SIS/MI6 Building

Phil Baker

© George Rex

...its cover was still regularly blown by extrovert bus conductors shouting “Spies Corner!”

Sometimes a building looks so exactly what it is – in this case a postmodern citadel – it’s hard to imagine it being anything else, but the MI6 building at Vauxhall (also known as the SIS Building, “Legoland”, “The Ziggurat”, and “The Vauxhall Trollop”) wasn’t purpose built. Architect Terry Farrell envisaged a general commercial building with an “urban village” quality, and it was only later bought by the government and adapted into a fortress for SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service.

© Andrew Boden

Completed in 1994, it is a very Eighties edifice but it wears its postmodernism lightly: no toytown Corinthian columns or fake Chippendale pediments. Instead it combines a monumental modernism, like Battersea Power Station just along the river, with something like an Aztec temple, then gives it all an extra twist with a bold use of green and a faceted complexity that makes it hard to work out how many storeys there are. No wonder it apparently has sixty separate roof areas.

© Andrew Stawarz

With an appearance that could go either way, it has to be said it’s enhanced by the mystique of the secret service. If it housed a mall, some fast food outlets and a tanning parlour, then its possible resemblance to a multiplex cinema might be more obvious. But as it is, there’s a fascination about the unknown levels below ground, and the high spec details: metal piping throughout, instead of plastic, so it needs minimum intrusion for repairs; twenty-five different types of glass; an independent generator system; and the notoriously expensive features that were budgeted but kept unnamed on the accounts, one of them rumoured to be a tunnel to Whitehall.

© Jim Linwood

The expense and ostentation were widely regarded as a public relations disaster, and “Babylon on Thames” reflects the changing face of British intelligence. After various Mayfair and Whitehall offices for a more patrician service, the last address before Vauxhall was Century House, a 1960s tower block by Lambeth North tube station. Shabby and anonymous, more Harry Palmer than James Bond, its cover was still regularly blown by extrovert bus conductors shouting “Spies Corner!” and passengers looking to see who got off.

Now the Cold War is over, the threats have changed, and the service is more open and accountable: an equal opportunities employer with an ethical agenda. At one stage MI6 knew where Osama Bin Laden was, but they were unable to share this information with the Americans lest they should take him to America, where he might face the death penalty or be otherwise mistreated.

In 2013 the whole building was lit pink for breast cancer awareness. It has also starred in several James Bond films, sometimes under explosive attack, and there is a pleasant pub facing it on the north bank, The Morpeth Arms, with a themed ‘Spying Room’ upstairs. Security commentator Alan Judd once said that this initially unloved building “might yet mature into an object of espiocratic” – there’s a word – “and perhaps even public affection”. I think it might have happened.

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