diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When visiting an Open House property, the type of tour guide you get makes a big difference.

The resident: Worlds End Estate
For vigour and insight, it helps to be guided round by someone who lives in the building you're visiting. In this case that's a set of buildings, the Worlds End estate, a large area of council housing by the river in Chelsea. That such a location was even considered in the 1960s is some evidence of how far upmarket this part of London has become, but then this was a mighty plan, replacing 750 Victorian terraced houses with something utterly completely different. Seven tower blocks were built, of varying height, with an asymmetric rippled exterior. These were linked by nine low-rise blocks to seal off two large internal courtyards, their overall shape a bit like a pair of spectacles viewed from above. The finished project resembles a redbrick castle, although the buildings are really reinforced concrete underneath, with bevelled slabs that help to hold the brick exterior in place. And that's just one of the unexpected facts divulged over an hour and a half's tour by local experts, not just someone reading facts off a sheet.

Worlds End used to be the site of some of London's plague pits, we were told. When Joe Strummer sang "London is burning and I live by the river", he was living here. That knocked-down cottage opposite Chelsea Reach Tower is Bryan Adams' new house, being rebuilt from the double-basement up. This is what you really want to know when traipsing round a maze of walkways, past some rather desirable pre-affordable flats You want a guide who remembers which of the many front doors is an original. You want people who know the 15th floor is the place to go for a fantastic view down the Thames, but only if you cross to the narrow raised recess beside the lift and step up. And you want a support team who know everyone needs to keep quiet fifteen storeys up for fear of upsetting residents in the neighbouring apartments. What came across strongly was how much those who live here enjoy and respect their home, and their enthusiasm was duly passed on to the dozens of us who turned up. Plus we got free tea and jaffa cakes in the community centre at the start of the tour - easily the warmest reception of the weekend. If a poke round out-of-the-ordinary social housing is your thing, be sure to tick the Worlds End estate on your Open House advance list for next year. [2 photos]

The employee: 20 Triton Street
In the shadow of the Euston Tower, between Warren Street and Great Portland Street stations, is where you'll find Regents Place. It's described as a mixed use campus, for which read 13 acres of mostly offices, some of them relatively old but others much more recent. Everything's owned by developers British Land, and the fact you've probably never heard of the Regents Place hints at its unwanted anonymity. For Open House access was granted to the very modern office block at 10 Brock Street, but only to the ground floor, which was nothing over-exciting bar the chance to walk up to Facebook UK's reception desk and watch its employees ride some rather snazzy lifts. For proper interior access the OH programme offered up 20 Triton Street, another in the peculiarly modern tradition of naming giant buildings after the address of a small portion of their footprint. This is the home of Australian building company Lend Lease, swallowers of Bovis plc and architects of 2012's Athletes Village.

For the tour we were led round by the offices by one of the building's sustainability managers. Keen and lively he may have been, but the nature of his role placed a sustainability spin on everything we were shown. The sealants in the walls emitted minimal particulates, the elevators ran on eco-settings, even the floors were made from recycled railway carriages. He enthused about breakout spaces and touchdown booths, as certain people do, and saw not a top floor cafe but a networking space for maximising employee interaction. Having said that it was fascinating to compare this workplace with my own, ten years older, with few of the green benefits employees here currently enjoy. Oh for a roof garden with bee hotel, and tables to sit outside several floors up and look out over, well, Santander HQ and a digital artwork. Oh too for eight potted plants per member of staff, rather than the scattering of almost-cacti they've dished out in my office. Worth the tour for the reminder that how we work is just as much part of London's architecture as how we live. [6 photos]

The council worker: 5 Pancras Square
What's in it for us, asked Camden Council, when the current round of development north of King's Cross rolled round. St Martin's get their art school, Google get their UK headquarters, but what can the burghers of north London get? And the answer is a 14-storey building incorporating a library, cafe and offices for council staff. Best of all there's a leisure centre on the ground floor and a swimming pool in the basement which doubles up as an event space when appropriately covered. You're welcome. For this tour a member of council staff was deployed, complete with on-brand purple t-shirt, to lead a motley crew round the building. This was easily the most "normal" tour party I joined all day, comprising mostly ordinary members of the public rather than the usual culturally-skewed crowd Open House usually attracts. They were not disappointed.

She told us all about the building as we went, but her facts came entirely from a centrally-prepared set of notes. Thus on reaching the lift lobby we heard not about the architecture but instead a council-led competition for the artwork on the wall, while downstairs in the "Contact Camden" zone she focused only on the customer-facing services the new space provides. As we entered the library she enthused about £70K's worth of resource spending, whereas I was thinking "blimey that's not many books for an inner city library", an opinion echoed on the letters page of the free newspaper stacked up nearby. In the gym area she praised the council for buying disabled-friendly exercise machines, while pumped-up patrons tried to ignore the motley crew of tourists invading their privacy. And on entering the multi-storey office space she pointed out that all the stair treads on each different floor are different colours, as if this was the most fantastically original detail, so amazing that she mentioned it again, and then later one more time. I was hoping we'd go out onto the 11th floor roof terrace, but that's still sealed off two months after the building opened while contractors attempt to lay the tiles down properly, so a great view up the Eurostar tracks was visible only through glass. Ultimately this was a slightly too sanitised visit to a slightly too sanitised space, but good on Camden for grabbing part of King's Cross rebirth for themselves.

The architect: Hackney Marshes Centre
In Open House terms, meeting the architect is the jackpot. In this case we met two, both of whom had worked with Stanton Williams on the design of what's essentially a set of glorified changing rooms. And they need a lot. Hackney Marshes is the spiritual home of Sunday league football, where more amateur players than anywhere else in the world come together for a structured kickabout each weekend. Before 2012 they changed in a grotty shed, but this new building (not Games-related) provides a step change in facilities. The very very long horizontal structure consists of two wings, one behind gabion walls, the other with weathered steel cladding. Part of the latter slides back at night to protect the glass across the entrance, while the shutters across the upstairs windows are fully permeable to allow those within to watch the football. The Centre had to be wholly vandal-proof, that was the designer's brief, and every choice of materials was made with low-key security in mind. [2 photos]

"Shall we go and look at the changing rooms?" is not an offer you'd normally get as dozens of muddy football teams limp in from the pitches. We entered an empty one, obviously, to admire the integrated facilities and the dappled light shining through gaps in the rocky wall. The Centre runs a shift system to shuffle teams through the changing rooms, before and after matches, with every player's kitbag stored in an external locker while they're outside. Upstairs is a bar which opens out onto a roof terrace, and whose catering team served up the biggest tray of chips I've ever seen to tablesworth of beery post-match players. And upstairs too are two large function rooms, allowing the council to use the building for school groups and conferences midweek when all the football action goes quiet. Had I not been inside and given the full spiel I might have thought this a very mundane building, whereas now I understand its award-winning brilliance. And that's the maximum impact the right Open House guide can make - the difference between what a building is and why.

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