diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Open House: Temple Bar (St Paul's)

Sometimes your eye skates past a name on the Open House list because you've seen it before. The gate that once marked the entrance to the City? Seen it in Hertfordshire, seen it back by St Paul's. But closer scrutiny suggested something more special - hang on, they're inviting us inside? - and so I returned.

Temple Bar spans the gap between Paternoster Square and the cathedral, alongside a squat redbrick building that's better known as the location of basement public conveniences. Several American tourists initially mistook the Open House queue for the line for the loo. The entrance, it turned out, was via an anonymous door between the ladies and the gents and then up 30 winding steps to a room on the first floor. Unexpectedly this small chamber is the new livery hall of The Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects, even though only a small fraction of them could fit inside. Open House managed seats for 20, plus a short talk from the beadle before being called to the Bar.

Grant ran us through a history of Temple Bar on his iPad, alas unable to connect to the huge screen in the wall behind. He showed us the arch in its original location propped over Fleet Street, its dilapidated state at Theobalds and Lady Meux being pulled by zebras. He ran us round the commemorative plates on the wall designed annually by architects. He mentioned it's the 300th anniversary of Christopher Wren's death next year so expect several commemorative events. He harvested our email addresses for his mailing list and tried to flog us £12 bags of his son's specially ground coffee, because in the City the mercantile instinct runs deep. And then were allowed up a further short flight of stairs to a footbridge hidden behind heraldic beasts and into the main chamber.

The upper room's not big although it does contain a lot of wasted height. In its original location above Fleet Street it used to be used to store the records of a neighbouring bank. Today it's an empty space with a tiled floor, grey walls, orange curtains and a minimum of windows. Plaques give thanks to the other livery companies who contributed to the rebuild, including the Fishmongers, the Wyre Drawers and the Makers of Playing Cards. A paperweight containing lead from the original roof hangs by the door. We were told by the Chair of Trustees that a grand gate-opening ceremony had been planned for last Friday, attended by the Lord Mayor, but the Queen's death the day before had caused that to be postponed. He also reminded us that the room can be hired out for dinners (16 seated) or buffets (35 standing), there being a super little oven installed over in the main building. Open House visitors have been the first lucky members of the public to get inside.

Open House: Ismaili Centre (South Kensington)

This one's been on the Open House list since last century so I thought it was about time I went. The Ismaili are a branch of the Muslim faith on the Shia side, a schism defined by who you believe to be the true successor to the prophet Mohammed, which in their case is the Aga Khan. Their London centre was opened in 1985 by PM Margaret Thatcher and is a 'No Photography' venue, so all you're getting is a shot of the outside. The interior's been designed as a rising spiral, from the heptagonal fountain in the entrance hall, beneath low honeycombed ceilings, up the stairs round the glass chandelier, past the racks where you leave your shoes and finally passing through teak doors into the prayer hall. Every Open House venue has one detail the guides over-repeat and here it's all about how the design on the carpet changes, and becomes less busy, the further up you go.

My guide was nervous but excellent, pointing out the lapis lazuli portrait, the one-way tinted windows and the ahead-of-its time wheelchair ramp. The biggest treat was the roof garden, quartered by streams of running water and overlooked by the domes of the Natural History Museum and the V&A. I was a little less impressed by the prayer hall because its function is to gather rather than to wow, but would never have spotted the Arabic words reflected in the panelling had they not been pointed out. The entire building is a symphony of geometrical design, and quite the visual statement for what's essentially a West London community centre.

Open House: Sands End Arts & Community Centre (Peterborough Road, Fulham)

This is a genuine West London community centre, and a very recent one having been completed in summer 2020 (but delayed in opening due to 'events'). It's comprised of several interconnected pavilions with monopitched roofs clustered around a previously-derelict lodge. Its big tick is sustainability, being comprised of reformulated glulam frames and green-stained timber, and sometimes looks as unfinished as the inside of a loft. One section is a community cafe (sandwiches, paninis, homemade soup), another a shower block for those playing in the adjacent park and another was being hastily cleared away after a young child's birthday party.

Its triumph of form and function has been recognised by reaching the shortlist for 2022 RIBA Stirling Prize: "the architects have met the brief and budget with confidence and inventiveness, delivering a highly sustainable, delightful and flexible asset for the client". We'll see if it wins in mid-October although I suspect it won't, it didn't feel special nor indeed especially memorable, just a building doing what's necessary for the local community with as light a footprint as possible.

Open House: Roca London Gallery (Chelsea Wharf)

Just opposite Imperial Wharf station, and currently sheathed in scaffolding, is one of a small number of UK buildings designed by Zaha Hadid. It's not really a gallery at all, more a shop with additional space for the display of artworks, indeed it's really a jumped-up bathroom showroom. Roca make bathroom fittings for the luxury end of the market, as you can tell because none of their products are priced, so are very much the Bang & Olufsen of sanitary porcelainware. But with Zaha as architect this is no ordinary shop - more like being inside a huge swoosh of splashy water shooting off in all directions - and of course not a straight line in sight.

Various pods erupt from the wall like fisheyes, and may be used to display bowls or metal plughole covers. A complete suite of matching basins lurks behind a wall in an ivory cavern, the showerhead of your dreams hangs from a contoured surface and omg what is that bathtub it looks like the tackiest cascade of twisty ribbed plastic. A retrospective of Hadid's smaller designs fills the exhibition spaces, including furniture, high-heeled shoes and a crystal chess set in the shapes of Emirati towers, which perhaps gives a hint of the intended audience. Photography was not allowed, save surreptitiously through the fire exit door, so it's hard to describe how alien an environment this is. But don't come if you're having trouble paying your energy bill because you may just find the unbridled showmanship offensive.

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