diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 17, 2006

More than five hundred architecturally interesting buildings have been open to the public for free across London this weekend as part of London Open House. Yesterday I managed to visit 1% of them.

Balfron Tower:
West London's Trellick Tower has a less famous older brother on the other side of the capital, just north of the Blackwall Tunnel. Both have a similar silhouette, both were designed by Erno Goldfinger, and both are admired from the outside by people who'd never dream of living on the inside. The architect himself was an exception. Goldfinger and his wife moved into the Balfron Tower soon after it was built, and spent a couple of months living in flat 130 on the top floor to find out what living here was like. This weekend, as part of Open House, Londoners have the chance to take a look inside a flat just along the corridor.

Residents of the Balfron Tower were eyeing up the growing queue outside their front door yesterday morning with a certain degree of bafflement. What were these middle-class arty types doing here on a council estate in Poplar, and why were they willing to wait for hours to get inside. But this building is something special, a brutalist architectural masterwork with a highly original construction. I was lucky enough to be in the first small group of the day to gain entrance. The lifts to the top floor were malfunctioning so we could only ride up as far as the 18th floor before having to climb the remaining six storeys via the staircase. All the stairs and liftshafts are housed in a separate tower, joined to the main apartment block by a series of concrete bridges. We crossed the toppermost connecting walkway, our precarious mid-air state mostly shielded from view, and proceeded along to our target flat.

The owner was pleased to show us around, although he may not be quite so keen by the time the umpteenth group traipses round his living space this afternoon. He's only just moved in and is one of the block's rarer upwardly mobile residents. His flat is fairly compact, and very white, with some tasteful Erno-designed features which elevate this above the usual tower block interior. Best of all, however, were the views... or at least they would have been had London not been cursed by low grey cloud yesterday, obscuring the horizon in all directions. Curses. Canary Wharf was near enough to be obvious, as was a large swathe of East London, but the Gherkin was just a ghostly shape in the distant mist. I can definitely see the attraction of living up here inside a design classic, if only for the opportunity to stare out across the capital with a broad smile. But the tortuous journey back down to civilisation convinced me that maybe I'm better off where I am.

Bromley Hall: One of the joys of Open House weekend is discovering unexpected architectural treats on your doorstep. Bromley Hall looks like a very ordinary building beside the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road, and I must have been past it scores of times without giving it a second look, but at its heart is the oldest brick house in London. In 1485 this was a hunting lodge with royal connections, located at the tidal limit of the River Lea. Later it became home to a series of successful merchants, each of whom made their mark on the structure and design of the building. The architect responsible for the hall's restoration, Paul Latham, was only too pleased to be able to show eager members of the public around inside his pet project. He knows every inch of the property inside out, from the old woodstained floorboards to the scrap of painted 17th century dado rail in the hallway. Particularly impressive are the patchy remains of a Tudor wall painting of a soldier wielding a crossbow, and a preserved wooden doorway carved with hunting scenes. With so many historical periods represented side-by-side, you get a real sense of domestic architectural evolution. I'm particularly astonished that Bromley Hall survived the 20th century, during which time it was damaged by wartime bombs, a passing motorway and bolted-on advertising hoardings, as well as (most recently) its use as a garage store and a carpet warehouse. All praise then to Leaside Regeneration for the sensitive way they've converted the building back to office space... although it would be tough to choose between working here or inside the pile of red containers stacked up nextdoor.

Royal Courts of Justice: If you're particularly naughty you might one day end up here, inside the big gothic building at the top of Fleet Street. The RCJ is the top civil court in the land (with the exception of the House of Lords) and also the criminal Court of Appeal. And until yesterday I'd never quite appreciated from the outside how vast it is inside - a labyrinth of corridors, chambers and court rooms arranged around a long high vaulted hall. The building's open to the public every weekday, but yesterday there were special tours allowing us to tour behind the scenes. It was fascinating to prowl the back corridors and to hear more about the courts and their 8000 staff from some of those who work here. There was even the opportunity to go down into the cells of the Court of Appeal and follow in the footsteps of the country's more famous miscreants. I can now claim to have stood in the VIP holding cell, sat in the back of a 12-seater prison van, and even been taken up to the accused's bench in a dark and dusty courtroom via the back stairs. And next time the Lord Chief Justice gets a mention in the news I'll be able to picture his airy book-lined court room without having to rely on one of those awful artist's impressions.

Also visited
Marx Memorial Library (Clerkenwell): The repository of all things left-ish, including an upper room where Lenin spent a year writing. If you should ever need to refer to a copy of the United Mine Workers Journal (or similar) for research purposes, they'll have it in the basement.
More London (beside City Hall): A new Foster-designed office block overlooking the Thames, with two separate nine-storey wings joined by vertigo-inducing bridges across a central atrium. And filled by a bunch of accountants.

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