On the Albert Embankment, on the south bank of the Thames, sits one of the most striking buildings in the London landscape and one that does not, strictly speaking, exist. The headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6, is a dramatic presence as part of the London skyline, and even more so in the history of the British Secret Service.
- The building that doesn’t exist – London’s headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service
This building is a relatively recent development for a service that has existed to protect the British interest from domestic and international threats to security for hundreds of years. Many a great tale of derring-do and secret shenanigans have taken place at the behest of the agents working within this vault-like building, most of which are beyond our wildest imagining.
The name’s 6. MI6
One of the most famous fictional inhabitants of the Secret Intelligence Service building in Vauxhall is Sir Ian Fleming’s suave spy James Bond. The building featured prominently in the most recent Bond film, Skyfall. We see Dame Judi Dench as M standing on Vauxhall Bridge watching the core of the building go up in flames as the result of a cyber-attack by terrorists.
It’s not the first time the building has seen cinematic action, either. With Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, the dramatic frontage facing the Thames featured in all three films and made something of a mockery of the building’s official secret status.
As headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, the fictional attack carried out by the terrorist Raoul Silva in Skyfall was not the only time the building has come under attack. As recently as 2000, Northern Irish Republican terrorists carried out an attack using a rocket propelled anti-tank grenade. Thankfully, the assault only caused superficial damage and there is no sign of the attack on the structure you see today.
History of the Home of Secret Intelligence
The current headquarters of Britain’s secret service is a relatively recent addition to the London cityscape. In the place where this grand building now stands there was once a gin distillery and a glass factory, amongst a number of other industrial units.
Purchased in the late 1980s, the site began redevelopment in the early 90s. At the time of the site’s acquisition, the Government paid for the land outright to preserve the secrecy of the operations that would go on there at a time in the immediate post-Cold War period when the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service was not officially acknowledged. When building started on the site, the contractors were unaware of the ultimate occupiers of the building; such was the secrecy that surrounded the project.
The design of the building is very much in keeping with others along the banks of the Thames and echoes the 1930s architecture of Battersea Power Station to the West and the former Bankside Power Station that is now the Tate Modern gallery. Others have likened the structure to the Mayan pyramid architecture or even the Iraqi ziggurats with their square linear dimensions and imposing façades.
One of the most striking buildings on the Thames embankment now has a formal place in London’s architectural landscape. Formally acknowledged as part of the Government establishment, the Secret Intelligence Service now has a web presence and a building that it can publicly claim as its own.
However, this comes considerably after the construction of the imposing headquarters and its feature role in a number of hugely successful films, making the base of MI6 one of the worst kept secrets in London’s history.