The Beaver: What’s in a name?

While walking from the Old Building to the New Academic Building, I could not help but wonder why the LSE is such an exemplary case of an institution that lacks creativity when it comes to naming its buildings.

The resemblance of “Clement House” and “St. Clement’s Building” is a source of enduring confusion for Freshers and visitors alike. “Tower One,” “Tower Two” and “Tower Three” are obviously three towers, so why not name them something more interesting? Instead of Tower One (shout out to the coffee cart!) we could name it the “Ivory Tower” or the “Tower of Babel.” The “Kingsway Building,” which looks a bit like the branch of a bank, because that’s what it used to be before the LSE acquired it, is actually on Portugal Street as far as I’m aware. The “East Building” probably lies east of the other buildings, if only I had a compass on me.

Those very original names do not make it easier to find your building, but instead add to the confusing layout and idiosyncratic room numbering system we have. Howard Davies once admitted that, after over five years at the LSE, he still regularly got lost on campus.

As we all know, “one does not simply walk through Houghton Street.” When trying to find the right lecture theatre, you’re inevitably stopped to take a free coffee from one of the “Big Four,” and asked to attend a play or a dance, to eat a Chinese fortune cookie or to attend an alternative investment conference. Covered in flyers and coffee you then arrive at the other end of Houghton Street, only to realise you’re at the wrong end.

I guess we are lucky considering the fact that, 40 years ago, Houghton Street was a traffic throughway jammed with cars. In 1971, students protested for days and physically blocked the street for hours on two consecutive days for the LSE to make an official submission to the City council to turn Houghton Street into a pedestrian road. We are also lucky that Holborn is not one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of central London anymore, as it used to be in the early twentieth century. The situation was so bad in the past that there were plans to move the university to a green field site in Croydon or to move it to an iconic temple on the South Bank. Luckily, these plans did not transpire. The area kept transforming while the LSE continued to acquire and haphazardly name buildings throughout the last century.

Now here’s a naming that makes sense. In 1939, Charlotte Shaw made an endowment towards opening a library where students and staff could browse books of general literature, which is now the Shaw library. Many assume it to be connected with George Bernard Shaw, author, playwright and one of the founders of the LSE, but it’s actually called after his missus.

While the LSE was founded in only three rooms, all of which were rented from the Royal Society of Arts, we are now rich in premises. When the LSE was opened in 1895, it had no building fund or endowment. Instead, the Webb founders used donations from wealthy philanthropists such as Passmore Edwards and Lord Rothschild, as well as government funding to create their university.

Donations from wealthy individuals have since been a source of funding at the LSE. In 2004, the New Academic Building was built with over 65 monetary donations, four of them worth more than one million pounds. The main lecture theatre which has hosted more heads of state than any other in the last few years, is named after Sheikh Zayed, former dictator of the United Arab Emirates who donated £2.5 million to the LSE. Hang on. Did I say dictator? Yes, I did. His research centre is said to have sponsored lectures and publications claiming that the US military had carried out the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and that “Zionists” were responsible for the Holocaust. At the time the lecture theatre was opened, it was greeted with a lot of protest by the LSE Students’ Union, but somehow this now seems forgotten. It is surprising that, after all the LSE has been through in the last year, this issue has not come back onto the agenda. Instead, big names in academia and politics continue speaking in the “Sheikh Zayed.” If we still have a lecture theatre called Sheikh Zayed, why don’t we name our copy shop after Saif Gaddafi?

The question of choosing a name obviously depends on whose money we take. This week, the new ethics code was released by the school. It states that “research funding and philanthropic gifts received by the School must be subject to ethical review by the Director of Research Division or the Director of ODAR in accordance with the School’s policy on the ethical review of inbound funds, and under the auspices of the Ethics (Grants and Donations) Committee.” It concludes that “grants and donations from sources that conflict with the School’s core values or legal obligations will not be accepted.”

In Russian, there is a saying that “the way you name your boat is how it’s going to float,” similar to the Latin phrase “nomen est omen”. Maybe the naming of the lecture theatre should be investigated again under this new code if we are to take the “School’s core values” seriously. Obviously, this code of ethics cannot be applied to the lack of creativity in naming our buildings, but naming a lecture theatre after a dictator, who has supported defamation and Holocaust denial, is a different case.

Originally published in The Beaver, March 2012


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