Open House this year took me first to the Guildhall, a building whose large queues had put me off in the past. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s great hall strikes an odd note, as a sort of exercise in modernist gothic, sitting oddly next to the ostentatious monuments to Pitt, Wellington, Churchill and Nelson. The crypt is perhaps more striking, lined with vivid stained glass windows to the city’s livery companies from Airpilots to Fletchers, with adjoining room’s windows being dedicated to Chaucer, Caxton, Wren, More and Pepys. Next is the Custom House, a somewhat disappointing Georgian affair by Smirke. Exiting the building by the river, I’m somewhat overwhelmed by the presence of the Shared towering above from the opposite bank of the Thames. I then go to Holborn and visit the former Prudential building. Waterhouse’s redbrick exterior gives way to a yellow ceramic interior where vines wrap around columns and flowers the walls. The ceiling is lined with gothic vaults, albeit ceramic ones.
The next building I want to see is 19 Princelet Street. Getting onto the Tube, I notice that there are now adverts for pawnbrokers alongside the more usual business school and theatre flotsam. Princelet street itself is divided between smartly done up properties and the semi-derelict. The building is presented as a palimpsest of Huguenot, Irish and Jewish immigration (as well as the Bangladeshis) with these historical striations represented in the un-restored texture of the building. The synagogue rather reminds me of the Amstelkring in Amsterdam, with its narrow length and occluded aspect. The glass ceiling is covered in grime and the walls are cracked, while scaffolding supports the walls in the basement. One thing that isn’t represented is Rodinsky’s room, which remains shut off, as something that rather competes with the narrative of immigration established elsewhere.
The train from Charing Cross reminds me how quickly one passes from a view of the city’s towers into suburbia and from thence into a liminal area that isn’t high density enough to count as inner city housing but which is equally remote from leafy suburbia, mixing allotments with gas cylinders. The train station at Abbey Wood has a set of large adverts for a new shopping centre and a bank advert about setting up a small business. I am inclined to doubt that the residents will be especially receptive in either case. I walk by the waterside at Thamesmead South, where the grey high rise towers cast reflections in the still water, sitting incongruously alongside the swans and yachts on the water. I only realise later that this was one of the filming locations for A Clockwork Orange.
After a while, I finally reach my destination: Crossness Engine House. Albeit serving a less than glamorous purpose, this is nonetheless one of the finest elements of Bazalgette’s sewer network and one that eloquently demonstrates how the Victorians lavished care and attention on even the humblest of structures. The exterior is a harmonious blend of red and white bricks arranged in a neo-romanesque style, while the interior is arranged around a central Octagon whose red, white and green ironwork is designed to resemble flowers, leaves and trees. The comparison with contemporary engineering is a rather depressing one, even when decades of technological advance are allowed for. A large part of the interior has been restored, with one of the original engines working again (as evidenced by the periodic eruptions of steam), while the other three remain silent, coated in rust, grime and cobwebs. It’s a somewhat unsettling combination; the vision of it as decayed and ruined is in many respects easy to conceive than the one of the engines gleaming and the interior bright with paint.