Have you ever wondered what it was like inside those buildings you’ve always been curious about, always had a subconscious admiration for? London Open House Weekend is an attempt, and a brave one, to turn the private architectural wealth of the capital into a public pleasure ground of built delight. I was there for last year’s event and managed to take in the pretty stupendous foyer of the Daily Express building, Fleet Street. I also attempted to get inside Norman Foster’s 30, St Mary Axe; a foolhardy ambition on a weekend when the entirety of good-design-loving Londoners come out to play with the architectural goodies laid out for them like toys on a soft, wipe-clean mat. The queues for the Gherkin that day challenged those at an All Bar One somewhere in the City on a Friday night after close of trading. Tiring, by now, of the prescribed programme on offer, myself and my companions took in some long, admiring glances at the outside of Richard Rogers’ Lloyds of London building, just around the corner from the Gherkin-mania, and then promptly decided to drop out of the programme and make our own pilgrimage to a non-authorised architectural gem at 2, Willow Road in Hampstead.
What is it that troubles me about the Open House idea? I suppose it is the sense that what we are offered as visitors is sanctioned, packaged and organised to the extent that none of it feels like genuine discovery, and so the delight one might experience from seeing inside an essentially private building is dissipated amongst the crowds, ravenous for the next voyeuristic thrill. On the rare occasions I find myself in the role, I hate being a tourist, and this is tourism writ large with a desperate, agitated edge. In tourism we are usually being sold something – a location, an experience, some sort of socio-cultural signifier that will justify (and, indeed necessitate) working 40 hours a week for 47 weeks of the year to pay for it – but here the punters are treated as tourists just for turning up to experience the interesting design that exists outside of Next, or garden centres, or wherever it is that people spend their weekends.
And then, when it’s over, when have finished queuing and being marshalled and following the brochure for the weekend, we go home and carry on with our lives. What are we left with? Well-designed public buildings that we can access for free on any day of the week? Some, yes. Workplaces that have been built thoughtfully with the function of our jobs and the importance of aesthetic engagement in mind? For the lucky few, perhaps. Homes that lift our spirits simply by combining beauty with cosy familiarity? Hmm, that really does stretch credulity in the case of the majority.
Contrary to all melancholic appearances, I do think the Open House Weekend is a good idea insofar as it exposes the best of architecture and design to public enjoyment, hopefully inspiring a few people along the way to think more critically about their built environment. For those of us with a passion for this sort of thing it does, however, feel like rationing. Six hundred buildings accessible over one weekend a year does not a revolution make. And make no mistake, a revolution is what we require whilst planning authorities and popular taste persist in thinking it quite acceptable that every patch of green and brown land be used up on execrable housing like this. Exposition to good design must be more of a priority to educate people in the ways of taste. Yes, there is so much good architecture in London and elsewhere in Britain, but it is all but invisible to those whose lives are spend in a ricochet between office block, suburban housing estate and retail park. The good should be exposed to all, for free and far more often. There are battles to be fought to prevent the further globalised blandification of Britain’s cities, and the more people there are on the correct side, the better.