diamond geezer

 Friday, September 28, 2012

Open House: Camden (continued)

Senate House: When it opened in the 1930s, this University of London landmark was the tallest non-cathedral in town. You'll know it as that stark tower opposite Russell Square, rising straight ahead if you nip out the back door of the British Museum. It was designed by Charles Holden, whose recent success at 55 Broadway had come to the attention of the university authorities. He created an imposing Portland stone edifice, essentially one long central spine with lower courtyard blocks to either side. The upper floors were to comprise the university library, and the central tower is still entirely filled by the book stack. A small liftshaft runs up one flank, some winding stairs down the other, with both incorporated into the tower's elevated outline. Fancy a look around?

I fancied a look around, so I turned up for the advertised architectural tour. Unfortunately I'd read my Open House guide incorrectly, because it turned out all the day's tours were pre-book only. On the volunteer's clipboard all twenty spaces were filled, but in reality only four people had bothered to turn up. That's appalling, given the number of people who'd have liked to attend, for which we might blame the no-showers or we might blame the ballot system that randomly picked them. Whatever, there was no problem in me and several other speculative visitors tagging along, which saved the building's architect from shepherding almost nobody. I enjoyed a fantastic tour led by the man in charge of the building's renovation, but it can't be right that London Open House pre-booking is being substantially topped up by queue-jumpers.

The interior of Senate House isn't what you might expect from outside. OK, the uplighters beneath the tower give a clue, but only stepping through into the main axis brings you face to face with full crafted presence. A grand staircase rises ahead with balconies to either side, and those are the original globular luminaires hanging from the golden ceiling. At one end is the Vice Chancellor's old office, all wood panelling and Art Deco-ish lampshade, while at the other is Chancellor's Hall with its pillars and yet more uplighters. Our guide knew all about the architecture's overarching themes, but also the battle they'd recently had installing modern cabling and the difficulties of Grade II* listed central heating. The building was also open to those not on a tour, but I might not have thought to walk through the double doors opposite Princess Anne's portrait to discover the Senate Room beyond. This lush cuboid with walnut walls (and uplighters) is supposed to be Holden's masterpiece, which is impressive when you have Arnos Grove in your portfolio. We couldn't go any higher to explore the library, but 75 minutes in modernist academe was a morning well spent.

Anonymous Camden Open House venue: Sheltering from Sunday's storm brought me to the basement of this typical looking terrace. Free tea or coffee were on offer, and a space to dump umbrellas, which made this the most civilised Open House location I visited. Half-hourly tours were advertised, so when a chirpy volunteer asked us to follow, we followed. He smiled a lot, and clutched his factsheet close to his chest, whilst giving us a not terribly in-depth history of the building we were ascending. "I don't know much about..." was one of his favourite phrases, along with "you'll have to ask the staff downstairs at the desk." He'd researched a few tangential anecdotes, though nothing relevant to the building, and chuckled rather louder than we did on delivery. On the top floor we stood around in the library, where members of the tour group with relevant background knowledge asked basic questions he couldn't answer. On the way back down we filled the secretary's office for what seemed like forever, reduced to staring at the detritus on her desk for lack of other interesting diversion. And back by the front door we passed the bloke running the next tour, who was busy bandying about words like "cornice" to attentive faces... and only then did we realise how short-changed our group had been. Before taking his leave our volunteer told us how much he enjoys taking part in Open House each year and how he always picks somewhere different to steward, oblivious to the talentless embarrassment of a tour he'd just led. Most OH volunteers are excellent, don't get me wrong, so this delusional chump was a rare misfire. But as I stepped back into the rain and heard him summoning his next tour group, I couldn't help but feel sorry for their upcoming wasted half hour.

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