A couple of weekends ago it was Open House London, two days where hundreds of London’s more interesting buildings open up, for free, for curious passersby (and organised pre-bookers). The capital fills up with interested parties carrying the distinctive green books. This year, on both days, we were only free from around 3pm onwards (due to a wedding and a sports race on Saturday and Sunday respectively) so had to optimise carefully with most places closing by 5pm – so we focused on the eastern part of the City of London, where there is a great density of interesting (and open) buildings.
3pm: RSHP architects practice in the Leadenhall Tower
This was a pre-booked tour and involved a couple of queues and a wait before getting in. Once on the 3rd floor lobby (there are multiple levels), we looked at an impressive Lego model of the tower (also known as the Cheesegrater), before heading up in high-speed lifts to the 14th floor, where the architectural practice which designed the tower, and numerous others including the famous Lloyds of London opposite, is based. There is a striking gap (see pic above) in the interface between the lift landing area and the workspace, followed by a glass-panelled room where the practice’s servers are based – very neatly racked, as they are visible to all who enter, stored behind glass. The kitchens and meeting rooms are here. The lift landing area contains the bathrooms, where the bottom of the sinks are angled horizontal in exactly the same way that the tower is angled vertically – that is, with a 20 degree tilt. This all means that the rest of the space can be completely open – and it is, on this floor. Even the ceiling panels were not installed, instead, the plant infrastructure was left. This creates a void which allows talking and other office noise to just disappear. Sir Richard Roger himself sits at the far end of one of the long desks – his desk noticeable for having no computer on it. The windows have stickers on them showing which way to look towards other buildings designed by the practice. The most iconic building of all though, perfectly lined up with the tower (and the reason why it has to tilt backwards) is St Paul’s Cathedral, out to the west.
4pm: St Helen’s Bishopsgate
By 4pm on Open House London days, most buildings are shutting their doors or have set of their final tour. So we were lucky to stumble into St Helen’s Bishopsgate, just 100 years from the Leadenhall Tower. This ancient and curious church, formally a nunnery and parish church now joined together, was badly damaged in the 1990s IRA bombings, and has radically restored. Inside, it is very bright inside, it is largely a box shape with the platform off to one side rather than being in the middle. The floor was also raised by nearly a metre, so that some of the older stone memorials have a pronounced drop downwards from the floor edge to them. One particularly interesting and unusual feature is the walk-in baptistry.
2:30pm: Drapers’ Hall
One of London’s livery halls, and recently famous for the Great British Banquet, this is an exceedingly grand and opulent set of rooms, accessed through a suprisingly small doorway and corridor. It was great to be able to just walk in, get handed a guide and wander under huge chandeliers and huge, gilded ceilings.
3pm: Bank of England
This was another pre-booked tour, with tight (X-ray) security and a strict ban on photography. Fair enough – it is the Bank of England, and while the museum is normally open to the public (on weekdays), this was a tour inside the functioning rooms themselves. The tour included the marble floors and the parlour rooms, though not the gold vaults. The parlour rooms are very opulent and set in historic styles, even though the bank was rebuilt from the ground up in the 1930s. They include a red room which is set up like an “old boys clubroom” and is for visiting guests, a blue room which is where the Monetary Policy Committee meets to make decisions on interest rates etc, a green room which is a larger and more rarely used room for larger meetings and banquets, and finally a yellow dining room. Most of the rest of the bank is just standard office space and so we only saw a glimpse of these bits. We then exited into the museum itself, where we were able to lift a gold-bar (through a hole in a perspex box and with theatrical security – four CCTV camera screens, two members of staff flanking the box). A ticker display above showed the current value of the London Gold Standard bar I was holding – £399,000. I did manage to open another perspex box in the museum though – one operated by a rotary combination lock, the sequence of which can be revealed by answering a number of questions. It still took a good 10 minutes to perform the required number of rotations to the correct accuracy, with suitable pauses between. The token inside could then be swapped for a mini “gold bar” pin badge freebie.
4:30pm: Masonic Temple in the Andaz Hotel, Liverpool Street
Quite a long queue to get in for this final building – perhaps because it was one of the few still open for access as Open House London was drawing to the close. Eventually we squeezed in, just before 5pm, into a hotel and along and up a long set of corridors and steps, until suddenly we stepped into an opulent and windowless “secret” chamber, elaborately decorated. It was bricked up for many years since the lodge was abandoned in the 1950s, only discovered a few years ago when builders knocked down a void. Now it is used for receptions and other formal events.
Looking forward already to next year’s weekend, and hopefully I’ll have the full weekend to explore. I think concentrating one one small area – or alternatively focusing on one particular borough, not necessarily a central one – is a good strategy, for maximising visiting time over travelling time.