Thursday, 27 September 2012

Open House, London...

Away from the 23 Things, Open House Weekend was a chance for everyday plebs like me to have a look inside some of the city's most remarkable buildings (many of which are normally inaccessible to the general public). I thought I'd take this opportunity to visit some of London's more unique and/or lesser known libraries:  

Rotherhithe Picture Library

This is located at Sands Film Studios (not far from Canada Water tube station). It has been converted from an old grain warehouse and the building now positively oozes with history and character. Our tour guide, Neil, grew up in to this area and his retelling of the history of this craftsy building was something of a performance in itself. He took delight in explaining how the wooden arches (which are visible in the picture below) resemble an upside version of the Mary Rose, for example and spoke fondly about the nautical history of this docklands area:  

The picture research library is located on the ground floor of
Sands Film Studios and has the feel of a boat's lower deck

The library is an educational charity, mainly used by local schools and researchers.
It has thousands of images contained in scrapbooks like these

The Studios also include an independent cinema which runs a Film Club. There are an array of workshops too, many of which are dedicated to the making of costumes for some huge productions, such as Anna Karenina recently and the upcoming film adaptation of Les Misérables:

This cosy independent cinema has screenings most Tuesdays at 9pm
Sets and props are also created on site. I and other participants in the Open London tour got to try on some of the fantastic masks and animal heads which are crafted here:

Giving my best Bottom! (A Midsummer Nights Dream)

The RSA Fellows' Library

The RSA (or the 'Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce' to give it its proper name) is located a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square and dates back to 1774. Professor Stephen Hawking, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and (a little earlier) Madame Curie... heck, even Queen Victoria herself were all Presidents of this prestigeous society. The complex nature of its architecure, consisting of 6 interlinked houses means Robert Adam's building has frequently undergone refurbishment work. The Great Room has been re-designed 8 times since its inception, as an example, although the room's original murals still survive. Some parts of the building were adapted from other uses (the Adelphi Hotel was based here during the last century, for instance) which has meant architectural challenges which designers have overcome through innovation. They've successfully opened up the space, transforming it into the bright and airy exhibition and conference facility it is now:

The Strand Entrance of the RSA and an adjoining auditorium behind this are
converted from a former tunnel which led from the house to the Thames
The domestic nature of the buildings has made for some interesting design
to help overcome the challenges of adapting the building for commercial use
The library has always been a key part of the RSA, ever since it was decided at the Society's inaugural meeting that "a book should be bought". The RSA is also a keen supporter of libraries elsewhere. A project was commissioned by this group, for example, to provide the new frontage for New Cross Learning's entrance (see Thing 16). The RSA's own library moved and was revamped in 2003. It offers Society Fellows a shiny arts and social sciences collection, along with breakout spaces in which to just relax and have a snooze!:

Lighting is used to great effect in the RSA Fellows' Library

The journals area provides RSA's Fellows with a quiet haven
beneath the bustling pavements of Central London

St. Bride Library

The library at St. Bride Foundation Institute is a very different entity still, boasting one of the World's foremost typeface libraries. On the Library Information & History Group's Lost Libraries Tour which I attended last week, it was explained how this was one of the high profile Central London libraries under threat (the Girl in the Moon provides a recent list of some of the others, with the Women's Library probably being the most high profile). So much so, in fact, that it had to close for some months and is still dependent upon volunteers to help staff its opening hours, which have been reduced to 1 day a week:

The entrance to the St. Bride Foundation Institute
St. Bride Library's reading room houses materials ranging from digital typography to "current research
on medieval printing, paper making and the book trade" (source:  the
St. Bride Library Website)
Located off Fleet Street, at one time the building formerly doubled as a recreation area for Fleet Street journalists. It included a swimming pool in the basement (now a theatre) complete with its own laundry room (now a bar.. but with some of the old laundry equipment retained for posterity!). During the interwar period, St Bride's also housed one of the World's most famous table tennis clubs, where 1929 World Table Tennis Champion Fred Perry was a member before he progressed to the proper, non-table-based version of the game!

The library itself boasts materials used in all stages of the history of publishing, from founders' type and wood blocks (used in producing images) right up to software used in publishing and graphics industries. At the top of the building is a "memories room" which houses rare books and even a papyrus fragment dating back thousands of years. The importance of the printing press can not be underestimated within the context of the information profession (there would certainly be far fewer libraries without it!) and the St. Bride Foundation maintains a working gallery of some of the most popular ones. The term "legacy" is banded about a lot in this Olympic year but the lack of funding St. Bride's Library has suffered is indicative of a failure of this legacy programme in the Capital within a library context:

The Foundation includes a mini-museum, preserving some
of the best-known printing presses from Fleet Street's hay-day

The Bishopsgate Institute is a Grade II listed building, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend which recently underwent a £7.3 million refurbishment. It still retains much of its Victorian and Art Nouveau architecture, with the focal point being the Great Hall, where the likes of Sir Ernest Shakleton, John Williams and Sir Paul McCartney have spoken or performed. 

The library here was the only one in The City of London when it opened in 1895 and soon became flooded with users, with queues around the block and over 10,000 members registered during its first week of opening. Charles Goss, the Institute's original Librarian fervently gathered books specifically on London (some 50,000 items). The library expanded to include a new reading room with its magnificent dome: 

The dome had to be replaced twice; first after air raids in World War 2
and again following the IRA's bombing of Bishopsgate in 1993

The Archives Room at the Bishopsgate Insitute's Library. The collection includes the original plans for the
building which were invaluable in helping to rebuild and subsequently renovate  parts of the Institute

Fantastically, the library is now free and open to the public. It remains a special collections/reference only facility although the catalogue is gradually being made available online. It also includes some charming artifacts, such as these illuminated  wooden shop fronts:

Faithfully constructed old store fronts at The Bishopsgate Library. The library's online archive contains some fantastic
photography portraying  London & Londoners, Feminism and the history of workers unions & protest movements

Open House London is now in its 20th year and has grown to include 800 of the City's most characterful and interesting buildingsAlthough there were queues of up to 5 hours for the very biggest attractions (especially 'The Gherkin') I found most of the events to be easily accessible and hardly had to wait at all. It's a shame it is only once per year but (if you are in the London area) I would thoroughly recommend looking out for next year's event.

Inside the Greater London Authority's 'Onion' -
City Hall was designed by Norman Foster
Looking towards the Shard (Europe's tallest building may well feature at future Open House London events)

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