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From Open House to Open-City

Open House began in 1992 aiming to show the public how exciting architecture can be. This weekend, the public will be more engaged than ever, says Beatrice Galilee

This year’s seductively building-less Venice Biennale has fuelled the trend for exhibitions that find clever ways of experiencing architecture without resorting to plans, models and diagrams. Back in 1992, when others were busy intellectualising the problem of representing space, Victoria Thornton had a better solution. She simply opened the doors of the best contemporary buildings in London and invited the public inside.

Open House began with the premise that the built environment should not be an inscrutable mystery to the 99 per cent of people who are not educated in architecture. Starting with free guided tours of celebrated buildings, it has expanded to over 700 houses, offices and government buildings. Its popularity among people, from cab drivers to CEOs, has fostered sister events in New York, Tel Aviv and Galway, with Rome and Chicago preparing to launch in 2011. Open House has spawned so many satellite education programmes, from training council planners in design to introducing the built environment to school children, that the annual event is now just part of the broad remit of the newly named organisation Open-City.

‘The philosophy we started with was “free for all, not just for a few”, and we just went and did it. There was no plan, no strategy,’ says Victoria Thornton, director of Open-City and founder of Open House, from her Shoreditch office. ‘We started from that point of finding a dialogue between the public and the urban environment and it was, “let’s just go out on the street and see if we can make this happen”.’

The first year started with tours of about 25 buildings, including Grimshaw’s high-tech Financial Times Printing Works and Butler’s Wharf regeneration by Conran Roche. The choices were perhaps guided by Thornton’s work at RIBA in the late 1980s, where characters such as Nicholas Grimshaw and Norman Foster were regulars on the lecture circuit. Thornton was not trained as an architect but ‘fell into’ the subject when she happened upon 66 Portland Place, the RIBA’s headquarters, on her morning walk to work. She says her enthusiasm for the built environment was always tainted by her exasperation with the complexity of the language used by the profession, which excluded so many from participating in the conversation. She is now an honorary member of the RIBA.

Politics has always been a strong force in the success of Open House since its conception. ‘When we started there was a Tory government in the middle of a recession. There had been no public buildings for 17 years,’ says Thornton. ‘Then 1997 was an interesting point because New Labour had a thing about open government, so that actually brought a lot more interest by central government to showcase the architecture.’

Now, Thornton is interested in tapping up the new Tory government and investigating their ‘localism’ agenda. ‘We’re interested in their commitment to giving power to the people to make planning decisions. We want to let them know that, rather than reinventing the wheel, there’s excellent work happening already.’

Open-City’s vast network of education programmes is a huge achievement, particularly as it’s all under charity status, with funding from CABE and local councils.

When Open House began, the ambition was to help create a better debate about architecture. As the years have passed, architecture has become slightly more accessible; the leap from the dumbed-down language used on Changing Rooms to the nitty-gritty of Grand Designs is a case in point, as is the increased number of architecture columnists in the broadsheets.

Whether Open House was involved in this change or not is difficult to judge, but its remit has expanded hugely and become an international project. Thornton is happy with progress. ‘We wanted to change that debate, and the core of what we believe in and what we do hasn’t changed for 18 years.’

Beatrice Galilee is an architecture critic and writer based in London and Berlin. She was the European curator of the 2009 Shenzhen Hong Kong Architecture Biennale

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