The Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Twilight of the Goths

A mid-Victorian competition to design new Government Offices in Whitehall fell victim to a battle between the competing styles of Gothic and Classical. The result proved unworthy of a nation then at its imperial zenith.

The Foreign Office, designed by George Gilbert Scott and built between 1861 and 1868, photographed from St James's Park, c.1880. (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)The present-day Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall is one of the least distinguished and most unattractive of all London’s great public buildings, certainly from the outside. There is a reason for this. It was designed by a leading architect of the mid-19th century, but in a style he had little liking for. Indeed he more or less disowned it from the moment he finished drawing up the plans. No one else at the time liked it very much either: not the prime minister, who was the one who had forced him to change his original design; nor the foreign secretary, who had to work there. In architectural circles it has had a bad press ever since. Nor has it been much of a magnet for visitors and tourists, most of whom scarcely notice it as they pass by on their way up from Westminster to Trafalgar Square, having admired the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. In the 1960s there was even a plan for demolishing it and replacing it with something more modern. But it survived and in the 1990s the building’s interior was gloriously restored (unfortunately not many people get to see the inside).

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