It’s fitting that the centre of Ralph Knott’s County Hall flexes as if being bent by some invisible force. After all, it is probably London’s most flexible building.
Opened by King George V 100 years ago — on 17 July 1922 — the waterfront palace became the grandiloquent seat of power for the London County Council (LCC), then Greater London Council (GLC). Facing Parliament across the Thames, it was a reminder to Westminster that London wielded its own political clout.
In its previous life, the Thames-side site had been home to everything from a Roman dock (a 3rd century boat was excavated here while County Hall was being built) to a Crosse and Blackwell ‘Export Pickles’ factory —demolished to make way for Knott’s Portland stone behemoth.
From here till eternity, though, it was going to be the immovable headquarters of local government for London.
That lasted 64 years.
In 1986, Margaret Thatcher laid waste to the GLC, and suddenly County Hall was Building Without Portfolio.
What to do with such a stunning architectural confection? The obvious answer: fill it with sharks. In 1993, the Riverside Building complex of County Hall was purchased by Japanese company Shirayama Shokusan Corporation for a cool £60 million, and by 1997, filled with the arcade games, bumper cars and ten pin bowling of Namco Station (later Namco Funscape — which was much mourned when it closed after 25 years). Also in 1997, the London Aquarium took over the ground floor of County Hall, becoming an implausible location for Londoners to ogle the wonders of the ocean in the heart of Westminster. ‘Sea for Yourself’ ran the ads.
If you thought that pun was a stinker, in 2008, another tourist attraction took up residence in County Hall — the Movieum of London (renamed later, thank god, to the London Film Museum). Here you could ogle props from Star Wars and the Italian Job, of even shoot your own movie. It was a sort of Hard Rock Cafe sans burgers, and has since relocated to Covent Garden.
Still, 2008 was a major year for County Hall’s bid to be all things to all people — that’s when Merlin Entertainments bought the London Aquarium, splashing out £5m on more fish/water, and renaming it Sea Life London Aquarium. From hereon in, County Hall would really be flexed. Though the London Dungeons had been making visitors wet their knickers since 1974, Merlin moved it to County Hall in 2013 — offering scareseekers the opportunity to be condemned to death by Brian Blessed dressed up as Henry VIII. Utterly chilling, though perhaps they missed a trick not installing a life-sized Margaret Thatcher too.
And then, the very next year, rumours started that another County Hall attraction was being concocted. What would it be? A museum that uncovered the old Roman dock? A library of Ken Livingstone’s back issues of Socialist Worker? No, silly, it was Shrek’s Adventure! London, of course — a wonderland where kids could drag their parents off in search of the Essence of Ogre. Not everyone’s cup of Happily Ever After Potion, perhaps, but Merlin’s business acumen was surely enough to make its rivals green with envy.
There is another side to the County Hall though. In what must be irksome for certain inpatients of the facing St Thomas’ Hospital, the swish London Marriott Hotel County Hall offers super luxurious rooms, as well as a restaurant and bar with some of the finest views in London. And it turns out there is a political library, too — one where you can take afternoon tea, demolishing little chocolate Big Bens in your mouth while looking across at the real one.
The aquarium contains more than 2,000,000 litres of water, and compared to that, the hotel’s 25-metre-long, palm-fringed swimming pool — where the great/good/jammy Londonist writers go to swim — is a drop in the ocean. Still, it’s another surprise inclusion in a building stuffed with surprises.
Talking of twists in the tale, in 2021, a production of Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution took up digs in the octagonal Council Chamber, inviting guests to play jury, and thus proving County Hall’s ability to host anything and everything. From the outside, you’d never guess it was such a chameleon. Not even its architect would have known the depths of his own design.
But then, as Agatha Christie once wrote, “Very few of us are what we seem.”