There has never been a better time to explore cities. That may seem counter-intuitive during a pandemic, but the restrictions on travel, public transport and live entertainment create opportunities. Londoners are cycling or walking to far-flung corners of the city, finding green spaces they knew little about and discovering under-appreciated architectural treats in their local area.
With many of the usual cultural options curtailed or off-limits, more attention turns to exploring the built environment, whether a quirky one-off residence, housing scheme or Art Deco factory, and re-evaluating our relationship with a city in enforced transition.
Open House launches its annual festival this weekend at a unique moment for London. Its organisers recognise the challenge, placing greater emphasis on virtual tours and discussions or commissioning online films to complement its usual physical viewings.
“Open House 2020 is a hybrid festival; running normally would be incongruous with our times,” says Jayden Ali, a trustee of the Open City parent group. “We’re championing the local. It’s an opportunity for people to form a more enduring connection to the place they call home.”
Accompanying this year’s festival is The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs. Instead of the guidebook produced in previous years, 33 writers were commissioned to cover a borough close to their heart. We read about housing scandals, working-class history and migrant cultures revitalising neglected areas.
Consistent themes emerge that echo Open City’s mission to encourage debate on London: the spatial is always political; the changing relationship with our own flats and houses; the shifts in transport that changed the type of buildings made; and outer London’s outsized role in the event’s listings.
With the focus often on very localised areas, only a few chapters serve as tour guides. But the writers’ brief was more ambitious. “It is an intervention in an argument about London,” says Owen Hatherley, the book’s editor. “London as a place people live, not as myth or a tourist site or a national cash cow, but as the diverse city of 9m people, more than half of whom grew up here, but usually get spoken over by incomers from the rest of the UK.”
As Londoners continue to expand their horizons despite the lockdown, he hopes Open House will continue to help visitors unlock the city’s “alternative geographies”.
Postwar London was rebuilt at breakneck pace, with borough architects given the remit to define the local landscape. Their role was phased out, with private property developers taking the lead in alliance with councils.
In the chapter about the western borough of Hillingdon, architect Charles Holland describes a “decisive shift in British politics and the social democratic project” that influenced the “prog rock” postmodern curiosity of its town hall, opened in 1979.
Symbols of more optimistic and generous times are everywhere but do not tell the whole story. North Kensington’s “model” housing estates were admired by politicians from Westminster, but they harboured high rates of deprivation and poverty. The physical attributes of areas are often retained but then changed from within by new arrivals.
Writing about Stoke Newington, Aydin Dikerdem shows how Turkish groups from across the political spectrum have helped shape this dense corner of Hackney. He stops at Dalston’s Beyond Retro, the vintage store housed in what was the Halkevi Turkish community centre, and before that a Jewish-owned textiles factory.
With many of us working from home, our relationship to our own flats and houses has altered during lockdown. Some stories highlight the home’s role as refuge: Johny Pitts goes from Finnish seamen’s mission to converted riverside flat within the space of a few Rotherhithe streets, deftly covering the restorative benefits of both.
In a poetic polemic covering Bexley, Josie Sparrow uses William Morris’s Red House to show that “to make a home is to dream of a future”. Like placemaking of entirely new districts, such nesting is an act of hope but one dependent on economic circumstances too, especially during a downturn when councils’ capacity for provision or families’ ability to meet market rates are tested.
“What I really hope is that the pandemic makes a bit more obvious what is really valuable in London’s housing,” says Hatherley, speaking particularly in terms of light, air and green spaces.
A Victorian mindset that London’s gems would only be found within Zones 1-2 is of limited use to the Open House explorer. Packed in the “doughnut’ of outer London is a diverse set of treats, vividly portrayed in the book.
From the corporatist towers in Croydon, a borough keen on constant reinvention, to Merton’s generally successful low-rise housing experiments, Sutton’s unique low energy-usage BedZed housing project, the civic qualities of Enfield’s Modernist Tube stations and the sheer scale of the interwar Becontree development in Barking, they offer glimpses of the different priorities of bygone eras.
A few entries, such as novelist Hanif Kureishi’s Bromley, recall the once-prevalent bigotry in some boroughs but do not sufficiently capture the modern, more diversified reality.
Some of Greater London’s signature 20th-century buildings were built to be viewed at pace — and visits may require a car or bicycle. These include Richard Seifert & Partners’ Tolworth tower in Kingston, a giant among semi-detached abodes and modest shopfronts next to the A3 arterial road, and their abandoned Unisys Towers office blocks, on the North Circular in Stonebridge, Brent.
The “golden mile” of Art Deco headquarters-cum-factories, now in Hounslow borough, capitalised on the “smart new highway heading out of London”, says historian Gillian Darley. “The Sunday morning I drove out to look at those buildings, super bright and early, was almost hallucinatory. [It was] so exciting to be looking at architecture with a purpose,” she told me of her experience in covering them for the book.
Elsewhere, the public-transport network plays a pivotal role. Jason Okundaye explains the importance of the P5 bus in taking residents of a Battersea estate to Brixton’s markets, and migrants’ transformative role in making the area’s arches viable commercial hubs before they became a target for gentrification.
But walking remains key to experiencing the city. In his chapter on Tower Hamlets, Thomas Aquilina notes the “new rules of navigation and distancing” and the sensation of a “subtle protest” as he walks up Whitechapel Road.
After a decade of exuberance, the future of London is again up for grabs; new housing schemes will be scaled back; commercial property faces a reckoning; the cultural offering that lures young adults here will be much reduced in scope. Talk of “ultra-safe zones” for white-collar workers feels dystopian.
Darley says “village London will be OK” where small businesses can be supported, but says the City looked “wiped out on a recent trip”, recalling the grimmer, more confined London of her youth. “I feel desolate for my beloved European city,” she adds. Given this uncertain future, more workshops and talks on the city’s next steps would have been welcome.
The architectural highlights of each chapter in the book don’t align with OH’s listings, but this is unlikely to put off Londoners now used to traversing the city on missions of discovery. The book and Open House, adapted to the social-distancing requirements of a pandemic, should become essential aids for every Londoner rethinking their relationship with this complex megacity.
Five highlights — physical and virtual — of Open House 2020
In a typical year Open House attracts around 250,000 visitors to around 800 buildings. There are now 47 other Open House festivals around the world, from New York to Lagos, the first having taken place in 1992. Here are the FT's top picks of OH 2020:
The Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury
A sympathetic refurbishment of the Grade II 1960s complex was completed in 2006. Explore how the centre's residential and retail features were revived to fulfil the original dream of a holistic community on the site.
Consort Road, Peckham
The house on TV’s Grand Designs with the extractable roof! Book to discover how the designers made features such as a retracting loo and sliding bed-bath work in a relatively small space. Airbnb users can rent it out.
Self-guided borough tours
Using the Open House's itineraries, try the cycling tour of Barking and Dagenham taking in the huge Becontree housing estate, Dagenham library and other features, or the walking tour of Tower Hamlets that includes historic gems of Stepney and Limehouse and St Pauls Bow Common, an exemplar of 20th-century church architecture
Ealing Village, online video tour
Five private blocks of interwar flats in a Dutch-colonial-Baroque style that matched the “glamorous aspirations” of the period according to architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner.
Salters' Hall, London Wall, online film
A rare example of a Brutalist Livery Hall, built by Sir Basil Spence and recently refurbished. View the New Pavilion, exhibition and archive space and gardens.
House & Home Unlocked
FT subscribers can sign up for our weekly email newsletter containing guides to the global property market, distinctive architecture, interior design and gardens.
Sign up here with one click
Get alerts on House & Home when a new story is published