Ever heard of Open House? It’s become quite a phenomenon and happens every year in different parts of the world. In London it’s in September. It makes it possible for anyone to get inside buildings which are often closed to the public the rest of the year. If you like buildings you’ll love Open House.

It was started in the midst of a recession in 1992 by Victoria Thornton who was very aware that there was little interest in contemporary architecture or public buildings other than what she calls ‘the heritage industry’.

To remedy this and ultimately raise the quality of what people would expect from the architecture within which they lived their lives, she started asking people in charge of outstanding buildings to open them to the public for one day in the year. However, when she began to call and write she got a resounding ‘No!’ from virtually everybody she approached. But she wasn’t put off.  Eventually she had a handful of buildings whose owners had agreed to open their doors and who were certainly leading the way in innovative design. Amongst these was the futuristic Lloyd’s of London in the city.

In that first year there were all of about 100 people who actually participated by visiting the buildings. And that could have been that. But Thornton kept going. Each year Open House would happen in September. Each year more people would show an interest in visiting buildings. Each year more owners began to realise that they could raise a building’s profile by participating.

And so it was that the number of visitors grew from 100 people in 1992 to 250,000 in 2011! This explosion of interest has been matched by the number of buildings which have opened their doors. In 2013 there were 800 buildings participating in the event. Now their owners come to her.

Not only that, the idea has spread internationally. There are now 20 cities around the world with annual Open House events.  New York was the first starting in 2001 and now has 185,000 people visiting different buildings. And the momentum continues: Thornton recently met with representatives from Buenos Aires and Delhi who want to replicate the idea.

If you live in an urban environment you are surrounded by buildings. These impact the quality of your life. Victoria Thornton wants to raise awareness, encourage informed dialogue and promote best practice. She wants people to be engaged and have a discriminating eye.  The more people have exposure to great buildings and enjoy them, the greater the likelihood of better buildings and a better urban environment.

The Open House concept is now clearly a rip-roaring success. In the UK it is a highlight in lots of people’s calendars. Paulette and I always try to be in the UK on that particular weekend. The buildings we pick cover all sorts of styles and times.  This year one we got to was Horace Walpole’s amazing little gothic castle, Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham. Inside it’s like no other building you’ve ever been in.

It is rather fitting that not only did he create something quite unique; in 1754 he also coined a word that has become a staple of the English language which suggests a happy accident or a fortunate mistake and connotes finding something good or useful while not specifically looking for it. It was Walpole who first used the word serendipity. In a letter he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

That’s a pretty good description of the pleasure we experience with Open House. (It’s also what happens with innovative thinking). The range of buildings is extraordinary and all encompassing. From historic houses to large office complexes and now 10 Downing Street too! Everybody’s getting in on the act. The other thing is that it is all free: open access to everybody for the weekend. A brilliant idea and a great example of how you just need to keep going.

As she said “everyone thought I was mad” – and now it’s gone global.

Innovators take note.

Thank you Victoria!

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