When Boris took over City Hall in 2008, one of the first things he did was end the monthly opportunity for Londoners to see inside their seat of government. It used to be possible every four weekends or so to take the lift up to the ninth floor to enjoy the view, and then walk down Norman Foster's centralspiralstaircase to the chamber down below. But opening up to the public cost money the taxpayer could allegedly ill afford, so the weekend openings ceased, and Open House has become the only opportunity for a proper peek. But what's perhaps not well known is that the public are still perfectly entitled to see inside City Hall whenever it's open, and that three floors of the building are accessible. Plus you don't need to book to see the big swirly wonders, you can just walk in.
My excuse for going in was the Bleeding London exhibition, a photographic display up and running until 4th September. But I could have come in anyway, there's sufficient reason, and staff on the front desk shouldn't challenge your ultimate destination. What you do need to do is subject yourself to the full security check beyond the revolving door, which involves a full X-ray for any bags and electrical gadgets you may be carrying, plus that embarrassing thing where they ask you to take your belt off. It's just enough to stop you nipping in simply to use the toilets, although if you're ever caught short in the Tower Bridge area feel free.
The building's trademark spiral staircase descends from a bifurcation point beyond the main desk, where the building's genuine employees split off to head to their offices. But take the loop down to the lower ground floor and there's a public space the workforce are happy to share with you. In pride of place is a giant satellite map of London, and I mean giant, with every street and field and borough boundary displayed across a vast vinyl carpet. You can walk across it to try to find your road, house and workplace, explore the centre of town or wander through the outskirts, it's a magnificent resource. Meanwhile a tall metal tower rises out of Richmond riverside with a subtitled TV bolted to the top, should you want to keep tracks of the latest news.
The other key resource on the basement floor is the cafe, otherwise known as London's Kitchen. It supplies subsidised food and drink to the building's workforce, but anyone's welcome to grab a primary-coloured chair and partake. Breakfast is served until 10.30am and lunch from 11.30am, with the hot meal of the day competitively priced at £5.24, and all the usual coffee and pastry options are available too. Who knows which important City Hall representatives you might be sharing a table space with?
The canteen space is also where you'll find the first half of the Bleeding London exhibition. This is a grand project organised by the Royal Photographic Society which is attempting to accumulate a photo of every single street in London. The inspiration was Geoff Nicholson's book of the same name, in which the protagonist attempts to walk every road in London, hence the desire to crowdsource one image from everywhere, from Oxford Street to Glenfield Crescent (Ruislip). The public duly sent their photos in, so far 58000 in total, and 1200 are now on display at City Hall on big yellow boards. Try not to peer into the conference rooms beyond as you enjoy them.
They're an eclectic selection of photos, from professional captures to almost-blurry smartphone snaps. Some show recognisable tourist spots, others a snatch of graffiti or parade of shops, others simply a street name on a wall. Perhaps a row of washing, perhaps a local 'character' sitting on a wall, they combine to form a strong broad portrait of life in our capital today. I wondered if I'd be able to spot Bow Road, hidden somewhere on one of the many display boards, but I needn't have worried because it was the only photo featuring the Mayor, and thus damned obvious. There was Boris in his yellow bike helmet poised outside the St Clements development, rucksack on back, ready to burst out into the traffic. Result.
To view the second half of the exhibition you have to go up to the second floor. There are no obvious signs to tell you this, unless you noticed it on the way in, but I got a tip from the bored-looking security guard perched by the basement exit. As a member of the public you're allowed up in the lift, and trusted to press the right button, although if you exit anywhere else you'll not get through the security barriers. On the second floor there are lots more photos to enjoy, and information panels explaining how to view the project online, and some comfy seats where you can sit and use the free wifi unhindered. Plus there's the main reason the building exists, which is the main chamber where Assembly members grill the Mayor and other experts.
Should you turn up on the right day (and they'readvertised) you can sit in on a GLA meeting or TfL committee, such is the nature of public scrutiny. But on my visit the chamber was sealed off behind glass, and all I could do was peer inside. Oh, and circle round the edge down the spiral corridor, which at this point is broad and impressive and returning gently to the ground. View the chamber from all sides, then follow a long quotation round the More London side before finally returning to reception, your adventures in democracy complete. For a building you probably thought was out of bounds, there's really quite a bit to see.