diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Open House: Camden

For efficiency's sake I thought I'd concentrate on one borough for this year's London Open House, like I did a few years back with Haringey and Southwark. Skedaddling around Camden wasn't as easy as you might think, either in the planning or the execution, but I made it to a fair few fascinating places. Here's four.

Alexandra Road: It looks like an ordinary street on the map, but Rowley Way is anything but. Futuristic terraces slope down to a pedestrianised curve, six storeys high on one side and four on the other. Low-rise, high-density, that's the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate. All the buildings are cast from white concrete, less pristine now than in the 1970s, and following the line of the Euston railway. Together they resemble a Blake's 7 filmset rather than the backstreets of Kilburn, and were part of Camden Council's pioneering social housing scheme. Every flat boasts its own inward-looking terrace, draped with plants or bikes or washing or whatever, making this a strikingly interactive community where it's nigh impossible to hide. At the far end of the curve is a humming power station with three thin chimneys, alongside a Tenants Hall with weekly food co-op (please tie your dog up outside before entering). Cars have been banished to a subterranean undercroft beneath the paved path, a claustrophobic dystopia lined by imposing garages. On the southern side is a linear park, narrow but four acres long, with grass and gardens and hard courts spread out along its length. On a sunny Saturday it's all rather lovely, although the park's clearly seen better days and is under threat from continued disrepair. For Open House we were permitted to enter one of the less upgraded maisonettes, but shoes off first please (always select your socks on Open House day with care). The duplex interior was adequately-sized if not spacious, especially upstairs where a wooden partition could be drawn back to link kitchen and living room. The brown tiles, wooden stairs and ducted heating screamed Seventies, although not everybody across the estate has kept theirs. We chatted to the owner, who's been here almost since the place was built, and is fiercely proud of the concrete hilltown she calls home. Watch this 20 minute documentary about living on Rowley Way and I think you'll see what she means. [six photos]

Cecil Sharp House: London's folk music hub isn't some club in the West End, it's a little-known building in Primrose Hill. Tucked onto the triangular site where Gloucester Avenue meets Regents Park Road, look out for the white shield announcing that the brick shell beyond is home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. They arrived here in 1929, five years after the death of Cecil Sharp, the man who'd inspired construction of the building. He'd specified precise dimensions for all the rooms, and the need for a library to house his collection of folk-related books, but never saw his dream realised. I think he'd be impressed today. The place was buzzing on Saturday with attendees of all ages, and most definitely not a dead-end backwater for the retired. Our guide led us into the barndance-sized main hall to see Ivon Hitchen's mural, for which privilege we had to interrupt the term's first class of "Melodeon for Beginners". Sorry. To see the stags in the practice room downstairs we had to sneak into the back of "Intermediate Banjo" just as the lesson was kicking off. Sorry. Even nipping into the bar, formerly the men's changing room, we stumbled upon three gentlemen clearing away dirty glasses so that they could jam their way through the afternoon. Apologies. The librarian was keen to see us, in his well-ordered room where sea shanties, ballads and nursery rhymes are all shelved separately. I noted that the magazine rack contained subscriptions to Concertina World, Dulcimer Players News and Fiddle On, amongst many others. A broad programme of concerts and ceilidhs are held in the main hall, indeed Time Out readers have voted Cecil Sharp House their second favourite live music venue in the capital. It strikes me that thousands of Londoners who don't know the place exists would undoubtedly enjoy all it has to offer, be that participating or as part of an audience. In case that's you, my apologies, but now you know.

Royal College of Physicians: The professional body that oversees Britain's doctors used to be based in a creaky building off Pall Mall. One bomb changed that, and for their post-war rebuild they commissioned something very different indeed on the edge of Regent's Park. Architect Denys Lasdun could have designed something 'safe' to stand alongside Nash's terraces, but instead persuaded the august body to accept a tempered Brutalist design. The main block has a blocky mosaic facing, perched on non-classical columns, with Corbusian utilities jutting from the roof. Adjacent is a sunken lecture theatre, faced in contrasting black brick joined at a sculpted corner (I learnt all this on the architecture tour with Barnabas, which was excellent). The interior focus is a twisting stairway rising through a balcony-fringed void, which could have looked like a shopping mall, but in Sir Denys's hands is somewhat more sophisticated. He went on to design the University of East Anglia and the National Theatre, but it's this building which gets the Grade I listing. If you ever end up taking medical exams you'll likely end up receiving your award inside, but if you can't wait that long then regular tours of the building are available all year round.

Swiss Cottage Library: This modernist gem was built as the borough of Hampstead's central library, and completed just before local government reorganisation in 1965. The architect Sir Basil Spence was also responsible for Coventry Cathedral, and although there's no stained glass here there is a cavernous feeling of space and light. Arts up one end, sciences at the other, with open spiral staircases to link the main floor and mezzanine. The edge of the library building has fins, and once matched by the swimming baths nextdoor (although the pool's since been knocked down and replaced). Our Open House guide used to work here in the early days, and revelled in the opportunity to dig around again in the book stacks beneath the public floors. Should you ever fancy a sit down with a book or periodical, plus a drink and a light bite from a well run cafe, I'd bear Camden's leading library in mind.

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