diamond geezer

 Monday, September 21, 2009

Open House: Southwark

For the second day of my Open House weekend I devoted my attention to the London borough of Southwark. Three pages of venues to choose from, including City Hall (already been), Dulwich College (fully booked) and the top of the Oxo Tower (damn, Saturday only). But there were still plenty of goodies to view instead, including shiny South Bank towers, elevated millennial libraries and an awful lot of arty people's bedrooms.

Blue Fin Building1) One street back from the Thames, where once stood Europe's largest 1950s office block, rise three Bankside towers. One of these is the Blue Fin Building, named after the aluminium panels randomly-spaced around the outside, and now home to 2000+ employees of IPC Media. If you read Woman's Own, NME or Country Life then your magazine originates here. IPC HQ forms a bold collection of elevated offices anchored around an airy atrium. It's all very glassy, even the vertigo-inducing walkways that span the central void. For Open House, visitors were allowed to use the lifts unsupervised (that's a rarity, I can assure you) to explore four of the building's eleven floors. Half price magazines (and archive leatherbound Look Ins) on 3. The very non-glam offices of various female-oriented lifestyle periodicals on 7 (Ugly Betty this is not). On the very top floor, the main restaurant (which would have served lunches to visitors had anybody wanted any) [photo]. And down one on 10, as well as a ring of transparent meeting rooms, the opportunity to amble out onto the roof terrace and soak in the view. Oh yes, this is why I do Open House, for the chance to view London in an unfamiliar location from above. The London Eye encircling the Shell Building like a halo [photo]. The Dome of St Paul's peeking out from behind the tower of Tate Modern [photo]. And a few nice plants and two circles of astroturf should employees ever tire of the outward panorama. Unlikely, I suspect.

Peckham Library2) When Southwark council sought to revitalise the centre of Peckham in the late 1990s, their eyes turned to the "temporary" post-war library Hut beside the High Street. As a replacement, they commissioned architect Will Alsop to design a landmark public building, and were delightfully surprised by the result. From end-on, Peckham Library looks like a copper-clad inverted 'L' [photo] [photo]. The books and public stuff are all at fourth floor level, with stilts to prop up the suspended edge from below. This makes it rather awkward to change your books if the lifts aren't working, which they weren't on Sunday afternoon, causing several elderly or pregnant visitors to abandon their visit and head home. Our tour group was lucky enough to see some of the behind the scenes areas, including the various 'meeting pods' on the fifth floor. The central pod is shaded by the orange tongue that sticks out over the edge of the roof. Alas the other two aren't quite so well ventilated and can get a bit warm inside, not that readers sitting in the main library underneath would ever realise [photo]. The building's Stirling Prize medal is kept on the top floor in a cabinet, while from the stairwell there's a great orange-shaded view north to the skyline of Central London. On the staff-only 3rd floor we got to peer down below the overhang to watch Peckhamites scuttling across the paved square beneath. And on the 2nd floor we entered Southwark's Local History Library, where the borough archivist greeted us with an eclectic selection of historical documents and shared some Alsop tales. It came as no surprise to discover that the new Peckham Library had boosted visitor numbers sevenfold. If you choose to check in too, keep your fingers crossed that the lifts are working.

Quay House3) 4) 5) 6) 7) If you're one of the nine readers who've actually visited my flat, you'll know that interior design isn't one of my obsessions. Nevertheless I spent a considerable proportion of Sunday taking lessons from the experts by poking around inside their stylish abodes. Bunch of show-offs, the lot of them, but then they had a spectacular amount of good taste to show off. At 15½ Consort Road, Peckham, Monty Ravenscroft has crammed an astonishing house into a narrow scrap of unwanted wasteground. The garage at the front doubles up as his wife's dance studio. A glass roof glides across the hole in the top of the living room when it rains [photo]. The bedroom has a showerhead embedded in the ceiling and also a fully functioning bath stashed underneath the bed. It's no surprise that Channel 4's Grand Designs have been here, and maybe that's what drew Sunday's fascinated queues to the front door. Half a mile away, at Quay House, an art studio and architect's residence have been shoehorned into a converted milk depot. I loved the fire-escape-style landing suspended above the hallway, unnecessarily rising and falling to reach four small upper rooms, and I was also particularly taken by an unexpected recycled artwork in the back yard [photo]. Meanwhile, behind the unassuming facade at 49 Camberwell Grove, widower Nick has built an eco-friendly retirement-proof bolthole. His centrepiece is a cylindrical lift to link the two floors, which would have completely replaced the staircase had not Southwark's "bloody" planning department insisted that he put a flight in. But Nick's a mere eco-amateur compared to the owner of 2 Coleman Road, whose two-up two-down is reputedly carbon-negative. Obsessive adherence to an environmentally-friendly lifestyle enables Donnachadh to export electricity to the National Grid (and, for a fee, he'll audit your home to help you do the same). With bags more character than all the other houses put together, however, was the 300 year old townhouse at 67 Grange Walk, Bermondsey. Sympathetically restored, its imperfect angles and slanted stairs had visitors grinning with "I want to live in a house like this" covetousness. Of all the houses I visited, the owners here had made the least attempt to hide away all their belongings, resulting in an 18th/21st century culture clash of most appealing proportions. I may never aspire to live anywhere even vaguely similar, but Southwark's Open House weekend permitted several opportunities to learn from the experts.


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