In the fine city of Norwich where I live there is a large derelict office building, which since I first started exploring three years ago has never left my top three of ‘most wanted’ locations, sitting incongruously amongst far more ostentatious company such as the Chambre de Commerce in Belgium, Sammezzano Castle in Italy, and Battersea Power Station in London. Why? It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try…
Perhaps it’s the sheer audacity of the building’s Brutalist architecture, and the tantalizing glimpses of decay with the many boarded and broken windows, and small trees growing out of the roof.
Perhaps it’s the fact that after exchanging over a dozen of emails with the site manager to try and secure a permission visit I was thwarted after 15 months of correspondence when the site was suddenly sold and the new property agents (after stringing me along for another 5 months) eventually refused my request.
Perhaps it’s because I used to drive past it on my way to work every day, each unrequited glance only fuelling my determination… “One day Sovereign House, one day”.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I was ever expecting to discover the hanging gardens of Babylon behind its battered façade – I just wanted to be able to tick the bloody place off my list…
Like many provincial explorations in Brutalism, Sovereign House is both maligned and fondly regarded in almost equal measure by local citizens. Designed by architects Alan Cooke Associates, construction began in 1966 and completed in 1968.
Until its closure in the early 2000s it housed departments of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) that had been relocated from London.
Although Pevsner’s Buildings of England dismissed the design of Sovereign House as “anonymous”, the Twentieth Century Society argued that it was anything but: “Like a space ship from a Gerry Anderson sci-fi drama, Sovereign House is still a thrilling suggestion of how Brutalist architecture could interpret the Corbusian motif of a cruise liner in the city.”
Having now been vacant for well over a decade, Sovereign House is now in a parlous and highly visible state of disrepair. Former HMSO employees have recalled how the building was notoriously susceptible to temperature fluctuations, and it has clearly been left behind by the ever more demanding expectations of the commercial rental market.
In early 2014 the entire Anglia Square complex, including its shops, cinema, Sovereign House and other offices, were bought for £7.55m by Threadneedle Investments. Confirming that redevelopment plans prepared by the previous owners would not be pursued, Threadneedle has said it would be “business as usual” until its own plans were finalised.
In the meantime the future of Sovereign House and the rest of Anglia Square remains as uncertain as ever.
Given the length of time it’s taken me to finally do this place it should come as no surprise that access was not an easy affair. At all. But after a recce the week before, we returned at silly o’clock one Sunday morning and finally managed to find our way inside.
I wish we’d got in the week before, as there had been a beautiful sunrise on that day. Unfortunately on the morning we actually managed to find a way inside it was a decidedly murky dawn. Nevertheless we headed straight for the roof, which turned out to be the most interesting part of the explore anyway, and took in the views of the well-known local surroundings from a fresh vantage point…
When it was reported that the world premiere of the Alan Partridge film ‘Alpha Papa’ was to be held in London a local twitter campaign ‘Anglia Square, not Leicester Square’ successfully persuaded the producers to instead host the premiere at Hollywood Cinema, Norwich. This mural of Norwich’s favourite son is on the side of the cinema.
At the time Mr Partridge stated: “You can imagine how hurt and litigious I felt when people said I was planning to debut my movie in London instead of Norwich, or that I’d allowed my head to be turned by the prospect of big city fame. Any suggestions I’ve hastily cobbled together the lunchtime Norwich screening in response to a local Twitter campaign will be met with the full force of the law.”
Suffice to say we didn't venture into this section of the building, which looked as stripped and trashed as the other parts anyway.
Eventually we made our way back inside, and worked our way through the various floors. As you can see it has long since been stripped out and smashed up, but the spiral external fire staircases and some truly spectacular mould and decay were also cool to document.
And in the basement we found the old sick room, which looks like junkies or hobos have used it since…
Eventually it was time to go. There was no getting around the fact that our exit at 9am couldn’t be as discreet as our entrance under cover of darkness had been. Overlooked by a large public car park we had little option but just to just front it out, get out as quickly as possible, and hope for the best. Unfortunately a nosey passer by (in a hoodie! you’re supposed to be on our side mate!) called the po po on us, but once we’d explained what we had been doing and shared some of the shots we had taken and tales of our other explores around Europe he quickly realised that no further action was necessary.
Oh, and whilst we were inside James and I both got parking tickets – we could even see the guys writing them up and sticking them on our windscreens. Luckily I later managed to argue my way out of paying mine. 🙂
So it turned out that Sovereign House was as trashed as we had suspected it would be. Anywhere else we almost certainly wouldn’t have gone to the effort that we did, but it feels good to get this local monkey off my back, and drive past it now knowing exactly what does lie behind all those windows…
Thanks for reading.
P.S. All external shots taken back in September 2013… I couldn’t be bothered to reshoot them once I’d finally got inside two years later. 😉