King's College London is celebrating a triumph of sorts. After 180 years of coveting the East wing of Somerset House, and after many false dawns, it has finally got its hands on it. The men from the Inland Revenue who occupied the lovely neo-classical building have left, and the college is to expand, acquiring an architectural gem and more space.
The victory is bittersweet because King's had been hoping to get the New Wing of Somerset House as well. This is on the West side of the building facing Waterloo Bridge and has been up for sale for several years. Several years ago King's had thought it had an understanding with the trustees of Somerset House to buy it but found it was outbid by a hotel group. That deal collapsed only to be followed by an offer from another hotel group, which is also thought to have foundered.
Nevertheless, King's is accentuating the positive. Although it can't boast a greatly increased campus along The Strand, it will have a bigger campus and more space. "Somerset House is one of the great architectural treasures of the UK and Europe," says the King's principal Professor Rick Trainor.
"We will be restoring the whole building from top to bottom. This will enhance its architectural harmony. It's been used for workaday purposes for a very long time. We will restore the interior to its original proportions."
Baroness Rawlings, who, as chairman of council, was a crucial player in the acquisition of the East Wing, says: "It's terribly exciting news to eventually have got a foot in the door."
Somerset House is a truly historic building, standing on an extraordinary site between Parliament and the Royal Courts of Justice, where once a Tudor palace stood. This was demolished in 1775 and the present structure, designed by Sir William Chambers was erected. Ever since, the college has been praying – literally – to acquire it.
Sir Peter Noble, principal from 1952 to 1968, even went so far as to rewrite the college grace to say: "God preserve the Church, the Queen and King's College, and grant us Somerset House for evermore. Amen."
The East Wing has spacious original interiors and a magnificent stone staircase at its centre. It fills with natural light from a series of oval-shaped light-wells and the college plans to accentuate these by decorating them with works of art.
At a time when most other universities are having to focus on cuts – indeed, King's will be making cuts too – the college is able to point to an expansion. Professor Trainor will not say how much the 78-year lease on the East Wing is costing but the college plans a £20m fund-raising campaign to help cover the cost and the restoration. In addition, the Higher Education Funding Council has given it £7.5m. The school of law, currently languishing in Dickensian accommodation, will be the main beneficiary. It will be housed in the top three floors with an expanded programme of courses for practising lawyers. This had led to much jubilation from former law students who had to put up with grim conditions. So bad were they that a ceiling fell in on Professor Robin Morse, the dean of the law school, who resigned in protest.
Sir Robin Auld, who was at the law school in the 1950s and is now Lord Justice of Appeal, says: "I am excited that this time we have done it."
Lord Carlile, the Liberal Democrat peer, who graduated from King's in the 1960s and is now Britain's terrorism watchdog, says the excellence of the law school has been in spite of its old buildings."One of Europe's top law schools will now be able to offer a fine environment, in one of London's great buildings."
The ground floor of the East Wing will become a general cultural centre for Londoners, open to the public for the first time, where the college will put on events and exhibitions that it will curate jointly with Somerset House. There will be areas for studies in arts and culture, and continuing education, and a learning centre. For the first time, postgraduates will be given their own space – in the East Wing. It is also hoped to put on seminars about public policy with prominent outside speakers.
Some new students will also be housed there, including those on a new degree course in curating which begins in 2011. The college is very keen to open itself up to the outside world in a way universities have not done traditionally. "We want people to come across our threshold," says Prof Trainor. "We see this as a bridge between higher education, enjoyment of the arts and professional development."
The college wants to open up the back of its buildings to provide access from Temple Tube station to attract more people in. With the hoped-for pedestrianisation of the Strand between Waterloo Bridge and Fleet Street – another twinkle in King's College's eye – that could transform the whole area to make it much more user-friendly and accessible to pedestrians. Who knows, the college may even manage to get the sought-after New Wing one day.
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