diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 17, 2023

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

• The repurposed building indelibly associated with a star architect where everyone had to wear a name badge in case the over-excitable staff wanted to make conversation, but there was in fact hardly anything to see and I was out of there ripping off my sticker within minutes.
• The collection of buildings where it wasn't at all clear which spaces were open or, in one case, how to get past the entryphone up the cracking staircase, but all the inhabitants raved about the place.
• The pioneering building where you had to go on a tour but they didn't know when it might start and didn't say how long it might be, and it was in fact a substantial circuit including three trips in a lift and a chance to spot Wembley's arch while standing beside an office shredder.
• The unoccupied building where the tour group was quite serious and kept asking pertinent questions about load-bearing pillars and cubicle finishes, then sidling off to take photos of the building with flashy cameras, which I suspect the architect was thrilled by.
• The potential building with a map to follow around a not-yet building site, where one of the activities was to tell the volunteer what you thought their pictograms meant.
• The iconic building which was going to be open anyway so hitched onto Open House's coat-tails, and I have wanted to get inside for over 20 years and hey presto, achievement unlocked, even if they no longer have a bar and the view's been demolished somewhat.
• The cultural building where I ought to have hung around for the tour because it would have been fascinating, but instead I free-flowed round the main spaces, the huge benefit of which was getting multiple photos of the glorious space without any pesky human beings in.

Let's do three of those in more detail (not necessarily in the above order).
(I was going to prioritise writing about the buildings that were open again today, but alas none of them are)

Open House: Institut français du Royaume-Uni (South Kensington) The Gallic One

What Kensington needs, thought 19 year-old Marie d'Orliac in 1910, is an institute to introduce the populace to French culture. Her government agreed and the Institut français du Royaume-Uni was created, doubling up as somewhere for the French-speaking to find learning and literature in their own language. Eventually it needed premises of its own and two townhouses in Queensberry Place were duly transformed into an Art Deco palace of the arts. With appalling timing it opened in March 1939, but survived all that and today is a thriving hub where you might go to borrow a French book, see a French film or eat in a French cafe. It's also gorgeous, of which there is a bit of a hint on the latticed brick exterior but the real 'Mon dieu' is inside, most notably in the library.

It used to be the main reception room, hence the architecturally showy pinky-mauve windows. You enter up an ostentatious marble staircase with the main cinema on the left (originally a theatre) and the library along the landing to your right. It dazzles, or at least it does when the sun's shining, almost like you've entered an Islamic temple in a chateau (although French culture tends to be secular so it can't be that). A huge tapestry covers the back wall, the parquet flooring is no-expense spared and the overhead lighting looks like the Olympic rings coming together during the 2012 opening ceremony (but obviously it can't be that either). And amid all this are French-speakers selecting French library books - history by the far wall, sci-fi in a single case on the balcony - or doing their French homework in the less showy room nextdoor while papa picks out a good novel.

There's a full French flavour to this quarter of Kensington, which lies just south of the Natural History Museum, including the French embassy, a large lyceé and a separate children's bibliothèque named after Quentin Blake. The institiute also houses a proper brasserie on the ground floor where beef tartare is the signature dish, because cuisine is also one of the French arts. If you don't get to Paris enough, and particularly if French cinema floats your boat, you might consider getting your dose of culture here.

Open House: National Audit Office (Victoria) The Flighty One

The problem with the original London Airport is that it wasn't in London, it was in Croydon, so Imperial Airways built a check-in terminal beside Victoria station and whisked travellers down there by train. It was a sleek moderne terminal with direct access onto platform 19, which was also used to speed passengers to Southampton Water to board their flying boat. With appalling timing it opened in June 1939, but survived all that, and when Heathrow opened after the war BOAC switched to luxury door-to-door buses instead. What finally killed it off was the Piccadilly line extension, so the very last passenger check-in came in 1980, and after that the National Audit Office moved in instead. The interior design downfall from sophisticated elegance to civil service austerity was steep.

The NAO undertook another refresh in 2008, which included ripping out the strip lights and restoring the wood-look pillars in reception, also transforming the bay where the coaches used to park into a brightly lit canteen. But once you get beyond the security gates and the terrazzo staircase it's all hotdesks, breakout spaces, swipe-through doors and banks of grey recycling bins. Numerous posters from the golden age of air travel adorn the walls because the NAO relishes its history, but also exhortations to pre-book a desk before you arrive and scrappy notices explaining how to unclog the photocopier. Even the former boardroom on the 7th floor of the tower has been transformed into a bland workspace, as we saw on the tour, but the walnut veneer has been retained and if you look out of the windows the view spreads from Victoria Coach Station to the suburbs.

On one side there's a fantastic view down the railway tracks out of Victoria, a surprisingly broad ribbon that weaves off towards the Thames. This would have been the path of all those BOAC travellers preparing to jet off to the Empire, departing the building through a special gateway which (as we were shown in the gloomy basement) no longer exists. Further along a utility corridor (signed "Do not enter under any circumstances") is a wooden hatch through which airmail letters and packages were passed, because the world's first passenger air terminal didn't just transfer people. You never quite know where these tours are going to take you, nor how massively the building may have changed by the time you see it.

Open House: Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration - New River Head (Finsbury) The Illustrative One

The New River has been aqueducting drinking water into the city since 1613 and terminated at New River Head, a waterworks off Rosebery Avenue in Finsbury. Most of the site is now luxury gated flats, alas, but the coal-fired heritage corner has become increasingly derelict while Islington council searched for a better use for it. Meanwhile the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration had been looking for a permanent home... and hey presto, the disused Engine House and Boiler House will make an excellent set of galleries and learning studios. For Open House we were only allowed to roam the exterior (beware uneven surface), inspect some drawings inside the windmill base (caution low lighting) and enjoy Chenyue Yuan's 25m-long historical mural in the coal stores ("The stream ran gallantly into the cistrene"). They have a lot of work to do so the intended opening date is 2025, but expect this space to draw you in.

I probably won't write a paragraph 2.

Sorry it was another long day, not to mention increasingly warm, and I have to go out and do all this again today 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, just like I eventually did with last weekend's reports, you probably haven't noticed but I did finally get round to it even though hardly anyone's reading that far down the page any more, and in the meantime I've put even more photos into my album on Flickr, putting the new ones at the start for a change, so you can see some of what I haven't written about yet.

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