The headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service, also known as SIS or MI6, is located in Vauxhall on the banks of the River Thames. This building, called Vauxhall Cross, replaced the previous headquarters in 1994 after it was labelled ‘irredeemably insecure.’ During the 19th century, the location had been the site for The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. After changing ownership several times, its purchase by MI6 was approved by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1988. A competition to design the building for the service followed and architect, Terry Farrell, received the honour. He worked with the aim of creating an imposing building that would remind everybody of the power of the State. The end result, Vauxhall Cross, was a combination of 1930s industrialist architecture and Mayan and Aztec religious temples.
The building’s main contractor was John Laing plc, and it was built with the intention of providing extra security due to the sensitive nature of its use. Vauxhall Cross is comprised of three blocks that are linked by courtyards and atria. The offices are located on the six upper floors while specialist computer rooms, a conference room, a sports area (comprised of a gymnasium, sports hall and an aerobics room) and a restaurant are on the lower ones. To control the level of access that exists within the building, a large part of it is located below street level and includes many underground corridors. There is also a rumored tunnel which leads from the headquarters to Whitehall, which is the center of the United Kingdom’s government.
To limit accessibility, the building has two moats and the main entrance hall and other areas have added security within them. These include: bullet proof windows, bomb blast protection, precautions taken to eliminate electronic eavesdropping and emergency back-up systems.
There are 25 different types of glass used in its construction and the building is laid out over numerous layers, which create 60 separate roof areas. Its construction was completed in April 1994, and it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in July of the same year.
There have been several other visits from royalty to the headquarters, during its existence. These include: the Queen revisiting in February 2006, and her husband Prince Phillip in 2008. During the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, Vauxhall Cross was decorated with a ‘few discreet rows of bunting’ to show their support. Prince Harry visited in June 2013 and was educated in intelligence methods, by the MI6 staff, during a tour of the building.
As the headquarters of an intelligence agency, Vauxhall Cross, has been a target on several occasions. In 2000, the SIS headquarters was attacked using a Russian built anti-tank rocket, which exploded against an 8th floor window, causing superficial damage. The discarded rocket launcher was later discovered at Vauxhall’s Spring Gardens Park, but no arrests were made. It is believed that the attack had been orchestrated by dissident Irish Republicans. Another incident occurred in 2010, when a parcel bomb was discovered in the building’s mail room, and two men from North Wales arrested in association with the item.