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Open House Festival: our essential guide to the homes to visit — from a 57th-storey penthouse to an artist’s basement bunker

Little Brownings in Dulwich won  won last year’s Don’t Move, Improve! Award and featured in Homes & Property (Adrian Lourie)
Little Brownings in Dulwich won won last year’s Don’t Move, Improve! Award and featured in Homes & Property (Adrian Lourie)

Open House London shouldn’t work. Buildings that are usually off-limits to the public — be they closely guarded government buildings, skyline icons or normal people’s homes — open their doors to anyone who wants to nose around, for no better reason than to make the capital more accessible, open and equitable.

All this in a city that does not always lend itself to public access (just try to stroll the length of the Thames path to prove that point to yourself). But, for the past 31 years, for a limited time in September (previously a weekend, this year extended to a fortnight) the gates are unlocked and doors are opened wide to spaces that are usually inaccessible.

There are some big-ticket visits, which should be booked well in advance, but to my mind the most fascinating opportunity is the chance to visit people’s own homes, something which seems to be offered in the spirit of immense generosity. That is why, when I was asked to curate a list of my 10 picks to visit this year, it wasn’t purely professional interest that persuaded me to theme my selection around private residences.

I have attempted to group together a list that showcases the diverse and varied types of home available to people with widely different budgets and lifestyles in London. The common thread between all of them — from the most lavish new penthouse to the fabulously designed council housing and innovative residences — is that they offer unique inspiration for each of us trying to carve out our own space to live in this often expensive, sometimes difficult, but always somehow beguiling city.

Alexandra Road, Camden

Chances are you have seen the impressive red brick walkway flanked by curved, stepped, concrete flats in the backdrop of a film or one of the many music videos filmed on this estate, designed by the beloved Neave Brown for Camden council and completed in 1979.

The Alexandra Road Estate designed by Neave Brown for Camden council (Eric Firley / RIBA Collections)
The Alexandra Road Estate designed by Neave Brown for Camden council (Eric Firley / RIBA Collections)

It is often used to signify urban menace but I urge you to visit to see for yourself the beautifully designed flats, each with its own private outdoor space and the strong sense of community between residents. Yes, I’m biased — I used to live here — but I think it is a fantastic example of how to build high density, spacious and green public housing without going high rise.

One Park Drive penthouse, Canary Wharf

Luxury penthouse apartment. Three of the stalest words in the property journalist’s lexicon, so often used, so little meaning. This Canary Wharf flat is at the top of Herzog and de Meuron’s first residential building in the UK. Views are a given (it’s on the 57th floor) but the double-height rooms and tall windows are genuinely impressive.

Views from one of the penthouses at One Park Drive (Canary Wharf Group)
Views from one of the penthouses at One Park Drive (Canary Wharf Group)

The concrete spiral staircase winding up the centre of the living area had to be poured in situ, there’s multiple outdoor spaces and even an art studio, giving it the feeling of a full house perched on the top of a high rise. Most of us are unlikely to come across this level of luxury in our daily lives so grab this opportunity.

Tower Bridge Moorings, Bermondsey

Architect Nick Lacey bought the ancient moorings in the shadow of Tower Bridge 40 years ago and the handful of boats that initially berthed there has grown to a community of more than 100 people. The moorings have faced various threats over the years, but have ridden them out so far and the indefatigable Lacey has expansion plans at other sites. A lesson in community creation.

Tower Bridge Moorings has a community of over 100 people (Juliet Murphy)
Tower Bridge Moorings has a community of over 100 people (Juliet Murphy)

Kitchen in the Woods, Dulwich

Planning restrictions are the bane of many a home improver’s life, especially in a conservation area, so it’s fascinating to see how Helena Rivera of A Small Studio worked within the guidelines to create an urban oasis family home in Dulwich. There’s now a seamless connection between kitchen and garden, an envy-inducing window seat and dual- aspect kitchen window wall connecting the house with the leafy garden outside.

