Ministry of Defence Main Building

Coordinates: 51°30′14″N 0°07′30″W / 51.5040°N 0.1249°W / 51.5040; -0.1249
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Ministry of Defence Main Building
Former namesWhitehall Gardens Building
General information
TypeGovernment office
City of Westminster
Town or cityLondon
CountryUnited Kingdom
Coordinates51°30′14″N 0°07′30″W / 51.5040°N 0.1249°W / 51.5040; -0.1249
Current tenantsMinistry of Defence (MOD)
Completed1959; 64 years ago (1959)
Renovation cost£746 million
OwnerHM Government
Technical details
MaterialPortland stone and copper roof
Floor count13 (10 above ground and 3 below)
Design and construction
Architect(s)E. Vincent Harris
DeveloperHM Government
Other designersSir Charles Wheeler (Sculptor)
David McFall (Sculptor)
Main contractorTrollope & Colls
Renovating team
Renovating firmMinistry of Defence and Modus Services
Structural engineerAlan Baxter
Services engineerWSP
Main contractorSkanska
Other information
Public transit accessLondon Underground Westminster
London River Services Westminster Millennium Pier
Listed Building – Grade I
Official nameMinistry of Defence, containing Sixteenth Century undercroft and historic rooms numbers 13, 24, 25, 27 and 79
Designated14 January 1970
Reference no.1278223

The Ministry of Defence Main Building or MOD Main Building, also known as MOD Whitehall or originally as the Whitehall Gardens Building, is a grade I listed government office building located on Whitehall in London. The building was designed by E. Vincent Harris in 1915 and constructed between 1939 and 1959 on part of the former site of the Palace of Whitehall, specifically Pelham House, Cromwell House, Montagu House, Pembroke House and part of Whitehall Gardens. It was initially occupied by the Air Ministry and the Board of Trade before in 1964 becoming the current home of the Ministry of Defence.

By the 1990s the building was no longer considered fit for purpose and had become expensive to maintain. A major refurbishment was therefore undertaken between 2000 and 2004 through a contract under the private finance initiative.


Map of Whitehall showing the MOD Main Building in relation to other government buildings and the River Thames.
Map of Whitehall showing the MOD Main Building in relation to other government buildings and the River Thames.

Comprising a site of 3 hectares (7.4 acres), the building is located on Whitehall within the City of Westminster, central London. Whitehall is lined with numerous government departments and offices and is close to the Houses of Parliament.

Whitehall is located to the west. Between Whitehall and Main Building is Banqueting House which is the only remaining component of the Palace of Whitehall to survive intact. To the north is Horse Guards Avenue. The street is home to Whitehall Court and also the Old War Office building which was formerly government offices but is now earmarked for conversion to a hotel after being sold to developers in 2016. The building is separated from Victoria Embankment and the River Thames to the east by public gardens known as Whitehall Gardens. Richmond Terrace is to the south and is now used as a private car park, although a public pedestrian route is maintained. Adjacent to Richmond Terrace is the Curtis Green Building, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service since November 2016 and otherwise known as New Scotland Yard. The Department of Health occupies the neighbouring building, Richmond House.

The building is located within the Whitehall Conservation Area, and was identified by Westminster City Council as a landmark building within their 2003 audit of the conservation area.[1]

Whitehall steps, once part of the Palace of Westminster are near the north east corner of the building and visible from the road. They indicate the position of the river before the Embankment was built.

Early history[edit]

Previous use of site[edit]

The building is located on the site of the Palace of Whitehall, which was the main residence of the English monarchs in London from 1530 until 1698 when most of its structures were destroyed by a fire. Despite some rebuilding, financial constraints prevented large scale reconstruction. In the second half of the 18th century, much of the site was leased for the construction of town houses. By the early 19th century some of the Georgian town houses were occupied as government offices.[2]

Design and construction[edit]

In 1909 a decision was taken to construct a new significant government building on the Whitehall Gardens site, primarily to be used by the Board of Trade. Architect E. Vincent Harris, OBE, RA, won a national competition in 1915 to design the building. The selected site was proposed to extend over Whitehall Gardens and also on ground adjacent to Victoria Embankment; however, opposition to this idea led to the southern building-line extending no further than that of the neighbouring Whitehall Court and National Liberal Club buildings to the north. This resulted in a reduction of proposed floor space of approximately 10,000 square feet (930 m2). Due to the outbreak of the First World War the start of work was delayed.[3]

In 1933 the Office of Works issued a requirement for a significantly larger building and Harris was again selected as architect. The building was to be a single block in the Neoclassical design, faced in Portland stone, some 128 feet (39 m) high and 570 feet (170 m) long with a depth of 205 feet (62 m), widening to 300 feet (91 m) feet. It was to be formed as four internal blocks of ten storeys surrounding three internal courtyards with the two main elevations facing Whitehall and the Victoria Embankment.[3]

Work was again delayed due to the interwar economic depression. However, activity started on site in 1938 when town houses in Whitehall Gardens were demolished. Five rooms from Pembroke House, Cromwell House and Cadogan House were dismantled and incorporated into the building as conference rooms. The rooms are now known as the "Historic Rooms" and are located on the third and fourth floors (see Historic Rooms section).[4]

Henry VIIII's wine cellar beneath Main Building.
Henry VIII's wine cellar beneath Main Building.

