Basil Spence & Partners ,1970Hyde Park Barracks


See map: Google Maps


Materialsbrick, concrete
BoroughCity of Westminster
ProcessesConcrete frame
AKAKnightsbridge Barracks





Basil Spence & PartnersArchitect19671970
Household DivisionTenant1970
Ministry of DefenceDeveloper1967
Ministry of DefenceClient1967
Sir Robert McAlpine & sonsContractor19671970
Ove Arup & PartnersStructural Engineer19671970



Hyde Park Barracks is one of the defining landmarks of Knightsbridge. Its distinctive tower, the cause of much complaint, announces the district across the park, while its massing of building types manages to provide a vast amount of accommodation for the Household Calvary on what is an extremely restrictive site. It is a great achievement given the restraints and is one of architect Basil Spence’s signature buildings in the capital.


Spence’s complex is the third on the site. The first was built in 1792 as part of a nation wide reorganisation of the Army and its resources in response to the threat from Napoleonic France. Until this time, England had only an informal system of accommodation for its forces and these were largely confined to coastal ports. It was under the recommendation of Colonel Oliver De Lancey that a new set of buildings were commissioned. It was hoped such provision would both, lift soldiers out of the influence of a chattering (and potentially revolutionary) populace and create a more efficient fighting unit.[1] The Hyde Park complex consisted of a string of straightforward brick buildings with the largest the Barrack Block at the eastern end of the site. It was 400ft in length, rose to three storeys and was built around a rectangular parade ground with the animals on the ground floor and the men above. Following years of official neglect, and growing complaints from wealthy neighbours of the increasingly desirable Knightsbridge, there were plans to demolish the complete site by the mid 19th Century onwards and sell up to Millbank.

In 1855 a competition was announced for the reconstruction of the Barracks, which was won by T.H. Wyatt. Completed in 1878, the new complex essentially mirrored that of its Georgian predecessor with an enlarged rectangular block at its eastern end. The original scheme had envisaged larger parade grounds and more spacious accommodation, however a municipal road-widening scheme on Knightsbridge itself narrowed the site further and made it impossible.[2] Wyatt was therefore left to produce a set of elaborate facades and ornamental architectural finishes for a set of long building blocks. The highlight among these was the northern end of the riding block whose pediment facing Hyde Park depicting heads and forequarters of rearing horses emerging from scrolling acanthus leaves was saved and incorporated into the 1960s scheme. The 1878 Barracks survived the Second World War unscathed, but living conditions were in an intolerable state. The buildings suffered from advanced neglect and plans were again announced almost immediately for a plan of modernisation and reconstruction.

The present Hyde Park barracks were commissioned by the War Office in 1957. They approached Sir Basil Spence and invited him to completely redesign the site to their specification. However, it was not until 1967 that construction work finally began.

Spence’s design was subject to a rigourous planning battle over the scheme’s central component, the 29-storey residential tower, and its impact on the park. In 1960 the designs were submitted to the Royal Fine Arts Commission for approval and the London County Council (LCC). Both commended the project for its architectural quality and no body came forward in defence of the Victorian buildings, but both raised doubts over the tall block so close to the park. The LCC and the Commission worked closely in the early post-war years to develop a policy document aimed at keeping all developments at the Park’s edge to 100ft. The intention was to maintain the sense of pastoral expanse at the heart of the city or limit tall buildings to approved clusters- such as those proposed (and never executed) for nearby Knightsbridge Green. The Barracks building fell foul of both of these. The LCC and the Commission favoured a lower block that would be more sensitive to the landscape of the park. However, Sir Basil Spence launched a robust defence of his scheme with the backing of John Profumo, Secretary of State for War. Spence argued that the tower would sit with the cluster proposed for Knightsbridge Green and that a denser low-level slab would restrict light into the park, block views from nearby residences and, citing the nearby example of the recently completed Bowater House, produce a heavier and less elegant design. An earlier scheme for Bowater had been for a tower which, following objections, was redesigned at low-level. The result was a universally despised hulk, with no focus.

The Royal Fine Arts Commission was eventually won round to the original scheme. The adoption of the tower made possible the expanded parade grounds for Horse Mounted Calvary. The LCC maintained their objections, but it did not matter. The site was on Crown Estate, which meant the LCC had no legal planning jurisdiction, and in 1963 the full scheme as conceived was officially adopted. In 1965, the Victorian buildings were cleared and the whole project completed a year late in 1970 at a cost of £4 million, against the original estimate of £3,175,000.[3]


Sir Basil Spence’s Hyde Park Barracks provide accommodation for 23 officers, 60 warrant officers, 431 rank and file, and 273 horses. This provision is grouped across several buildings in reinforced concrete of varying heights, finished with red brick and united around the architectural motif of rhythmic shallow arches and vaults- a device borrowed from Le Corbusier’s Masions Jaoul.[4] The styling owes great similarities to that of Spence’s University of Sussex buildings. He made the combination of red brick and board-marked concrete something of a trademark. At the Barracks these provide great contrast and fit well within the established architectural palette of Knightsbridge. There are eight buildings in total including the tower. The tower is finished slightly differently with hammered concrete beams and its full height columns left exposed. At the top, these columns continue as fins and cross one another producing a more interesting climax than that of any other block around the Park including those apparently desirable places at Park Lane.

The intention of the arrangement of the units at the Barracks was to separate as much as possible horses, men and vehicles. The awkward and long strip of land for the complex actually lends itself to this concern. The facades to both the park and Knightsbridge reflect a changing pattern of use through subtle shifts in height and form. Some project outwards on vaults others sit back on slim columns. The stable blocks to the east are rather brutal when compared with the lightweight living accommodation further west characterized by a flow of windows and balconies.

Hyde Park Barracks has had a great deal of criticism leveled at it. For some it is too brutal against some finely detailed Victorian mansion blocks nearby, for others it overwhelms the park and, ‘contributes nothing to the street.’[5] Such accusations may hold some petty weight, but do nothing to acknowledge the range of requirements of the brief given and the qualities of the response by the architect. The arrangement of units breaks up any monotony from such a long street frontage, the tower is a slender, well proportioned unit and provides great drama to the street, while the robust treatment of the buildings are entirely appropriate. Writing in 1971 soon after completion, Sir Basil Spence had this to say to his critics; 'I did not want this to be a mimsy-pimsy building…It is for soldiers. On horses. In armour'.[6]


  1. Knightsbridge Barracks: The New Barracks, 1967-70, , , Survey of London: volume 45: Knightsbridge, Volume 45, London, p.71-76, (2000)
  2. Knightsbridge Barracks: The New Barracks, 1967-70, , , Survey of London: volume 45: Knightsbridge, Volume 45, London, p.71-76, (2000)
  3. Article, , , ARUP Journal, 03/1967, Volume 1, Issue 2, (1967) , pp2-9
  4. London 6: Westminster, Pevsner, N.; Bradley, S. , The Buildings of England, London, (2005) , p736
  5. A Guide to the Architecture of London, Jones, E.; Woodward, C. , London, p.448, (2000) , p192
  6. Article, , , Concrete Quarterly: Winter, Issue 91, (1971) , p.34
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