It’s the greatest boost for the profession in a generation, says Rory Olcayto
‘How would I describe Open-City? In one word: inspirational’. Why, Lord Foster, you took the words out of my mouth. I jest, of course, but I’m serious, too. I’m prepared, in fact, to go one step further than the world’s foremost architect: the London-based charity, founded by Victoria Thornton in 1992, is the biggest success story to emerge from British architectural culture in living memory. Much of it is down to the simple formula offered by Open House London, Open-City’s premier product, to use today’s parlance. Still, ‘product’ does not quite do Open House London justice. It is more like a consensual dream made real, for thousands and thousands of city-dwellers, who for one weekend every year are free to wander in and out of buildings across London, that are usually (though not always) off-limits.
The most appealing aspect is Open House’s easy-going egality: most building typologies are represented and none is privileged over another. Houses are always a big draw, but so are schools, government buildings, stations, factories, shops and infrastructure – from Crossrail’s tunnels to water recycling plants. In 2013 more than 18,000 people queued for a final glimpse of Battersea Power Station before its starchitect makeover.
Open House’s other key egalitarian gesture is even more significant: naming the architect of each building included in the weekend’s guide book, so that the likes of, say, Jestico + Whiles, for example, is highlighted for its contribution to the London townscape in the same way Hawksmoor and Wren are. This is where Thornton’s charity excels and pulls ahead of that other all-conquering people-friendly architecture brand to emerge in recent times, Grand Designs. Kevin McCloud’s TV show has done wonders to focus the public on the value of good architecture, but it rarely involves the architects responsible for the homes it spotlights, and mostly favours the client journey over that of the design professional. Open House, on the other hand, serves both public and professional interests with its simple model of access and acknowledgement.
There are those who argue that Open House London merely does what countless other open days do but with a slightly bigger budget – and they are not wrong to highlight that the practice of granting access to private buildings for a weekend did not originate in London. Glasgow launched its doors-open day in 1990 and the French say they were first with La Journée Portes Ouvertes in 1984.
But that would be to miss the point. First, the scale of Open House London dwarfs similar events elsewhere. Second, the weekend event is just one part of Thornton’s Open-City programme, which has a remit to engage, educate and enable activity centred on making cities better places to live. That means advocacy on a number of levels all year round, aimed at bring professionals and the public closer together, from helping regeneration teams win over residents to promoting the benefits of sustainable designs to primary school children.
Nevertheless, Thornton is stepping down to oversee Open House Worldwide, which by 2017 could see more than a million people participating in up to 50 cities. Good luck, Victoria, on behalf of the AJ and its readers, in taking your winning formula worldwide. And thanks, too, for helping change how the public views the profession in an entirely welcome and new light. We are proud to be a partner in your ongoing plans.