Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Open House London: An Architectural Wonderland

Last weekend, thousands of people queued to see historic landmarks across the city. Battersea Power Station was obviously going to be a big hit for many, but little did I realise how many. An estimated 40,000 people visited the power station in two days, with 20,000 queuing on the Sunday.

I dedicated my Sunday to Open House. I had a quick scout on Twitter to see the feedback of people from the Saturday viewing and it was reported that people could be waiting for up to 5 hours to get in. Taking into account that I would arrive at 11, it didn't seem possible that I would be able to get in to the building before it closed at 4 (in actual fact it only took about 2 hours for people to get in).

Instead, I decided to get as many buildings in as possible and below is a summary of my trip around some famous landmarks.

Beaconsfield: The Former Lambeth Rugged School 

Beaconsfield Art Gallery provides a creative space and describes itself as occupying 'a niche between the institution, the commercial and the alternative’. It was founded in 1995 in the remaining wing, the girls wing, of the former Lambeth Ragged School, built in 1849-1851 by Henry Beaufoy.

 Lambeth Ragged School

The school was one of nearly 200 ragged schools, so called because of the 'ragged' appearance of the vagrant children that attended them. Ragged schools provided education and food for poor children. The schools gave them basic instruction, in often makeshift accommodation, and helped them find work, or even to emigrate.

 Beaconsfield as it stands

Henry Mayhew, writing in the Morning Chronicle, 29 March 1850, spoke to an officer with experience of attending a ragged school, and noted:

'At the street Ragged School (Lambeth), none live in the house, but the attendance in the winter averages about 400 boys and girls every Sunday evening. The gentlemen who manage the Ragged School do everything they can to instruct and encourage the children in well-doing; they make them presents of Testaments and Bibles and give them occasional tea parties. In fact, everything is done to improve them in the school. The patience of the teachers is surprising. The boys and girls are separated in school; there are more boys than girls-perhaps 300 boys to 100 girls. The girls are better behaved than the boys; they are the children of very poor people in the neighbourhood, such as the daughters of people selling fruit in the street, and such like. Some few years ago I had some inquiries to make on the subject, and found several children of street-beggars there.'

Unfortunately, the gallery seems to have lost this rich history in an attempt to display creative art. This was in the form of four speakers that were set up in the middle of the school hall, which did not emit any sound (it turns out that they weren't turned on properly, as a visitor pointed out when we exited the building). There was no sense of the story that this beautiful old building and the creaking wooden floors could tell. It would have been better to recreate the ragged school and use it as an educational museum for school trips, or as a gallery housing more than one artist.

It was interesting to read about but, for me, the installation failed to fill any 'niche'.

UK Supreme Court 

Next stop was the Supreme Court, which is the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population 

The court room 1, 2 and 3 were open and the library; all of which were fascinating to look around. I felt a brief sense of self-importance as I sat in a chair where someone had previously made life-changing decisions. In the library, it was interesting to note that the 'stone' ceiling was in fact wood but painted to look like stone. 

The 'stone' ceiling of the library

They had a few important cases on display, one particular one on women's rights interested me the most. The 'Persons Case' was raised by Henrietta Muir Edwards and four other woman in 1929 against the Canadian government. The case began as a reference case in the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that women were not 'qualified persons' and so were ineligible to sit in the Senate. The case then went to the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council in the UK, at that time the court of last resort for Canada within the British Empire and Commonwealth. The Judicial Committee overturned the Supreme Court of Canada's decision. This case established that Canadian women could be appointed as senators and had the same rights as men.

'A heavy burden lies on an appellant who seeks to set aside a unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court, and this Board will only set aside such a decision after convincing argument and anxious consideration, but having regard

(1) To the object of the Act, vix., to provide a constitution for Canada, a responsible and developing State; 
(2) That the word "person” is ambiguous and may include members of either sex; 
(3) That there are sections in the Act above referred to which show that in some cases the word “person” most include females; 
(4) That in some sections the words “male persons” is expressly used when it is desired to confine the matter in issue to males, and 
(5) To the provisions of the Interpretation Act; 

their Lordships have come to the conclusion that the word “persons” in section 24 includes members both of the male and female sex and that, therefore, the question propounded by the Governor-General must be answered in the affirmative and that women are eligible to be summoned to and become members of the Senate of Canada, and they will humbly advise His Majesty accordingly.' 

Thank god for 'persons' such as Henrietta Edwards.

Foreign Commonwealth Office

On we went to the FCO, a department of the government responsible for protecting and promoting UK interests worldwide. It was created in 1968 by merging the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office.

The stale looking carpets and institutional feel of the interior made it seem like a common room for retired public school almuni. 

However, the rooms for entertaining guests had been renovated and redecorated in lively colours. The central hall, Dubar Court, was the most impressive. It used to be an open court but had a glass ceiling added to protect it from England's unpredictable weather. 

 Dubar court

Banqueting House, Whitehall

The Banqueting House, Whitehall, is the only remaining component of the Palace of Whitehall. The building is important in the history of English architecture as the first building to be completed in the neo-classical style.

The most controversial element to the building's history is the execution of King Charles I, who was beheaded on the scaffold erected at the front in January 1649.

Charles I was led through the banqueting hall before his head was severed from his body after being accused of high treason. Apparently, he took one last look at the beautifully painted canvasses on the ceiling painted by Peter Paul Rubens. Ironically, when these paintings were first put in place, banqueting could no longer take place as the smoke from the candles used to light the room began to tarnish the ceiling.

Charles I's severed head


Walking along Lower Thames Street, you would never realise that your feet are a few metres from some of London's best preserved Roman remains. The Billingsgate Roman bathhouse was first discovered in 1848. The remains are not open to the public due to a lack of funding, so it was a rare treat to witness the ancient rubble.

The Roman baths as they are

 The Roman baths as they would have looked

The ruins are the remains of a bath house that were attached to a Roman's house, who is assumed to be someone of importance as it would have orginially been right on the river front - the centre of trade and the place of entrance for important regal visitors to the land. 

This ended the day perfectly.

Overall the day was fun, free, entertaining and educational. I will be doing the London Open House again next year, but will be sure to try and avoid the queues. As a final note, Open House is also available across the country and across the world, so keep a look out for next year and maybe make a holiday of it!

Where: London
Price: Free
More info:

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