Due to the wishes of Queen Mary and after providing assurances to Parliament, arrangements were made for the preservation of a 16th-century Tudor brick-vaulted wine cellar which had originally been located in Cadogan House, the York Place home of Cardinal Wolsey. The 70 feet (21 m) long and 30 feet (9.1 m) wide cellar consists of 10 bays with 4 octagonal piers and had been incorporated into Whitehall Palace by Henry VIII. The cellar was similar in design and construction to the wine cellar at Hampton Court, featuring brick with stone dressings. Prior to the redevelopment of the site it had been used as a luncheon room by the Ministry of Transport. The existing position of the cellar was not compatible with the plans for the new building so it was decided to move it so it could be incorporated into the basement.[5]

Construction progress on the building was short-lived as work largely stopped at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.[6] Work recommenced at the end of hostilities and in 1949 the wine cellar was encased by the contractor, Trollope & Colls, in protective layers of concrete, steel and brick and placed on mahogany cushions, carriage rails and steel rollers.[7] It was then moved 43 feet 6 inches (13.26 m) to one side onto a specially designed steel frame so that a 20 feet (6.1 m) hole could be created on its original site. The 1,000 ton structure was lowered on screwjacks, and then moved 33 feet 10 inches (10.31 m) back to its final position.[5]

There is a view that the wine cellar should be named for Cardinal Wolsey as it was once part of a house he owned but attribution to Henry VIII has prevailed.

Opening and operational use[edit]

The east elevation of the building with the River Thames in the foreground.
The east elevation of the building with the River Thames in the foreground.

In 1951 the northern end of the building was ready for occupation by the Board of Trade. The Air Ministry took occupation of the southern part of the building when it was completed in 1959.[8]

The Whitehall Gardens Building, as it was known when it opened, was Harris' last major work and the last significant neoclassical style government building. The September 1951 edition of Building praised the new building; however, it became known as the 'Whitehall Monster' and was described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as a 'monument of tiredness'.[9][8]

In 1964, the former incarnation of the Ministry of Defence, the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry, were all combined to form the modern Ministry of Defence. This move generated a requirement for a single large building to accommodate staff for the new ministry and the Whitehall Gardens Building was identified as the preferred option, with the Board of Trade moving to the Victoria area of London.[8] A short-list of names for the new headquarters comprised "The Mall", "Whitehall Building" and, the eventual winner, "Main Building".

On 14 January 1970 the building was grade I listed by English Heritage as a building of exceptional interest.[10]



MOD Main Building prior to redevelopment. Note the three internal courtyards which were yet to be covered.
MOD Main Building prior to redevelopment. Note the three internal courtyards which were yet to be covered.

As early as 1990 the MOD recognised that the condition of Main Building was no longer fit for modern business requirements. Maintenance had become expensive and inefficient and the building no longer met modern safety standards. At the same time, the MOD was seeking to reduce the number of staff it had within London so that it could make savings by reducing the number of buildings it occupied. The decision was therefore made to redevelop Main Building and a 30 year long private finance initiative (PFI) contract for the redevelopment and ongoing maintenance & facilities management of the building was awarded in May 2000. The contract also included the refurbishment, maintenance and running of three central London MOD offices (Northumberland House, Metropole Building and St Giles' Court) to temporarily accommodate staff decanted from Main Building during the redevelopment.[2] The capital expenditure involved was £531 million.[11]

The contract winner, Modus, is a consortium consisting of Innisfree PFI Funds (40.1% shareholding), Laing Investments (40.1%) and Amey Ventures (19.9%). HOK was selected as architecture and interior design consultant, Alan Baxter as structural engineers and WSP as mechanical & electrical engineers.[12][13] Kværner Construction were the main construction contractor; however, in August 2000 Kværner was bought over by Swedish multinational Skanska.[14][15]


Military and civilian staff within an atrium area at Main Building.

