Stepping down as Director of Open-City last year, but continuing as Founder, was the opportunity for me to have some much-needed space and time to reflect on the extraordinary growth and popularity of the Open House concept and more importantly what were the ingredients for its success. Open House London – the original event which now reaches 250,000 people every year in the capital – celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2017, but over the last two decades many individuals and organisations in other cities worldwide have approached me to find out how they can develop and implement the Open House concept in their own cities. As a result, Open House now take place every year in 32 cities* on five continents, with three quarters of a million people participating. Each event is developed by its local community, but the Open House cities – now within the ‘family’ known as Open House Worldwide – share one core common principle: inviting everyone to experience architecture for free and by doing so enabling them to become better informed and champion better design for their cities.
Why has the enthusiasm for this model of public engagement become so widespread and why is it so easily translated across countries and cultures? .
In the age of global urbanisation –when more people live in cities than ever before – there is ever-greater awareness of how the built environment impacts on our daily lives, and the need to support sustainability, liveability and wellbeing is common to every city, no matter its location.
A new impact study has been produced with the aim of showing how the ‘Open House’ concept has been developed and examining how and why it has been so successful around the world. The Open House concept no doubt enables people to engage with the built environment on their own terms, one key reason being is that Open House does not rely on specialist knowledge or indeed language – it is open to all, free and democratic and – well before the emergence of what we now call the ‘sharing economy’ – it is also collaborative and inclusive, crossing boundaries and cultural divides. In addition by providing an independent platform – but one with significant private and public sector support from a wide range of disciplines including planning and infrastructure as well as architecture – it has become a powerful conduit to influence policy and decision-making about the built environment.
For example Jules Pipe, the Deputy Mayor of London asked how under-represented groups can have a greater stake in shaping London’s future, and remarked that Open House has a “set a benchmark for engaging people of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds in architecture and regeneration of London … work like this will be fundamental to encouraging diversity in the built environment industry, but also in supporting young people to be the decision makers of tomorrow and have a greater stake in the future of their City”
But what makes it work? Behind every Open House programme is the idea that direct experience leads to engagement, empowerment and advocacy. Physical experience of inspiring examples allows people the opportunity to explore how architecture, landscape, public realm and infrastructure actually work in real time, and focusing on high-quality design opens people’s eyes and minds to the ‘art of the possible’. Face-to-face, unmediated interactions with volunteers and professionals on hand to explain the ideas and development of their projects encourage dialogue and questioning on site, showing a building or space in context and how it relates to the wider city; this is also extended through debates, talks and other satellite events.
And so by being better informed, people feel empowered to participate more, and are better placed to influence policy decisions, to advocate for better design, and to take a more active interest and role in how their city is shaped.
Watch this space as the Open House Impact Study develops but also let me know if you have examples you want to relate directly connected to Open House or studies that reinforce our belief in this model of public engagement as would be good to share with everyone!
*London, New York, Dublin, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Helsinki, Oslo, Melbourne, Barcelona, Brisbane, Slovenia, Chicago, Rome, Lisbon, Perth, Thessaloniki, Limerick, Gdynia, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Athens, Monterrey, Cork, Vilnius, Prague, Madrid, Belfast, Porto, Lagos, Milan, Zurich and Stockholm