diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Open House: Hammersmith Town Hall

When Open House comes round, I like to 'do' a town hall. It's always good to see inside to take the pulse of local democracy, even when the council in question isn't necessarily your own. Hammersmith's edifice on King Street is one of many with its roots in Thirties optimism, a chunky brick almost-cuboid with European influences whose style was once dubbed 'Swedish Georgian'. A walk around the perimeter reveals several intriguing details, such as a set of steps double-ended with carvings of Old Father Thames, a row of five sculpted reliefs above intricate metal gates, and a huge loading bay door several feet off the ground for the winching-in of scenery.

The town hall's southern end used to face glorious gardens leading down to the Thames, until the Great West Road dual carriageway was forced through in the 1960s and the view from the Mayor's Parlour was irrevocably ruined. A decade later an ugly office block was plugged onto the opposite end, facing King Street, although this is now due to be demolished. It'll be replaced by a civic square of shops and flats, to generate extra cash, while fresh offices are to be built nextdoor on the footprint of a knocked-down cinema. Or at least those are the current plans - you know how local government is.

However uniform the brick exterior looks, the interior is divided into three very different parts. One end is for the people, and includes the obligatory Assembly Hall, an enormous room with ridged-skylight roof and a sprung floor for collective dancing. The entrance hall is very impressive, a barrel-vaulted space with murals of local Thames-related scenes painted into the recesses, and would have been the chief way in for the public before that ugly annexe removed the original staircase to the first floor. When the walls were painted, Hammersmith Creek still existed close by and was even navigable.

The centre of the building is mostly hollow, facing a central courtyard where cars and minibuses can be parked, and (by modern standards) a colossal waste of useful space. Walking along its outer corridors reveals the true town hall, a chain of drab rooms inside which unsung but necessary services are based. And the far end is the democratic bit, including the chamber where councillors sit, as yet untroubled by microphones, pushbuttons or any form of electronic infrastructure. You can always spot the local visitors on Open House trips to town halls, because they want a photo of themselves sitting in the Mayor's chair. But it's the marbled antechamber which is the town hall's finest room, which is why we saw it laid out with white-draped chairs, the floor artfully scattered with flower petals, awaiting hitchers at £650 a time. Times change, and town halls change with them. [6 photos]

Open House: Polish Social and Cultural Association

Britain's largest foreign-born community has its cultural focus in a Brutalist warren on King Street, Hammersmith. Its roots were put down well before Poland joined the EU, instead supporting first and second generation Poles displaced by the Nazis or Communism either side of World War Two. In particular it was built to house the émigré government's irreplaceable library, which the British government had lost interest in, hence the site of a disused church was snapped up and reformulated into what passed for cutting edge architecture in 1971. It's all very Brutalist, and totally 70s, if stroking concrete is your kind of thing.

Wait over there and the tour will take 45 minutes, they said, but it actually lasted an hour and three quarters! That's partly because there were so many different facets to see, but also because the lady taking our group round was the Head of Culture at Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny, and she's ensured the building's packed with it. Artworks adorn every corridor and staircase, because why keep your best stuff hidden, and the tales she stopped to tell provided a perceptive insight into the country's volatile history. The lending library forms the heart of POSK, while a separate room houses the world's finest collection of the works of Joseph Conrad. It's kept locked, but apparently Jeremy Corbyn's a big fan of the author and sometimes pops round for a peruse and a cuppa.

The most surprising space is a full-on theatre where plays and concerts are staged, and to which Polish schoolkids from the rest of the country are sometimes bussed. The basement was originally a youth club but is now a Jazz Cafe, with weekly speakeasies you'd be very welcome to attend. Ditto the popular first floor cafe, where the menu may be exclusively Polish but the clientele doesn't have to be. But you'll not be permitted access to the rooftop bar with its football scarves and '70s vibe, that's members only... although we were allowed though to its terrace to look down over Hammersmith and neighbouring Ravenscourt Park station. All in all a fascinating insight into a deeply rich cultural institution, because sometimes Open House is all about opening up to people, not their buildings. [5 photos]

Open House: Greenside Primary School

Why take time out to visit a Shepherd's Bush primary school? Because it's a Goldfinger, that's why. Hungarian Ernő is better known for the Trellick Tower, but also brought his Modernist touch to the rebuilding of a couple of bombed London schools after the war. Westville Road School was reborn in pre-cast concrete modules, handily assemblable in 24 days flat. Its classrooms were strung out along a simple corridor,, with large afternoon-facing windows with photobolic sills to reflect light up onto the ceiling. Its assembly hall was built from 8'3" panels, and linked to the main school via a twisty covered walkway. Extra rooms have been sympathetically added to support later growth, and awnings were needed to blot out the sun, but the school still operates in Goldfinger's original buildings, and children still keep their books in his chunky wooden drawers.

Now known as Greenside, the school's pride and joy is a rare mural painted by architect Gordon Cullen. Ernő asked him to depict images which would educate and inspire on a wall, and Gordon settled on a selection of seven. For technology he plumped for the latest cutting edge steam train, an ocean liner and a de Havilland Comet (this being the year before it started suffering catastrophic in-flight break-ups). For history Dover Castle, for science the inner solar system (looking somewhat like a boiled egg), for geography a map of the world and for 'nature' what better than a frog and two blue tits? The mural's suffered from small children brushing by, but was properly restored in 2014 and should last long into the future. [5 photos]

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