Open House London 2015

Over the years, I have witnessed how Open House London evolved from a relatively low-key architecture event to a major and extremely popular one. Although it is encouraging to see the public’s growing interests in architecture, it is also frustrating because advanced bookings are filled up quickly and long queues are common outside of popular buildings over the weekend.

My strategy this year was to stay away from the landmarks in order to avoid queues, yet many had the same idea as me, so I still had to wait and accept that queues were unavoidable!


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 Alexandra & Ainsworth estate


My first stop was the Grade II listed Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in South Hampstead. I have read a lot about this estate before my visit, and I was keen to find out more about the most expensive social housing project ever built in this country. Designed by architect Neave Brown for Camden Council, the 6.47-hectare site (the size of 12 football pitches) ended up costing £20.9 million and was completed in 1978.

During the Thatcher years, the estate fell into disrepair and it took some time for dissatisfied residents to get the estate listed. Along with Golden Lane estate, Dunboyne Road estate (also designed by Neave Brown) and The Branch Hill Estate, this estate is now being regarded as one of the most important examples of social housing in Europe.

It is hard not to be impressed by Brown‘s design and vision as I walked along the pedestrian walkway (Rowley Way) with terraced maisonettes on both sides. Unlike Ernő Goldfinger‘s vision for high-rise social housing ( like Balfron and Trellick Towers), Brown‘s ziggurat style terraces provide a greener and more aesthetically pleasing exterior. There is a documentary about this estate called Rowley Way, and you can find out more about the architect’s ideas via this film.


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Alexandra Road park


Although there were guided tours of a flat and the park on the day, the waiting time for the flat was more than 1 hour and a half, and so I skipped it for the park tour instead (which was a shame).

The newly restored Alexandra Road Park was granted The Heritage Lottery funding in 2013, and our tour was lead by landscape architect Neil Davidson from J & L Gibsons, the studio responsible for the restoration work.

At the tour, we were informed that the park was previously a no-go area for kids, so the restoration of this 4 acres park is significant as it aims to create a relaxing multi-functional communal space for all ages. Now the contemporary and beautiful park has five playgrounds, circular lawn, meadow, rows of trees and benches that hopefully would benefit the residents of the estate in the long run.


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McCann Building


I have walked past the stunning streamline art deco McCann building near Russel Square countless times, and I have often wondered what its interior is like. Believe it or not, but this building was built for Daimler as a car hire garage back in 1931. Designed by Wallis Gibert (the architects behind Perivale’s Hoover building and the Victoria coach station), this garage was the inspiration for the Fisher Price garage toy. The Grade II listed building was refurbished in 1999 by PKS Architects and shortly after, advertising agency McCann moved in.


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 Interior of the building and W. Heath Robinson’s exhibition/ drawings from ‘How to Live in a Flat’


Unfortunately no photos were allowed beyond the main atrium (except for the roof top), but I can assure you that the interior of the building is as fascinating as the exterior esp. the circular corridors! The atrium’s decor of hanging laundry and balloons were inspired by the drawings from English cartoonist and illustrator William Heath Robinson‘s book ‘How to Live in a Flat’, which were part of the exhibition at the agency.


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Exterior of The Royal College of Physicians


Located next to Regent’s Park, The Royal College of Physicians is another building that has piqued my interest for years. Although the the Grade II listed building is normally open to the public, the guided tour on the day did provide insight into the history and design of the building.

Designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun (who also designed the Royal National Theatre) and opened in 1964, this conspicuous white Modernist building was greatly influenced by Le Corbusier. Like Neave Brown‘s vision for social housing, Lasdun‘s vision to build a modern building for a centuries-old traditional body was considered to be quite radical at the time.


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 Interior of The Royal College of Physicians


Aside from the exterior, Le Corbusier‘s influence can also be seen inside esp. in the Lasdun Hall, where light floods the hall from the enormous windows. Yet Lasdun was also keen to merge traditions with modern values, hence he recreated the Censor’s Room, which is lined with original 17th century oak paneling from the College’s third home in Warwick Lane. Other notable architectural features include the stunning spiral staircase and stained glass window created by Keith New.


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The medical garden of the college


The Medical garden was created in 1965 and it contains 1,300 plants either used as medicines in the past 5000 years or which commemorate physicians. Each plant is labelled with its Latin name, plant family, and the regions of the world from which they come from. It is not only an oasis in central London, but also a fine complement to the impressive building.


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Superhome: 8 Belsize Court garages


A few years ago, I visited one of the Superhomes in Belsize Park ( 2a Belsize Park Gardens), and it was eye-opening to learn different energy-saving methods that can be applied to a traditional house. This year, I decided to visit another superhome nearby, which was converted from a Victorian coach and horses stables.

The 19th century mews house is now home to an award-winning architect’s studio and 4 bedroom upper maisonette. It was very interesting to meet the architects from Sanya Polescuk Architects and learned about how they have retained many of the original Victorian features like the wall tiles, ironwork and cobblestones while making many carbon-reducing improvements as possible.

One of the best things about the Open House event is getting the opportunity to visit private homes of Londoners and learn more about how to create sustainable housing through creative ideas and simple methods. This visit has definitely inspired me to visit more private homes next year, though I am not sure if the queuing time will be reduced. I wonder if the popularity of this event will turn it into a biennial one? I sincerely hope so.


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