diamond geezer

 Monday, September 18, 2006

My London Open House visits (continued)
Editor's note: Please note that I refuse to call the giant millennial cast-off below by its official new brand name. I'll not go into detail here, but I'm happy to debate the issues (with swear words as appropriate) in this comments box... comments (18)

The Dome:
As part of the Open Site programme, members of the public were yesterday permitted rare access behind the scenes at the capital's largest white elephant. This was a unique opportunity to glimpse beneath the Teflon-coated roof before the site reopens next year as an entertainment arena, and was therefore a must-visit for devotees of failed government projects. It was strange to see queues again outside the Dome... almost as strange as it would have been to see them when the place was open.

The Open House brochure had promised a "hard-hat tour", but what we got instead was a walk up to the entrance and back with questions answered inbetween. The first thing we saw was the new piazza between the Dome and the tube station, still being laid out with finest granite. On the far side a "Living Wall" was being constructed... which is a bit rich given that the old Millennium Experience had its own Living Wall on the opposite side of the site which has since been left to decay. This new square was a reminder that the tip of the peninsula is now on its second revamp in under a decade, and has had more millions of pounds thrown at it than almost any other spot in the capital. Still, it'll all be worth it next July when you can come here for a cappucino and a cutting edge pop concert.

Standing just under the rim of Lord Rogers' big tent, we were able to peer into the gloom to where several new buildings are under construction. A curved wall straight ahead shields the new central arena (no trapeze artists this time). To the left is a metal shell which will one day house a casino (eventually, even if Greenwich doesn't win the upcoming super casino licence). To the right is a 10 screen cinema, then a live music venue, and between them a street the length and width of Bond Street. Or there will be. The buildings are merely bricks and steel at the moment, at least from the outside, and there was no hint that any single interior was any nearer completion. Still, I'm sure that the new post-Millennium Experience will open bang on schedule, with a complete range of exciting entertainment opportunities. Because London needs more bars and restaurants. And because nothing on this site has ever been known to fail.

Severndroog Castle [photos]: Hidden amidst the trees on Shooters Hill is a three-cornered brick tower, erected in 1784 in honour of a reformed pirate. William James lived a daring and successful life on the high seas off India, returning home a successful and wealthy man, only to drop dead on the evening of his daughter's wedding. His wife Lady James was understandably distraught, and had this quirky belvedere built to honour his greatest naval success. The volunteers at Severndroog can tell you this story in much greater detail, probably whilst wielding a jangly bucket. By the time you've been round the tower to see what all the fuss is about, you'll probably want to throw a few coins in it yourself.

Severndroog Castle is an endangered structure, not through imminent collapse but through political disinterest. Up until 1986 there was a tearoom inside, plus ready access to the roof for an entrance fee of a few pence. And then Maggie dismantled the GLC, and the tower reverted to the control of Greenwich Council. They couldn't afford to maintain the cafe, which rapidly closed, and (more recently) they've tried to sell the tower off as offices. Thankfully a group of volunteers sprang up, peddled their restoration plans on the BBC's Restoration, and the future now looks a little more promising. Admittance is still only possible on this one weekend every year, but this quirky building is worth the effort of a visit. There's an unexpectedly ornate ceiling on the first floor, beneath which Lady James would mourn her late husband, and it's hoped that this room will one day become a space for public meetings. But the finest views are to be had from the roof, from the top of the western turret, where we were permitted precisely five minutes to gaze out across South London. On a good day you can see seven counties, so we were told. I'd recommend visiting this charming folly before the surrounding trees grow so high that you can only see one.

Donnybrook Quarter: One of the newest housing developments in Bow has brought an unexpected splash of Mediterranean white to the streets of the East End. This isn't your usual social housing - it's a high density mini-estate where every residence is afforded its own front door onto the street. The idea is to foster a sense of community - isn't it always - but here in these two streets it might just work. By removing hallways, lobbies and stairwells the amount of indoor living space is maximised, and there's even room for each building to have its own small outdoor courtyard. Yesterday afternoon the development gleamed in bright sunlight, as residents scuttled in and out wondering what all the fuss was about. The architect was on hand to enthuse about his award-winning project, but always with a sense of reality. Every cutting edge architectural project is a real-time experiment, and it'll take longer than six months for the new occupants to decide how this new living space will evolve. [photo] [photo] [photo]

The Millennium Dome: a collection
Severndroog Castle: an endangered folly
Donnybrook Quarter: an intimate development

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