Open House weekend is my one annual opportunity to go up things. So I've been up five. Five big tall buildings, each somewhere between 14 and 23 storeys high, to enjoy the view from the top of each [lots of photos]. It's only in the last three quarters of a century that Londoners have had the opportunity to view their city from above, and even then it's a rare treat. Two of my five were in the heart of Westminster, and I'll tell you about those later. But the other three were across suburban south London, where the rooftop panorama is very different, and the BT Tower is but a tiny spike on the horizon. All this plus a tour of an estate of tower blocks, although this time from ground level. Open House day 1, a day in the sky... (as posted from my mobile, and tidied up later)
No 1 Croydon: Croydon is south London's skyscraper capital, so I've come to town to go up a couple. First No 1 Croydon, or the Threepenny Bit building as it's more widely known, which looks like a stack of white-painted polygonal coins [photo]. All very informal - I took the lift to the 21st floor unsupervised and all by myself. Half this octagonal floor was open, and empty of furniture bar a table of planning staff hoping to harvest opinion on the town's future masterplan [photo]. The view from the windows was more interesting, even with the Central London aspect obscured. It's still very green, Croydon, once you look beyond the upstanding inner core. Tiny trams plied the streets below like caterpillars, carrying a cargo of weary shoppers back to the semi-detached avenues beyond [photo]. It was a shame the building's owners hadn't cleaned the windows though, as all the photographs being snapped up top are likely to be heavily dirt-specked. If the council gets their way there'll be a lot more multi-storey development to come in Croydon, which they'll be plotting from their eyrie atop nearby Taberner House. Been up there too [photo][photo]. Nineteen floors this time, to two of the viewing galleries building into the top corners of the building. There's even a 19½th floor, up a mini spiral staircase to a tiny mezzanine staring out towards the Addington Hills. The northern view is much better than the Threepenny Bit's, apart from a Nestlé advert at tower-top height [photo]. There's the City, and then Docklands, in the far distance, their high-rent clusters glinting in the sunlight. Croydon's towers hope one day to steal some of their business away.
Merton Civic Centre: The London borough of Merton there's only one major highrise building. That's the council offices at the top of Morden High Street, a curved tower with two symmetrical wings erected in the mid 1960s when the borough was created [photo]. Not an especially popular Open House venue, so a mere handful of souls got to be taken up to the roof by a senior member of the building's staff. We were not disappointed. The view from the 15th floor rooftop terrace was excellent, stretching round from Wembley's arch to Croydon's distant-ish metropolis. No haze, so the West End and City were pinpoint sharp, especially when viewed through a pair of municipal binoculars. Lovers of modern architecture could enjoy a tiny Gherkin close to a mini Strata immediately beside an emerging Shard. And in the foreground lay the almost-autumnal hues of Morden Hall Park surrounded by a sea of toytown suburbia [photo]. London's skyline rarely looks so complete [photo]. A warning should you ever drive into the car park below, however, that the curved shape of the building amplifies gusts of wind creating vicious mini-tornadoes with the strength to lift old ladies off the ground! As payback for our rooftop treat, we were then taken down to see a floor of refurbished offices - part of a long-term plan to squeeze in twice as many desks and save lots of money. And finally to the council chamber, where the borough's flip-flop red/blue council meets not many times a year to rubberstamp decisions with due pomp and ceremony. Understated municipal panelling, lush leather seats, and available to hire at very reasonable rates. Me, I'd much rather hold court on the roof.
Alton Estate: I've never previously found it this difficult to plan where to go on Open House weekend. Maybe I've been to too many. And maybe that's why I've kicked off somewhere underwhelming, somewhere that's always open, somewhere I've been before. This time, however, with an expert guide to tell me (and 30 others) more. Up the far end of Roehampton are the Alton Estates, one West and one East, thrown up in the 1950s for South London's displaced slum-dwellers. We've been round both, along with an infectiously enthusiastic speaker from English Heritage and copious handouts. The West is le Corbusian, with mixed development bungalows and tower blocks set among rolling Capability Brown-landscaped grassy slopes [photo][photo]. Tucked away in unexpected corners are Georgian mansions, whose grounds these once were until the London County Council stole them away. This unlikely combination looks impressive in bright sunshine, although I can't help thinking that none of our very middle class crocodile of visitors would ever choose to live here [photo]. Alton East is a little older, with a more Scandinavian outlook, but also with 10-storey highrises of pioneering postwar design. I've learnt a lot more than I ever would wandering around on my own, and heard disquiet that the council plan to replace the central shopping area with that 21st century curse - the supermarket with flats on top [photo]. This tour was scheduled for an hour but actually took two, so I slunk off 90% of the way round (sorry) and am now nipping across Wimbledon Common to save a bit of precious time. I wonder if the Pope's up yet.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.