The BBC Radio Centre was the brainchild of the then chairman of the BBC, Lord Howard, who held an international competition in 1982, which the practice won. At the heart of the proposal was an attempt to remedy the perception of the BBC as an introverted organisation, seemingly at odds with its commitment to public service broadcasting. Working closely with BBC staff and management, the practice structured its proposal around a series of strategies designed to make the Corporation more publicly accessible in its new home.
Located opposite Broadcasting House and John Nashs All Souls Church at the southern end of Portland Place, the context was highly challenging - both historically and in terms of urban design.
The BBC also had stringent criteria: the building had to provide technical capacity to allow for every foreseeable broadcasting development; construction could not interfere with broadcasting activities; and the new building had to replace as many of the BBCs scattered London facilities as possible.
The design responded to three contextual problems: the relationship with Cavendish Square to the south-west, the need for a punctuation mark at the southern end of Portland Place, and the juxtaposition with Broadcasting House and All Souls’ on the bend of the street. The resulting scheme stepped gradually upwards in keeping with neighbouring buildings. A low elevation faced Cavendish Square, while a cluster of glazed lift towers on the north-east elevation formed a climax to Portland Place.
A seven-storey glass wall opposite All Souls’ marked the main entrance and the glazed atrium that bisected the building diagonally. Lined with shops and cafs and placed on an axis with All Souls’, the atrium formed the public heart of the building. Radio facilities were placed on either side of the atrium and below it in three subterranean storeys of sound studios and auditoria. In 1985, following the appointment of a new chairman with a different vision for the BBC, the site was sold and the scheme abandoned, just as it was to be submitted for planning permission.
"Our studies of how BBC Radio functioned in Broadcasting House revealed that activities were constrained by the existing building fabric – proximity to studios was inhibited and communication was extremely difficult.”Spencer de Grey
“Our first images for the BBC project were not an actual building, more thoughts about how such a building should feel. They really set the scene.”Norman Foster
“The real architect of the BBC building was the then chairman, George Howard. It was he who had the vision of what the BBC was, and it was he who had found a group of people who shared that vision and were sympathetic to it.”Norman Foster, lecture at the UIA Congress, Brighton, 17 July 1987
“To enable an underground link with Broadcasting house we developed a unique lift system in which the lift-cars ran on guides that curved seamlessly from the vertical plane to the horizontal – just one of many innovations the scheme proposed.”Norman Foster
Construction start: 1985
Area: 51 710 m²
Height: 48 m
Client: British Broadcasting Corporation
Structural Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners
Quantity Surveyor: Davis Belfield & Everest
M+E Engineer: YRM Engineers
Additional Consultants: Tim Smith Acoustics