Go Behind the Scenes on an Open House Weekend

Founded in Britain in 1992, the annual showcase is held over a series of weekends and has allowed curious enthusiasts to see interiors and architectural spaces that are usually off limits

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30 St. Mary’s Axe (aka “The Gherkin”) is among the stops on this year's Open House London

Fall is Open House season—a time when backstage tours of private homes, commercial spaces and monuments are offered to the public in cities from Brisbane, Australia, to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Founded in Britain in 1992 by architect and academic Victoria Thornton, the annual showcase is held over a series of weekends and has allowed curious enthusiasts to see interiors and architectural spaces that are usually off limits. In the process, the Open House movement has evolved from a small-scale design-world happening into to a full-fledged touristic phenomenon that today is held in 17 destinations. Some of this year’s Open House events have already taken place—London and New York among them. Others (including Perth, Barcelona and Jerusalem) are coming upover the next few weeks.

“We never had a proper business plan or clear idea of what we wanted Open House to become,” reflects Thornton. “But people increasingly want to know more about cities and city life,” she adds, “and that interest has grown substantially over the past 20 years.”

Indeed, this year’s Open House London—in its 20th incarnation—featured tours of over 750 locations on both sides of the Thames, a huge increase over the few dozen offered in 1992. The buildings on the itinerary were as varied as London itself and included contemporary icons such as 30 St. Mary’s Axe (aka “The Gherkin”) and Kohn Pedersen Fox’s year-old Heron Tower; important national monuments like Westminster’s centuries-old Roman Baths and the recent Olympic Park arena; and the private homes and apartments that are always such popular attractions (among this year’s highlights was the Russian Ambassador’s mid-19th century Kensington residence). Tens of thousands of visitors took part, guided by 6,000 specially trained volunteers.

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Most of the visitors were locals, Thornton says, but many are increasingly arriving from outside of London specifically for the event (the event’s iPhone app was Britain’s top-ranked travel application last year). “Open House has definitely become a tourist lure,” Thornton explains. “But as the quality of both London life and architecture continues to increase, Open House has mostly become about residents being tourists in their own backyards.”

Keeping citizens connected to their locality has particular resonance in cities like Greece’s economically embattled second city Thessaloniki (where this year’s Open House will be held from Nov. 24-25) or Lisbon, whose inaugural Open House has just concluded against a backdrop of extreme austerity. With a mere 50 sites, Open House Lisbon, held on Oct. 6-7, was a modest endeavor. But it still espoused a spirit of civic pride and engagement while reminding residents of the economic importance of good design.

“We want Lisboners to be proud of their city and acknowledge its inherent beauty during this difficult period,” says Manuel Henriques, executive director of Open House Lisbon, where the itinerary included Alvaro Siza’s Portuguese Pavilion for the 1998 Lisbon Expo and the city’s elaborate, mid-18th century Aqueduto das Águas Livres. “We also want to demonstrate how architecture improves the quality of city life, which is vital today when so many architects are out of work.”

Thornton suggests that Open House’s next 20 years could easily be as fruitful as its first. Countless Asian and South American cities have yet to hold their first Open House event andThornton is eager to see Open House arrive on those continents. “Tokyo’s size and architecture make it an obvious fit,” she says. “But I would really like to see Open House come to South America. Buenos Aires would be wonderful, and hopefully Rio de Janeiro before their 2016 Summer Olympics.”

In the meantime, there’s lots more of the 2012 Open House season left to run. Next up is Chicago, where tours of over 150 structures are being offered over the Oct. 13-14 weekend. Included are prestigious office buildings and museums, but also churches, an armory, cottages, a fire station and even a bakery. Details here.