If you love South Bank as much as I do, have walked its path this summer and are even a tiny bit observant, you will surely have noticed a structure that appears to look like a boat perched on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Hall rooftop.
The said boat can’t actually navigate down the Thames but it instead welcomes Londoners every night and for one night only in its one-bedroom comfort. Called A Room for London, the riverboat is an architectural installation open to the public through a competitive ballot and (one must add) by contributing a considerably hefty fee. The brainchild of Artangel and Living Architecture, it was originally developed as part of the London 2012 Festival but it proved so popular that it has remained open all through 2013. According to the collaborators, David Kohn Architects designed it in collaboration with artist Fiona Banner, taking inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness and Roi de Belges (the boat he captained in the Congo in 1890).
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be one of the few thousand Londoners who have taken the very long elevator way up the Royal Elizabeth Hall (incredibly slow so that it won’t disturb the event ticket-holders within) and through the Room’s doors to proclaim that indeed I’m on a boat. Living Architecture thinks that “there can be few places to stay a night in London quite as unusual, poetic and life-enhancing as A Room for London” and they really are bang on the money.
Graced by a beautiful summer evening with warm temperatures and a golden sunset, I sat on the boat’s balcony overlooking a South Bank heaving with people enjoying their well-earned after-work drinks and the city’s sights providing the backdrop for picture taking by locals and tourists alike. The London Eye and Big Ben on the left, Somerset House and St Paul’s on the right – this view is as postcard-London as it gets.
The immediate feeling is one of overwhelm; the city – your city – is at your feet, the panorama of London is trying to sink in. You’re snapping away, trying to capture the essence of the experience, the city’s beauty and the incredible view.
As the night progresses and the giddiness subsides, the feeling of overwhelm shifts to one of reflection, as you start finding your place within the panorama. The thoughts wander off from the setting to yourself, while you’re adjusting the frame once more, this time for a ‘selfie’: I’m here today, at this moment in this city, the place I now call home. Where do I fit in this setting below me, how would I see myself if I could look down at me with binoculars as I’m looking at others right now? Would I be content, would I seem excited, would I look like someone who’s here to stay?
A Room for London gives its lodgers an opportunity to reflect and examine themselves, to go from the noisiness and the vastness of the metropolis to the atom. There’s something so personal about seeing the city go to sleep and waking up; its view being the last thing you see before you succumb to the nightly tiredness and the first thing when the morning light tingles your eyelashes.
I spent my time on the boat considering my life here, the city itself and my future in it. Sure enough, all this I could have done somewhere else. But going out of the linearity of my London existence, I was able to find more focus. This time I wasn’t a working professional, I wasn’t a commuter, I wasn’t a socialiser, I wasn’t a tour guide: I was an introspective observer (with a tendency to philosophise).
If you have the opportunity to enter the ballot, I could not recommend this experience more. Since the time spent on the boat amounts to less than 24 hours, I wouldn’t personally recommend bringing a book or being caught up on devices even if you’re going alone. If you choose to share your stay with someone else, your conversations will take you places you didn’t expect and deepen the reflective mood. Just don’t forget the coffee, as an early night and a lie in really won’t do A Room for London any justice.
Note: I would like to thank my friend Peter Rossiter for lending me his camera and showing me how to use it. I obviously have a long way to go… And that’s why some of the pictures were taken with my iPhone.