The Hiding Of London
Buildings which were once open have now shuttered.
Much of London has traditionally been hidden from view, but the city’s increasingly open-door policies have not made much more available for visitors see.
There are a vast number of buildings to which no access is permitted, and sections remain under secure supervision thanks to the threat of terrorism. Only during Open House weekend every September do a few briefly open their doors. The event is so popular that you can never get inside the good stuff, and I always end up making do with dull corridors and staircases of factories.
London’s energy powerhouses were once filled with boiler rooms, voltmeters, switchgear and controllers, equipment that’s redundant in the 21st century, when many old features of London buildings are now incorporated into the designs of restaurants and apartments where once they were thrown away. The Ram Brewery in Wandsworth and Battersea power station both plan to do incorporate features when they emerge as yet more ‘retail/luxury’ centres.
The BT Tower sadly remains off-limits thanks to a terrorist bomb revealing its vulnerability decades ago, although I did get to go up this slender, tapering tube some years back. Although it moves in high winds, a great pyramid of concrete at its base keeps it stable (it turns up as a party venue in ‘Bryant & May up the Tower’ in ‘England’s Finest’).
London remains confusingly part-closed. While the pubs are open the clubs are shut, and Mayfair has buildings which have been scandalously left to rot under their absentee owners. Plus, some buildings which were once open have now shuttered. County Hall on the South Bank changed from public use to private ownership, and most of the buildings were quietly converted into top-end apartments under London’s Worst Mayor™ Boris Johnson. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has now closed, the stunning Daily Express building has been shut for years and even BBC Television Centre has been turned into flats.
Other secret spots remain off-limits – HM Prison Wandsworth is a panopticon penitentiary, its design allowing prisoners to be watched from all angles, the astonishing Foreign Office courtyard is no longer visitable without prior arrangement and even Repton Boxing Club has lost its evocative building to ‘luxury loft living’ and exists solely as an online presence (although events are still staged). The beautiful Midland Bank (think of the bank in ‘Mary Poppins’) is now a food court, while 33 Portland Place, a Victorian billiard room hidden in a neo-classical Adam townhouse (it appeared in ‘The King’s Speech’) is being turned into…you guessed it.
All this was inevitable because great buildings often occupy great sites, and many societies, companies and factories did not need ever more expensive London addresses (Wardour Street was the home of the Dagenham Girl Pipers – they’re in Marylebone now). Thanks to online communities many groups which once occupied physical buildings now exist in the Cloud – but they’re still there, and use available venues as they arise. The Players Theatre is, incredibly, still going and meets at the Comedy Museum and in the RAF Club.
But as London becomes increasingly residential for the lucky few who can afford to live there, I wonder if its new buildings hide interesting architectural quirks or secrets. The rebuilt London Bridge Station now has a food court and market on the site of an old vinegar factory called Vinegar Yard, so at least the names are being preserved.