The 1958 Warburg Institute building – personal observations

The current Warburg Institute building in Woburn Square, designed by Charles Holden, was completed in 1958. In this blog post, historian Mark Amies, who also works as the Warburg Library’s Scanner Operator, takes us through his personal observations of the building whilst sharing some of its history.


This is the first of a number of blogs that I plan to put together in the period whilst we are working from home during the 2020 coronavirus crisis. I decided that I would do a series based on the buildings that the Warburg Institute has inhabited in London since it arrived from Hamburg.

The first of these blogs will be about the building the Institute now inhabits, the 1958 Woburn Square structure, designed by Charles Holden’s architectural practice.

The Warburg Institute building © The Warburg Institute

Before I continue, I feel I should state that this article is written from the viewpoint of someone who is not an academic, and not an architectural expert. It is written from the perspective of someone who is interested in modern architecture, and who also works in the building.

Until I started working for the Institute in 2018, I was completely unaware of its existence. I had probably walked past the building many times, but it had made no impression on me. Now, that statement within the context of this article does sound terrible, but I cannot lie. It was only after I had spent the first few weeks in the building that I became aware of its connection to Charles Holden. I have been an enthusiast of Holden’s work for many years. Having grown up in a number of locations around north and west London, I had come into contact with his many buildings produced for London Transport. I did, in addition, know about Senate House, that glorious hub of the University of London.

The Warburg Institute under construction, circa 1957 (Warburg Institute Archive) © The Warburg Institute

However, the Warburg Institute is not really a Charles Holden building. It was designed by an architect within the Adams Holden Pearson practice, in a Holden style. By the time the building was being designed in the 1950s, Holden had effectively retired, but he would come into the office, so he still exerted his influence. The construction company awarded the job of building the Institute were  J Jarvis & Sons, who had undertaken work for London Transport, and were early contractors on the Barbican Estate in the City of London.

J. Jarvis – Underground station reconstructions, Alperton 1932

To the untrained eye, the Warburg Institute looks like an anonymous 1950s block, but it is more than that, and to me, it is the detailing that makes it so special. I am of course biased, this, after all, is my workplace, so I am protective of it. The building is the very essence of post-war British modernist architecture, and the spaces within it exude ‘mid-century’ (a term that has now become an accepted way to describe ‘stuff’ that dates from the 1950s).

Of course, the building has been written about and discussed by more knowledgeable people than myself, and in particular a presentation at the Warburg in 2018, by a set of speakers including Eitan Karol, Elizabeth Flowers, Hugo Braddick and Liza Fior, under the title ‘Is Charles Holden’s Warburg a Good Building?’, and the event was recorded, you can view it here.

One of the constant criticisms of the building is the siting of the main entrance onto Woburn Square. It is thought that it would have been better on the side that faces Byng Place, but I have to say that I feel that it really isn’t that important. In many ways, the entrance is not on a busy thoroughfare, and that is quite handy. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the Georgian building that existed on the site prior to the institute, No.1 Gordon Square, had its entrances onto Woburn Square too. 

The building is finished in red brick, as opposed to the Portland stone of Holden’s Senate House. This was partly down to the architectural fashion of the 1950s, but it was also down to cost-saving, with a post-war economy still under strain. The metal-framed windows are almost flush with the walls, which is something that our modern eyes don’t really appreciate, but from a historical perspective, this was quite a new style. 

Whilst on the subject of the windows, I am not sure if they were made by Crittall (everyone assumes all metal windows were), but they are real historical items. A clue to the window’s manufacturers can be found on the window stays. The rounded securers have the name ‘HOPES’ moulded onto them. Hope’s are a long-established metal window frame manufacturer, based in New York. I dropped them an email and they informed me that, “Hope’s Windows, Inc has a long and complicated lineage with legal roots tied to Jamestown, NY since 1912.  Mergers with many prominent named steel companies throughout our history was challenged several decades ago” …..Most of the building’s windows have since been supplemented by secondary inner windows, to keep heat in and noise out.

Hope’s window stays at the Warburg Institute © Mark Amies

The rather stark frontage is broken up by a series of balconies, however, I have yet to see anyone actually standing on them. In addition, there are a number of gutter downpipe boxes with very nice detailing on them, showing the date on the building’s completion, picked out in gold. They are often overlooked, and indeed it took me a few months to spot them.

One feature of the Institute that has become legendary, was the heating system. Rather than have radiators spoil the clean modern spaces, it was decided to have the heating pipes buried within the structure of the Institute’s walls. As an idea, it was genius until it eventually failed. However, it did manage to do the job very well for the first forty years.

As I settle into my time at the Warburg, I notice and appreciate more and more about the building. Despite post-war economies, this is a very well-appointed place, and the attention to detail extends to the toilets. Yes, I am going to mention the toilets…. The original sanitary ware, to give the collective ceramic furnishings their correct architectural terminology, were supplied by a local firm, John Bolding & Sons. Their London works and showrooms were located at 58 Davies Street, just off Bond Street. The Edwardian building still exists and has been used as Grays Antique Centre since 1977. The Bolding name appears on a number of the items in the toilets in the building.

1898 Bolding’s advertisement (Source: Graces Guide)

A name that you will be more familiar with appears in the basement of the Institute. As you move along the corridor to the library space, you will see a big metal door. This is a Chubb strong room door. I have never ascertained if this strong room is currently still in use*, or how big it is inside, but I assume it was used for keeping the Institute’s valuables safe . The door has a lovely circular metal maker’s plate on it, proclaiming ‘By Appointment – Chubb – Fire Resisting Door’, and was almost certainly a new item fitted in at the time of the building’s construction.

There is another fascinating safe, with a charming brass handle, cast to look like a hand grasping a bar. As the maker’s plate informs it was made by Thomas Perry and Sons of West Bromwich.  Quite how old this safe is I do not know, but I would guess it dates from the pre-World War Two era, and so it is possible it came over as an item from the Institute’s past home at Thames House.

Brass handle of the Thomas Perry & Son safe at the Warburg Institute © Mark Amies

A visit to the Photographic Collection on the first floor allows you to see the original wooden parquet flooring, which on many of the floors has been covered over. The wood has a wonderful rich hue, and where filing cabinets have been moved you can see the original colour coming through. Over in the adjoining Slade School of Fine Art, (which occupies the top floor of the building and is accessed by a separate entrance on Woburn Square), this flooring has actually been painted over with heavy-duty grey paint.

Whilst on the subject of the Slade, it is definitely worth mentioning, as it is part of the main building. From ground level, this section is hardly visible, especially as it is stepped back and at the top.  Originally the gallery space for the Courtauld Institute (which was in nearby Portman Square) was well lit by a glazed roof. The Courtauld’s art collection was moved over to Somerset House in 1989, and the Slade School of Fine Art moved in afterwards. Last summer I had the opportunity to see inside because the Slade had an open day. Having spent my working days in the neat, and ordered Warburg, this part of the building was very much a contrast. As the lift was out of action that day I had to ascend the stairs, and to be honest, it looked as though no decorating had taken place since the Courtauld left. However, once I got to the top I was able to see this once grand space. Sadly, the glass roof had been covered over, but the other original detailing survived. I was particularly struck by the large circular air extractor vents, that were so very of the 1950s.

After I had been at the Warburg almost a year, I was out at lunchtime and walking back via Byng Place, and on looking at the Institute I spotted something rather curious in the brickwork on the side facing me. The whole height of the building had a disjointed edge to it, almost as though it hadn’t been finished.  I have seen something very similar at Rayners Lane Underground station, in North West London, a 1938 modernist classic, that a lot of people assume was designed by Charles Holden, (it was designed by Reginald Uren). The main structure had been completed with a raw edge of brickwork left for a future development that never happened, the idea being that the new brickworks would slot in like a zipper or jigsaw, leaving no discernible join.  The Warburg Institute’s ready to go brickwork was to enable it to be joined to a planned monumental structure that would form the entrance to what Holden’s master plan called the ‘University Gardens’. This project never happened, and we have instead a rather ugly space. I found an image on the RIBA site which shows one version of how things were going to be.

Taking the view of someone who works in the building, and has done so for nearly two years, my feelings about it will be different from a casual viewer, or an architectural critic. Any issues the building has are tempered by my acceptance of it. Yes, it is showing its age in a great many ways, but there again it is sixty-three years old. I look beyond its known faults, much in the same way I would a human being of senior years. Of course with the upcoming Warburg Renaissance project, the Warburg Institute will be getting a new lease of life, with many of the spaces inside revised and redesigned.  Having attended a number of the regular building update presentations, I must admit I am quite excited to see how it will change. Nothing can stay the same forever: if it did, then the Institute would become a dead place. How amazing the new building of 1958 must have seemed to the staff, students and fellows when they stepped over the threshold. In a few years’ time, the current users of the building will hopefully feel the same way.

 As a final point, in the course of my research I found out that in 1895 and 1896 Charles Holden submitted designs to Building News Designing Club competitions using the pseudonym “The Owl”** 

My thanks to Eckart Marchand in the Warburg Institute Archive for his kind assistance.

Mark Amies

* The strong room is still in use at the Warburg Institute today.

**Coincidently the Waburg’s internal newsletter is named the OWL – a result of the acronym of ‘online weekly letter’ and due to the symbolism of owls and wisdom. 


Journey through the different buildings that the Warburg has inhabited with our podcast recording of ‘The Tenant’s Furniture: re-inscribing the Warburg Institute’


Find out more about the Warburg Renaissance project


> Read our interview with Haworth Tompkins Project Architect Elizabeth Flower who is working on the Warburg Renaissance building project


Historian Mark Amies, who works as a scanner operator at the Warburg Institute, pays tribute to the capital’s industry in his new book, London’s Industrial Past, which sheds light on a selection of factories from the city’s past. Areas of manufacture covered include brewing, toys, aircraft, cars, sweets, biscuits, electrical goods and art and photographic supplies.