It is now a century since the ICE’s Westminster HQ came into use. The annual dinner was held in the Great Hall on 22 October 1913, and on 4 November 1913, harbour engineer Anthony Lyster gave his presidential address in the Telford Theatre.
The building, designed by James Miller, took three years to build, and it took five years previous to that to acquire the site. The building work cost £149,660, of which around £30,000 was for fittings and services and £96,000 was for superstructure. The site cost around £200,000. Further investment was required in the 1930s to complete the north west corner.
On reflection, after a century in use, a number of elements stand out. The use of a steel frame came soon after the London Building Acts permitted such structures, suggesting an innovative design approach, although the use of masonry in the external walls meant it is not fully framed. The steelwork was supplied by Dawnays and designed by Ferdinand Huddleton. However, credit lies with the architect for the use of steel to create the great spaces that characterise the building - the domed atrium, and Great Hall. The interior space is modelled on a renaissance palace, with balconied galleries rising up from the entrance hall. At the time it also enabled separation between members and staff who were few in number.
The ICE was seeking a building to celebrate engineering, and in the Edwardian context it was successful - names of great engineers carved on high, and their portraits and busts decorating the walls. It was also an imperial vision - with emblems for the main dominions in the Empire carried high on the main façade. It was pan-engineering as well - reflected in the names, and the sculpture above the entrance. Inevitably this now sets the building in something of a time capsule, a feeling compounded by the omnipresence of timber panelling.
It is evident that the architect struggled with the conservative views of the then Building Committee to dispense with this; they preferred the Victorian gravitas of the panelling to the lighter stone lining of the Great Hall. Thus the building often feels Victorian, and literally is in some cases, as several rooms’ décor came from a previous building at 25 Great George Street. This, of course, is also part of its appeal - and why it has listed status.
The ICE Council of the time wanted the building to be the scientific hub of the British Empire. Ground and first floors were intended to be flexible spaces to stage major gatherings of engineers and scientists - not even the venerable Royal Society had access to such spaces. The impact of the First World War and the inter-war austerity meant it was not achieved. Changing patterns of use, and fire regulations, mean that some of that flexibility has been lost, although it is generally busier than ever.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the building is the quality of its material. The Building Research Station reported on the building in 1958, and found that, despite lack of investment, through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it was in remarkably good condition. That quality is what made the refurbishment of around 1990 so worthwhile, and a sound springboard for the Shaping the World appeal launched last month, designed to make the global vision of the Edwardian designers fit for a 21st century institution.
- View an exhibition on the building, on LG2, at One Great George Street and at www.ice.org.uk/information-resources/document-library/one-great-george-street-centenary-exhibition