BT Tower

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Architecture

BT Tower from the Euston Road, looking south.
BT Tower from the Euston Road, looking south.

The BT Tower in London, England, previously the Post Office Tower and also the London Telecom Tower, is a tall cylindrical building at 60 Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia. The main structure is 175 metres (574 feet) tall, with a further section of aerial bringing the total height to 188 metres (620 feet).

History of the Post Office Tower

The tower was commissioned by the General Post Office (GPO). Its primary purpose was to support the microwave aerials then used to carry telecommunications traffic from London to the rest of the country.

The tower was designed by the architects of the Ministry of Public Building and Works: the chief architects were Eric Bedford and G. R. Yeats. Typical for its time, the building is concrete clad in glass. The narrow cylindrical shape was chosen because of the requirements of the communications aerials: the building will shift no more than 25 cm (10 inches) in wind speeds of up to 150 km/h (95 mph). Initially the first sixteen floors were for technical equipment and power, above that was a 35 metre section for the microwave aerials, and above that were six floors of suites, kitchens, technical equipment and finally a gridwork aerial. To prevent heat build-up the glass cladding was of a special tint. The construction cost was £2.5 million.

Construction began in June 1961. The tower was topped out on July 15, 1964 and it was operational from October 8, 1965. The building contractors were Peter Lind & Company.

The tower was officially opened to the public on May 16, 1966 by Tony Benn and Billy Butlin. As well as the communications gear and office space there were viewing galleries, a souvenir shop, and a slowly rotating restaurant, the "Top of the Tower", on the 34th floor, operated by Butlins. It made one revolution every 22 minutes. An annual race up the stairs of the tower was established and the first race was won by UCL student Alan Green.

A suspected IRA bomb exploded in the roof of the men's toilets at the Top of the Tower on October 31, 1971 and it was subsequently closed to the public for security reasons. The restaurant closed in 1980 when Butlins' lease expired and non-BT-approved access to the building ceased. In 1981 it was superseded as the tallest building in Britain by the NatWest Tower (renamed Tower 42).

The London BT Tower today

The tower seen from its base
The tower seen from its base
The tower at night
The tower at night

When the GPO telecommunications services were split off in 1981 (in advance of the 1984 privatisation) the tower was renamed the London Telecom Tower. After the rebranding of the company in 1992 it became the BT Tower. The building is still not open to the public. The restaurant has been re-opened, and is now used by BT for corporate sponsorship events and promotions: since the re-discovery of spare parts for the mechanism, they even rotate it occasionally. Occasional broadcasts are made from the top of the tower, including BBC Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles on his birthday, 22 February 2006.

The tower is still in use, and is the site of a major UK communications hub. Fibre optic links have replaced microwave links for most mainstream purposes, but the tower is still used for microwave links. The base of the tower contains the TV Network Switching Centre which carries broadcasting traffic and relays signals used by the BBC and other television broadcasters.

A renovation in the 2000s installed coloured lighting projecting onto a new 360-degree light panel, extending out from the old light boxes, bearing the company logo, as part of BT's 'connected world' corporate styling. Seven colours are programmed to vary constantly at night and are intended to appear as a rotating globe. The success of this is debatable but the building's night appearance is now more distinctive. The tower has always been a useful late-night navigational beacon for nearby residents, especially the numerous university halls within walking distance.

Until the mid 1990s, the building was officially a secret, and did not appear on official maps. Indeed, even by taking a photo of it you were breaking the Official Secrets Act. Its existence was finally "confirmed" by Kate Hoey, MP, on 19 February 1993: "Hon. Members have given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret. An example that has not been mentioned, but which is so trivial that it is worth mentioning, is the absence of the British Telecom tower from Ordnance Survey maps. I hope that I am covered by parliamentary privilege when I reveal that the British Telecom tower does exist and that its address is 60 Cleveland Street, London."

The BT Tower was given grade II listed building status in 2003. Some of the Antennae on the building are no longer used, however because the building is listed, they cannot be removed, as it would alter the features of the building.

Entry to the building is provided by two high-speed lifts which travel at 6 metres per second, reaching the top of the building in 30 seconds. Interestingly, due to the high-speed of the lifts, an Act of Parliament was passed to vary fire regulations, allowing the building to be evacuated by using the lifts - it is the only building in the country to hold this status.

Appearances in fiction

  • Large portions of the 1966 Doctor Who serial The War Machines were set in the tower.
  • In the 1967 film Smashing Time it appeared to spin out of control and short-circuit the whole of London's power supply.
  • The tower is featured in the most famous scene in The Goodies when it is toppled over by Twinkle the Giant Kitten in the episode Kitten Kong.
  • The tower is destroyed through sabotage in Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta. It's also featured in the film adaptation with the name Jordan Tower albeit it's not destroyed. According to the novelization, the tower is headquarters for both the BTN and the "Eye", the visual surveillance division of the government.
  • The tower is destroyed in the James Herbert novel The Fog by a Boeing 747 whose captain has been driven mad by fog.
  • The design of the starship HMS Camden Lock from the BBC 2 science fiction sitcom Hyperdrive is based on the tower.
  • In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Harry is spotted flying over the tower in a Ford Anglia with his friend, Ron Weasley.
  • It appears on the cover of Saturday by Ian McEwan.

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