About this blog

The expat has returned from voluntary exile and finds herself with a new domain to discover: London.


Saturday, 18 September 2010

Open House weekend: Inside the City

For one weekend every September, London buildings of architectural note which are (mostly) normally off-limits to the public open their doors. Open House London first began in 1992, and has expanded its repertoire of sights over the years, with visitors able to explore everything from eco-friendly private homes to town halls to theatres all over Greater London - for free.

After learning about the history and architecture of the City of London on Context's Portrait of a City walk a couple of week's ago, I decided to return to the area and take this opportunity to actually go inside some of the buildings we discussed in detail. Starting at Guildhall Art Gallery (normally £2.50; free on Friday), I skipped through the dull-looking collection of Victorian paintings (lots of twee ladies looking ready to faint from too-tight corsets) and made my way down to the basement, where the remains of a Roman amphitheatre uncovered in 1988 hide. Left behind is some of the walkway graced by Russell Crowe's predecessors and the remains of stone walls which supported the timber seating for spectators: more than 5000 at a time, experts believe. A small exhibition explains more about the games that took place in Roman amphitheatres, London in Roman times and the excavations that uncovered the amphitheatre.

Lloyd's Building
Deciding not to join the painfully slow queue to visit the financial palace that is the Bank of England, I opted instead to venture inside the Richard Rogers-designed Lloyd's Building. Opened in 1986, the building was certainly a radical move for such a British institution as Lloyd's; it being one of Rogers' creations that follows his usual aesthetic of locating all the 'workings' of the building, such as pipes and lifts, on the outside. When I first came face to face with the building on the Context walk, it put me in mind of a scaled-down, smartened-up version of the Puleva dairy products factory I used to pass on the bus from my former home in scenic Alcala de Guadaira to Seville. Open to the public on just one day each year, a view of the inside was definitely worth queuing for though: a surprising combination of post-modern and traditional not at all reminiscent of a dairy factory.

View from 'The Room'

The Open House self-guided visit began in 'The Room', an open-plan office space on the first floor where Lloyd's underwriters huddle together on cramped workstations. Contrasting with the modern workspaces are the ornate wooden clock which dominates one end of the room, and the mahogany rostrum which came from the 1928 Lloyd's building. Hanging inside the pillared structure of the rostrum is the Lutine Bell, traditionally rung to alert staff to important news (so much more elegant than a round robin email); one stroke signalling bad tidings, two for glad. The bell was on board the HMS Lutine when she sank with her cargo of gold and silver bullion in 1799. As Lloyd's had insured this valuable freight (worth over £1 million) and paid the claim in full, the business got to keep the bell.

Following a perusal of The Room, visitors were whisked up to the eleventh floor in one of the exterior glass lifts; the first of their kind in Britain. As we shot upwards, a child standing by the window promptly declared 'I don't like it. I'm scared', and I have to say I agreed: once we stepped out of the lift, the glass-sided walkway linking the lifts to the main building may have afforded impressive views over the City, but it made my head spin and my legs wobble. Fotunately a head for heights wasn't quite so necessary inside 'Gallery 11', unless visitors chose to peer over the balustrade and down the central atrium for a view of The Room. On this level, the style of the building changed abruptly at the doorway to the Adam Room, an eighteenth century dining room designed by Robert Adam for the Earl of Shelbourne. The stucco-clad, chandelier-illuminated room was bought whole at auction by Lloyd's in 1958, later moving to the new building. Also providing a sense of history in Gallery 11 is the collection of Terrence Cuneo paintings which depict different scenes from the two previous Lloyd's buildings.

As the glass lift swept downwards, I momentarily forgot my fear of heights at the sight of the view before us: Tower Bridge, the London Eye and St Paul's were all visible on London's skyline. I began to see the point of Rogers' design technique: a lift with a view like this is surely superior to an enclosed box where the only sights to behold are your fellow lift passengers. Can't say I'd like to be in one if it broke down though.

Exiting the building, I wandered through Victorian Leadenhall Market, unfortunately under scaffolding for restoration works, but open to the public during Open House, with live music and food and drink stalls on site this weekend. Unfortunately, I had run out of time to see more venues, but tomorrow morning I'll be setting the alarm clock and getting back out there to see some more of what Open House has to offer.

Leadenhall Market (minus scaffolding)

  • Open House is taking place in London on 18 and 19 September. Details of buildings open to the public can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment