The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs

The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs
Owen Hatherley (Editor)
Open House, September 2020

Paperback | 6-3/4 x 9-1/2 inches | 274 pages | English | £14.99


The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs is not just a catalogue of the places that may or may not be opening their doors in autumn 2020 for the Open House festival, this book is an exploration of the ordinary neighbourhoods, housing estates and public buildings that lie round the corner, rather than on a tube or a bus into town.

In this new guide, guest-edited by Owen Hatherley and designed by Studio Christopher Victor, thirty-three writers, architects, activists, and Londoners present thirty-three essays exploring famous and unheralded buildings, streets, estates and neighbourhoods — some open for the Open House Festival, some not — across the thirty-three London boroughs.

With contributions from columnist Aditya Chakrabortty to the historian Gillian Darley, via playwright Hanif Kureishi and the politician Emma Dent Coad, The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs will present a picture of an extraordinary ordinary London made up of the places just outside the front door. Whether you have spent the lock down in a Georgian terrace, a thirties semi, an LCC tenement or a modernist high-rise, this book will be a refreshing journey into the city you have been missing and a celebration of the everyday buildings, places and landscapes which make it special.

Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune and the author of several books, most recently Red Metropolis – Socialism and the Government of London, published by Repeater Books. Since 2015 he has been working on a gazetteer, Modernist Buildings in Britain, to be published by Penguin Books in 2021.


With the need for face masks, social distancing, and other measures to deter its spread, the coronavirus has impacted every aspect of contemporary life, but perhaps none more dramatically than events that bring many people together. Events that would normally welcome the fall are the various Open House weekends — taking place in London, New York, Chicago, and other cities — that provide access to otherwise off-limits interiors, making them lots of fun for urban explorers like myself. Such open-door invitations are nearly impossible during the pandemic, so the Open House organizations are retooling by focusing on outdoor places, self-guided tours, and virtual presentations. Open House London — the original Open House — is mixing small tours and other in-person events over its festival weekend, September 19-20, with online offerings that extend this year's event to the 27th. It is also publishing a book that is part guidebook, part anthology, part archive, anchored by 33 contributions, one for each of London's 33 boroughs.

The three parts that are intertwined throughout The Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs are: 1) the 33 essays by the 33 contributors, which include architects but also historians, curators, photographers, writers, and artists; 2) highlights of a few buildings in each borough, much like other Open House guides, coming directly after each corresponding essay (visible in the second spread below); and 3) a selection of artifacts from the Museum of London's collection (fourth spread) accompanied by descriptions that give them context. The mix by editor Owen Hatherley is very effective, allowing people to sit down with the book and read the essays that strike their fancy, learning the characteristics of the boroughs through personal and historical anecdotes on a particular place within each. With guidebook in hand, they can also use the listed buildings to venture into the city during or after the weekend, seeing some interesting places in each borough and getting as close to the traditional Open House experience as possible. 

Skimming the essays and highlighted buildings on my computer screen in my New York City apartment made me wish I could pick up a copy and do just that: explore London on foot. From a distance, though, and as a non-Londoner, the book made me feel like an outsider, with numerous references I couldn't grasp without Google and a geographical naiveté that made me wish the book came with maps. This is clearly a guide to London by and for Londoners. And that's fine. After all, the Open House weekends are about spurring residents to see parts of their cities they wouldn't normally see, enticing them with doors open to hidden domains. With COVID-19, these domains have shifted to the printed page and the mental insights provided by the contributors — splendid alternatives, indeed.