diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 20, 2009

Open House: Haringey

Just for a change, I thought I'd spend my Open House weekend scouring two individual London boroughs. And the (unlikely) borough I picked for Saturday was Haringey (think Highgate, Tottenham, and all points inbetween). Haringey merits but a single page in the Open House guide, and few of its attractions will ever draw large crowds from further away. But I did get the chance to do Open House "like a local", in an area I don't know all that well, and there were some real gems along the way.

Hornsey Town Hall - council chamber1) When the London borough of Haringey was created in 1965, one of the urban districts it swallowed up was Hornsey. This left Hornsey Town Hall (on Crouch End Broadway) without a key municipal role, and over the years many parts of the building have fallen into disrepair. Which is a shame, because this flagship 1930s block is one of Britain's first Modernist public buildings. It looks a bit like a mini Tate Modern, with a tall central tower above a stark brick facade. The designer was a New Zealander, not yet 30, and had won a competition against hundreds of more established architects. He blessed the interior with bold light-filled spaces and all-natural finishings (such as marble, limestone and cork). Local people weren't initially taken by their new seat of government, some describing it as a "jam factory", but Uren's radical design has passed the test of time better than many most modern buildings ever will. For Open House we were treated to tours of the interior led by a knowledgeable guide, taking in the old theatre (now used for storage), a basement reception room (EastEnders used it for a wedding aftermath, apparently) and the formal civic wing. The tour was greatly enhanced by a series of understated cameos from a handful of in-character actors, which really added to the 30s atmosphere (round of applause to the organisers, bravo). The entire town hall is about to undergo major renovation and, by the look of the decaying horse-hair-filled leather chairs in the abandoned council chamber, there's a heck of a lot to be done.

Linear House2) 3) One of the joys of Open House in the suburbs is the opportunity to poke around inside other people's houses. Householders may ask you to take your shoes off before venturing within, or to stick blue plastic bags over your shoes to protect the carpet, but that's a small sacrifice compared to allowing the public indoors to scrutinise your hallway clutter, book collection and bedroom arrangements. At Linear House, in leafy Highgate, an award-winning newbuild home has somehow been crammed into a sloping patch of land without intruding too much on the neighbours. This two-winged hillside house has a green roof that links seamlessly to the garden below, and a spacious modern interior to get very jealous about. The centre of the house is based around a glass cube, with the lounge below and a remarkably open bedroom above looking out over the formal swimming pool. Another very different modern family home is to be found across the trees at 30 Cholmeley Crescent, carved out inside a typical 1920s semi. A sympathetic rear extension has created one large lounge at first floor level and a capacious kitchen below, from which stepping stones lead across a koi-filled moat to a ramped (but otherwise fairly ordinary) garden. It could only be the house of two married architects (whose bedroom naturally takes pride of place in the resculpted attic), battling to reach a compromise against council planning regulations. Both of these Highgate homes oozed style and character, and money for once put to excellent use.

Markfield Beam Engine (and cafe)4) On the banks of the Lea over Tottenham way (you may remember), lies Markfield Park, and within stands the Markfield Beam Engine. Built in the 1880s to transfer the sewage out of Tottenham, its 100 horsepower pumping engine is a rare survivor of that post-Bazalgette era. Yesterday marked the long-awaited reopening of the museum after an expensive facelift, and the Victorian workhorse was pumping away to the delight of the volunteers who've put in so much effort to maintain it. The flywheel is enormous - nine metres in diameter and weighing 17 tons. It was extremely therapeutic to watch it spin, accompanied by the clonking of the overhead beam and the wheezing of the steam engine below. It was easy to see why so many retired engineers are drawn to spend their time keeping the old beast purring. But as a museum attraction I'm not quite so convinced. The pump house is a marvellous airy building, but once you've watched the engine whirring for ten minutes there's not really much else to keep visitors occupied. Apart from the brand new cafe around the corner, that is, whose entrance I eventually found beyond a semi-vandalised skatepark. I was one of the first-day customers at Pistachios in the Park - a freshly-franchised operation who seemed more than delighted to serve me. I have my doubts that this out-of-the-way park will sustain their fledgling operation, but were I more local I'd be popping by for a chocolate and marshmallow brownie more often. [inaugural steam weekend continues today]

Triangle Children, Young People and Community Centre5) One of the joys of Open House weekend is being taken around a building by one of the architects who designed it. Try this in the suburbs and you might even get the architect to yourself. So it was at the Triangle Centre - a community space on St Ann's Road in South Tottenham - where Tom was waiting for someone, anyone to pop in for a visit. "Are you an architect?" he asked. Alas not, but I ventured to sound intelligent as I quizzed Tom during our lengthy walk through the building. We discussed the graffiti-proof green-shield cladding below a layer of already-weathered zinc. We investigated the air-conditioning louvres and mused upon the environmental merits of non-opening windows. We admired the beech-lined central hall and its flexible multi-generational functionality. We explored dedicated areas for the nursery and after-school club, seamlessly linked to their surroundings via lightwells and carefully-oriented windows. Even emptied of its toddlers, teenagers and pensioners, the entire building reeked of deliberate yet understated excellence. Places like this are never going to be popular on OH weekend, and yet its here in the underprivileged suburbs that architecture's really making a difference to the lives of so many.

And I also visited...
6) 7) Two very different places of learning: Highgate School, where a blazered sixth former directed me to the 19th century chapel; and Coleridge Primary School, whose vibrant new infant block evolved out of the former Hornsey School of Art.
8) Alexandra Palace Theatre, a desperately-in-need-of-renovation Victorian treasure, recently deemed unsafe and sealed off. I would have re-visited the BBC's original TV studio nextdoor, but alas the queue was an hour long.
9) 10) Two other locations, one at the start of the day and one at the end, neither of which were in Haringey. I may have 'done' Haringey in five hours flat, but its buildings are just as worthy of exploration as the City's historic jewels and shiny towers.

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