The White City site 

10 December 2021 tbs.pm/74321

 

BBC Yearbook 1951 cover

From the BBC Yearbook for 1951

Soon after the inauguration of the BBC’s television service at Alexandra Palace on 2 November 1936, the Corporation’s attention was compelled to the question of providing in London permanent accommodation adequate to the requirements of a service whose expansion, exemplified by the keen public interest which transmissions had aroused, was important and urgent.

A search, vigorously pursued during the two years immediately preceding the outbreak of the war for a site inter alia convenient of access to artists attending rehearsals and engagements, and of a size adequate for the development of the service, was interrupted in August 1939 when, perforce, the Corporation had to concentrate attention on other matters.

The end of the war faced the BBC with an acute accommodation problem: rapid increase of activities and responsibilities challenged an intention, which had seemed adequate enough before the war, to contain the Corporation’s activities in London — sound and television — on and around the island site on which stands Broadcasting House, the extension of which had already commenced, and on another site to be developed wholly for television. Requirements were accordingly reviewed, and a decision was taken that the television site should be large enough to accommodate if possible such of the BBC’s central activities as it might be found impracticable to group on and around Broadcasting House island site.

After requirements had been expressed in terms of site-area, search for a site was resumed; but it quickly became clear that few sites exist in London convenient of access by public transport, of a size and shape necessary for the purpose in view. In January 1947 the Corporation learned, however, that it would probably be possible to acquire the whole or a large part of a twenty-five-acre site at Shepherd’s Bush, generally known as the White City. Inspection of the site convinced the contributor of this note as to its suitability, and rescued from oblivion for him memories of a visit he had made there on 14 May 1908, for the opening of the Franco-British Exhibition by the Prince of Wales, later His Majesty King George the Fifth.

The site appealed to the BBC as fulfilling to an extent barely to be expected the requirements of the Corporation’s long-term plans. Terms for the purchase of the freehold however had hardly been ascertained and discussed when there came word to Broadcasting House from the London County Council that the entire site was to be acquired by the Council against the demands of housing. Representations by the BBC fell, happily, upon sympathetic ears at County Hall, and on 22 March 1949 the Council, at meeting that day, resolved to offer no objection to the Corporation’s purpose and to permit development by the BBC of thirteen acres of the site.

The policy of accommodating in London, in not more than two groups of buildings, all the BBC’s headquarter services, both sound and television, had to be re-examined as a result of a maximum of thirteen acres being available (the site was said to be the largest single undeveloped area in London that it would be possible for the BBC to acquire).

The pressing need for alternative accommodation to Alexandra Palace — the lease expires in 1956 — combined with other factors decided the Corporation to give priority of development of the site to television, and to proceed as rapidly as conditions would permit with the building of television accommodation on between seven and eight acres, which was estimated to be the limit to which the BBC should plan in the prevailing conditions of restrictions upon capital investment, leaving the remainder unplanned until such time as the first development neared completion. It was felt that long-term needs of the television service would by then be more clear, and that the Corporation would be in a far better position to judge how the remainder of the site should be apportioned as between television and sound.

A sketch plan with rough schedule of floor-areas was prepared departmentally early in July 1949 to indicate the possibilities of the site. By the end of the following September a schedule of requirements, within the scope of the sketch scheme, had been completed.

 

A torn envelope with a sketch in pen

How it all began. The architect Mr. Dawbarn doodled on an envelope while talking to the BBC’s Civil Engineer.

