diamond geezer

 Monday, September 11, 2023

Yesterday's Open House tally was six.
Here's a quick summary.

• The dazzling property where the volunteer arrived with a key one minute before the official opening time and asked if we wouldn't mind going somewhere else for quarter of an hour.
• The historic property where they suggested we waited for a half-hourly tour, and I'm glad I didn't because I caught up with the guide later and she was saying "You have perhaps heard of the Prince Regent" and what an excruciatingly patronising experience that would have been, and the alternative was a self-guided tour but they hadn't printed any copies, they suggested we used a QR code to download it, so I tried and it was 16 pages long and informative but entirely impractical because you couldn't read the map at the same time as the details, and pretty soon it turned out they'd put signs around the building and you wouldn't have got lost anyway, and sometimes all Open House needs is less faff.
• The new property where the tour guide was a good laugh and clearly much more entertaining that the tour behind, because that caught up with us and the people in that group looked quite glum, so our guide sneaked us into a 6th floor room he wasn't supposed to take us into, perhaps because it was full of wine glasses, and that allowed the dud group to overtake us so we could take the basement at a decent pace.
• The quintessential Open House property - normally very private, really quite enormous, rammed with history and places to explore, with the public allowed free rein to wander all over.
• The repurposed property where I arrived mid tour and the nice lady on the front desk said you must go downstairs, you won't have missed much, except in fact they'd just finished so I barely saw the basement before they left, and later when the guide asked "does anybody have any questions?" absolutely nobody did, the useless passive bunch, and I suspect that was why the first part had gone so swiftly.
• The farflung property where I thought I'd be going on a self-guided wander but they immediately directed me to join the pre-booked tour which was supposedly halfway through, and I was easily the youngest person on it which I was glad to see is still a possibility.

Let's do four of those in more detail (not necessarily in the above order).

Open House: Pullman Court (Streatham Hill) The Pre-Harlow One

Long before Frederick Gibberd was entrusted with designing new towns, back when he was only 23, he was given the job of designing a residential development for young professionals near the top of Streatham Hill. His chosen solution was a set of streamlined concrete flats either side of a central access road, walking up which is a bit like passing between two ocean liners. He also designed their interiors, even the furniture he thought would best complement a compact space, not to mention an outdoor pool for residents deep enough to dive into. That's since been filled in for either economic or safety reasons, likely both, but the flats are still very popular, so much so that Pullman Court is somewhere even architects choose to live. It was therefore a treat to be able to press a couple of entry buttons for Open House, wait for the buzzer and be allowed inside.

Most flats are accessed, after a twirly staircase, by walking out along a long balcony. I was greatly impressed by the top floor view across southwest London, although even one floor lower I imagine you'd see considerably less. The flats aren't large, they were never meant to be, the kitchens and bathrooms especially so. But the available space was well used and the interior finish finely realised, from burnished metal door frames to Crittall windows and a surfeit of store cupboards doubling up as insulation. It hadn't all been plain sailing, our host recalled, with leaky disrepair a particular challenge in the 70s and 80s, but love for Gibberd's building won out in the end. We passed his ground floor laundrette on the way out, a service that still continues each weekday, although the newspaper seller, shoeshine and florist are alas long gone.

Open House: Shrewsbury House (Shooters Hill) The Doomsday One

In 1923 a local builder replaced a crumbly mansion on the northern slopes of Shooters Hill with his own version of a country house, but before long fell into bankruptcy and the surrounding fields were swiftly sold off to create a Laing estate. Shrewsbury House became its library and also a museum, and still performs a community centre function to this day. I thought that was what I was turning up to see - a musty pile of rooms used by the local keep fitters, scouts, tap dancers, sewers, yoga posers, wargamers, am-drammers and photography society. But the tour swiftly took a different turn, explaining how the bar had once been used to coordinate a local response to the Blitz, and was replaced soon after by the construction of that resilient-looking concrete building near the summerhouse. We can't go in there for exasperating council-related reasons, said the guide, but follow me into the jujitsu room because that would once have been Woolwich's best hope in the event of nuclear attack.

An austere concrete blockhouse appeared in the grounds of Shrewsbury House in 1954. This was Woolwich Sub Control, the frontline of Cold War civil defence, with staff reporting (if ever necessary) to an identical bunker in New Eltham. The walls were thick and sturdily built - none of your RAAC here - to make up for the fact there was no money to position it underground. It was abandoned in 1968 with the disbanding of the Civil Defence Corps, and much later absorbed as part of the community centre, the chief control room making a suitable space for the honing of Japanese martial arts. We walked down an oppressive central corridor past small siderooms where civil servants would have been expected to endure an apocalyptic fortnight and found ourselves in what would once have been the control room, now kitted out with a punchbag and crashmats. Our guide told us he was standing in what used to be the chief's office and we were in the larger space where radios would have been listened to and reports typed. Thankfully it was never tested, but a shiver of 'What if?' followed me back out into sweet normality.

Open House: British Academy (Pall Mall) The Artsy One

Carlton House Terrace is a properly magnificent row of Georgian houses designed by John Nash and sits between Pall Mall and the Mall. Number 11 was once the home of the Duke of Norfolk, later William Gladstone and later the Guinness family, that's how super-posh it was. The British Academy moved into number 10 and number 11 in 1998, the knock-through being an ideal HQ for "the UK's national academy for the humanities and social sciences" (and not to be confused with the British Council, the British Museum or the Royal Academy). They move in schmoozey, researchy circles, with over a century's experience in attempting to bring the arts together, and if you step this way up the black marble staircase you can see some of the grand rooms where all those mingly influential events take place.

The wow here is the building but the British Academy are also keen to tell you about themselves making this a two-part learning experience. I'm still not 100% sure what they do but I have read a lot of their information boards and seen a lot of their art, including numerous group portraits of esteemed affiliated Academicians. I also sneaked off en route to use one of their loos so who knows which famous authors or painters I've now shared the porcelain with.

Open House: London Buddhist Centre (Bethnal Green) The Mindful One

Whereas many religions have a prestigious building as their base in the capital, Buddhism centres itself on a converted fire station in Bethnal Green. That was in operation from 1888 to 1969, at which point a bigger station was opened a bit closer to the tube, after which conversion to a spiritual hub took place. It's quite low key, which for a religion where mindfulness outranks spectacle is perfectly fine. The room where the engines were kept had its two doors turned into windows and a contemplative gold statue of Buddha added opposite, and here we perched on stacks of green cushions to learn more of the symbolism of the lotus flower. Downstairs is a more recent shrine, also shoes-off territory, better suited to meditation. The LBC was also the venue with the weekeend's finest refreshment offer, hospitality provided I suspect in the hope one-off visitors would stay a little longer.

I probably won't write paragraph 2 later.

Sorry it was a long day, not to mention the stickiest day of the year (the dew point yesterday was off the scale), and after I finally got home I felt quite lethargic so I haven't managed to completely finish writing this, I need some sleep, but I will come back and fill in the gaps honest, quite possibly in a day or two's time when nobody's reading it any more, and in the meantime there's always my album on Flickr with more photos so you can see some of what I haven't written about yet.

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