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London's forthcoming buildings-fest, Open House

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Clare Melhuish previews. . .

Five hundred buildings will be open to the public during this year's Open House weekend: almost treble the number of the first event organised by Architectural Dialogue in 1994.Director Victoria Thornton views this increasing level of interest and cooperation on the part of building owners as evidence of 'an increasing passion for architecture' in the capital, and the status of the event itself in the cultural life of London will be firmly established with its formal opening by the newly-created mayor, Ken Livingstone, on 20 September at Marlborough House in Pall Mall.

Marlborough House itself, described by Thornton as 'a little gem', is just one of the many new arrivals on the programme. Now the Commonwealth Secretariat and Foundation, it was formerly the home of the Dukes of Marlborough, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Sir J Pennethorne. Among the contemporary buildings featured is Richard Rogers' Channel 4 building in Horseferry Road, which Thornton regards as something of a victory after years of refusals; it is already fully prebooked . The L loyd's Bu i ld ing is back th is year by popu lar demand, and visitors will also have access to areas ofWill Alsop's new Peckham Library which are not normally open to the public.As usual, a number of new architects' residences are on the list.

There is always cynicism about the motives of participating building owners, particularly architects transparently using the event as a publicity and businessgenerating device. They include one whose house was actually up for sale when visitors were ushered through.

However, architects' own residences do exert a particular fascination on the public, with long queues throughout the day reported by most participants. According to Thornton: 'People are always surprised and want to know more . . . they get hooked.' She suggests the attraction is a genuine interest in seeing fresh alternatives to the tired norms of conventional housing provision, rather than a more voyeuristic delight in invading the privacy of reallife individuals.

Thornton insists that if building owners have any motive other than the pleasure of contributing to a 'purely architectural' celebration, it can only - in view of the cost and responsibility to each of supervising its own opening arrangements - be very minimal. In this case, the achievement of persuading more owners, institutions and companies to join in a temporary democratisation of the city's architectural assets each year is impressive.

Needless to say, there are some on Thornton's 'hit-list'who persist in resistance to this heady idea, such as St James's Palace, the London Telecom Tower, the Reform Club and Unilever.But Open House offers Londoners an opportunity to assert themselves in the urban domain with greater confidence.

London Open House runs over the weekend of 23 and 24 September. Admission is free to all buildings, but some have to be pre-booked. All the details are given in the Open House booklet, from London Open House, PO Box 25361, London NW5 1GY, or send@londonopenhouse.org

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