World of Interiors: Emily Mann Explores the Secret History of London's Most Prestigious Buildings
Mann, Emily, New Statesman (1996)
In general, beyond the odd bit of decorating and DIY, we rarely pay much attention to the buildings in which we spend so much of our lives. The London Open House weekend, on 20 and 21 September, aims to open the doors, and thereby our eyes and minds, to the architecture all around us. This annual event, organised as the London equivalent to the heritage open days that take place across the country, gives visitors free access to more than 500 buildings across the capital, many of which are normally closed to the public.
From Barnet to Bexley, Ealing to Enfield and Hounslow to Haringey, not to mention the City and Westminster in between, a multitude of buildings are being revealed. These include the very old (such as the Guildhall in the City) and the ultra-modern (such as the Lloyd's Building). Banks, bunkers, cinemas and cemeteries: you name it, Open House has the owners to let you in. Even England's top venue for arms sales, the ExCeL Exhibition Centre in Newham, is involved--so if the police prevented you getting anywhere near it the other week, now's your chance to take a look.
The range of buildings on offer reflects more than London's history and the ever-increasing possibilities created by developments in technology. It also shows how a building's form is, to a significant extent, determined by its function. According to architectural etiquette, different types of building have been considered appropriate for different uses.
But architectural diversity also expresses cultural diversity. As well as St Paul's Cathedral, London is home to the East London Mosque in Tower Hamlets, the Buddhapadipa Temple in Merton (a complex of buildings including a Buddhist Theravada temple in the Thai tradition, one of only two outside Asia) and the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Brent (the first ever traditional Hindu mandir to be constructed outside India), each of which is open over the weekend. New buildings also reveal changing lifestyles. Included in this year's Open House is the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Maida Vale, one of the first purpose-built yoga centres in Europe. Clearly demonstrating how the use of a building informs its design, yoga's philosophy is translated into the crisp simplicity of the interior, with light pouring in through a grid of square light-wells in the ceiling.
The variety of shapes and styles, particularly in central London, also testifies to the way the city has never been subject to the kind of urban planning that has had such a lasting effect on Rome, Lisbon or Paris. This is not from a lack of ideas: within days of the Great Fire in 1666, several plans for rebuilding the city were laid before the king. These ambitious schemes, including one by Christopher Wren, sought to replace the ramshackle form of the medieval city with an ordered, gridlike design.
If Charles II had been as powerful as Louis XIV, London might well have been resurrected according to such a plan. But lack of finances, the need to restore the city quickly and, more than likely, a desire to recreate the familiar rather than risk changes conspired to ensure that the city was rebuilt very much along the same lines as before. …