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Exclusive: Victoria Thornton on Open House London

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To mark Open House London weekend, founder Victoria Thornton explains the history of the event

It has been 20 years since Open-City was set up as an independent, not-for-profit architecture organisation, and since then it has gone from strength to strength. Its aim is to champion the value of well-designed places and spaces in making a liveable and vibrant city, and the role everyone plays within it. 

The organisation occupies a unique space in the cultural life of London, at the convergence of people, places and architectural practice. Its best-known initiative is the Open House London annual event, with which the organisation began in 1992 and which is now one of the eagerly anticipated highlights of London’s cultural calendar. 

Every September this event gives everyone the opportunity to get out and under the skin of some of London’s most architecturally inspiring buildings, many of which are not normally open to the public, and discover for themselves how good design plays a vital role in creating and sustaining a ‘liveable’ city. 

The early 1990s was a difficult time for architects, not least because of the economic recession at that time. Compounding this was the fact that contemporary design was not as highly valued as historic buildings: there was no government department to represent architecture, only a Department for National Heritage. In addition, there was no tradition of public engagement around architecture, even though the built environment affects everyone on a daily basis at a fundamental level.

As architecture was not part of the formal education system in the UK, many people were unsure about what architects were seeking to achieve, as they often lacked the language to express their ideas, needs and aspirations for the quality of the buildings and public spaces around them. By offering an opportunity to experience great places and spaces at first hand, Open House London aims to generate an informal but deeper understanding of the powerful impact that these can have on the individual. 

Attitudes have changed since then: the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has a minister for architecture, while the research that we do via Open House London every year shows that an ever-increasing number of Londoners think that contemporary architecture makes a positive contribution to the capital. Open House London has played a role in fostering new architectural talent, in helping younger architects to reach a wider audience and gaining practices a higher profile with influencers, stakeholders and government.

The Open House London annual event

About 100 people attended the first Open House London event in 1992 – a figure that by 2011 grew to an astonishing 250,000. At the heart of the event remains a simple but incredibly powerful concept: showcasing outstanding architecture for all to experience, completely for free. 

By 1994, 200 contemporary and historic buildings across London featured in the event. The number of buildings, walks, talks and tours in the event grew, by 2011, to more than 700, across almost all of London’s boroughs. The aim has always been to open eyes and minds to unfamiliar – and sometimes challenging – design by offering an opportunity to experience it at first hand. Perhaps most importantly, Open House London gives people an opportunity to look afresh, and reflect on, their own neighbourhood, or to discover the architecture of a new area of the capital that might be less familiar to them. 

Most recently, the Open House concept has spread internationally, and is now being replicated across Europe, the United States and the Far East, with the Open House family of cities attracting a total of 1 million participants globally every year. 

Much of the success of Open House London lies in the enormous diversity of buildings featured and across such a broad swathe of London. While small private houses attract great interest, Open House London encompasses all types of building from key government departments, contemporary workplaces, schools, health centres, sports facilities, cultural institutions and other community buildings.

Although some famous London landmarks are included, Open House London mainly showcases the perhaps lesser-known and smaller projects that form a vital part of the London landscape that we see, use and experience every day. Some are featured because they provide an outstanding example of a particular architect’s work, others because they illustrate how historic buildings can be adapted creatively for new uses, or have played a vital role in regenerating a wider area. Yet quality remains the standard for inclusion: any building featured must represent a successful design solution to a set of issues, circumstances or particular challenges, in order to show the ‘art of the possible’.

The value of good architecture cannot be underestimated. Buildings matter, and they significantly affect the way people feel about their day-to-day lives. We hope that Open House London illustrates how well-designed buildings and spaces can play a major role in making London such a great city, and that it will inspire you to take a second look at the buildings around you. 

  • ‘Open House London: An Exclusive Insight into 100 Architecturally Inspiring Buildings in London’ is published by Ebury Press, August 2012, £25.



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