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Victoria Thornton: ‘Open House is a simple and powerful concept’

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Last weekend Victoria Thornton saw out her last Open House London before handing over the reins. She talks exclusively to the AJ about what the organisation has achieved and her new role

Do you have any plans for Open House London before you leave?
It’s good to complete a project. This is a good time to hand over. It is in a really good state and it’s really valued in people’s minds. Open House as a concept works – it’s simple and powerful. If it hadn’t worked you wouldn’t get this level of engagement and it wouldn’t still be running today. It’s going through an evolution rather than a revolution.

How has this weekend gone?
It’s been fantastic. I don’t have final visitor numbers yet but engagement on twitter is up. Our followers went up to more than 20,000. The challenge is now to continue that dialogue.

How do you manage to keep that dialogue going once the weekend is over?
That is why we introduced the open debate three years ago. We have a ballot for tickets and we normally have around 5,000 people applying for 100 places. There is a real interest. This year we talked about pollution and so we are now taking that forward. The debates normally have more of a political agenda. We take the information and knowledge gained from the debate forward into our Green Sky Thinking programme which has more of a professional audience. It is an effective way of taking a conversation forward each year.

The number of buildings has dropped this year. Is it getting more difficult to get people to sign up to open their schemes?
No, we try to keep things fresh. Sometimes we take buildings out to mix it up a bit. It’s more about keeping it tight. Over the years the buildings which open up have changed. People have become more engaged in their whole environment so we have a lot more public realm and infrastructure projects than we used to.

Last year you spoke about opening up London’s skyscrapers to the public, but this year very few are actually open – Lloyds, the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater haven’t opened as part of the weekend – is it getting harder to get those buildings open to the public?
Lloyds is closed for refurbishment at the moment. It’s just been unfortunate that these buildings haven’t been able to open this year. Open House is recognised as being constructive. We are not there to damn buildings or to criticise. We open up the debate and welcome people to have a conversation and to question.

Are there any buildings which you have really wanted to get open but not been able to?
There’s always some really great design in private houses. They can be the hardest type to get people to open up. But people are always really good about sharing.

You launched Open House back in 1992. Have you achieved what you set out to do?
At the time I didn’t know I was setting out to do anything. Back then architecture was a very closed door and the profession kept it that way. I just opened the crack to see what would happen.

Architecture was a very closed door and the profession kept it that way

It started out very heritage based and we’ve now moved it on to talking about London as a contemporary city.

How has the organisation changed in this time?
When it was started we were all volunteers, including myself. Now there is nine staff.

How has the work it does changed?
Early on we had a lot of opportunity for dialogue but we wanted to have conversation with different groups. We started our education programme in 1997 because teachers were asking about it. Architecture just isn’t in the curriculum but it is so important to engage future generations. It is bizarre that we don’t learn about the one thing that influences us day in day out. We started with the adopt a school programme and this developed into architecture in schools. Key to it is direct experience with architecture. The children visit buildings and they meet architects. This year we have worked with more than 5,000 pupils in London.

This led us to develop a mentoring programme for teenagers interested in pursuing a career in architecture. We work with around 30 – 40 students per year with our partners the Barlett and Make.

Then three years ago we launched Archikids which has reached more than 4,000 kids this year. We’ve involved architects and engineers in designing a programme for engaging children in the design and making of buildings. It has really taken off.

All our programmes have developed from each other. Our approach is to develop long term programmes. We don’t chop and change. We want people to know they can get involved in them.

Then five years ago we launched green Sky Thinking as a high level programme for professionals in the built environment.

The profession doesn’t necessarily know about everything we do because it is aimed at other audiences.

What are your plans for Open House Worldwide and your new role?
My title is becoming founder of Open City. It is giving me the chance to look into the organisation rather than driving it forward. What it will mean is that I will be able to step back from the executive role and I’ll be helping cities which want to take on open house as a concept. We’ve never had the intention of making a worldwide brand but it is happening. This has been seen as the only way that the public can have this level of conversation about their cities. They come from bottom up – we don’t go out to search for cities. They come to us. I’ve launched eight this year and there are already eight on the cards for next year.

I’m also going to be looking into what the commonalities are between the cities and looking at the values and successes of each. I’ll be investigating the impact these open house events are having on their cities.

I was in Porto launching open house there, and the city’s mayor and I were on the same platform. Often it is much more political abroad. Politicians are recognising this is where they can open the debate about the future of their cities.

Why is it not so political over here?
London is much more fragmented. Each borough has its own council whereas it is not really like that in other cities abroad.

With open house abroad they often describe it as democratising cities we don’t really use that term here.

Do all cities have the same approach?
For most it is always about changing mindsets. It is often about enabling citizens to be aware of the potential of a city. Venice is set to launch its open house and for them the issue is that Venetians do not feel like it is their city anymore. So open house for Venice is about claiming back their city.

Which cities are you hoping to get involved?
I’m talking to Kuala Lumpur and Santiago in Chile. Tokyo often talk about it but haven’t got it off the ground yet.

Is the planned impact study part of this?
Yes, it is leading up to our 25th anniversary in 2017 when we hope to run and international conference. The results of the study will feed into it.

Victoria Thornton: ‘Open House is a simple and powerful concept’

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Rogers

    One area of LOH that needs attention is the complete lack of actual architectural information at even some prestige venues, not even a simple handout; it's clear many think giving people access and a view is enough. It isn't.

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  • This was the third year that we have opened up Cressingham Gardens estate to visitors with an exhibition in our Rotunda and tours all weekend into private homes and gardens. It is an incredible weekend and it is a moment of pride for the residents. It really does wonders for the residents to hear visitors expressing their amazement at how lovely the estate is and how they don't understand why Lambeth council would want to demolish the estate and community (particularly as its protection is being advocated by English Heritage, 20th Century Society & Save Britain's Heritage).

    A BIG thank you to the organisers of OpenHouse!

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