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'An open house is like an open hand'

Open House admits us into a public exchange of reactions to and opinions about buildings

The author, Graham Greene, spoke about the green baize door that divided his family’s home from the functional part of Berkhamsted School: his father was the headmaster. Throughout Greene’s life, that door remained a universal signifier to him – the metaphorical boundary between reality and fiction, safety and potential threat, faith and the lack of it, past and future.

The Open House weekend is not simply about experiencing tidily discrete examples of architecture. It is an act of community whose ramifications lie, strictly speaking, beyond the interests of those of the architectural persuasion. The act requires movement: those who take part must travel to the buildings by foot, by car, by public transport. Their journeys may take them to parts of London they’ve never been to before – specifically never wanted to visit, perhaps.  

They see a great deal more than the building they’ve come to visit: different kinds of life, streetscapes, urban atmospheres. And this remark is not meant in a 1930s Bloomsbury Set “one is interested in other kinds of people” sense: those who take part in Open House encounter not only the built fact of a particular piece of architecture, but also what Rowan Moore refers to several times in his new book, Why We Build, as the incidental but gripping “stuff” of places and lives. We encounter ‘stuff’ all the time, of course; but much more so, surely, when we are in a state of expectation.

The journey to a particular and previously unknown London building – typically, the walk to it from an Underground or railway station – is not only as engrossing as the building itself, but crucial to understanding whether its contextual response is box-ticking, or more profoundly and creatively civil.

But how often are we in that pleasantly alert state as we move around London, or any other town or city? How often do we get a sense of architectural tractions, thresholds, and daily life in streets and other public realms that are, inevitably,  becoming increasingly monitored zones teeming with nominal, biometricised suspects? We should, as de Certeau said, walk our cities into existence; walk, but with an obdurate instinct to enter.     

An open door, an open house, reminds us that the privations of our increasingly cybernetic existences and virtualised perceptions are not necessarily pathological. An open house is like an open hand: it’s a public demonstration of ethics, a desire to consider places and people, admitting an exchange of reactions, ideas, and opinions; a chat in a room, rather than a chatroom.  

Open House offers 750 green baize doors to pass through. They may, for some, let the future in, as Graham Greene put it. We enter an Open House building, and we also leave it. Do we leave it in the same condition as we entered it? Does the locale seem quite the same as it did when we made our way to the property? To those Open House doors can be assigned another of Greene’s remarks: ‘When we are not sure, we are alive.’  

AJ Buildings Library

See more that 50 buildings taking part in Open House London 2012 in the Library

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