The Best of Open House London – 2020 Highlights
As with most things in 2020, Open House London was a little different.
It might not have been as jam-packed, but happily I still managed to explore some hidden gems and epic London buildings!
So here are my Open House London highlights from 2020 to share with you.
Oxford House was built in 1891 by students from Keble College, Oxford. It was part of what became known as the Settlement Movement; kind of like a Gap Year experience.
The idea was that by living here, and coming face to face with the poverty and social issues of East London, they could better learn how to serve the local community.
There were three other university settlements in the East End, including the non-religious Toynbee House near Aldgate East Station. However, because Keble college was Anglican, they have a beautiful Victorian chapel;
The radical Settlement Movement in the 19th and early 20th century attracted attention from all over the world and amazingly Ghandi came to stay here in 1931, giving an impromptu speech to crowds from this window.
Another surprising feature is the rooftop, offering a spectacular view back over the City.
I love how the steeple of Christ Church Spitalfields stands out against the glass skyscrapers.
Today Oxford House is a cafe, arts centre and community hub for events. They also offer affordable meeting and office space and are back open regularly. Have a look at their website here.
School of Sufi Teaching
A short walk along Bethnal Green Road brought me to a similar space with an entirely different feel.
The School of Sufi Teaching is also a community hub and provides classes, meetings and retreats. Sufism is a spiritual practice, sometime referred to as Islamic Mysticism.
We were given a tour by the architect; Nevine Nasser, who explained that the fundamental beliefs of Islam were integral to the design. The space is meant to reflect the transformative power of Sufi spiritual practice, with details like the multiple recesses in the ceiling a link with cosmology; ideas about creation and different levels of the universe.
They also have a small rooftop garden which is based around the traditional Islamic Paradise Garden; a rectangular garden split into four quarters with a pond in the centre.
St Mary Magdalene, Paddington
It might not seem so today, but when St Mary Magdalene’s was first built in Little Venice along the Regent’s Canal, it was an incredibly deprived area. Construction started in 1867 and was finished in 1872.
It was designed by George Edmund Street, probably most famous for the Royal Courts of Justice.
Unluckily, soon after completion, a fire tore through the new building. It destroyed the new roof and the replacement wasn’t finished until a year later with the final consecration of the church happening in 1878.
But it was worth the wait…
Unique for an English parish Church, the ceiling is covered by 72 faces of saints, males on the south side and females to the north. In 2018 conservators spent six months cleaning and brightening it and it’s simply spectacular.
But there are more renovated delights below ground..
Designed by Ninian Comper in 1893, the undercroft (officially, the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre) was a memorial to the first vicar of the church; Father Richard Temple West.
To enter the space is to feel transported into a 15th century chantry chapel and it’s no surprise that it’s a popular film location. Most recently you may recognise it as the chapel used by Hugh Jackman (playing Jean Valjean) in Les Misérables.
Caroline Gardens Chapel
Getting a feel for epic crumbling churches, the first stop of Sunday’s explorations was Caroline Gardens Chapel.
The Chapel is the centrepiece of the largest complex of almshouses in London. It was built between 1827-1833 and paid for by the Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution Asylum.
Although it stands on Asylum Road and is known now as the ‘Asylum’ it had nothing to do with mental health. Rather, it was established s a retirement home for former pub landlords.
Like a lot of South London, Peckham was heavily hit by bombs during the Second World War and the chapel suffered huge damage to the roof and back wall. The original owners relocated to Buckinghamshire and the almshouses were taken over by Southwark Council in 1960.
Today it’s used as an event space and for concerts, exhibition and even weddings, having been partially refurbished in 2010. I found the whole space, with its remnants of stained glass and memorial tablets utterly wonderful.
From Peckham I travelled across London to something entirely different; a 1970s Brutalist icon.
It’s hard to miss Trellick Tower in Notting Hill. It looms over Goldborne Road, provoking admiration from some and disgust from others. I personally quite like a bit of Brutalism, but can sympathise with those that don’t.
Built in 1972 to the designs of Ernö Goldfinger, the Trellick commission came just after he had completed his Balfron Tower in Poplar. It was intended to help relieve London’s post-war housing crisis but it was quickly plagued by violent crime and anti-social behaviour, thanks to the high density and single corridors providing the only lift access. It was eventually dubbed ‘Terror Tower‘.
In the 1980s the situation improved with the formation of a residents association, spurred by tenants buying their homes through ‘right to buy’. Later a concierge was hired and security measures were installed. Chatting with a couple of residents they said they felt lucky to live here and it was a nice mix of occupants (although one mentioned the service charge was a painful addition to rents or mortgage payments!)
But whatever you think about it from the outside, I was here to get inside and preferably high. Thankfully, the charming Crispin had agreed to open his flat to visitors for the weekend and we were free to have a look;
High-rise living might not be for everyone, but the views were definitely jaw-dropping.
Benjamin Franklin’s House
For the final stop of the weekend, I took the chance to revisit a quirky London museum that I hadn’t been to in years.
36 Craven Street (original No.7) was built in c.1730. Its most famous resident; Benjamin Franklin, planned to rent a room here for 6 months in the 1760s but ended up staying on-and-off for 16 years!
While living in Craven Street Franklin – along with his landlady’s son-in-law – ran an Anatomy School and somewhat sinisterly they found 1,200 bones during structural repairs in the basement in 1998.
Today the original rooms are left bare, letting the walls, flooring and architectural features speak for themselves. This was a conscious decision by the house as there were no detailed records of furnishings.
It’s nice because it allows you to appreciate the details of the Georgian home, especially the original banister which was one of the main reasons the house secured Grade I listed status.
Benjamin Franklin House have reopened and are now offering architectural tours on Fridays and Saturdays. Find out more here.
I hope you now have some inspiring London places to add to your to-do list.
Did you see anything you’d recommend for next year’s Open House weekend? Or maybe you enjoyed the virtual offerings instead?! Let me know in the comments.
Support Open House London
Like many Arts Organisations, it’s been tough for Open House to keep going and what they managed to put on this year – I think – is nothing short of remarkable. If, like me, you’d like to see them continue for years to come you might like to sign up to support them. I joined as a friend and you might like to as well. This isn’t an ad and I don’t gain anything from sharing this, but If you enjoyed Open House you can find out more about support them here.
More London Inspiration
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....