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BDP’s Stepped Pavilion adds social space and curiosity to Charles Holden’s Senate House

BDP’s new architectural installation at Senate House has created a symbol of opportunity and a new canvas for students in the shadow of the University of London’s flagship building. The ‘Senate House Steps’ is an inspiring and social space to inhabit and a place that cohorts are now taking ownership of, within the heart of the University estate. 

Senate House was designed in 1929 as the flagship building and home of the University of London. The architect, Charles Holden, described the monumental building as a ‘symbol of the permanence of the institution beyond any individual’. The pyramid form, use of load-bearing stone and small scale openings emphasise the stability of the building, creating a powerful and enduring image for the estate in which it resides. 


BDP’s multidisciplinary team was asked to design a creative, social environment that transforms the car park on the west side of the central tower into a social space while highlighting and enhancing the horseshoe layout of Senate House, continuing its symmetrical language and encouraging activity. The structure would work to instil a sense of belonging and become a place and where students would want to stay and relax with their peers.  

The result is a 7.3 metre-tall structure that is a symbol of the dynamism and potential of the students and of the wider university community. Introducing orange as the primary colour signifies opportunity, and the form and flexibility of the Spanish-style steps deliver a sense of stage and presence. The dual aspect of space above and below the steps allows students to occupy the spaces on their terms, providing an extension of the University’s magnum opus and a new heart for social gathering. It has become the landmark for all social events and students are using the pavilion as the main meeting place on campus, as a space for eating and relaxing, and for celebrating successes together. The steps are carefully dimensioned to create a stage-set for people; to sit, lie, talk, and connect. 


The nature of the structure is inherently craft-like, there’s a careful logic to the series of components that fit together to create the steps. Much like the architect’s aspirations for Senate House, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, though every piece that contributes is celebrated in a bright orange palette.  

The materials were used with sustainability and demountability in mind and the pavilion will stay in place, as a temporary structure, for a minimum of three years.  It is designed using C24 softwood and European whitewood timber with concrete blocks used to plant the pavilion in place. Steel beams provide a level base for the timber structure, steel plates are used for the connections and for easy disassembly with steel mesh screens and steel handrails incorporated. Additional timber and plywood planters are installed around the edge of the structure. 

As Naomi Shewa, Architect at BDP, describes it: “The Senate House Steps are fundamentally about possibilities, demonstrating the platform the University provides for students to rise to challenges and to explore and contribute to the world around them. It’s befitting that the steps were installed in the heart of Senate House, the centrepiece of an institution that has provided barrier-breaking opportunities for so many people.” 

“While observing the structure from Malet Street, I’ve heard people ask the question ‘What is it?’, which I quite enjoy, as we wanted the steps to appear as a spatial journey with no specific end destination. But the question often comes with moments of reflection, delight and most significantly, opportunities to bond students with one another as they continue on their life journeys.”