Monday, 19 September 2011

London Architecture Open House Weekend

We spent most of the weekend going round some London buildings which opened themselves to the public for the annual Architecture Open House Weekend.  What a variety - and some of it was really thought provoking, in various different ways.

We began on Saturday morning with an early walk through the gardens of Kensington Palace. The palace itself is undergoing renovations but the gardens are always worth a visit, at almost any time of year. Right now it has a good display of late summer bedding plants.

We also visited the old Derry and Toms Roof Garden, which was created in the 1930s on the top of a department store of that name.  The store has long gone, and the gardens and its art deco buildings are now operated by Richard Branson's Virgin as a restaurant and nightclub.

I am so glad they are looking after the garden with its Spanish buildings,

and its grape vines, flamingoes and so on.

I have to say I wish the modern developments showed the same sense of taste and quality of construction as the original 1930 stuff,  but we should be grateful it is there at all.

We continued to the College of Psychic Studies in Kensington. This is a typical early Victorian town house, much altered and modernised. I didn't know why it had been included, since the house was a pretty ordinary early Victorian one and most of what was architecturally interesting had been taken out of it. However, there were some fascinating Spiritualist things around.  This picture on one wall shows a medium in the 1920s.

There was more than enough Victoriana in Leighton House. This eye popping mansion belonged to the well known Victorian artist Lord Leighton, and it is one of London's many small but wonderful lesser-known museums. They have just done a stunning renovation.  Alas, they don't allow you to take pictures. This stock picture shows the Arabian hall. The ceiling is of gold leaf, and so are several of the ceilings in this astonishing mansion.

Lord Leighton, who was immensely rich, collected ancient artefacts from the Middle East (the tiles shown here are about 250 years old, from Damascus) and he owned many valuable works of art by major artists. The renovation has involved much weaving of authentic fabrics and use of expensive materials.  Do go if you are in London. The website is here.  It provides more information and a virtual tour which doesn't work on my computer but might work on yours.   . (There is usually a modest entrance charge, though they opened it free for the Open Weekend.)

We then went on to the nearby Commonwealth Institute.  This has always been one of my favourite 1960s buildings, and it's been deteriorating for ten years since it closed and everyone started arguing about what to do with it.  

This striking and frankly gorgeous building has a design of walkways radiating from a central platform, and h what is known in the trade as a hyperbolic paraboloid roof.  It looks like this

The Institute was designed to explain and celebrate the Commonwealth, the community that succeeded the British Empire.  There were 54 Commonwealth nations, but the whole organisation started to fall apart when Britain joined the European Union.  I used to love going there and looking at the displays of cocoa beans from Ghana and Maori artefacts from New Zealand, and so on, and I was also attached to the big, beautiful map inlaid with bronze showing the Commonwealth - here's part of it.  

But there are interesting issues around the Commonwealth Institute, and I'm curious.  When it closed, many of the artefacts it contained were given to the British Commonwealth and Empire Museum in Bristol.  However, according to Wikipedia that museum is closed "pending relocation" (no date specified) and the ex-Director, Gareth Griffiths, was dismissed  pending a police investigation into unauthorised disposal of museum assets.

What's more, trusty old Wikipedia also points out that "Comprehensive repair works were carried out  [to the Commonwealth Institute]  in 2000–1,... by a London-based roofing company ... but by this point the Trust had closed the building to the public....In 2002, the Trust entirely closed the Commonwealth Institute building,...which ... led to controversy because of the secrecy under which it was carried out, the recent expenditure of money on repairs to the building,.....restructuring of the charity and the disposal of the builiding cost approximately £7m in redundancies, restructuring and professional fees by July 2006." 

Course you can't believe everything you read on Wikipedia, but it's hard to believe that pockets have not been lined here.  I also came across a blistering communique from the Commonwealth Secretariat, here.  It accuses the UK Government of being a dog-in-the-manger about the site rather than wanting to improve education in former Commonwealth countries - yes, folks, all the money seems to have found its way somewhere else. 

The poor old building is finally going to be rescued and turned into the new Design Museum.  Nothing of the controversy was mentioned (surprise, surprise) in the Design Museum's leaflets, which concentrate on happy new beginnings.  One of the ladies who showed us round, said the Design Museum had acquired the building free of charge, and it was only going to cost them £130,000 to convert it. Hmmmm.....   

Anyway, I wonder what will happen to the lovely old map and to the magnificent tropical hardwood floor, since new architects OMA won't be able to re-use them.   Step forward Donnachadh McCarthy,perhaps?  We met this  Irish eco-auditor and guru of recycling and sustainable living on our next visit, his retro eco-cottage, 3 Acorns.  It's a quaint Victorian workman's cottage with tiny rooms and a long, narrow back garden, tucked away in a Peckham back street. 

Donnachadh practises what he preaches, and his home is full of brilliant tips for saving energy and low-impact living.  This fab steampunk fan is part of his heating system; he uses a clean type of wood burning stove fuelled by waste wood which he collects from skips and the streets round about where he lives.

We were so impressed we bought his book, "Easy Eco Auditing" and spent ages listening to him answeing questions - he was being mobbed by people wanting to know more, perhaps because he also appeared as the on-screen eco-auditor in the BBC2 TV series "It's not Easy Being Green".  (Although actually, he makes it seem VERY easy ...) 

