Making Waves : The Roca Gallery London

I do wonder sometimes whether I’m actually a bloke. It’s not just the obvious stuff – the fact I hate shopping, don’t like chocolate and can never remember birthdays. It’s the nightmarish tales I hear from my mates (the male ones) about moving house with their WAGs. Forget domestic goddesses. This is pure domestic demon. Take my best mate for example. He lost his dream home last month because of a soapdish: His girlfriend wanted one in the bathroom, the landlord was having none of it. ‘Seriously?!’ I exclaimed, ‘who the hell gets that excited over a bathroom?’

Famous last words as it turns out. Apparently I can get that excited over a bathroom – or at least, a bathroom showroom as I discovered thanks to Open House London. Now in its 21st year, Open House London is a weekend-long celebration of architecture and design where hundreds of buildings across the capital, many of them normally closed to the public, open their doors, often also offering architect-led talks and guided tours. It’s the perfect combination of high-brow culture and shameless voyeurism.

It’s tempting of course to head straight for the stella attractions – The Gherkin, The Bank of England, The Lloyds Building. If Battersea Power Station is anything to judge by, about 40,000 of us this year did just that. Personally, however, I’ve always preferred the more unusual listings – partly because I’ve the patience of a hyperactive puppy and standing in line for hours has no appeal, but mainly because, just like pop music, I’ve always found the starlets much more interesting than the stars.

With over 800 different buildings to choose from, often the hardest part of Open House London is knowing where to start. This year, the Roca Gallery London offered exactly the right combination for me of obscurity and celebrity. A bathroom showroom in West London, easily accessible only by Overground, was hardly likely to be a major crowd-puller. However, given its design by Zaha Hadid, it was also more likely than most to reward the efforts of getting there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Zaha Hadid has sometimes been described as the Lady Gaga of Architecture. Certainly, she’s one of the world’s most famous and sought-after architects, the nearest the profession has to a real superstar. Equally, she’s one of its most controversial figures. For some, she’s a genius, a visionary whose startlingly original designs have not only twice secured the Stirling Prize, but have also seen her become first ever woman to win the Pritzker, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. For others, she’s a diva whose work is as self-indulgent as it’s impractical – Take her unusable fire station in Switzerland or the obscured views in the Aquatics Centre at London 2012 (Even as I’m writing this, the papers are full of debate over her new Serpentine Sackler gallery, dismissed in at least one case as “aggressive and banal”).

Certainly, there’s no denying the design of the Roca Gallery is extraordinary. It takes as its inspiration water – both its movement and the way in which it carves rock as it flows. From a steely, hard concrete exterior, the design opens up into a futuristic, gleaming white atrium from which numerous chambers seamlessly flow. Carved channels and sculptures suspended from the ceiling like water drops lead the visitor through the meandering curves, revealing secret pockets of light and space. There’s barely a straight line to be found nor a hint of colour. Instead, the focus is all on light and shade, matt and gloss, coarse and smooth. One moment you’re deep in some underground cavern, the next you’ve beamed on board the Starship Enterprise.

Chatting to some of the project team during my visit, there’s no doubt the Roca Gallery has boldly gone where no architect has gone before. The double curvature which makes the design so seductive also brought with it an extraordinary level of technical complexity. Conventional manufacturing was no use – Apart from the speakers, everything in the building had to be custom-made including all of the 1200 floor tiles, none of which are identical. Site meeting minutes often extended to more than 40 pages: As Gonzalo, the construction manager, says only half in jest “we got revised drawings every Friday for two years”.

Listening to the stories, I can’t help but be struck by the refusal to compromise nor the extraordinary measures required to bring a Zaha Hadid vision to life – not least a £10m budget: Worldwide quests for manufacturers both willing and able, concrete panels sandpapered by hand for hours on end. Even the glass window panes can only be replaced if half the exterior wall is removed.

So is it all just arrogance and folly? Probably. But that doesn’t make it any the less magnificent. Andre Gide once wrote ‘the most beautiful things are those which madness prompts and reason writes’. In the case of the Roca Gallery London, maybe they’re also also those which Zaha Hadid builds.

The Roca Gallery London is located at Station Court, Imperial Wharf and open Mondays to Fridays 9am to 5:30pm and Saturdays from 11am to 5pm.

Socialist Principles : Chairman Meow & Meeting the Neighbours

Chairman Meow has been checking out the local restaurant scene: He came home smelling of fish when we only feed him chicken. Clearly, it was a dodgy late night take-away because next morning, we had a rather sickly kitty. A couple of days later and he still wasn’t better, so it was off to the Vet we go.

Henry Asleep

There’s nothing like a pet, especially a poorly one, to help break down traditional British reserve. I always remember as a child taking Clarrie (our corgi) for a walk – Half the neighbourhood would appear, demanding an introduction to my dog. Sure enough, the moment we stepped outside with the Chairman, the bloke next door waved from his garden and asked if everything was ok. As ice-breakers go, it seems it’s not just about doggy grins. A cat’s look of pure disdain is equally hard to resist.

