London Uncover the city’s secrets
Look behind closed doors next weekend
Ever fancied posing at 10 Downing Street, nosing around New Scotland Yard or proposing at the top of the Shard? Next weekend is your chance. On Sept 16 and 17, more than 800 buildings and places across the capital will open to the public for free as part of Open House. Now in its 25th year, the event will be bigger than ever as, for the first time, all London boroughs are participating.
“The founding mission was to give people access to London’s best buildings, which are normally off limits, in order to foster an interest in architecture. Ultimately, Londoners would be as comfortable talking about architecture as they are talking about books, art and music,” says Rory Olcayto, director of Open City, the organising charity. “Over the years it has grown into a huge annual event in the cultural calendar.”
The secrets of the city that will be revealed to the public for the first time this year include the Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery, established in 1873 and recently awarded Grade II listed status from Historic England; the governor’s house at HMP Wormwood Scrubs,crubs, which now houses prison n arts charity The Koestler Trust; t; and One Blackfriars, thehe new 52-storey skyscraper in Bankside, nicknamed The he Vase. There are also extra guidedded walks on this year’s programme, mme, including stories of “Meat, at, Murder and Mayhem” in Caledonian Park and a tour ur of David Bowie’s Beckenham enham called “In Ziggy’s gy’s Footsteps”.
These places es join old favourites, , such as the BT Tower, , the Gherkin, William iam Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath, the art deco Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley and the vaulted crypts s of Crystal Palace Subway.y. It’s a far cry from the 20 buildings in four boroughs that participated in London’s first Open House in 1992. It was the brainchild of Victoria Thornton, the architect who ran the project until Olcayto, the former editor of The Architects’ Journal, took over last year. “The only public debate at the time was around heritage, despite the great contemporary architecture in the capital,” says Thornton. “I realised that, for a public discussiondiscu about the city, everyone neededne to experience it first hand.”ha She took inspiration from La Journée Portes Ouvertes (the day of the open doors) held in FranceF from the mid-Eighties, whenw important historicalhist monuments anda civic buildings werewe opened to the public. TheseT Heritage Days soon spreadsp across Europe, arrivingarri in Glasgow wh when it was European CityC of Culture in 1990. Bu But it wasn’t easy to bringbrin the idea to the capital. “Thornton“Thornto was frustrated at th the lack of momentum in London to do something similarsim – there was no mayoraltymayo then and it was tricky to make a panLondon event,” Olcayto says. “So she went to the individual boroughs. She just did it herself.”
In 1994, English Heritage followed suit by launching its nationwide programme Heritage Open Days, but Open House has kept its clutch on London. Last year, more than 250,000 people made 400,000 visits during the weekend. Olcayto expects this year’s event to be just as well attended, and says that even though the public understanding of architecture today is considerably better than it was when Open House started, the event still has a vital mission. “The idea that the city belongs to the people is important, especially now – it’s the opposite of the creeping culture of the privatisation of public space,” he says. “It’s an important concept that the streets you walk on belong to you.”
Open City asked subscribers of its newsletter to vote for their favourite Open House building. The top 25 have been included in this year’s programme, each with a quote from a respondent that best describes a Londoner’s relationship with the building. Although the Gherkin came in first place, usurping St Paul’s Cathedral as the most iconic silhouette on the London skyline, Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece was described as “the jewel in London’s crown”. The Shard, in fourth place, is “a marker to orient yourself ”, while the Royal Festival Hall, in 10th place, is “truly London’s living room”. In 12th place, serving as a reminder of “an older time and a different type of workforce”, is Battersea Power Station, which is also opening its doors next weekend. When it participated in Open House in 2013, 40,000 people visited the site.
“London is fascinating. It’s a tapestry of styles, with so many layers and ages of buildings. You can go from the Roman bathhouses to the Cheesegrater in the space of a square mile – it’s quite an incredible story,” says Olcayto. “There’s an understanding that London is not a beautiful city in the way that Florence or Rome is, but it has this awesome power.” The city is perhaps best summed up by the voter’s quote about the Trellick Tower, Ernő Goldfinger’s block of flats in Kensal Town, which ranked 24th (ahead of the more classically beautiful Royal Courts of Justice): it is “brutal but classy, just like London”.
Look closer: some of the buildings that make up London’s skyline, left, and the Crystal Palace Subway, right, will be among the sights open to the public
Star power: Trellick Tower, top; the Francis Crick Institute, above; David Bowie, left