A little thanks for the memory

August 18, 1995

One school of thought has always held that, as institutions at the intellectual cutting-edge, universities should encourage architectural innovation.

But the example set by the School of Oriental and African Studies' Brunei Gallery building, recently unveiled on the corner of Russell Square, London, is probably not what they have in mind.

At first sight there is nothing very different or exceptionable about it. The building even has that ubiquitous feature of the institutional edifice - a stone plaque, slightly above eye-level for passers-by, of the sort that normally commemorates opening ceremonies or benefactors. But not this one.

Carved on the stone is the message: "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."

London University's most tangible link with the family, Earl Russell, professor of history at King's College, said it had nothing to do with him as head of a cadet branch of the ancient landowning family.

Mark De Rivaz, steward of the Bedford Estates, said that continuing rights of approval on buildings fronting on some viewpoints were a condition of the sale of the land to the university in the 1920s. There had been discussions about the SOAS design, but "the university slightly pre-empted the issue".

Frank Dabell, secretary of SOAS, said the plaque - its wording, size and materials specified - was a condition of their receiving the land from the university, a transaction completed earlier this summer.

A further plaque of more conventional content will be added when the building, funded by a donation from the Sultan of Brunei, is formally opened in the autumn.

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