This home in Dulwich has a kitchen window wall that seamlessly connects the house to the garden (Juliet Murphy)
This home in Dulwich has a kitchen window wall that seamlessly connects the house to the garden (Juliet Murphy)

OPEN Beyond Beck Road, Hackney

This Hackney street is a monument to the parallel gods of artistic endeavour and house prices. In the Seventies it was a semi-derelict row of Victorian houses scheduled for demolition and squatted by a creative community that included artists Helen Chadwick and Richard Deacon, gallerist Maureen Paley and musician Genesis P-Orridge.

A Hackney street-turned-exhibition space (Sonny Malhotra 2022)
A Hackney street-turned-exhibition space (Sonny Malhotra 2022)

While no longer a co-operative, the street will become an exhibition space, showing community art in one of London’s most rapidly gentrified neighbourhoods.

Home of Jermaine Gallacher, Borough

Erstwhile Homes & Property interiors columnist Jermaine Gallacher is a true London original and his basement Peabody flat in Borough is a showcase for his DIY, art school-influenced approach to interior design.

Punk spirit reigns — get the rudiments and get on with it — making this one of the hottest destinations for edgy design inspo.

Punk spirit reigns at Jermaine Gallacher’s basement flat in Borough (Juliet Murphy)
Punk spirit reigns at Jermaine Gallacher’s basement flat in Borough (Juliet Murphy)

You may have to be born with Gallacher’s knack for spotting boot sale gems that pass as high objets d’art, but we can all try to imitate it.

Douglas Fir House, Muswell Hill

Architect Christian Brailey added almost a third to the size of what was a decrepit studio in Muswell Hill, taking it from a poky 463sq ft to a 700sq ft one-bed and, even better, the extension was built off-site and delivered by crane.

This Muswell Hill home was transformed by an extension that was built off-site and delivered by crane (Juliet Murphy)
This Muswell Hill home was transformed by an extension that was built off-site and delivered by crane (Juliet Murphy)

Extra ceiling height was found by digging the extension a metre down into the ground, while strong Douglas fir was chosen to support the 11ft-tall doors and big windows in the design.

Gap House, Bayswater

London loves a skinny house — land prices certainly call for ingenuity with a small footprint, and this four-bedroom Bayswater house is a remarkable case in point.

This four-bedroom skinny house in Bayswater is narrower than a double-decker bus (Handout)
This four-bedroom skinny house in Bayswater is narrower than a double-decker bus (Handout)

It is just 8ft wide to the street, narrower than a double-decker bus, but architect Pitman Tozer managed to squeeze a lot (185 metres squared to be precise) in to the former alley between two period villas. There’s even storage! Must be seen to be believed.

1 Halsbury Close, Stanmore

Built in 1938-39 by Rudolf Frankel for his sister and family, this house is a landmark of early British modernist architecture effected by émigré architects, a contemporary of Ernő Goldfinger’s 2 Willow Road in Hampstead. Thanks to its National Trust ownership the latter has been heavily visited.

This Stanmore marvel is an elegant example of early British modernist architecture (Handout)
This Stanmore marvel is an elegant example of early British modernist architecture (Handout)

By contrast, Halsbury Close remained in the Frankel family until 2019, its listing describing it as “one of the most elegant and least altered private houses erected before the war”. This is only the second time it has been listed in Open House.

Little Brownings, Dulwich

Dark, cramped, with mouldering walls and no back door. Typical £2,000-a-month rental you think. But no, that’s the “before” description of Little Brownings, a Sixties terrace in Dulwich.

A transformed Sixties terrace in Dulwich (Adrian Lourie)
A transformed Sixties terrace in Dulwich (Adrian Lourie)

Poster dealer Harriet Williams called in Archmongers LLP to work their magic and created a light, open-plan space with a secret study upstairs. The end result won last year’s Don’t Move, Improve! Award and featured in Homes & Property. Now you can see why for yourself.

Visit open-city.org.uk/open-house-festival-2023