MI6 Headquarters – 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 locally as Legoland and also as Babylon-on-Thames due to its resemblance to an ancient Babylonian ziggurat. It is located at 85, Vauxhall Cross in the south western part of central London, along the Albert Embankment on the bank of the River Thames beside Vauxhall Bridge.
The building was designed by Terry Farrell, the developer Regalian Properties plc approached the Government in 1987 to see if they had any interest in the proposed building. At the same time their sister service MI5 was seeking alternative accommodation and co-location of the two was studied. In the end this proposal was 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. At this stage 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. On A to Z maps of London published as recently as 2004, 85 Vauxhall Cross is marked as “Government Offices” while Thames House is marked as being the Northern Ireland Office.
The building’s design was reviewed to incorporate the necessary protection for Britain’s foreign intelligence gathering agency. This includes overall increased security, extensive computer suites, technical areas, bomb blast protection, emergency back-up systems and protection against electronic eavesdropping. While the details and cost of construction have been released, about ten years after the original National Audit Office report was written, some of the service’s special requirements remain classified.
The NAO report Thames House and Vauxhall Cross has certain details omitted, describing in detail the cost and problems of certain modifications but not what these are. Rob Humprey’s London: The Rough Guide suggests one of these omitted modifications is a tunnel beneath the Thames to Whitehall. It is also said that the windows appear green because the glass is actually 89mm thick.
It has been commented that it is ironic for such a secretive organisation to occupy one of the most high-profile and distinctive buildings in London. In doing so they were following the example of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States which has for long occupied a huge sprawling building, standing out visibly in a park-like surrounding in Langley, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C..
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.
The building has appeared in fiction, featured in the James Bond films GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day. In the pre-credits sequence of The World Is Not Enough, Bond chases a suspect from the building up the Thames. MI6 reluctantly allowed exterior filming of the building for the first time after being told to by Robin Cook, then a Government Minister, in tribute to the long-time popularity of the secret agent. The same year a steampunk pastiche of the building was featured in the comic book League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as the headquarters of British Military Intelligence in 1898.