A view of SIS's Vauxhall Cross headquarters from Millbank in 2004
|Alternative names||MI6 Building|
|Address||85 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall, Lambeth|
|Town or city||London|
|Client||Secret Intelligence Service|
|Floor area||252,497 square feet (23,457.7 m2)|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Terry Farrell and Partners|
|Main contractor||John Laing plc|
The SIS Building or MI6 Building at Vauxhall Cross houses the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, MI6), the United Kingdom's foreign intelligence agency. It is located at 85 Albert Embankment in Vauxhall, a south western part of central London, on the bank of the River Thames beside Vauxhall Bridge. The building has been the headquarters of the SIS since 1994.
The SIS had previously been based at Century House, a 22-storey office block on Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, near Lambeth North and Waterloo stations. The location of the headquarters was classified information, though The Daily Telegraph reported that it was 'London's worst-kept secret, known only to every taxi driver, tourist guide and KGB agent'. Century House was described as "irredeemably insecure" in a 1985 National Audit Office (NAO) report with security concerns raised in a survey; the building was made largely of glass, and had a petrol station at its base. Security concerns combined with the remaining short leasehold and cost of modernising the building were important factors in moving to a new headquarters.
Design and construction
The site on which the SIS building stands had been the location of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the 19th century. Several industrial buildings were subsequently built on the site after the demolition of the pleasure gardens in the 1850s, including a glass factory, a vinegar works and a gin distillery. Archeological excavation of the site during building found the remains of 17th-century glass kilns, as well as barge houses and an inn called The Vine. Evidence was also found for a river wall on the site.
In 1983 the site was bought by property developers Regalian Properties. A competition to develop the site was won by architect Terry Farrell, with an urban village as Farrell's original proposal. A scheme of office blocks was subsequently developed for the site, with a government agency as their occupier. The building had been sold for £130 million in 1989, with construction planned to take three years, built by John Laing. SIS ultimately became the occupiers of the building. Farrell's design for the SIS building was influenced by 1930s industrial modernist architecture such as Bankside and Battersea Power Stations and Mayan and Aztec religious temples.
The SIS building seen from Vauxhall Bridge
The opposite side of the building, seen from Vauxhall Cross
Regalian approached the government in 1987 to assess their interest in the proposed building. In 1988 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved the purchase of the new building for the SIS. The NAO put the final cost at £135.05 million for site purchase and the basic building or £152.6 million including the service's special requirements.
The numerous layers over which the building is laid out create 60 separate roof areas. 25 different types of glass were used in the building, with 130,000 square feet (12,000 m2) of glass and aluminium used in the building's construction. The windows in the SIS building are triple glazed for security purposes. Due to the sensitive nature of MI6's work, large parts of the building are below street level, with numerous underground corridors serving the building. Amenities for staff include a sports hall, gymnasium, aerobics studio, a squash court and a restaurant. The building also features two moats for protection.
In September 2000 the building was attacked by unapprehended forces using a Russian-built RPG-22 anti-tank rocket, causing superficial damage. The Metropolitan Police recovered the discarded rocket launcher at Spring Gardens park in Vauxhall, as well as finding remains of the rocket which had exploded against an eighth floor window. Dissident Irish Republicans were believed to have been behind the attack. Writing in The Daily Telegraph after the attack, Alan Judd referred to detractors who wished a less visible physical presence for SIS; writing that "Both sides of the Whitehall debate might now claim vindication by the rocket attack: on the one hand, the building's profile made it an obvious target; on the other, a headquarters with expensive security protection has been shown to be necessary."
On 1 June 2007 the building and its curtilage were 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 onto the site.
The Queen visited Vauxhall Cross for a second time in February 2006, and Charles, Prince of Wales visited in July 2008. In June 2013 Prince Harry visited Vauxhall Cross and was given a briefing on intelligence by staff. During the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, part of the celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2012, the London Philharmonic Orchestra played the "James Bond Theme" as they passed the building. The Daily Telegraph wrote that "Even MI6 managed to join the party – just. Its headquarters at Vauxhall sported a few discreet rows of bunting. But its balconies remained empty."
The SIS building was reviewed favourably by Deyan Sudjic in The Guardian in 1992; he described it as an "epitaph for the architecture of the eighties". Sudjic wrote that "It's a design which combines high seriousness in its classical composition with a possible unwitting sense of humour. The building could be interpreted equally plausibly as a Mayan temple or a piece of clanking art deco machinery", and added that the most impressive thing about Farrell's design was the way he had not "confined himself to a single idea" as the building "grows and develops as you move around it". In their 2014 Guide to London's Contemporary Architecture, Kenneth Allinson and Victoria Thornton wrote:
Some see this building as Farrell's most controlled and mature building – a rich diet, certainly, but not a cacophony of rhetorical features, nor without the unselfconscious virtuosity which can uplift and excite. But it is undoubtedly too Gotham City for the taste of many. Farrell's many critics and opponents [...] would call it a nightmare: a secret service fortress, provided by a private speculator, designed by an avowed populist, and sited on a most prominent river location. Indubitably, it is a bizarre phenomenon.
Feargus O'Sullivan on the other hand mentioned the nickname "Ceaușescu Towers" for the building, referring to the oversized pompous architecture of Socialist Romania, and derided the whole neighbourhood of newly constructed buildings in Vauxhall as "Dubai-on-Thames".
James Bond films
Vauxhall Cross has featured in several recent James Bond films. The building was first featured in Goldeneye in 1995 and was depicted as having been attacked in The World Is Not Enough (1999), Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015). For Skyfall a 50-foot-high (15-metre) model of the building was constructed at Pinewood Studios. A special premiere of Skyfall was held at Vauxhall Cross for MI6 staff, who cheered when their headquarters was destroyed in the film. Filming for the 24th Bond film, Spectre, took place on the Thames near Vauxhall Cross in May 2015.
- Thames House – the headquarters of MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency
- The Doughnut – the headquarters of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British signals intelligence and cybersecurity agency
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Police are continuing extensive searches of the area around the MI6 building
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Police are searching all areas around the MI6 building
- Watson-Smyth, Kate (21 September 2000). "MI6 Building is Rocked by Two Explosions". The Independent. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
Two explosions rocked the MI6 building in Vauxhall Cross, central London, last night.
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- Corera, Gordon (2012). MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service. London: Phoenix. ISBN 978-0-7538-2833-5.
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