London is not a city of stately axes and broad boulevards. The great classical capitals — Rome, Paris and St Petersburg — had ceremonial routes and grand avenues inscribed into their plans by emperors and kings, absolutist monarchs with a divine right to rule who smashed their imperial processions through medieval streets or malarial marshes.
London was never quite like that. In fact, its major processional route, The Mall, predates the palace it now links to Trafalgar Square. It was planned as a walk in the park.
The axis which now ties the geographic and ritual centre of the city, Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, is an eloquent expression of a moment when Britain was the capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen, when its navy was hyper-inflating and building dreadnoughts in an insane arms race with a Germany looking set to overtake it as Europe’s industrial powerhouse. And this was a city keen to shore up the reputation of a playboy king who had succeeded the nation’s then longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria.
All that history, angst, monumentalism, imperialism, self-aggrandisement, insecurity and compromise is embodied in the architectural knuckle which makes that slightly bodged link work, Admiralty Arch.
The arch, completed in 1912, is one of London’s most curious hybrid structures, a building that was forced to function as symbolic triumphal arch, as residence for the First Sea Lord and as the offices of the Admiralty, the body in charge of the self-proclaimed greatest navy the world had ever seen. Only four years after it was completed, the Battle of Jutland would seriously dent that imperial confidence.
If we think of triumphal arches, from the Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the recently dynamited Triumphal Arch in Palmyra and the Washington Square Arch in New York, they are all structures that belong to the world of monuments more than they do to architecture. They do not accommodate people, rather they embody an idea of victory and plant it in the city. They are gestures, meant to impress, ceremonial gateways to triumphal cities. Not so the Admiralty Arch.
London’s new gateway was a house, an office and a gate with a central arch only to be used by royalty (what better expression of a class system?). It was a building that had to do a lot of things.
Now it is going to have to do even more. The building, surely one of the city’s strangest, most familiar, most central and most remarkable monuments, is being turned into a hotel and apartments in arguably London’s grandest location.
The arch was originally built by Sir Aston Webb, the pre-eminent architect of the Edwardian imperial establishment, who designed everything from Dublin’s Government Buildings via Hong Kong’s Supreme Court to London’s V&A. But more importantly for our purposes he was the architect of a new façade for Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial which sits in front of it.
Admiralty Arch is a building that also does a lot in urban terms. Like everything in London, the route isn’t straight, and the building’s seemingly simple but actually deceptively complex plan accommodates a subtle change in angle, almost without anyone noticing, a little shift which aligns The Mall with Trafalgar Square. Also remarkable is the way in which one side of the arch contains one storey more than the other. Yet perhaps its most interesting features are subterranean. As the odd-looking “Citadel”, the ivy-clad, above-ground concrete bunker nearby on The Mall attests, this is a neighbourhood where what is underground is just as extensive as what is above.
The ground beneath here is a warren of secret tunnels, bunkers and passages, a dark parallel city of angst for an unknown future, an alternative vision and a reminder of the reality of war acting as a counterpoint to the imperial grandeur above. Down here, reputedly, is a passage connecting Admiralty Arch to 10 Downing Street more than half a mile away. There are the remains of vaults, which once housed government archives (including those from Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister), now only racks of shelving stacked with empty boxes inscribed with intriguing (and occasionally shiver-inducing) felt-tip markings such as “Food: Sugar Shortage”, “Nationalised Industries: Steel work Closures” and “Ireland: SAS”. There are huge steel blast doors and grim, strip-lit corridors.
It is only when looking around underground that you realise what a remarkable place this is — a pivot around which the establishment, the government and the city worked, accommodating officers, civil servants, secretaries, aristocrats and spies, a ceremonial and civil building that attempts to do a bit of everything.
That pivotal position is now more cultural than it is imperial. And the future of Admiralty Arch fits neatly in with that shift. The building was bought from the government by Prime Investors Capital on a 250-year lease and, together with architects Blair Associates (designers of reboots of the Ritz and Connaught hotels) and well-connected interior designer David Mlinaric, they are embarking on a long and meticulous restoration and conversion into a hotel, restaurant and four apartments, which went on sale this week. Prices are not being released but, according to some estimates, the residences will cost up to £9,000 per sq ft, considerably more expensive than the most exclusive addresses in prime central London.
In a curious way, although this is clearly a public building which has been sold off — it is also one which is being opened up for the first time to the public. It is a building with a secret history, now suddenly revealed.
Much of the interior has been stripped out over the years in a succession of typically careless and faceless government adaptations. Yet this is not a building in which a narrative needs to be constructed. It is a structure in which history seeps from below and within the walls to populate every room and in which views down The Mall and back to Trafalgar Square impart a sense of unreality at this astonishing location.
The residence of Winston Churchill and Earl Mountbatten, the place where Ian Fleming (who worked in naval intelligence at the Admiralty next door) was reputed to have come up with his James Bond plots and the arch through which all royal parades and celebrations pass, it would be difficult to find a building with a better claim to represent the heart of London.
Admiralty Arch represents the physical manifestation of a nation’s idea of itself. The blend of imperial pomp, naval power and royal ceremony might now seem like a vision from a distant era but, as the crowds reappear for each new royal pageant, it seems this gateway still works — a building poised between past and present, a hinge between the city of ceremony, the city of politics and war and the city of everyday life. A building flexible, deceptive and strange enough to accommodate anything history can throw at it and still remain enigmatic, relevant and elegant.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
For more details about the conversion of the arch, go to admiraltyarch.co.uk
Photographs: John Stillwell/Admiralty Arch; English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images; Admiralty Arch; Keystone; Getty Images; Sharon Lapkin; Thomas Janisch