It's always illuminating on Open House weekend to visit one of London's town halls. One year I deliberately visited six. These bastions of democracy regulate our local lives, but most of us would never dream of venturing inside, let alone scrutinising their role. Several were participating this year, but I only made it to Hackney Town Hall, picked pretty much at random because it was near somewhere else I wanted to go. And I hit the jackpot, not only because the interior's an Art Deco gem, but because a decade of major renovation has (just) finished and one of the architects was available to guide us round. [restoration pdf]
Hackney's first town hall is now a Coral betting shop on Mare Street, abandoned for a larger site in 1866, then rebuilt in 1934. It's this Neo-classical rebuild which still stands, facing the palm trees in the main square between the library and the Hackney Empire. The architects were Lanchester and Lodge, their brief to design something grand but cheap, hence a surfeit of plasterwork behind the Portland stone facade. Here's a photo of the frontage in which I have carefully cropped out the worldly goods of two homeless men arguing loudly about which of them detests the other more.
I wish I'd been inside previously to be able to compare the scruffy octogenarian look to this latest spruce up. The marble across the floor of the entrance passageway has been given a painstaking polish, and the space opened up by knocking through a couple of unnecessary walls. Chiselled letters on the lintel declare HACKNEY TOWN HALL with élan, and beyond is the REGISTRAR OF BIRTHS, MARRIAGES AND DEATHS, a function long since displaced to the glass warren across Reading Lane. I would have taken a photo of this handiwork to share, but a row of Hackney personnel were lined up underneath and that would have felt wrong, so I made do with grabbing a bit of elegant staircase as the tour began.
The main public spaces are a bit wow, thanks mainly to the light fittings. These are original - geometric confections of glass and shiny brass - perched atop finials, ribbed round pillars or glowing from the ceiling. The finest of all holds sway above the Council Chamber, an extruded octagon of superphallic dimensions illuminating proceedings. The wood panelling round the walls was in an appalling condition but has been French-polished back to life, while the restored bank of upholstered seating now conceals gubbins to allow council voting to progress electronically. As for the long narrow room hidden at the back under the public gallery, this would once have reeked of cigar smoke, but is now a lush snug where elected members can network and/or relax.
We got to poke inside the Mayor's office, and to see his personal collection of Hackney community paraphernalia stashed inside a cupboard rescued from the cellar. We got to walk the corridors and see the portraits of all Hackney's formerMayors, their dress and demeanour either evocatively or scarily out of date. We also got to go outdoors indoors by entering what used to be a central courtyard, now covered over for use as an accessible events and circulation space. If all the renovation work looked expensive we were reassured that it had greatly improved energy efficiency, and had allowed over 50% more council staff to work within the building, so had also brought economies to bear.
For larger events the Assembly Hall has one of the only remaining sprung dance floors in London, and large square lamps looming overhead. The Bridgetown Bar nextdoor is a more intimate darkwood space with illuminated marble bar, and old photos round the wall from the town hall's heyday. Two of the last rooms to be finished off are the marriage suites, shortly available for booking, one of which was so tastefully blue it made tour members coo with appreciation. I think the architect leading us round was suitably impressed by our reaction, as indeed had we been with her knowledgeable input to the tour. It was great to see a building so beautifully restored - Historic England are well chuffed - and revived to function at the very heart of its community. [7 photos]
This next building dates from the same year, 1935, and can be found half a mile up the road to Dalston overlooking Fassett Square. It was an extension to Hackney's German Hospital, that a redbrick cluster, this a five storey annexe with general medicine and maternity care in mind. Teutonic thinking led to a Modernist design, with a massive concrete canopy above the main entrance and practically elegant terrazzo stairwells. Patients would have appreciated the bright and airy interior, and the current residents do too, because of course the hospital was closed in 1987 and was swiftly turned into flats. However a surprisingly high proportion of the current residents are architects, which is always a good sign, and they turned out at the weekend to show us round.
There was no peering inside the accommodation, but we did see the lobby, and stand in the car park where the tennis courts used to be, and climb the (lovely) stairwell to the roof. The hospital's designers provided a roof garden for the benefit of convalescent patients, as well as a long balcony one floor lower down to push trolleys out onto. The roof garden is more an open space with planters than a verdant horticultural feast, and boasts a splendid swooshing shelter up one end which resembles an elongated mushroom. For those who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they really like.
Particularly splendid are the views, there not being too many tower blocks in this part of Hackney to break sightlines. Immediately adjacent is the original hospital, again now residential, swiftly taken out of German hands at the outset of the Second World War. But I was more interested in the terraces on the other side, because Fassett Square E8 has nationwide fame as the set designers' inspiration for Albert Square E20. It was great to be able to look down on an oddly familiar style of housing, and its central garden square, and to learn that EastEnders still send a research team to Fassett Square every year to make notes on how real life fashions in fixtures and fittings have subtly changed. There may be no pub or shopping parade, nor cursing Cockneys casting aspersions in the street, but (Overground) trains do rumble past noisily up one end. The BBC originally considered filming all their exterior shots here, but the looming Modernism of the German Hospital would have made camera angles too difficult so they built a set in Elstree instead, and the rest is history. Residents of sleepy Fassett Square much prefer it that way. [8 photos]