Open House London, which runs from 17-18 September, is an opportunity to visit buildings in the capital which remain a mystery for most of the year. Devotees scour the guide to visit new additions, and queues form early in the morning for the most popular locations.
Many of the buildings’ owners provide guided tours, sometimes accompanied by the architect, and preparations begin weeks in advance to provide slide shows, leaflets and exhibition boards to ensure that people get to see as much of the buildings as possible.
But what if you can’t see, if you are blind or partially sighted? Asian bank Nomura was posed this question when VocalEyes approached them about a possible tour for blind people of their Blackfriars headquarters at 1 Angel Lane designed by Fletcher Priest Architects and completed in 2010. VocalEyes is a nationwide audio description charity that provides access to the arts for blind and partially sighted people including the performing arts, visual arts and most recently architecture.
Nomura was up for the challenge, but Fletcher Priest wanted to go one step further and explain the very complex shape of the elements that make up the building at 1 Angel Lane. They asked their in-house model maker Andrew Brown to produce a set of 3D printed models, made from a biodegradable thermoplastic, to be held and touched so that the VocalEyes group can understand how the building fits together. Twenty 1:500 scale 3D models have been printed and in conjunction with the guided tour, Fletcher Priest hopes this will give blind and partially sighted people a real insight into the architecture.
For the tours VocalEyes worked closely with Nomura and the architect to plan a route around the building to describe the space – its volume, its materiality, sounds, textures and what it’s like to work there. Together they developed a story about its construction, beginning in 200AD when the earliest settlement on the site was a trading port. The narrative traces its growth in 1282 when it became the site of a Hanseatic Steelyard what is now Cannon Street Station, through the Second World War when a brewery on the site was bombed, right up until the completion of the telephone exchange known as Mondial House and its eventual redevelopment by Fletcher Priest to become the headquarters for Nomura. Starting with the exterior, where huge structural wooden beams evoke its maritime past, the tour will pass through the interior, taking in the main reception, a typical trading floor and the auditorium before ending up on the roof garden complete with vegetable patch, bee hives, a water feature and Nomura’s own restaurant.