 

All now was set for the appointment of an architect. The BBC gave earnest consideration to the principle of competitive selection, but came to the conclusion that as the project was so highly technical in character and would be subject to such constant variation as fresh requirements had to be met, it would be impossible to furnish a sufficiently cut-and-dried programme on which to go to competition. The President of the Royal Institute of British Architects was therefore approached and was invited by the BBC’s Governors to suggest the names of half a dozen or so architects likely to satisfy a number of specified conditions. From nominations received from that source, the Corporation’s choice fell on Graham Dawbarn, C.B.E., M.A., F.R.I.B.A. (Norman and Dawbarn), who, in November 1949, was appointed for the work in association with the Corporation’s Civil Engineer. Announcing the appointment, the BBC also mentioned that Howard Robertson, M.C., A.R.A., F.R.I.B.A., and W. G. Holford, M.A., F.R.I.B.A., had consented to act as architectural advisers to the BBC in connection with the project.

The opportunity now presented was surely a unique and inspiring one. It fired the imagination of the architect and, too, the enthusiasm of his colleague. Early in the present year (1950) there had been evolved an architectural conception which, functional and economical for the half-site development, includes also a sketch lay-out for the future development of the whole site so that the authorities could be reassured as regards the adequacy of both the half-site scheme and its possible later development in the matter of access from the public highway, facilities for fire-fighting and escape, provision for the parking of vehicles within the curtilage of the site, and the effect of the development on light and air of adjoining properties. Each of these points could be properly considered only by examination of the project as a whole.

The Corporation’s architectural advisers expressed themselves convinced of the general merits of the sketch layout; they considered that it provided a striking architectural solution to the problems of neighbourhood and site conditions generally, and that,’ possessing character and originality, it would be a kind of emblem of this new type of structure, fitting the purpose which it would be required to serve.

The design, duly developed, was accepted by the BBC’s Board of Governors at their meeting on 30 March 1950 on the understanding that such acceptance would not commit the Corporation to any particular ‘user’ of the second half of the site and in particular to the planning and use of the accommodation shown to one side of the curvilinear ‘tail-piece’.

 

Plan of the site

Plan of the projected Radio Centre at WHITE CITY, London. The new Television Headquarters is in black.

 

The planning of the half-site progresses well. It consists of the circular part of the Main Block, with Utility Block, Scenery Block, and Canteen Block radiating from it. Allowing for a considerable part of the parking-space it occupies 7.47 acres of the site. Its main entrance is at the junction of the future 4tail-piece’ with the multi-storey ‘ring’ which encircles the large open court. On the lower floors of the ring it is planned to accommodate artists’ reception areas, dressing-rooms, etc., all designed to be quickly accessible to seven studios spaced round the ring, viz.:

  • 2 studios, each 75 x 120 x 45 ft. high
  • 2 studios, each 75 x 120 x 45 ft. high for a length of 80 ft. and 60 ft. high for a length of 40 ft., and
  • 3 studios, each 70 x 50 x 35 ft. high.

A Presentation suite is placed centrally between Studios 1 and 2 (vide lay-out) where announcements, captions, telecine, and other inserted items would be televised.

Control- and Apparatus-rooms, etc., are intended to be placed in the lower part of the multi-storey ring, with observation-windows overlooking the studios. Above these, and over other technical areas, would be the administrative and other offices of the service.

The outer periphery of the studios is to be connected by a closed continuous scenery-runway of a size sufficient for the reception at each studio of assembled scenery-units which would be conveyed to the studios upon ‘floats’ from the Scenery Block shown lying to the south of the Main Block.

The London County Council informed the BBC on 28 June 1950 that they approved in outline the development of the White City Site under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. The Royal Fine Art Commission have also given their general approval to the proposal.

The BBC hopes to build and occupy the premises progressively; it is intended, subject to the limitations of capital investment, to have the Scenery Block completed by the end of 1952 so that it may serve the Corporation’s temporary studios in Lime Grove — acquired against the possibility of general building progress at the White City being retarded by circumstances beyond the BBC’s control — until such time as the multi-storey ring and Studios Nos. 1 and 2, and the Presentation suite and Canteen, which would form a complete ‘operations unit’, have been built and equipped.

▶︎ Captain Marmaduke Tudsbery Tudsbery [sic] CBE, MICE (1892-1983) was the BBC’s Civil Engineer.

 

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