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The Rookery, Congress House, Bloomsbury

Many years ago when working in central London I’d spend lunchtimes exploring Bloomsbury, its bookshops and squares, its Georgian terraces and modernist university blocks. I remember the front of Congress House (1956), with its Bernard Meadows sculpture, though don’t think I’d ever ventured around the side of the building until recently, when I was surprised to see what appeared to be a recently renovated entrance:

The Rookery, Congress House
The Rookery, Congress House

Named ‘The Rookery’, the project was completed in 2018 with the purpose of offering commercial office space while updating the rundown rear entrance and staff facilities. It’s a colourful, curvaceous addition to some rather grey backstreets, with a touch of the art-deco-ocean-liner aesthetic upstairs, though I don’t think the architects would thank me for saying that the projecting row of perpendicular windows remind me of the old restaurant spanning the M1 at Leicester Forest East services (the height of sophisticated dining in 1966).

Architecture Today notes that the ‘undulating side elevation on Dyott Street is … exuberant in form, with a complex composition of contrasting curves and volumes’. However, it was intriguing to find that the curving of the updated facade still follows original architect David Aberdeen’s plan, which was itself influenced (constrained?) by the slightly acute intersecting angle where Dyott Street meets Bainbridge Street.

By coincidence I happened at time to be reading about St Giles Rookery, the infamous 19th century slum that once occupied this area, in David Olusoga’s A House Through Time, which explains how the building of New Oxford Street cut through the slum and would eventually lead to its ‘clearing’. The narrow street layout north of New Oxford Street, however, remained the same (with some renaming). So fascinating to see that while the slum has gone, some of the Rookery’s street layout is still there, influencing architectural decisions in the 21st century …

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