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Weekend Telegraph, Saturday 12 September 1998

by Giles Worsley

'The most intriguing buildings to view during next weekend's Open House Day in London are private houses.'

'You can always tell the architects visiting on Open House Day, according to Richard Nightingale, a three-year veteran of this annual event. They are the ones who skulk around, rather shiftily checking the hinges on the cupboards and looking at the details of the door surrounds, and then try and leave without signing the book. Fearful, perhaps, that if recognised they might be accused if copying - dread word - another architect's work? But then Nightingale should know. A partner in the firm of Cullum and Nightingale, best known for its recent British High Commission in Nairobi, he is an architect himself.

'Open House Day is the London element of the annual nationwide Heritage Open day, organised by the Civic Trust, when thousands of normally inaccessible buildings have their doors thrown open for free. In fact, rather confusingly, the day comprises four days - two this weekend for properties outside London and two next weekend, September 19-20, for those in the capital.

'Every year in London, manic-looking cyclists with detailed lists can be seen haring around the city, trying to see how many buildings they can do in a day. Do you want to see what the Lloyd's building is like inside? Or the Foreign Office? What about those trendy offices written up in the architectural journals or that idiosyncratic old building you pass on the way to work every day? Next weekend you have the chance to check them out.

'Particularly intriguing are the private houses, because most of them are modern. There is a natural nosiness in us all that is normally only satisfied when we go house-hunting or visiting country houses. When it comes to modern houses, that interest is redoubled. Most of us live in old houses, even if by old we mean Victorian or Edwardian. The chance to see a good modern house is rare. Are they the dream lifestyle of the glossy mags? Or deeply impractical fashion statements of popular prejudice? Open House Day is probably as good an opportunity as you have to find out. There are 22 modern houses on offer, ranging from loft conversions through radical remodellings to completely new buildings.

'For Nightingale, the chance to dispel a few myths is a key reason for opening his house: "People imagine architects living in elegant Georgian houses and putting people in hideous concrete boxes. I think it's important to take every opportunity to show that modern architecture is habitable, practical and agreeable.

'"Open House Day is a real opportunity to show that a house can be done in a slightly different way that is affordable, approachable and provides circumstances for modern living in, possibly, a better way than a lot of typical 19th-century houses."

'He designed the house himself 15 years ago on a narrow sliver of land between two blocks of Victorian semi-detached houses. A conventional building with three bedrooms could have been squeezed in, but instead he wanted a sense of space and light, so the middle of the house is given over to a double-height top-lit living-room, with all the other necessary rooms fitted economically into the spaces around.

'The result is not aggressively modern, but has a comfortable feeling of airiness that makes it instantly attractive. Of course, for an architect there is always the hope that opening the house that he designed for himself might lead to a commission, but so far it remains a hope.

'"I'm not aware that it's led directly to work, but I do think it is good for architecture generally," says Nightingale, who was amazed at the popularity of what is after all a very small house. "The first time I opened I thought I'd just sit here reading the paper and that there might be the occasional knock on the door, but there was a constant stream of people. I had no idea it would be so popular."

'Last year, he was open for a whole day and received about 700 visitors. (He was only meant to be open half a day, but the publicity got it wrong and he did not have the heart to turn people away.)

'"I opened the door and they just flooded in," he says. "Some people say I'm very brave, but I don't know what they're talking about. If they're potential burglars casing the joint, it is possibly just as well because they'll see there's nothing to take. People do make themselves at home. They sit down, feed their babies, open the cupboards. I haven't noticed anyone looking in the fridge yet. Generally, they're very polite. What they say when they get out of the door I've no idea, but they're usually very appreciative, even if they all ask the same questions, the name of the colour on the walls - which unfortunately I've forgotten - and how I got the cracking in the floor, which was a happy mistake.

'"I get plenty of architects and students, as well as non-professionals with an architectural interest, and then people who just like looking around people's houses. Some are very organised. You can see they've planned their day meticulously. Most come from London. A lot of them are people who live in the street and go past the house every day, wondering what it's like inside."

'For the unscrupulous, or perhaps merely the pragmatic, inviting the public in for Open House could be the ideal way of getting publicity for selling a house, particularly an idiosyncratic modern house. According to Martin Elwes of the London estate agent Friend and Falcke, these can be hard to sell. "It's difficult when they come on the market," he says. "They're so individual that you have to find somebody else with exactly the same taste. But because London agents are geographically based and don't focus on types of buildings across London, the right person can be hard to find. It is equally hard for a potential purchaser to find something radically different."

'Certainly, Victoria Thornton, the organiser of Open House, is aware that some people make full use of the day's publicity when they are trying to sell, although she points out that this is not the object. "Last year, the Glass House in Southwark, designed by Michael Davis for the jeweller Andrew Logan, was on the market during Open House. They used it as a good way of getting publicity and it certainly proved very popular."

'So, if the owner of the house you are looking round looks restless, why not make him an offer there and then? This could be the best chance you have to find something just that little bit different.'