For Open House London this weekend, we are all invited into 800 buildings that demonstrate the capital’s best architecture. From dazzling towers by starchitects to inspiring, architect-designed homes, all manner of buildings are throwing wide their doors, and this year timber is really hot, alongside all the brick, steel and glass.
Now in its 23rd year, Open House, which started as a not-for-profit organisation at a kitchen table to involve Londoners in buildings and public spaces, runs in 20 cities, from Buenos Aires to Adelaide, with newcomers Vienna and San Diego.
There is often a chance to meet the architect, and a record 1,600 architect-led tours this time round. This year’s big show stopper is the Leadenhall Building, nicknamed Cheesegrater, designed by renowned architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The 52-storey, 735ft building with a distinctive, angled shape is the City of London’s tallest office tower, and has half an acre of public space — the largest new space in the City.
Homes on show include new builds, roof or garden extensions and retrofits, and it is in the homes category that timber really cuts a dash. The lovely, sustainable stuff has roared back to the design front line — often on a budget, too.
Ultimate den: Writer's Shed in Hackney is at the bottom of a child author's garden
Next year, look out for brick, which is also enjoying a renaissance, but this year, renewable timber is the star. Bateman Mews in Clapham, by Anne Thorne Architects, shows hard-working, low-cost wood at its best. Five affordable homes were built for Metropolitan Housing Trust on a wooded backland site using prefabricated, durable red cedar panels, with old newspaper used in the walls as insulation. The houses have green roofs, a central garden and L-shape layouts, to cut overlooking. Light, ultra-sustainable yet modern, these homes in their leafy setting are a brilliant housing model.
New House in Highbury is a single-storey, two-room “urban cabin” by Studio 54 Architecture, built at the junction of two terraces on a small former car park. The house has a brick structure but with doors and windows crafted in cedar, with cedar cladding inside and out. Imagine the warm smell on a winter’s evening. New House shows how effective bespoke joinery is in making the best use of space. With its green roof punctured by lights, this slightly Scandi eco-home also has excellent insulation and heating credentials.
It's a swirly world: Room in a Room in Canary Wharf features a curvy computer-cut bedroom and staircase inside a large square room
Writer’s Shed in Hackney, by Weston Surman & Deane, at the bottom of a children’s author and illustrator’s garden, has the intended fairy tale quality and more. Lined inside and out with shingles, with a wood-burning stove surrounded by a substantial library, it has a veranda covered by a cedar screen of narrow slats with even gaps between, so that at night the whole shed glows, stripy and romantic, and the inside is visible. It’s gorgeous.
The Tree House, by 6a architects, is a ramped extension on the back of an early 19th-century cottage in Mile End, made of reclaimed jarrah. Designed as living quarters for a mother in a wheelchair, the building, with its curvy lines, seems an organic part of the garden.
Extraordinary, sensuous and stylish is Room in a Room by Atmos, in Canary Wharf. Within a very large square room, a bedroom and staircase have been inserted. The whole thing is computer-cut from plywood with oak detailing into swirling, curvy, structural ribs and stairs, to make a golden dream-room for the family, which includes two little girls.
Wood on a lavish scale: the clock tower at St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and Chambers
No space is left unswirled. Computer-cut timber is used again in Kew House by Piercy & Co, which has a steel-and-glass shell but with timber interior walls, doors and floors that are left unpainted to let their beauty shine. The children get a laser-cut timber slide to the basement.
Finally, for a truly magnificent retrofitted room lined in glowing timber against old bricks, try the clock tower of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and Chambers next to King’s Cross station. This is a great chance to see how stunning wood can look on a lavish scale. Open House runs this weekend. For full details of what’s on and how to book — if necessary — go to www.openhouselondon.org.uk.