A volunteer's account of Open House


Our Learning Coordindator, Tascha von Uexkull, started out by volunteering for Open House. She wrote this piece for her blog when she first started volunteering for us back in 2017. You can read more of Tascah's blog here.

Saturday 16th September 2017

I keep telling myself to write more. I found a hurried piece I’d written about my experience of the Wellcome Collection the other day, and it really recalled to me the details of the afternoon; I realised that my memory had deprived me of some of my favourite aspects. It is, after all, the small details that make things special. So, to get to the point, I felt really happy this afternoon, walking down Whitehall, considering the grandeur of my beautiful city, and I thought, well maybe this is a day worth writing about.

So I’d heard about Open House London before. I knew it was a weekend event intended to make architecture more accessible and to provide entry to a variety of buildings, some with normally restricted access and others simply for the sake of highlighting their (perhaps overlooked) architectural interest and integrity. This year I also knew was a big one: the event’s 25th anniversary, with some 800 buildings involved. On conducting some further research, I discovered that over a quarter of a million people take part each year and that the Open House Guide is the biggest architectural publication in the UK, with a print run of 100,000 each year. Interestingly enough, I also found that the event is no longer London-centric either, and has in fact spread around the world across five different continents.

Somehow, however, despite my voracious appetite for any volunteering opportunity going, I’d never actually got around to volunteering for Open House. This year, I had a free Saturday and no excuse. The only difficulty was deciding which of the 800 buildings I wanted to volunteer at. Some were instantly ruled out; the volunteering spots at the more popular buildings get filled very quickly. After trawling through the Guide (£6.99, but free for volunteers!), I finally settled on RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), 66 Portland Place.

If you’ve never been, I highly recommend a look. It’s much larger than I was expecting, offering event hire, regular exhibitions, children’s activities, a bookshop, a cafe and a very impressive library (the British Architectural Library). A Grade 2* structure, it was opened in 1934 by King George V and Queen Mary and was designed by G. Grey Wornum who won the competition that attracted 284 entries. Among the most impressive features are the moulded plaster panels on the ceilings by James Woodford and Morris Weidman and the central marble staircase. Throughout the building, there is a constant sense of adventure as you attempt to discover further symbolic images, which are, true to Art Deco architecture, rife.

In honour of Open House, there was a small exhibit of photographs and drawings from the Library, displaying the original building which had stood in the place of the current RIBA Headquarters, as well as various other competition entries, and construction photographs of the current building. Two other volunteers were assigned to the same room as me, leading the badge-making activity. It was quite a relief actually, to find them both so friendly and amicable. Volunteering at an event on your own, after all, can be a little daunting. We eagerly tried to attract children to the activity, even when one managed to almost break the badge-maker… It was downstairs manning the reception that I felt more in my element, acting as a point of introduction and information. I always have thrived in roles where I feel useful.

After an interesting discussion with RIBA’s Head of Learning, who incidentally knew the Head of Learning at Museum of Childhood where I work (small world!), I headed out for my next adventure. Desiring to take advantage of my volunteer’s queue jump badge, I’d arrange to visit Banqueting House and Portcullis House in Whitehall. I was pleasantly surprised to find that entry to the former was normally paid, and absolutely stunned to discover the enormity of the Rubens ceiling fresco as I ventured upstairs. Craning my neck, I couldn’t make out all the detail (the helpfully placed mirrors were useful in that quest), but it was still absolutely awesome. The white columns tipped with gold, the high windows shedding light into the long tall room, the force and weight of the acknowledgment of Charles I’s final walk through here as he headed for his execution. Wow.

Silly me, in all the excitement I’d entirely forgotten where Portcullis House was. The building opposite the Houses of Parliament, the one I’d passed many times in the past, and yet the name hadn’t connected with me. So there I was wondering if I should’ve turned off earlier, intrigued by the long queue snaking down the road, only to discover that the queue was for the very building I desired to enter. Tentatively approaching the swinging doors, I approached the member of staff on the door who calmed my fears, ushering me to the front of the queue. Somewhat unusually as the face of a prestigious building, she had a sense of humour too, and we joked about my fear of the evil stares of those behind me. After a rather intense airport-style security check, I entered the rectangular courtyard, the centre of which was a water feature lined with fig trees. This was my favourite area; airy and light, I almost felt like I’d stepped back outside. It was rather gratifying then to later learn that this area is normally not accessible to the public.

Portcullis House, I learnt, provides a working space and facilities for MPs and their staff and was officially opened by the Queen in 2001. It was purpose-built with the intention of providing a necessary addition of offices and committee rooms for MPs. The ground floor atrium is used for meetings, along with the available administrative and refreshment facilities. My favourite mental image was that of the MPs rushing over to the Commons Chamber to cast their vote when a division is called in Parliament. On the first floor, where I explored an array of (generally) sub-par contemporary paintings of MPs, MPs hold committee meetings. The upper floors, which are not accessible to the public for obvious reasons, hold the MPs’ private offices.

As I was leaving, I paused to take one more look at the beautiful courtyard, so enriched by the simple natural features, yet another step forward in the quest for eco-efficient architecture. It made me smile to see people sitting and chatting at the tables aimlessly in the spots normally occupied by MPs. What a glorious idea, to open up these insular spaces for one weekend. It may be just a glimpse, but it seems radical.

As I walk back down Whitehall, headed homeward, I look around me at London at its finest, inviting everyone into its beautiful but sometimes imposing walls, rich with history. I feel London is powerful right now, standing in the face of all adversity, and I am truly proud to call this bustling city my home.

And then it starts to rain…but what’s London without the rain, eh?