WALKING around at street level, you only glimpse a fraction of the City. For the most part, it operates and exists behind closed doors and, at close to 2,000 years old, it has its fair share of stories and secrets tucked away.
“There is an enormous amount going on under the radar in the City that people don’t normally get to see,” says Sir Nicholas Kenyon with just a trace of mischievous relish, “We’re basically saying, ‘Let’s make all this visible.’”
During the four days of Celebrate the City, a large number of the Square Mile’s major buildings and institutions will open their doors to the general public for free. The result will be a unique perspective of the City and a rare insight into its workings.
“My background is architecture,” says project director Stella Ioannou, “and there aren’t many buildings of note in London I’ve not been inside, but I’d never been into the Bank of England before and it literally took my breath away. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever experienced.”
Celebrate the City incorporates the first weekend of the London Festival of Architecture with its Developing City exhibition and builds upon the work that the City of London Festival has done over the years in opening up City buildings for music and other events, juxtaposing art and architecture in spectacular fashion.
Architectural treats this weekend include Sunday tours of Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's home and workplace, which leave every hour, while the Bank of England and many of the livery halls will be open on the Saturday, including the stunning Goldsmiths’ Hall on Foster Lane.
In many of these cases, it’s not just the building itself that holds appeal, but the contents as well. “ING never really opens its building up,” explains Ioannou. Part of ING’s unique art collection is the Baring Brothers collection, which 120 lucky people will get the chance to see on this tour. It’s an art aficionado’s dream. Similarly, at Mansion House, the Harold Samuel Collection of Dutch and Flemish Masters will be on show.
For heritage, the Guildhall is the place to go. Beneath it is one of the City’s oldest relics; the surviving remains of a Roman Amphitheatre that dates back to around 120AD. Due to its ambient low light, it also boasts perfect conditions to display the City’s Magna Carta. This 700-year-old document, probably the finest surviving copy in the world, will be on show alongside a collection of very rare documents about the Sheriffs of London. The City’s Shakespeare’s First Folio will also be on display, in the Guildhall’s Old Library.
The Great Hall itself – the oldest part of the building – will also be set up for the next Sheriffs election; one of many unique customs and rites involved in the organisation and governance of the City.
Ioannou believes that such lesser-seen processes can appear anachronistic and risk being misunderstood. Opening them up is at the very heart of Celebrate the City. “It’s important to explain these mysterious ancient organisations, because unless you’re in it or you’ve had the opportunity to experience it, you are unable to understand and appreciate it.”
Kenyon agrees: “When you come into the City, there’s this incredible sense of energy, of things being done and business being transacted. But it’s all within an aura of slightly veiled mystery. Working out what the levers are and who’s driving what can be difficult to penetrate. We ought to open up the City and explain it.”
At the Guildhall Art Gallery, for example, the Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker exhibition of livery treasures will drop its admission charge on Saturday, while several of the halls are not just open, but offering guided tours as well.
Kenyon believes that the chance to see London in the company of experts is a rare opportunity and “a real highlight” of the festival. There are several walking tours of the City’s many phenomenal churches, including All Hallows and St Bride’s, and others dedicated to iconic Londoners, such as Dr Johnson, poet John Keats and Charles Dickens.
The array of treasures on show during Celebrate the City is testament to the spirit across the City’s many organisations, according to Kenyon. “We could not have done this without the collaboration and partnership of all the institutions in the City that have worked together to create this unique moment.”