There are two really outstanding things on display at London Open City, an exhibition organised by Design for London at Somerset House.
The first is an installation designed by Studio Glithero “in conversation with” artist Richard Wentworth. It consists of three coin-operated telescopes of the kind normally found on the top of cliffs and tall buildings. Look into a telescope, and you see a video of an unconventional London view – the stables under the Westway, or the football pitches on Hackney marshes. Swivel the telescope, and the camera pans, as if one is watching a webcam. The discovery that you can change the camera angle at will in a recording is enough of a trick to provoke a gasp. It’s a little moment of wonder.
The second outstanding exhibit is Somerset House itself, basking in March sunshine. Londoners now take the palace by the Thames for granted. It’s as if it has always been this way, a nice place to stop for coffee in the summer, a destination for ice-skating in the winter. But it has been less than a decade since the courtyard was the preserve of bureaucrats’ cars. Design for London couldn’t have picked a better venue to highlight the difference a bit of high-quality public space can make. And that’s the point of London Open City, to highlight what the mayor’s office is doing to improve, add to and link together London’s squares, gardens and parks.
It’s a show pitched at public participation, and so best attended in a fit of civic spirit, or to highlight a bit of space that’s dear to your heart but sadly neglected. Otherwise, it’s somewhat disappointing. There are four huts on stilts, each of which illustrates an aspect of Design for London’s work, such as reconnecting the city with the river and decreasing the amount of obstructive clutter on the streets. (Icon particularly liked artist Siggi Egertson’s cartoon of the Thames.) Visitors can highlight their favourite little bits of public space on a huge wall-mounted map. A wood-lined room illustrates east London’s lesser-known parks and byways. There are accompanying essays, mounted on pads, so you can tear off the top copy and take it away for later perusal. Gerrard O’Carroll’s first-class design for the exhibition space is full of great display ideas like this, it’s a great venue, and it’s a hot topic – it should add up to more, but it lacks the killer content.
London Open City runs from 6 March to 27 April at the Hermitage Rooms, Somerset House