diamond geezer

 Monday, September 06, 2021

For Open House Day Two I could have gone anywhere but I stuck to Hackney. My Sunday safari resembled one of my big lockdown walks but with the added novelty of actually going inside four buildings along the way. They proved a diverse quartet, each "come in and have a look" rather than "exclusive tour for the pre-booked". As usual you won't now be able to visit any of them, and as usual that's the point, in my 20th annual nudge to remind you to get involved next year.

1) Chats Palace
What to do with a closed library isn't a new problem - residents of Homerton faced it in the 1970s when a modern replacement opened at the foot of Chatsworth Road. This left vacant premises up by the hospital at one of the UK's 660 Carnegie Libraries, which'll be why the exterior looks more like a squished classical temple. The community swiftly banded together to nab it as an arts centre, very much of the "empowering the marginalised" school of thought, which it remains to this day. They called it Chats Palace half in honour of Joan Littlewood's vision of a People's Palace and half as a nod to the street it sits on.

The bar that faces you on entering used to be the children's library, while the adult library beyond has been split by a mezzanine to form a studio and a rehearsal space. For Open House the larger upstairs room was laid out with silk screen posters duplicated in the Chats Printshop (Nothing Racist Or Sexist Undertaken), each a gloriously colourful reminder of right-on events from more radical days. A typical month in 1982 included Under 17's Night, a Hackney CND meeting, Sunday afternoon jazz, the Rational Theatre Company performing in 'Chicken Tikka', the Homervision Song Contest and Cabaret Night with the Flying Pickets. That's a lovely glass roof too, because libraries used to be built to last.

2) Round Chapel
What to do with a closed church can be even more troublesome, especially when said church was built to meet an expanding Victorian congregation. Members of Clapton's United Reformed Church threw in the towel in the 1980s when maintenance costs spiralled out of reach of their dwindling number, and their Grade II* listed building was only saved through the diligence of the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust. Today it's known simply as the Round Chapel, even though technically it's very much horseshoe-shaped with one rounded end. From outside on Lower Clapton Road it's hard to prepare yourself for the overwhelming theatricality of the space when you walk in.

It feels more auditorium than church, with a pulpit and organ framed in the arch where you might expect the stage to be. The U-shaped upper gallery is supported atop iron columns which continue towards the roof and splay out in a burst of latticework. Thousands could have fitted in to hang on the preacher's every word, and 800 might now cram in for a classical concert or other cultural event to help keep finances ticking over. If you fancy seeing Secret Affair headline a Bank Holiday all-dayer you can book now for the Mods Mayday event next year, or instead hire the chapel for a wedding with wow. The URC's current congregation alas merely hang out in the converted school buildings out back, which are nowhere near as impressive but much easier to support.

3) St Barnabas', Shacklewell
From outside this church is quite hard to spot, tucked away behind a rim of housing, because the site was originally a meagre mission hall. Then in 1910 the Merchant Taylors funded an upgrade to a proper church, designed by architect Charles Herbert Reilly who considered this his finest work. Officially it's deemed Byzantine, although to me it felt like stepping inside a grimy railway viaduct, and I mean that in a good way. I initially assumed it must be Roman Catholic, given the glitzy cross-topped rood screen, whereas it was originally high church... and the current congregation are more the sort who sit, strum and chat. For Open House they'd laid on a tableful of cake and a brief choral recital, but I most enjoyed the chance to wander behind the altar and explore all the secret spaces.

Ian Nairn loved it.
The inside is the best church of its date in London, sure in its domed and barrel-vaulted spaces, incredibly fresh in its detail, concrete and exposed yellow brick. England could so easily have stepped across to modern architecture from here, instead of relapsing into an eclectic fog. This is the kind of quintessential classical composition that Lutyens tried for and never had the integrity to achieve.
I wouldn't have gushed quite that much, but St B's is very much not your average Dalston church.

4) Yorkton Workshops
And finally it's that proper Open House staple, a brand new building attended by the architect, the client and an employee. The location is a row of former workshops off Hackney Road, at the City Farm end of Haggerston Park, which was bought by a small furniture design company for their new studios. Originally the intention was to demolish and start again, but the better climate-friendly option was to retain as much of the original structure as possible. The end result is a modern-Victorian hybrid, the two older halves bridged by a central staircase and a small outdoor garden terrace. All the Open House visitors liked the smart red staircase.

The client told me how the form of the new building was partly dictated by the neighbours, with no windows permitted facing any residential building which means the skylights receive no direct sun after October. The employee left off demonstrating his table legs to confirm that before the staircase was added he could only reach the upstairs studio by climbing a ladder. And the architect beamed as visitors admired the recycled steel and timbers incorporated in his rich, industrial aesthetic. Open House isn't just about those big heritage buildings in the centre, it's equally about the emerging architecture further out.

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