Open House London: our Tower Hamlets highlights

Delve into Tower Hamlets’ hidden histories and brilliant buildings at the Open House Festival, celebrating its 30th year.

The Open House Festival returns to London this September for its 30th anniversary. With 34 places to visit in Tower Hamlets we have selected a few highlights that our borough has to offer. 

Around eight million people have attended the Open House Festival since it was launched in 1992, making it the world’s largest celebration of special buildings and neighbourhoods. 

The fortnight-long programme of tours and events celebrates London’s housing, architecture and landscapes. 

To mark 30 years of the festival, organisers are planning a number of special features including celebrity guest curators, a new book exploring migration and food in London, and fresh buildings and landscapes never before featured in the Open House Festival.

From impressive churches and quaint schools to historic graveyards, our borough has an abundance of architectural wonder.

Perhaps you’ve peered into these buildings and wondered what was on the inside, or maybe you’ve always been curious about certain historical spots. Either way, this is the perfect opportunity to get a sneak peek.

St Paul’s Bow Common

Corner of Burdett Road, St Paul’s Way, E3 4AR

St Paul's Bow Common, part of Open House Weekend

Widely regarded as the most significant post-War church in Britain, this spot is definitely worth checking out. The original grand and lofty Victorian Gothic version of St Paul’s was destroyed during the Blitz. The new brutalist design built in the 1950s expresses the radical ideas that were emerging from architectural discussions of the time. Before heading out there, you may enjoy these old photos of a wedding held in this church back in the 1970s.

Lansbury School

Cordelia Street, Poplar, E14 6DZ

Lansbury School in Poplar, part of Open House Weekend London

Lansbury Lawrence (formally Susan Lawrence and Elizabeth Lansbury) opened in the 1951 Festival of Britain as a showpiece of the Live Architecture exhibition in the Lansbury Estate. Walk through the school gates to explore this interesting mid-century design with original features. While you’re there, be sure to stroll down Aberfeldy Street and marvel at the colourful murals stretching over 26 buildings, making up London’s largest piece of facade painting.

Altab Ali Park

Alder Street, E1 1FD

Ali Altab Park

Altab Ali Park was renamed in 1998 in memory of a 25-year-old Bangladeshi Sylheti clothing worker, murdered on 4 May 1978 in Alder Street. Ali’s murder was one of the many racist attacks that came to characterise the East End at that time, and you will find an arch-shaped memorial to Ali at the entrance of the park. Formerly known as St. Mary’s Park, it is the site of the old 14th Century white church which gave Whitechapel its name. Destroyed during the Blitz, there are precious few remnants of the historic church, but do look out for the old floor plan and a few graves that remain.

Toynbee Hall

28 Commercial Street, E1 6LS

Toynbee Hall exterior

You may have heard of Toynbee Hall and the work it does fighting poverty and injustice in Tower Hamlets. You might not know, however, that this work is done from a Neo-Tudor Grade II listed building, and that the organisation was set up in 1884 to provide educational and social spaces for East Londoners. Have a look around the hall’s historic architecture yourself, or join one of the guided tours to learn how Toynbee Hall has been a powerhouse for social change.

Hermitage Community Moorings

16 Wapping High Street, E1W 1NG

view of the River Thames and Tower Bridge from Hermitage Community Moorings in Wapping

This year’s bumper Open House Festival includes more private homes than ever, championing domestic architecture and giving us a glimpse into some of Tower Hamlets’ most unique residential spaces. Hermitage Community Moorings is a development of residential and recreational moorings for historic vessels on the Thames. The infrastructure is designed to create a close-knit community of seafarers committed to traditional river craft in Wapping – swing by and see it for yourself on the 17th and 18th September.

London Buddhist Centre

51 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, E2 0HU

London Buddhist Centre exterior

One of our favourite local landmarks, if you’ve never been to the London Buddhist Centre you can go and find out about how this derelict Victorian fire station became a hub of Buddhism in the West. Throughout the day on Sunday 11 September there will be guided tours, a photography exhibition and food in the courtyard – as well as short talks on Buddhism, Yoga and even taster meditation sessions.

Oxford House 

Derbyshire Street, Bethnal Green, E2 6HG

Oxford House in Bethnal Green, part of Open House Weekend

Established in 1884, Oxford House in Bethnal Green was one of the first settlements by Oxford University. It was designed by Arthur William Blomfield, who was also the architect of the Royal College of Music and the rebuilding of Southwark Cathedral. Today it is a multipurpose art centre and affordable work space, with volunteering opportunities still going strong. A beautiful space in every sense of the word, and well worth a nosey.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Southern Grove, Mile End, E3 4PX

Bow Cemetery, now known as Tower Hamlets Cemetry, May 2020
May 2020 © Social Streets

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is a magical pocket of East London. Its 31 acres of mature broadleaved woodland and meadow are perfect for escaping the drones and moans of city life. Burials ceased in 1966, and the park now serves as an educational resource to 7000+ school children every year who use the space as an outdoor classroom. It is open year-round, but if you go on Sunday 11 September you can join a guided heritage tour of the park.

Four Corners

121 Roman Road, E2 0QN

Four Corners, Roman Road, at night

Four Corners Film Workshop opened in 2007 with an aim to create a unique facility supporting the artists, photographers and filmmakers of East London. Inheriting a dilapidated building, architects came up with a design to match their vision, creating a central courtyard ‘hub’ allowing light and air to filter through the building. The Brick Lane Photography Exhibition will also be on display during Open House. The display is free of charge and not to be missed. 

Holy Trinity Church in Bow

Morgan Street, Bow, E3 5AA

interior fish eye view of holy trinity church bow

Holy Trinity Bow is a Grade C listed church built between 1834 and 1841, with a turbulent architectural history. After decades of closure, falling into disrepair and undergoing extensive restoration work, the church was reopened in 2019 and renamed The Heritage & Arts Centre Bow. The centre is used for fashion shoots, birthday parties, art exhibitions and everything in-between. With outstanding restoration work still to be completed, come along for a glimpse at the evolution of this vibrant community space.

If this has piqued your interest, you can view the full list along with all the opening times here. Happy wandering.

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