London has a bit of a bad reputation on the community spirit front. The 2002 Lonely Planet guide famously claimed Londoners would “no more speak to a stranger in the street than fly to the moon” and not much has changed, apparently, in the last decade: In a recent survey, London was voted one of the unfriendliest cities in the world, second only to Moscow.

Strike up a casual conversation with a Londoner on the tube and it’s true, you might as well have mooned at their mum for the reaction you’ll receive. But Underground etiquette aside, in many ways London’s a far easier place in which to make friends than much of the UK.  It’s not just the sheer numbers of people (8m of them and counting) but the diversity. When you’re surrounded day in, day out by more than 270 different nationalities and 300 languages, you have to accept people simply for what they are, rather than what they should be.

Life in the Village was a bit like sending a dyslexic to the World Scrabble Tournament. People weren’t actively unfriendly, but there was always this lingering sense of ‘why are you here?’. The default population was all middle class, middle management and middle school children (it’s not called ‘middle England’ for nothing). If you didn’t fit the mould, fitting in was equally difficult.

Not only does London have the highest proportion of DINKies (dual income, no kids) in the country, but around half the city’s population is single. In other words, there’s a whole host of people out there who have neither dependents nor the security of a domestic social scene and for whom a drink after work or the local football club isn’t just a luxury but a necessity. Don’t get me wrong, being single in London still isn’t easy: If you’re one in a million, knowing there must be at least another 8 like you isn’t much comfort when all you seem to find are the 7,999,992 who aren’t. However, at least you’re in with a chance of meeting them.

It was an invite to a local barbecue which really hammered the point home. Parties in the Village had revolved solely around kiddy birthdays and school fêtes, something from which we were automatically considered disqualified. Here, everyone in the neighbourhood was invited regardless: Aussies, Kiwis, bikers, fishermen, politicians, photographers and no doubt a few tinkers, tailors, soldiers and spies too. As a social mix, it shouldn’t have worked and perhaps it didn’t, but once the wine started flowing, we stopped caring and just had a good time.

As for the Chairman, he’s now fully recovered and back doing his bit: He was caught the other day in next door’s house and unceremoniously booted out. Clearly one way to meet the neighbours, if not to make yourself popular!

The Hanging Gardens of Barbican: The Barbican Conservatory

Men are from Mars, women from Venus, but by the time they’re middle aged, they both come from the garden centre. Somewhere deep in our biological code, there’s a recessive gene which kicks in at 40 and makes you start liking things your parents enjoy. I spent my childhood being dragged round stately homes and gardens listening to nothing but Radio 4 and swore blind I’d never go near any of them ever again. Then, one weekend I found myself visiting Hughenden Manor. Next, I discovered the Today programme. Before I knew it, I was a full blown addict. Even now, I still have fond memories of listening to Radio 4 on my commute – And trust me, there aren’t many things you miss about trekking round the M25 twice a day, every day.

Fortunately, getting my garden fix in London is proving a lot easier. London has always been one of the world’s greenest cities: There are around 175 km2 of parks, squares and gardens in the capital, approx. 40% of its total area. Places like Hyde Park and Kew Gardens are magnificent and justly famous, but ask any Londoner what their favourite bit of greenery is and they’re much more likely to tell you about some little-known corner of the city where you can really escape the hustle and bustle.

Judging by the number of visitors there when I went, it seems even Londoners have yet to discover the Barbican Conservatory. Built in the early ’80s, the Conservatory was originally designed to hide the theatre’s 36m tall Fly Tower where all the stage machinery and sets are housed. It surrounds the giant structure and cleverly uses it as a centre-piece from which tropical plants and ferns cascade down in some strange, concrete version of the hanging gardens of Babylon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bizarrely, it’s the concrete which helps to make the Barbican Conservatory such a magical experience. Even in the densest areas of greenery, the brutal ’70s architecture still peeps through. The jungle seems just to have sprung up and reclaimed the city. The lack of crowds and fairy tale sound of bird song only enhances the effect. I couldn’t quite figure out whether I was on the set of a Disney film or 28 Days Later.

You really can lose yourself here. The atmosphere is seductively temperate (unlike so many hothouses, you don’t have to drown in your own sweat to enjoy!) and as one of the world’s largest conservatories, there are over 2000 different species of plant plus a host of birds and tropical fish – everything from ferns to fig trees, asparagus and capsicum. Every time I thought I was done, some new nook or cranny would magically appear to lure me further and further in. It’s easily missed, but do hunt out the extraordinary cactus room right at the back of the mezzanine level – A little bit of Death Valley in the heart of EC2.

Of course, being the Barbican, it’s not just the Conservatory where you’re at risk of losing yourself. It’s long had a reputation as one of London’s most difficult buildings to navigate. True to form, I had to ask at least 4 different people for directions before I eventually found where I was going. In fact, it’s entirely possible the Conservatory isn’t one of London’s best kept secrets at all, it’s simply that most Londoners are still wandering aimlessly around the Barbican trying to find it: Just make sure you go before they do.

The Barbican Conservatory is on the 3rd Floor of the Barbican Arts Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS. It’s open Sundays from 11am – 5.30pm.