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London’s Open House Festival, a free mass opening up of architecture around the city, is a rare opportunity to disguise nosiness under culture, a welcome chance to see inside buildings the exteriors of which are often so familiar they have become part of our collective background.
This year’s mix of the famous and the obscure constitutes a compelling selection with something for everyone, from sewage works to Number 10. That some of these fine buildings are under threat also underlines how fragile even the most solid of buildings can be.
Walter Segal Self-Build Housing
Walters Way, Honor Oak Park, SE23 3LH
In the 1970s of communes and The Good Life, one potential solution to the housing crisis was for people to build their own homes. It’s an obvious but surprisingly rare solution in British life, though more popular on the continent.
Swiss-born, Berlin-raised Walter Segal pioneered a kind of timber-framed, easy-to-construct, self-build housing that was flexible, generous and elegant, something between a Japanese, a half-timbered and a mass-market home.
This south London estate from the late 1970s and 1980s has survived well and shows how community can be built and reinforced by a sense of physically building together. A fine model subsequently sadly ignored.
One Canada Square
Canary Wharf, E14 5AB
Once the most prominent building in east London, One Canada Square, now 30 years old, is now almost subsumed by its neighbours. It was designed by US-Argentine architect César Pelli, who had recently designed the successful World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) in Manhattan.
Its postmodern form with a pyramidal top and its stainless steel cladding imparted a slightly alien and alienating effect when it opened in the bleak wastes of London’s docks. It perfectly suited the Big Bang arrival of global finance.
Now it looks quite quaint and dignified, a well-designed tower with an astonishing view and an increasingly rare postmodernist survivor.
South Norwood Library
Lawrence Road, South Norwood, SE25 5AA
There are many Brutalist buildings open here but I’ve chosen this little library, built by Croydon borough architect Hugh Lea, because it is under threat of demolition.
A fine public building, well-used and liked, with a civic presence in its south London setting, it blends influences from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to the Greater London Council’s tough concrete urbanism.
To allow the destruction of a building like this, with its embodied energy and social and cultural memory, is to completely misunderstand the city, learning, social mobility and the climate crisis.
Maggie’s Centre at Bart’s
St Bartholomew’s Hospital, West Smithfield, EC1A 7BE
Completed in 2017 and the only UK building by US architect Steven Holl, this curious, translucent box of tricks nuzzles up to the grand classical bombast of Britain’s oldest hospital.
A cancer caring centre commissioned by Maggie’s, a charity that has made its presence felt not only through its work but through its architectural settings, it’s a fine example of its type.
Light, spacious, surprising and a little challenging, its interior is wrapped in bamboo in contrast to the exterior’s milky pearlescence and Mondrian touches of colour. Like the other Maggie’s Centres it suggests that the architecture of health does not have to be banal, mean or institutional. Parts of Bart’s next door (for the more classically inclined) will be open too.
Cheltenham Estate, Kensal Green, W10 5PB
Before London’s high-rise boom, the tallest points on the horizon were hospitals and social housing. One of the most famous of the latter is the Trellick Tower, once disdained, now adored.
Designed by Hungarian émigré Ernő Goldfinger, it is a Brutalist monster, a hulk of concrete that, close up, resolves itself into incredible details and generous living spaces.
A block that once epitomised everything that was wrong with modern architecture is now a desirable commodity on the fashionable edge of west London, precariously balanced between motorway and street life. A superb concrete admonition to the mangy flammable panels of modern towers and the professed impossibility of building decent social housing at scale.
The George Inn, Southwark
75 Borough High Street, SE1 1NH
The last of the galleried coaching inns that were the models for London’s Elizabethan theatres, the George Inn is still a pub but Open House is offering access to parts not normally open to the public.
Rebuilt after a fire, the current version dates from 1677 but gives a good flavour of another world. It also ties into Open City’s new publication, Public House: A Cultural and Social History of the London Pub, edited by Cristina Monteiro and David Knight and launched to coincide with the festival.
The Open House London Festival runs September 4-12. More than 500 buildings are being opened to the public, entry is free but visitors must book online. See openhouselondon.org.uk/2021
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