Architect: Charles Harrison Townsend, 1895.
A little bit of non-city in the City; the Bishopsgate Institute was established to relieve the perceived social and cultural deficiencies of the Victorian metropolis.
Hidden in the looming shadow of Broadgate opposite, you could be forgiven for walking straight past the curious façade of this socially-progressive institution. Designed by C H Townsend, who later achieved fame for the Whitechapel Gallery and Horniman Museum, the structure is one of the most surprising in the City. Without any obvious precedent stylistically (although the broad-arched entrance may have been influenced by the American H H Richardson), the building incorporates symbolism and skilled workmanship that was intended to reflect the institute's cultural aims. The main Bishopsgate elevation is a symmetrical terracotta composition, with twisting tendrils (variants of the Tree of Life) embracing turrets capped by what appear to be stylised beehives (emblems of industry and cooperation). Between them, a finely-worked panel proclaims the institution's name. The architectural ethos of the building derived from the Arts & Crafts movement (designed to be built by artist-craftsmen, not wage-slaves), but its sinuous detailing owed much to continental Art Nouveau.
Overall, Townsend's arrangement is grand yet domestic in scale, a successful contradiction befitting the establishment's enlightened, charitable role. Opened in 1895 "for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts", the institute was founded with the help of educational reformer, the Reverend William Rogers, using funds from the nearby parish of St Botolph. Recent refurbishment has helped revitalise the building as a centre for culture and learning, hosting educational events and evening courses for adults. Its domed, wood-panelled library (championed as one of the first public libraries) is open to all, and a specialist repository for literature on the labour and cooperative movements, political activism, and free thought. Nevertheless, the new glass fronted cafe (by Sheppard Architects) adjacent to the Brushfield Street side-entrance, now buzzes with mezze platters and iPads aplenty.
Best time to visit: open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10.00 – 17.30.
Address: 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH.