Ministry of Defence Main Building

Main Building Whitehall elevation
©English Heritage
North entrance
©English Heritage

Region: London

Local Authority: Westminster

Owner Type: Government

Funding Body: Ministry of Defence / PFI

Year of Intervention: 2004

Summary: MoD Main Building in Whitehall was built as government offices between 1939 and 1959, and is now the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence. A complete refurbishment of the building was completed in 2004, procured through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), providing a modern working environment while retaining and enhancing the original architectural features.

Description: Main Building occupies the site of the twelfth-century Whitehall Palace. The architect E Vincent Harris originally won the competition to design the new building in 1915 but, delayed by two world wars, it was constructed in stages between 1939 and 1959. Its original occupants were the Board of Trade and the Air Ministry, and it became the MOD’s headquarters in 1964. The recently completed project was its first major refurbishment.

Main Building is listed grade I on account of its unique design and the historical features preserved from the earlier buildings that are retained within it. The Government Historic Estates Unit was involved from an early stage to supply the historic buildings brief, and worked with the design team throughout the project to ensure that the architecturally and historically important parts of the building were respected. The refurbishment has retained and enhanced the Historic Rooms (salvaged from demolished Whitehall residences and incorporated in the Vincent Harris design) and the grand Pillared Hall, which is now used for conferences and press briefings. Occasional access by special arrangement to the ‘Henry VIII wine cellar’ has been maintained. 

The original building was typical of government offices, with a strong sense of hierarchy, long corridors and numbered cellular offices. Visitors unfamiliar with the layout found it difficult to navigate around the building. This has been addressed by the installation of specially commissioned artworks, including banners of differing colours in the lightwells. There is now capacity for some 3300 staff to work in Main Building, as compared to 2600 before. 

Despite the building’s age and its listed status, efforts have been made to ensure it is an energy-efficient building. The installation of new lighting and services required some ingenuity because of the low ceiling heights.

Strategy: For the MOD the redevelopment of Main Building is part of a rethink of how the head office works and serves the department, whose functioning relies heavily on the expertise of its people and on access to collective information. The previous accommodation of cellular offices, multiple sites and separate IT platforms hindered the collaborative team working and knowledge-sharing that the MOD wants to encourage. The new workspace will provide a more open-plan working environment with a single central IT system for the occupants, who are a mix of military and civilian staff. The redevelopment of Main Building was conceived as a complete business transformation.
Outcome: This project, completed in 2004, has respected the historic building and recovered underused architecturally-important spaces as well as allowing good modern design to provide an improved working environment. The newly enclosed central courtyard provides attractive usable spaces next to the library and restaurant. Feedback from the client and users of the building has been positive. A more detailed description of the project is contained in Working without Walls; an Insight into Transforming Government Workplace, by DEGW and the Office of Government Commerce.


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