Architecture Week (12-19 November 1998), initiated for the second year by the Arts Council of England, saw more than 80 architectural practices taking part in 'Open Practice', a rare chance for the public to see behind the scenes of an architect's office. The number of architects had increased significantly on the previous year and the geographic location of practices spread as far as Scotland. The response from both architects and public was positive, and should result in the event growing in the future.
The impetus behind Open Practice is to make architecture more accessible to the general public and help architects to get feedback on their work. So how does one successfully open an office to the public? The Architecture Week project office co-ordinated the general administration of Open Practice, offering advice on how to make the most of the event as well as arranging national and regional press coverage.
Opening your practice to the public need not be time consuming nor expensive: just decide on a date and time, send out invitations and a press release, gather details about the practice's work and set aside part of the office for models, photographs and plans. Organising your opening into a specific time slot worked best for the majority of those taking part, rather than having the office open during work hours as this can interrupt the flow of the working day by impinging on too much of people's time. The public's response suggests that people prefer to see the studio in its everyday state, with architects around to chat to in an informal way; the opportunity for the public to interact with architects is what Open Practice is really about.
For practices, it is an opportunity to explain exactly how architects design buildings and, for the public, to ask questions about what influences decisions. During this year's Open Practice some architects came up with other, more imaginative (and time-consuming) ways of getting people though the door. West Waddy Architects of Abingdon organised a design competition for secondary-school children to redesign the town centre; Burrell Foley Fischer, London, held a series of illustrated talks on urban regeneration; and Zitman Christodoulou Architects held an exhibition about the concept of space in the practice's East London flat.
The experience of regional practices seems to differ from that of practices in central London where there is a ready audience available. Mette McLarney of Inkpen Downie in Colchester believes that Architecture Week is the ideal opportunity for practices like hers to take advantage of the national profile the week gives, but agrees that there is more momentum for the event in London than elsewhere. In fact, Inkpen Downie was the only one of 42 practices based in Colchester to take part. McLarney says: 'My experience is that in a small practice there is an unwillingness to allocate time and resources to 'non-fee earning' work. The wisdom of this is another issue! Small practices are the backbone of the riba and they need to increase public awareness if they wish to survive.' Inkpen Downie chose two local artists to 'wrap' its building, which was uncovered during Architecture Week. Many people came to visit the practice and the event was deemed a great success.
Putting small local practices in a national context and being part of a larger publicity event is a useful aspect of Open Practice. Nils Westman, an architect based in Exeter, became involved because he thought the marketing of the whole week might raise the profile of his practice. In spite of his efforts, he received fewer visitors than expected, but felt that their genuine enthusiasm off-set any disappointment. Originally from Sweden, Westman thinks that 'it may be a cultural thing for the uk, architects here are not seen in the same way as they are abroad: in Sweden people are more willing to approach an architect for domestic design work. In Sweden people call an architect, in the uk they call a builder.' Far from being discouraged, Westman feels that feedback on how to improve the event can only make future Open Practice events better.
Perhaps the most important feedback from the general public was the need for more information about Open Practice and Architecture Week. To increase public understanding of architecture and to harness the very real enthusiasm people have for architecture requires more publicity aimed at the general public. Practices can take on more responsibility and get more involved, especially at a local or regional level. The key to the future of Open Practice should be to provide a platform for profiling local practices in a national context, and to get the public to broach the daunting prospect of stepping through the door of an architect's office.