SIS Building

The SIS Building, also commonly known as the MI6 Building, is the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service (otherwise known as "MI6"). It is known within the intelligence community as Legoland and also as "Babylon-on-Thames" due to its resemblance to an ancient Babylonian ziggurat. It is located at 85, Albert Embankment in the south western part of central London, on the bank of the River Thames beside Vauxhall Bridge. Coordinates: 51°29′14″N 0°07′28″W / 51.487263°N 0.124323°W / 51.487263; -0.124323

Design and construction

The building was designed by Terry Farrell and built by John Laing . The developer Regalian Properties approached the government in 1987 to assess their interest in the proposed building. At the same time, MI6's sister service MI5 was seeking alternative accommodation and collocation of the two organisations was considered. This proposal was ultimately abandoned due to the lack of buildings of adequate size (existing or proposed) and the security considerations of providing a single target for attacks. In July 1988 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved the purchase of the new building for the SIS. The government proposed to pay for the building outright in order to maintain secrecy over the intended use of the site — at this time the existence of MI6 was not officially acknowledged.

History of the site

The site was previously the location of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. These were swept away in the 1850s and replaced by mainly industrial units, including a glass factory, a vinegar works and a gin distillery.

The land was eventually bought by Regalian Properties Plc. in 1983. The architect Terry Farrell won the competition to develop a building on the site - originally an urban village. Gradually the development changed to become an office block scheme and with a government agency as the final occupier, the application for offices was accepted.

Regalian were unaware that the final occupier would be SIS who needed to move from their HQ in Lambeth, Century House, as they had outgrown it and also needed a modern building to accommodate new technology and IT connectivity.

Construction and architecture

Farrell's influences for Vauxhall Cross speak of 1930s architecture (Battersea and Bankside power stations) and Mayan and Aztec temples. Regalian issued a press release in February 1989 stating that the building had been sold for £130 million and that construction was to take three years. During excavation of the site, the remains of seventeenth century glass kilns, three barge houses and an inn (The Vine) came to light and there was evidence of a river wall.

Layers of decks rising from the river produce no fewer than 60 separate roof areas. 12,000 square metres of glass and aluminium covering the six perimeter and internal atria were installed - the glass may look homogeneous but 25 different types were required to meet specific needs in all parts of the building. Even the doors were specially designed.

Vauxhall Cross was also subject to rather different security requirements from those prevailing in the commercial sector. By early 1992 the quality and complexity of the detailing was apparent.

A Royal opening

The building was completed in April 1994 and officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen in July of that year. It has been home to the last five Chiefs.

The building's design was reviewed to incorporate the necessary protection for Britain's foreign intelligence-gathering agency. While the details and cost of construction have been released, approximately ten years after the original National Audit Office (NAO) report was written, some of the service's special requirements remain classified. The NAO report Thames House and Vauxhall Cross omits certain details, describing the cost and problems of certain modifications but not their nature. Rob Humphrey's London: The Rough Guide suggests one of these omitted modifications is a tunnel beneath the Thames to Whitehall.

The NAO put the final cost at £135.05m for site purchase and the basic building or £152.6m including the service’s special requirements.

2000 attack

On the evening of 20 September 2000 the building was attacked with a rocket, which caused superficial damage.

Cultural references

The building has appeared in The Tailor of Panama as well as the James Bond films GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, all four starring Pierce Brosnan. In the opening sequence of The World Is Not Enough, Bond chases a suspect from the building down the Thames. The Daily Telegraph claimed that the British Government prevented some filming in front of the SIS Building, citing a security risk. However, a Foreign Office spokesperson repudiated the claims and expressed displeasure with the misleading article.

A steampunk pastiche of the building featured in the comic book League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as the headquarters of British Military Intelligence in 1898.

The SAS veteran-turned writer Andy McNab frequently describes the building in his books.