When Victoria Thornton founded London’s first Open House festival in 1992, there were 17 events and 100 visitors, who were carted across the capital in a minibus. Two years later, it had snowballed to 200 events, and by the early Noughties 100,000 people were granted free access to everything from town halls to temples over a weekend each September.
Today’s visitor numbers are eight times that, with more than 800 buildings taking part across all London boroughs.
‘Our most popular building is The Foreign and Commonwealth Office,’ says festival head Siân Milliner. Visits for 2020 were virtual, but it had pulled a crowd of 14,000 across a single weekend the year before. It comes as little surprise that London’s landmarks command serious numbers. ‘The last time The Gherkin took part there were queues going around the block three times.’
It’s not all about the great glass edifice or government HQ. ‘People are very keen on tube stations,’ she says. Lucky, then, that Transport for London are more than happy to usher them underground. In the last few years it’s staged a behind-the-scenes tour of South Kensington, let inquisitive groups into Crossrail construction sites and organised a midnight trek for the Jubilee Line’s 40th anniversary.
Leading curious Londoners below the surface seems a neat analogy for the festival itself, which Milliner sees as a call to reclaim the public realm. ‘There’s so much of the city that’s closed to everybody bar the people who work in certain buildings, or live in certain skyscrapers.’
Around a fifth of the spaces are residential, with tours led by proud homeowners and architects. This year’s festival includes Studio Varey’s Kimber House in Bromley and the Case Study Terrace in Islington, designed by William Tozer Associates, which both featured in the 2021 Don’t Move, Improve! awards.
‘It’s always interesting to see the shiny new buildings, but you get a completely different feel for places that are lived in,’ says Milliner. For all the frantic hoovering and shoving of things in cupboards, ‘owners are always so happy to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with others. Sometimes the thing I enjoy the most isn’t the homes themselves, but speaking to the people who live there.’
In the intervening 12 months there are applications to answer, local authorities to liaise with and architecture journals to sift through for potential sign ups. It’s rare that the team turns anything down, though each building must have some architectural, historical or social merit.
Sixty volunteers assist year-round, from architecture students and retirees to the holy grail – a handful of ex-town planners, who are ‘beacons of knowledge’ – then September signals the arrival of a 1,500-strong team of volunteers to help host the programme of walks, talks and tours.
Last year’s pandemic-hit edition saw a new hybrid format hand equal emphasis to digital events, including films, online Q&As and a podcast. ‘It allowed us to be more open than ever,’ says Milliner. ‘We had 1,000 people watching some of our films on YouTube – very few buildings could host that many in person.’
This year they’re giving a platform to pubs, publishing a book on the social history of London’s drinking holes that’s more love letter than dispassionate directory. ‘Pubs were effectively the first open houses,’ says Milliner. Parallel themes of local and global London will consider the corners of the capital that have sustained people through lockdown – ‘all those aspects that make up where you live’ – alongside buildings that speak to its status on the world stage.
It took 10 years for Open House to go international. New York caught on first, and there’s now a network of more than 40 cities from Helsinki to Osaka. So what’s the secret to its success?
Ultimately, says Milliner, it’s about curiosity. ‘I don’t know anybody who hasn’t googled their neighbour’s house after spotting a “For Sale” sign, or looked in an estate agent’s window to see what’s round the corner. There’s that natural instinct of wanting to know what’s inside.’
She thinks it’s why behind-the-scenes tours of cultural venues always prove popular. ‘You might have sat in a theatre and seen a performance on a stage, but you don’t know what’s going on behind that curtain. That’s the real thing with Open House. What’s behind the curtain?’. Open House Festival runs from 4-12 September. open-city.org.uk/open-house
THREE TO SEE AT OPEN HOUSE 2021
Festival head Siân Milliner reveals the must-visit buildings to book for this year’s event
1 The Design District at Greenwich Peninsula
Construction of the new Design District is finishing just before the festival, so it will be one of the first events that they’re taking part in. It’s going to be a really interesting one to explore, with lots of shared working spaces that have all been designed differently for creative workers, from architects to furniture makers. They’re also opening up a market square, so you can stop for a drink and some food.
2 The Centre Building at LSE
Featuring a staircase that moves diagonally across its façade, this flexible and collaborative space was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. London School of Economics’ staff, students and visitors voted overwhelmingly for this design from a shortlist. As well as being highly sustainable, it also has three roof terraces that offer great views of the river, the City of London and Westminster.
3 The Wilds at Barking Riverside
This new ecology centre is on my list. The globe art installation Gaia that currently hangs in the Painted Hall in Greenwich will be moving there, which fits so well with our ‘local London, global London’ theme. It’s an eco community building in the middle of a beautiful park in Barking Riverside, but it also represents the global through this installation. It’s like they wrote the theme for us...