In the north-west corner of Russell Square, on an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies, a neatly lettered stone plaque attached to a nicely detailed brown brick wall reads:


Directly below it a metal triangle records the Civic Trust award the building won in 1998. The trust is proud of the fact that its awards ‘do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people that they serve’. So who is served by Russell Square? The trustees are inheritors of a leasehold system which served generations of great landlords well, made them rich, and was largely responsible for the seemly uniformity of Bloomsbury’s 18th and 19th-century houses. Many Bloomsbury acres which belonged to the Russell family have been alienated. The family were unable, the Bedford Estates website tells us, to ‘withstand pressure to sell land for the Museum, the University or the British Library sites since compulsory powers were available for the purposes of educational use’. But responsibility for the look of the place has not been abandoned.

The homogeneous domestic style of the Bloomsbury squares starts very simple (brick, with stucco ground floors and no ornament except around doorcases). Even the full stucco fronts and porches of the later 1800s are not much more than heavier make-up on the same faces. These styles still cover much of Bloomsbury like tattered wallpaper. Bedford Square is the only 18th-century square which is still unblemished, but even there – this is the case with nearly all 18th and 19th-century Bloomsbury buildings – uniform façades disguise changes of function. What began as homes for professional men, particularly lawyers and stockbrokers who appreciated being close to the Inns of Court and the City, are now mostly small hotels, businesses, offices or outposts of the university. Higher education has laid a north-south stripe through London. You can walk from the Thames to the Euston Road and hardly ever be out of sight of a university building. The area from King’s College on the Strand, through the LSE, around the Aldwych and Holborn, and on to the University of London and its attendant institutes and libraries in Bloomsbury has the character of a university town. The apologetic plaque in Russell Square makes you ask what might be the price of keeping Bloomsbury’s domestic look when domestic use has gone.

One notion is that the terrace house is an adaptable building type which can fit most needs. Publishers were among the first to creep, hermit crab-like, into Bloomsbury’s domestic shells. The London Encyclopedia (1983) lists six of them with offices in Bedford Square. Now there is only Yale University Press. Well into the 20th century a London publishing house was very often just that – a business run from a house. When T.S. Eliot was with them, Faber and Faber were on the corner of Russell Square opposite the SOAS extension (it is marked by a blue plaque; SOAS now occupies that building too). Thinking back to what such offices were like, you realise that an 18th-century division of accommodation (family rooms on the main floors, servants in attics and basements) adapted well to the hierarchy of 20th-century publishing. (In T.S. Eliot’s day the Faber caretaker and his wife lived in the attic – he was called Mr Tansley and had been poisoned by mustard gas in the First World War. He served lunch – meat and two veg – to the directors in the boardroom every Wednesday.) The book-lined drawing-room for the managing director, still very often the owner, the better bedrooms for the grander editorial staff, pokey in-between rooms for most of the rest and, at Faber, the accounts department in the basement. Now that the old imprints have, at best, a floor in a big office block (sometimes with the old shingle hanging a little oddly by the lifts) prestige comes with a corner office, not a view of the square. It is all rather antiseptic, more egalitarian, less grand for the visiting author, but much more businesslike, better lit and more comfortable. One way of keeping the look and expanding the accommodation is to join houses up. In Bedford Square, for example, the Architectural Association occupies several. Façades are kept, interiors become incoherent, and notices on non-functioning front doors point you left or right to the real entrance.

The alternative is to abandon aesthetic coherence – that is what, for one reason or another, has happened in Russell Square – and learn to like the muddled truth of building use. The east side is presided over by the now rather dishevelled pomp of the Russell Hotel (pointed green-topped towers and high-piled much decorated walls in terracotta and brick); the concrete zig-zag of the Imperial Hotel next door drags meanly down Southampton Row; the pastiche Georgian of the university buildings on the west side are broken by the entrance to the ziggurat of the university library; on the north side the entrance-free end wall of Denys Lasdun’s Institute of Education gives a cold shoulder to the square; on the south a substantial number of original houses still stand, but are disguised by 19th-century terracotta facings and window trim.

Would it be better if more of the original buildings still stood? If it was still recognisably as Thackeray imagined it when, in Vanity Fair, he set the early prosperity of the Sedley and Osborne families there, and later made it the scene of the sale that followed John Sedley’s bankruptcy, the sale at which Becky Sharp was outbid by Captain Dobbin for Amelia’s little square piano. (Building began in 1800, so Becky Sharp saw the square when it was quite new.) It would be, at best, a cosmetic exercise. There are too many building sites in London where carefully propped-up façades are being preserved to give a heritage feel to the new buildings going up behind them. The SOAS extension is much to be preferred over the close imitations of 1800 façades.

On the other hand, the central garden, which has been brought closer to its early 19th-century state than it has been for many decades, is a success. An 1813 map shows the garden cut by Repton’s looping paths. A satellite image of the square today confirms the accuracy of their reinstatement in the recent refurbishment. Unlike Bedford Square, this is a public space. Although the complaint that private squares are an unfair privilege is surely misguided (one big shared garden in front, people and businesses round about paying a few pounds a year for a key, is in many ways a better idea than many small private gardens behind), public use suits Russell Square. The garden is regaining its old dignity. The iron railings round London squares were victims of Beaverbrook’s misguided wartime drive for scrap (the iron proved to be useless). Now, more than half a century later, they are being restored, and without shortcuts. In Russell Square I watched iron shafts being fixed the proper way, in tenons cut in a low stone sill with molten lead. On the south side of the garden, Westmacott’s statue of Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford still looks down Bedford Place at Charles James Fox (also by Westmacott). His hand rests on a plough; a sheep and a cherub laden with produce among his supporters record his interest in agricultural improvement. (Woburn Abbey, his country place, gives its name to local streets.)

In the centre children tease the new, pond-less fountain by dashing through the spray; flocks of parasite-ridden pigeons ease the itch as they bathe there with ruffled feathers. If you cross the square early you strike the dog walkers and the t’ai chi adepts. Later it is tourists asking the way, unable to believe that the British Museum can be where their maps say it is, and parties of schoolchildren eating their sandwiches.

What you could never restore is something many of these squares offered only briefly: the pleasure of being on the edge of town. Names have long lives. In London this or that ‘fields’ can indicate places which once were beside open country. The squares ate into that; the view Fanny Burney liked of the hills of Hampstead, seen across the fields through the open end of Queen Square, did not long survive her pleasure.

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