diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 18, 2022

A further round-up of disparate Open House visits, this weekend and last.
You never quite know what you're going to get when you approach the front door.

Open House: London Scottish House (Horseferry Road, Westminster) The Military Castoff

Within spitting distance of Channel 4's ex-HQ is an unshowy Victorian brick edifice with a large flagpole poised above the front steps. The surprise when you step inside is that the building is mostly a three-storey empty space surrounded by decorative balconies, because this was originally a drill hall for the military. The London Scottish Regiment has been based in Westminster since 1859, initially for Scots living in the capital and later for anyone who wanted to join up, so always more of a gentlemen's army than a bunch of conscripts. This is a replacement drill hall completed 40 years after the original suffered serious bomb damage, but retains many elements of the old including war memorials and a splendid wrought-iron roof.

It shouldn't still be here because in 2017 the army made a purely financial decision to move the regiment to a cheaper building round the corner, but certain high-ranking members of the royal family helped get the roof listed and the men took it on as a charitable concern. The old soldier who gave me ten minutes of his time proved a fount of knowledge, mainly because his other job is curating the regimental museum which spreads rounds the balconies on the first and second floor. Medals, cap badges, that kind of thing, but also memorabilia from the regiment's proudest boast, that they were the first territorial unit to see action in WW1 at the Battle of Messines.

In a (very) recent fit of unemotional rationalisation the army's top brass effectively killed off the regiment by merging it into the Scots Guards. I could see this was a sore point with my guide whose life was still irrevocably tied up with the regiment with whom he saw active service and which he continues to serve. If you have any fashion shows, exam sessions or private functions in need of a reasonably-priced central London venue they'd be delighted to see you here. Judging by the hatch concealing a small bar in the corner with bottles and glasses stacked up like some retro 80s themed social club, you'd be very welcome.

Open House: Walters Way (Honor Oak, Lewisham) The Self-Build Cul-De-Sac

When Lewisham council had a few scraps of awkward land up for grabs in the 1980s, they offered this site on the slopes of One Tree Hill to 13 people on the housing list who fancied building their own home. Collectively they embraced the philosophies of German architect Walter Segal, whose methods focused on combining timber frames with regular 66cm-wide panels, thereby doing away with all the 'wet trades' like bricklaying and plastering. Anyone could build a Segal house, it was just a case of bolt and screw, and here at Honor Oak it generally only took the first residents 18 months (working mainly weekends and holidays). The flexible nature of the materials allowed for great variation, and most of the owners subsequently rejigged their floor plan or added an extension. And what a unique little hillside hideaway they created. [video]

Yesterday afternoon we were treated to a talk from one of the residents at the foot of the close surrounded by a motley collection of large-ish homes. Some had stacked verandahs, others whopping glass sun-traps, but all bore the tell-tale stripes of panelled construction. One of the reasons it looks 'odd' is that trees grow right next to the properties, in one case a whopping Californian redwood within a couple of feet, because all the houses are anchored to the ground by means of deep vertical piles rather than typical foundations. The assembled crowd asked all sorts of questions (Are they expensive to heat? no) (How many of the original self-builders still live here? three) (What about utilities? they're all plugged in as normal) (Do the flat roofs give you problems? no because they're covered with gravel) (Could anyone build the same today? unlikely because regulations have changed).

The tour ended with a trip across the road to One Tree Hill allotments to see a 'shed' built to the same principles, a cunning ruse which got all the visitors out of the private cul-de-sac leaving its residents in peace. I got a slightly anarchic Eel Pie Island vibe from the place, and maybe something Scandinavian, and even targeted a bit of unfounded jealousy at those living here. Segal's low-fi approach could perhaps have been a model for fixing London's broken market of unaffordable housing. Walters Way is opening up again this afternoon from 12.30pm, this time with several of the houses open to visitors, should you fancy a look at how the future could have looked.

Open House: the Honor Oak Estate (Brockley, Lewisham) The 1930s Council Estate

This is one of the London County Council's largest interwar estates comprising 27 large C-shaped blocks, homogeneous except in orientation. The fronts are sheer brick, the backs layered walkways for access, and the flats sufficient for rehousing over a thousand families. Current facilities include a parade of mostly-shuttered shops, a community orchard in its very earliest stages and a school that's extended itself by adding two extra storeys on top.

All this you can see anytime so what Open House seemingly offered was a history exhibition and a self-guided tour. The exhibition turned out to be three boards and two maps inside the Youth Club, a glum no-expense-wasted facility added in the 1980s, which would probably have been of most interest to local residents. I enjoyed discovering that Ian Wright grew up here, and that he and fellow Arsenal player David Rocastle liked to have a chat up by the railway bridge, but was in and out in five minutes. I filled in the questionnaire politely - you might not have been so charitable.

Open House: Design District (North Greenwich) The Compact Creative Hub

Last year 16 properly weird buildings sprang up between the cablecar and the bus station in an attempt to give the Greenwich Peninsula some creative clout. Architects were gifted a footprint and encouraged to let their imaginations run riot, creating stacks of studio space in a variety of geometric forms. Again you can wander through here any time, they hope pausing for refreshment along the way, but Open House seemed to promise that at least half the buildings in the Design District would be available for a drop-in experience. I trusted the website and turned up.

Only building C2 had an official poster outside - it delivered an airy studio on the top floor and a pair of unnecessary films underneath. I deduced that building C1 was open because its stairs were unlocked, and enjoyed hiking up to the roof for a basketball court with a helluva view. D2 had its door open but nothing welcoming suggesting it was OK to go inside, C3 appeared just to be a cafe, A4 needed a buzz to get in and B2 wasn't open at all. It didn't help that the London Design Festival is currently in situ so the main focus was probably theirs, and it definitely didn't help that the Open House website's atomised approach to listings never gave a practical overview that could have made sense of the whole thing.

Every OH visit remains something of a raffle - sometimes you hit the jackpot and sometimes it wasn't worth drawing a ticket in the first place.

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