The Building Centre & the Pipers Central London model
Even if you have only the most general interest in London's architecture, the Building Centre is worth a visit to see the Pipers Central London model, a huge and exact representation of the city in 1:1500 scale.
The temporary displays exploring contemporary design and construction in the capital are often surprisingly engaging too. And anyone with a serious interest in the built environment will find enough here to occupy them for several hours.
The Building Centre opened in 1931 to provide information and inspiration to architects, designers and builders, and is open free of charge to professionals and the public alike. It is centrally located on a cobbled crescent on leafy Store Street (just off Tottenham Court Road and only a few minutes' walk from the British Museum), so it's not difficult to fit a short visit into your schedule.
The spacious premises house several galleries, curated by New London Architecture
. There are also areas for manufacturers to showcase new products and technologies, the small but pleasant 'Crescent Café' in the foyer (see below), and a branch of the Royal Institute of British Architects' RIBA Bookshop
The Pipers Central London Model
The Pipers central London model
The main reason for non-specialists to visit the Building Centre is the superb model of London that takes pride of place in the foyer area. Created by the company Pipers
, which describes itself as a 'world leader in presenting the built environment', the 1:1500 scale model helps one get a feel for the city, its structure and form, and - perhaps most interestingly - its future.
A blue River Thames runs through the centre of the model, the buildings are coloured grey, and the city's many parks and garden squares are green. The 'footprint' of every building is exactly represented, and landmarks - such as St. Paul's Cathedral - are fully modelled. All recent and proposed building projects submitted for planning permission are coloured white, so areas of change and regeneration are clearly visible. The model extends to the 2012 Olympic Park in the North East of London.
Railway links are also represented, including the route taken by Crossrail, the high frequency East-West rail service that is currently being constructed beneath London.
Pipers Model detail: Big Ben, Westmister Abbey, Houses of Parliament in the foreground and the London eye in the top right
Pipers Model Docklands Canary Wharf
Our only criticism would be that the model is almost entirely without labelling (a discreet sign marks the position of the Building Centre!). While we understand that the model was built mainly for the specialist, and labelling would tend to obscure the detail, it means that it can be quite hard for non-Londoners to orientate themselves. Obviously the Thames and larger parks are a great help with working out which part of London you are looking at, but if you're not very familiar with London's layout, then it's a good idea to have a map on hand to help identify areas and landmarks.
Information panels around the model give a useful potted history of London's origins and development (the population growth graphics are particularly startling), and information on major issues facing the capital and its 33 boroughs, such as housing.
Changing displays on London's current development & construction
The Building Centre's changing displays and exhibitions are an excellent source of information on what's happening in architecture, planning development and construction across the whole of London. Text, images, models and video are used to examine projects relating to the future shape of the city, such as the ambitious plans for the UK's first urban cable car
, which will span the Thames, linking the O2 Centre with the EXCEL exhibition and conference centre. Other featured projects are less glamorous, such as the slow but crucial process of renewing London's Victorian water pipes. Apparently over 500 streets are undergoing works at any one time, which, together with the Crossrail project, goes a long way towards explaining the amount of road works in the capital.
Dozens of developments are examined, from areas of major urban regeneration to residential and social projects. From time to time the galleries also show the work of architecture students and recent graduates, ranging from standard architectural plans to conceptual artwork and installations.
More for the architecture and building specialist...
The Building Centre's product galleries have displays on new products and materials from a wide range of manufacturers and specialist suppliers. An Eco Zone showcases solar technology, low carbon solutions and more. The galleries are aimed primarily at those working in the design, building and construction industries, but interested members of the public are welcome to look around.
In addition to the displays and exhibitions, the Building Centre and New London Architecture Forum run a programme of talks and seminars, debates, workshops and training courses for those interested and involved in the construction industry.
The Crescent Café
The Crescent Café
This small café in the Building Centre foyer hosts photo and other displays and is a nice, unpretentious place for a coffee or a light lunch. In good weather there are additional tables outside on the cobbled crescent.
The café sells hot drinks, a small selection of sandwiches, wraps and bagels, a 'soup of the day' and muffins, crisps and chocolate bars. There is also a 'builders' breakfast' on offer in the mornings, plus bottled beers and house wine. The café aims to follow the '7 principles of sustainable food' as defined by Sustain
(the alliance for better food and farming). A 'super food of the month' is incorporated into some of the breakfast and lunch options.
Except for a short period over lunchtime, the café is a pleasant place to work or chat. Architecture buffs should look out for the odd famous face, as - according to the reception staff - architects such as Zaha Hadid
pop in from time to time.
The Building Centre on Store Street