After that, we headed further into Peckham to see 15-and-a-half Consort Road.  This extraordinary building was shoe-horned into a tiny, awkward space and uses some startlingly original ideas, not all of them exactly practical, in my humble opinion. But it is certainly fun.  Read more about it on their Peckham House website and here's a picture of the pull out fully plumbed bath which they keep stored under the bed.

Although it's on such a tiny site, the house also incorporates a dance studio. Wow!

We returned back to our place feeling slightly dissatisfied with its boringness.   Also it's starting to feel cold now the weather is changing. Perhaps we'll call Donnachadh in to give us an eco-audit, and I just wish I could think of a way to use that metal map if OMA would take an offer....


  1. Hello Jenny:
    For some reason which we do not altogether understand we have never been in London for the Open House weekend and we so very much would have liked to be so.

    What a fascinating and very varied group of properties you visited, each of them with its own individual intrigue. We know that we should have enjoyed seeing them all.

    And, how very interesting about the Commonwealth Institute and its assets, surely just another skeleton in a cupboard waiting to be unearthed?!!

  2. All of these buildings sound very interesting; I think I would love to stroll around the former Commonwealth building, too, as well as visit Mr. Donnachadh's place full of ideas and the tiny house with the bath under the bed.
    There is no picture of a medium, though; maybe you forgot to upload it?

  3. Must be so easy to jolt one from slumber - just roll him/her out of bed and straight into the tub filled with cold water! xD

  4. What a vast range of differing architecture you explored. I’ve long admired Richard Branson and his oftentimes forward-thinking clever ideas that show respect for environment while making the preservation of it self-sufficient financially. I had to laugh at that last photo! I think this concept could give people nightmares about rolling out of a cozy bed into a cold bathtub empty of water. :)

  5. What an interesting group of buildings. Just marvelous. I love the tub under the bed. How clever!

  6. Some great places to visit there. I've seen quite a few of them years ago (but not all). Thanks for jigging my memories

  7. I love these kind of events, when you can explore the architectural treasures of a city. Your post contains so much interesting new information and unexpected moments.

  8. A fully-plumbed bath under the bed? Most original. But unless it can be moved a bit farther away, I suspect the bed linen might get rather soggy.

  9. I can't believe that I've lived and worked in London for two decades and have never visited any of the buildings you mention. I don't suppose Open Days existed ten years ago?

  10. Some of the blog I follow put up photos of buildings they walk by, have visited or just like. Usually my first remark to myself is usually, oh I want to live there. Well because of that roof in the Commonwealth Institute, I want to live there !

    Great post today,
    cheers, parsnip

  11. You traveled energeticly and wrote many interesting report. Before I saw on TV that in UK there is temporaly open garden of some of private beautiful ones. Great culture.

  12. Fascinating trip with so many different types of architecture! Love the pictures and I learned something...always a good thing. ;)
    Money always seems to line somebody's pockets. The bath under the bed was a surprise. Would make it awfully hard to have a bath while someone was sleeping, though! What a packed day! Thanks for sharing. :)

  13. wow, i didn't know there were flamingos in london!

  14. what a busy weekend you had ... envy doesn't begin to express my feelings

    as an all-round Commonwealth-girl, it frustrates and annoys me that we are shunned while EU types waltz in (remember my agonising queue at Terminal 4?)

  15. Now that sounds like a wonderful weekend. Pity I could not get down to London for it, but believe me, the next best thing was reading your description.

  16. National Heritage week-end is a fantastic opportunity for us to visit all these amazing buildings which are normally closed to the public.
    I did the same in Paris and visited the Elysee Palace. Good to know that so many people have the same interest in culture!
    Great post! Thanks.

  17. What an excellent tour of Londons gardens this was.

  18. Such great pictures,sounds like an adventure, thanks for sharing.

  19. Hi Jenny,
    What an interesting tour you enjoyed!! Thanks a lot for sharing such an exciting tour with us..I also enjoyed very much with you. All photos are awesome.
    Spooky! The medium is producing ectoplasm.
    Especially I like the Arabian hall decorated with beautiful tiles. I wanted to see virtual tour but on my computer either it didn’t work.
    What a funny and excellent idea is showed in the last photo!! This is not practical but full of challenging and innovative spirit!
    Have a great day.
    Best wishes,

  20. Leighton would find a match in Doris Duke who created an authentic Islamic estate called Shangrila here in a private enclave of Waikiki.
    Administered by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, it may be visited, a place for dreams...

    Your post made me mourn my lack of wings!
    Warm Aloha from Waikiki;

    Comfort Spiral

    > < } } ( ° >


    < ° ) } } > <

  21. Thanks for all the comments, I appreciate each one. @Librarian, thanks for the heads up about the missing seance picture, I put it in! @everyone, I don't think many people would like that under-bed bathtub but there's something oddly fascinating about the idea, I agree with Keiko. @Friko, I'm not sure when open Days started but 10 years is probably about it. The idea seems to grow,with more buildings open every year.
    @angryparsnip, ;) it was such a wonderful space I wanted to FLY there!
    @Cloudia, wow, I wish I had known about Shangrila when I visited Waikiki, I would have loved to go! Maybe another day... some day.....

  22. A bath under the bed! I've never seen one of those before!

  23. Quite a varied lot to visit! You did a lot in the one weekend Jenny.

  24. I really enjoyed the pictures and the back story on some of these buildings. I'll go check the links.




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