The decant of staff to other buildings was completed in August 2001. In September of that year a ceremony took place to mark the commencement of works when Skanska Construction’s CEO Keith Clarke and Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce assisted Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon to demolish a wall of his old office.[16]

The redevelopment saw the existing cellular room layout changed into an open-plan office layout to improve collaboration between staff and the working environment. All mechanical and electrical services were upgraded along with IT networks. New communal spaces were created including a library, restaurant, coffee shop, business & press suite and crèche. The internal courtyards were enclosed to create three new atria within the building.[17] Security and anti-terrorism measures were integrated into the building, with the MOD changing such requirements after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Original historic features of the building were protected and restored during the redevelopment, such as the replacement of oak doors and terrazzo marble floor of the Pillared Hall.[2] All 2,494 metal windows in the building were refurbished and repaired.[18]

The capacity of the building was increased by the redevelopment from 2,800 to 3,300 staff. This allowed the MOD to dispose of five buildings in central London, these being Northumberland House, the Metropole Building, Great Scotland Yard, St. Giles Court and St Christopher House.[2] The Old War Office Building and St Georges Court were retained for several years after the Main Building redevelopment but are not now part of the Defence Estate. Other MOD Buildings in central London were disposed of some years before the redevelopment, a response to relocation of staff outside London and reduced staff numbers.

The building was handed back to the MOD in July 2004 and re-occupation by 3,150 staff was completed in September 2004, two months ahead of schedule.[2]


The Ministry of Defence plaque outside the south door of Main Building.
The Ministry of Defence plaque outside the south door of Main Building.

The MOD were accused of excessive spending on the redevelopment project. Specific allegations included the cost of Herman Miller Aeron office chairs which had a retail price of £1,050 each, lavish spending on the refurbishment of historic features and the provision of staff facilities including the coffee shop, restaurant and quiet rooms. In response the MOD said that chairs were purchased at a large discount (approximately a third of the normal price); many of the aspects of the refurbishment relating to historic features were required by English Heritage, reflecting the building's grade I listed status; and that staff facilities were generally not subsidised, were required to ensure an acceptable level of staff welfare and to provide a suitable working environment.[2][19]

In April 2002, whilst redevelopment was still under way, the National Audit Office (NAO) considered the extent to which the PFI contract was likely to deliver value for money and the effectiveness of MOD's management of the project. The NAO report was generally favourable and found that the contract will provide what the MOD wished to procure, that the benefits of the contract will be similar in cost to that estimated for conventional procurement (other factors had tipped the balance in favour of PFI) and that the management of the project had been good.[20]

A subsequent report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in January 2003 was less favourable. The committee was critical of the MOD's choice of PFI over other forms of procurement and considered that there was no guarantee that the contract, valued at £2.4 billion over its lifetime, will deliver value for money. The report also criticised the MOD for delays in concluding the final contract which resulted in increased costs and for poor forward planning, which resulted a separate deal being required to accommodate 500 additional staff in London.[2][21][22]

Architectural features[edit]

Architectural sculpture[edit]

Earth and Water located at the northern entrance.
Earth and Water, located at the northern entrance.

The northern tetrastyle portico entrance to the building, on Horse Guards Avenue, is flanked by two large statues, Earth and Water, by the sculptor Sir Charles Wheeler. The figures weigh 40 tonnes each and cost £12,600. Similar figures representing "air" and "fire" were intended to be installed at the south end of the building; however, these were never constructed. During the 1950s, building staff nicknamed the statues "Mr and Mrs Parkinson", after Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the Board of Trade civil servant who devised Parkinson's Law which states "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". More recently MOD staff refer to the statues as the "two fat ladies".[8][23]

The badge of the RAF is carved into stone columns either side of the southern entrance to the building, reflecting its initial use by the Air Ministry. The badge, featuring an Eagle superimposed on a circlet which is surmounted by a crown, was sculpted by David McFall.[24]


Several military statues exist in the grounds of the building or in close proximity.

Historic Rooms[edit]

Five rooms from buildings which were previously on the site were dismantled and incorporated into the building as conference rooms when the building was originally built. They are now known as the "Historic Rooms".[10] These rooms are in the middle of the building and are not visible from the road. They would have been moved horizontally, vertically and rotated to reach their new positions.

  • Historic Room No.13 dates from around 1757 and was a reception room from Pembroke House. It features a decorative plaster ceiling with modillion cornicing. There is an Ionic columned and pilastered framed alcove and female mask keystone within the arch beneath entablature and flanking bays. There are 6-panel doors placed on circular panels.
  • Historic Room No. 24 dates from 1757 and was also part of Pembroke House. It is similar to room no.13, but has an elaborated alcove opposite a bay window in three part arrangement with decorative doors on each side in a frame of fluted Ionic columns sitting on pedestals. There is a decorative plasterwork ceiling with spider's web design and modillion cornicing and a carved arabesque ornamented window shutter panels.
  • Historic Room No. 25 is the former dining room from Pembroke House. It dates from 1773 and was designed by Sir William Chambers and features a decorated plasterwork ceiling and an elaborate chimneypiece designed by William Kent, which is believed to originate from Cadogan House.
  • Historic Room No. 27 is the former saloon of Pembroke House and dates from 1760. It was also designed by Sir William Chambers and features an elaborate Palladian style compartmented plasterwork ceiling and Corinthian columned and pedimented doorway with carved detailing.
  • Historic Room No. 79 was formerly part of Cromwell House and dates from around 1722. It is a completely panelled room with decorated modillion cornicing, the north wall featuring elaborated carved architrave central panel, the east wall has a formerly open three part pilastered arcade and an ornate carved pine chimneypiece. There are consoles supporting the mantle, carved with eagle heads and a pedimented overmantel.


