In the north-west corner of Russell Square, on an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies, a neatly lettered stone plaque attached to a nicely detailed brown brick wall reads:
THE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON HEREBY RECORDS ITS SINCERE APOLOGIES THAT THE PLANS OF THIS BUILDING WERE SETTLED WITHOUT DUE CONSULTATION WITH THE RUSSELL FAMILY AND THEIR TRUSTEES AND THEREFORE WITHOUT THEIR APPROVAL OF ITS DESIGN
Directly below it a metal triangle records the Civic Trust award the building won in 1998. The trust is proud of the fact that its awards 'do not simply reward good design, but also take into account the way in which schemes relate to their settings and to the people that they serve'. So who is served by Russell Square? The trustees are inheritors of a leasehold system which served generations of great landlords well, made them rich, and was largely responsible for the seemly uniformity of Bloomsbury's 18th and 19th-century houses. Many Bloomsbury acres which belonged to the Russell family have been alienated. The family were unable, the Bedford Estates website tells us, to 'withstand pressure to sell land for the Museum, the University or the British Library sites since compulsory powers were available for the purposes of educational use'. But responsibility for the look of the place has not been abandoned.
LRB 30 November 2006 | PDF Download