London Open House(day 1): What a glorious sunny day for a trek around central London. I managed to tick off 11 of this year's Open House venues along the way, and without either my camera or mobile phone's batteries quite running out. Around every corner, so it seemed, there was another green banner, another willing grinning volunteer and another lost-looking middle aged couple with an A-Z. There's no other weekend quite like it. Same again tomorrow?
Shoreditch Town Hall: Vast labyrinthine civic warren, abandoned to local government reorganisation in 1965 but currently being restored. Elton John held his 60th birthday party in the main assembly hall[photo].
Hoxton Hall: Another old music hall, this time a thriving local performance space, complete with wooden upper balcony and saucy crimson drapes.
The JohnsonBuilding: Bright new office development in Hatton Garden built around a central six-storey atrium (which is apparently lovely in the sunshine, but the roof doesn't half make a racket when it rains).
Haberdashers' Hall: Modern Smithfield HQ of City livery company (who made their fortune out of hats), set around a peaceful cloistered courtyard [photo].
Wax Chandlers Hall: Rather more compact home of a smaller City livery company (who made their fortune out of beeswax and candles), where I squeezed into the back of a tour when several pre-booked people failed to turn up. A most entertaining half hour tour & talk.
St Mary-le-Bow Church: High church in Cheapside, within the range of whose bells all true Londoners are (allegedly) born. The interior looked rather more modern than I was expecting, especially the stained glass, but the crypt apparently dates back to 1080.
To the City, for free entry to two very different corporate entrance lobbies. 20 FleetStreet is the former home of Express Newspapers [photo], and the foyer is an Art Deco masterpiece [photo]. The floor is an elegant ripple of black and blue marble. A central clock (very 30s) hides a tight elliptical spiral staircase. To either side are two large metal murals etched in silver and gold [photo]. And the ceiling looks like an upturned silver lemon squeezer, with several ridges radiating from a central drum. The foyer is abuzz with photographers, snapping with creative fury at every surface and every angle. You can't go wrong with a shot of this building in your portfolio.
It's a different story at 100 Victoria Embankment, the newly renovated HQ of Unilever plc. The curved facade may be the Edwardian original, but builders have scooped out the centre of the old building and replaced it with seven floors of modern offices arranged round a gleaming airy atrium [photo][photo]. There's too long to wait for one of the guided tours, but the company are doling out free tea and ice cream in the lower mezzanine cafe. Free Magnum and cuppa, a perfect mid afternoon treat (also available tomorrow).
VillageUnderground: A rather less middle aged queue here than at many other Open House venues. That's because this is Shoreditch, and the attraction is four tube carriages hoisted up onto the old Broad Street viaduct [photo] to be used as artists' studios. Entrance is up a narrow iron spiral staircase, with the first two Jubilee stock vehicles resting at the top. Up again, on top of two glass containers [photo], to the higher pair of studios [photo]. Inside we find not straphanging commuters but graphic artists' workspaces. A laptop here, a banana tree there, and laminate worktops everywhere. There are fine views down over the rooftops and building sites of Shoreditch [photo] and, best of all, no unexpected delays due to broken down trains or engineering works.
Wilton's Music Hall: The world's oldest surviving Music Hall lurks up a side alley behind a terrace of houses off Cable Street, E1. It's somehow survived wartime bombing, slum clearance and woodworm, and owes a debt of thanks to Sir John Betjeman for keeping the bulldozers at bay. As you step into the dimly lit auditorium you can easily imagine East End Victorian singing stars stepping out onto the stage to rouse the audience with a chorus of Daisy Daisy or Down At The Old Bull And Bush. Arched alcoves around the crumbling walls have been lit with delicate fairy lights, and there are three recently uncovered golden murals on the rear wall of the upper balcony. Ornate floral relief arches span the ceiling, and the spotlight shining on the central rose quivers every time someone steps on a supporting floorboard below [photo]. It's an astonishingly atmospheric relic of a bygone age and, cor blimey guvnor, it's still open for the occasional performance (Mozart's next). Restoration continues, and another £3½million is needed if the building is to be saved for future generations. I've just spotted the office geek wandering outside - I hope he didn't spot me and think the same thing...
Kings Place: A brand new mixed-use development just north of King's Cross, beside a backwater basin on the Regent's Canal. It's a building site at the moment (due to open 2008), so I've just had to get togged up in hardhat and fluorescent jacket for the tour. Also joining us were the world's smelliest man and half a party of German tourists. The first floor and above will be the Guardian's new offices, while down below a new public cultural zone is taking shape. We got to stand on a temporary platform 18m above the new chamber music concert hall, and in the canalside rotunda that's planned to become a cafe/bistro. The outer facade is already complete - a unique design of wavy curved glass. Elsewhere there were blokes working, carrying pipes and drinking tea, even on a Saturday. They'll have to get cracking to get the rest of the building ready, and perfect, on time.