Beneath Main Building is a three-storey bunker complex housing the Defence Crisis Management Centre (DCMC), otherwise known as "Pindar" after the ancient Greek poet. The DCMC provides the government with a protected crisis management facility. Government ministers, senior military and civilian personnel, service and civilian operational and support staff are allocated space within the complex. The DCMC cost £126.3 million to construct and fit-out and became operational on 7 December 1992.[29]


On 1 June 2007 the building was designated as a protected site for the purposes of Section 128 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. The effect of the act was to make it a specific criminal offence for a person to trespass into the building. The restriction also includes the wall and vehicle ramps on the west side of the building adjoining Whitehall Gardens and Raleigh Green; however, it does not include the steps, ramps and porticos that give access to the inside of the building.[30]

In August 2016, The Times newspaper reported that the specialist armed unit of the Ministry of Defence Police which guards Main Building could cease to carry out such duties. The MOD would only confirm that it was reviewing security arrangements at Main Building.[31]



  1. ^ "Whitehall Conservation Area Audit" (PDF). Westminster City Council. 19 December 2003. p. 27. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "MOD London Offices". Ministry of Defence. Archived from the original on 18 October 2012. Retrieved 11 September 2017.
  3. ^ a b Ministry of Defence 2001, pp. 24–25.
  4. ^ Ministry of Defence 2001, pp. 25–26.
  5. ^ a b Ministry of Defence 2001, pp. 25–27.
  6. ^ Ministry of Defence 2001, pp. 26–27.
  7. ^ "The Last Places". 24 January 2013. Retrieved 27 July 2019.
  8. ^ a b c d Ministry of Defence 2001, p. 27.
  9. ^ Curl, James Stevens; Wilson, Susan (2015). The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191053856.
  10. ^ a b Historic England (25 September 2017). "Ministry of Defence, Containing Sixteenth Century Undercroft and Historic Rooms Numbers 13, 24, 25, 27 and 79, City of Westminster (1278223)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  11. ^ "Defence Accommodation". Innisfree. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  12. ^ "Ministry of Defence Main Building". HOK. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  13. ^ "MOD Headquarters". Arena Four Architects. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  14. ^ "Kvaerner signs MoD Whitehall refurbishment deal". Skanska. 5 May 2000. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  15. ^ Litterick, David (29 August 2000). "Skanska buys Kvaerner arm for £180m". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  16. ^ "MOD Minister's office demolished as construction begins at Whitehall". Skanska. 7 September 2001. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  17. ^ "MOD Whitehall". Skanska. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  18. ^ "Past projects". Steel Windows Service. Retrieved 19 November 2017.
  19. ^ Smith, Michael (11 July 2004). "MoD chairs £1,000 each as troops face axe". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 27 September 2017.
  20. ^ "Ministry of Defence: Redevelopment of MOD Main Building: Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General HC 748 Session 2001–2002: 18 April 2002" (PDF). National Audit Office. 18 April 2002. p. 2. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  21. ^ Osborne, Alistair (30 January 2003). "MoD blamed for 'spurious' PFI deal". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  22. ^ Committee of Public Accounts (15 January 2003). "Private Finance Initiative: Redevelopment of Main Building" (PDF). Parliament.UK. The Stationery Office.
  23. ^ "Air and Water". Ministry of Defence. Archived from the original on 14 December 2004. Retrieved 27 September 2017.
  24. ^ "1958/3 Air Ministry". Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  25. ^ Historic England (22 September 2017). "STATUE OF GENERAL GORDON, City of Westminster (1066175)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  26. ^ Historic England (22 September 2017). "Statue of Lord Trenchard, City of Westminster (1237902)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  27. ^ Historic England (22 September 2017). "Royal Air Force Memorial Whitehall Stairs, City of Westminster (1066171)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  28. ^ "RAF Memorial". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  29. ^ "PINDAR Bunker (HC Deb 29 April 1994 vol 242 cc392-4W)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 29 April 1994. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  30. ^ "Home Office Circular 018 / 2007 (Trespass on protected sites – sections 128–131 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005)". GOV.UK. Home Office. 22 May 2007. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  31. ^ Haynes, Deborah (19 August 2016). "MoD guard could be stood down despite terror threat". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 22 September 2017.


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