so it is that The National Archives, home to 1,000 years of history, resembles a giant concrete sugar lump.

Again in the interests of fairness (I really am trying), efforts have been made to add some attractive features to the Archives’ exterior, such as the stained glass panes at its entrance, inspired by water (proximity to the Thames), plants (proximity to Kew Gardens), heraldry (the nature of the Archives’ business) – and an attractive lake, much enjoyed by local wildlife.

Back in the 1977 building we learned what set it apart from its peers when it was built. Corners were “chopped off” to reduce waste and improve the aesthetics, ceilings were kept low (even in the Archives’ renowned Reading Room) and CCTV installed – a fact of life these days, but a game changer at the time. What’s more, a paging system was introduced to notify visitors when their documents were ready for collection – and The National Archives became the first Archive to introduce a computer system.

We take so much for granted these days, don’t we? Including our instinct to design buildings in the most eco-friendly way possible; horrifyingly, the Archives were built to a grade ‘G’ specification; in other words, at the far end of unsustainable. Impressively, this has been, over the years, reduced to a ‘B’ rating, a process involving “much time and money”.

I was interested to learn that that there are no water pipes or sprinklers anywhere in the building: water, apparently, is almost always more damaging to archives than fire.

Down in the basement the noise from the giant air conditioner is phenomenal, but we were pleasantly distracted by black & white photos showing the basement’s boilers being installed by workmen hanging precariously from the ceiling minus hard hats, Hi-Vis jackets or, indeed, any type of health & safety equipment.

One floor up, the Archives’ Mezzanine is no longer in use and is correspondingly dingy. Originally designed for document storage, these days it is used solely for scanning, although it could be used “in an emergency”. Its sprinklers were decommissioned following an unfortunate incident in which the generator went off one night, filling the room with foam.

One final fun fact: the building’s distinctive ‘slit’ windows were added during construction due to fears that its interior would be too gloomy for 1970s workers accustomed to natural light and good-old-fashioned windows that actually opened & closed (impossible to find today in London offices). Other features have been added over the years, most recently the rather natty event space below.

On my way out, pondering over what I’d learned, I passed this lovely sculpture, inspired by the Archives’ map collection. It was designed by Rosalie Harlock and other members of Workshop & Company and reflects the motifs and drawings found in this incredible resource’s oldest atlases. The perfect of blend of old and new – just like The National Archives itself.

17 comments

  1. You always offer such fascinating posts, Liz 🙂 Now I have a name to attach to those ghastly concrete edifices and perhaps more importantly, a context. (A little reading around Brutalist architecture resulted from your post. What an evocative term for these edifices!) I am guessing that the post focusing on the contents will be even more full of fascinating content!

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  2. The effort and expense that has been undertaken to house priceless documents and artifacts is highly admirable. It seems odd that the building itself would not be the worthy holder of such treasures, but I can also see the argument that the building (in this case) is not the point. Either way, it is great that we (or at least some people) value the things that have come before us, even if we sometimes don’t know where to put them! 🙂

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  3. I like the description “giant concrete sugar lump”! I’m always amazed by the ugliness of 60s and 70s buildings, especially when plonked in between more graceful edifices from an earlier age. At least nowadays they make some effort to fit in. I don’t have the same antipathy to 70s fashions. They were ludicrous, but I was a teenager so they were MY choices. I feel a certain amount of nostalgic affection for them, purple frills and all.

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  4. Aaah, this is fascinating! I was very lucky to do a work experience placement with the National Archives in their Document Services Department, in Spring 2017. I did a lot of retrieving of paper files ordered by visitors on the ground floor and sent them down in the lift, before returning them to storage later on. I think the best thing I got to see there were a series of assumed fake letters to the police by anonymous Victorians who were claiming to be Jack the Ripper. I had a tour of the ‘DSD’ department but not the buildings as a whole. I’m also alarmed but also seriously impressed by their G to B building specification progression and nor am I a fan of Brutalism or concrete either. (I think it’s a pretentious euphemism for ugly and lazy architecture). My father always says that same about the 70s 😉

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