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.
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.