Never mind the structure, get a load of the bathroom

Last weekend's London Open House, in which homes of architectural interest were opened to the public, was a real success. But the visitors seemed more interested in decor than anything else.
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Just about everyone loves to see how others live. So when the chance comes for a good look around some of the trendiest homes in London, no wonder it should prove irresistible to thousands of people. But exactly how much interest there is in contemporary design came as a real surprise to many owners, who opened their doors to the public last weekend.

Just about everyone loves to see how others live. So when the chance comes for a good look around some of the trendiest homes in London, no wonder it should prove irresistible to thousands of people. But exactly how much interest there is in contemporary design came as a real surprise to many owners, who opened their doors to the public last weekend.

Instead of the few dozen they were expecting to show round in a leisurely fashion during the London Open House event, hundreds turned up at places as different in character as a Georgian townhouse in Westminster, a City loft and a revamped council flat. Where numbers were limited to small groups, people queued, sometimes for hours, and stragglers found themselves being turned away after hours by exhausted hosts.

Many of the homes that drew most interest are owned by their architects, who relished the opportunity to explain and discuss their work. Commissions do follow, but if that is the only reason for participating, they could be disappointed. The majority of visitors were in search of stunning ideas they can copy at home.

In Camberwell, south London, Selina Dix Hamilton and John Eger, both architects, showed more than 500 people around the old button factory they have converted into a home and office. Each was given a leaflet with details of the most frequently asked questions. "Nearly everyone wants to know about the floors, the lighting and the furniture. They love the look of the computer flooring, which would normally be covered by carpet, but I had to tell them that if they tried to replace their own floors with it, their doors wouldn't fit. Also the kitchen looks as though it would be easy to copy, but a great deal of work goes into creating something that appears simple," says Ms Dix Hamilton.

Beyond the detail of the paint finishes and plants on the roof terraces, is a feeling of light and space. Clear greenhouse roofing is used as a staircase balustrade; full-height sliding partitions instead of walls. The timber-frame, top-floor extension is an example of creativity spawned by planning restrictions. A curved roof and ingenious glazing, combined with tapered beams, creates an impression that the structure is suspended in space. A new aluminium pergola is waiting to be planted with vines.

"People do see how light can be brought into a building, and that is something they can take home with them,'' says Ms Dix Hamilton. "We tried to make the day very informal and jolly because I hate the idea of imposing restrictions. Although it is amazing how some visitors behave. They would think nothing of opening drawers and looking in cupboards.''

Nevertheless the rewards, for both architect and public, are real, she believes: "It is lovely to hear people say flattering things and we sit here bathed in a glow of admiration. But it is also important for us to know what their main concerns are about modern design. A great many people wanted to know how much it cost to heat, the answer to which is very little. They can also see for themselves what you can achieve with cheap basic materials, because nothing we have used is expensive."

The first year the Egers took part in the Open House weekend, when their home was nothing but a building site, 400 people visited. "More than a few have come back to see what we have done, and a great many locals who watch the goings on during the year pop in. The most important thing is for people to get the chance to make up their own minds about what they like,'' says Ms Dix Hamilton.

At the London Open House project, Gayle Markovitz has seen a 15 per cent increase in visitors this year, bringing the total to around 400,000: "The intention is to celebrate London architecture, but I would also like to think it is something of an antidote to the DIY craze and a way of demonstrating why we need professionals."

One of the most exotic homes on display was that of the environmental designer Michael Nathanson, who has gutted his Victorian house in Hampstead, north London, and filled it with walkways and plants. He was expecting about 40 people, not the 400 that turned up.

"We had to close the gates to keep people out so we could have breakfast. By the time we opened, there was a queue around the block. They had to take their shoes off before coming in, then we took them around in small groups. I gave them a 10 minute talk, my son took over on the next two levels, and then on the top floor my daughter explained how the electric roof worked. The whole family got involved and for the first hour it was fun. After that it was a nightmare," he says.

From the questionnaires the visitors filled out, Mr Nathanson discovered that about a quarter were architects and the majority of the rest worked in the media, publishing or design. "They were wonderful and totally attentive. The things they were most interested in were the white concrete floor, the steel cage that runs through the building and the centrally-heated bath. We have a river that runs around the dining room table and I was asked numerous times if they could create the same thing. I had to say that if you asked most builders they would either look at you as though you were crazy or charge £150,000," he says.

Mr Nathanson says he would not use his own home again to show the work of his company Unique Environments. The public will, in the near future, be able to order products from a house that is being converted in Islington, north London.

But it takes more than a weekend to convert everyone to contemporary design. Ms Dix Hamilton was brought down to earth by a remark from one visitor. "Such a waste of space," was the verdict.

Eger Architects, 020-7701 6771; Unique Environments, 020-7431 6978

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