Notes from the Open House Worldwide Conference

The 3rd  Open House Worldwide Conference took place in London, from January 31-February 2, 2018. Convened by Victoria Thornton, founder of Open House London and the Open House Worldwide family, the conference brought together over 75 representatives from 30 Open House programs around the globe. Eric Allix Rogers, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Manager of Open House Chicago and Community Outreach, attended and reported back for AAO members.


Day 1: Making livable cities

Victoria Thornton, founder of Open House London and the Open House Worldwide. Photo credit: Luke O'Donovan.

Like the Open House movement, the first day’s speakers aim to empower people and center their wellbeing in city planning and development. Riccardo Marini diagnosed the problem of cities: focus on efficient car movement and profits at the expense of all else. Terri Wills, CEO of the World Green Building Council, highlighted efforts to break the perceived link between sustainability and sacrifice. Charles Landry and Chris Murray, co-authors of Psychology & the City, emphasized the need for psychological research on cities – and that we should work to make them places that build psychological resilience. Finally, Alastair Parvin delivered a rousing condemnation of the speculative “form follows finance” model of housing development, which his WikiHouse project proposes to upend by disseminating sustainable open-source housing designs that anyone can build.


Day 2: Cities for all citizens

Open House Worldwide Conference attendees. Photo credit: Luke O'Donovan.

Day 2 brought governmental, tech, and psychological perspectives to bear on how to engage the public in city planning and design. To Dr. Suzanne Hall, commercial high streets are vital “spiderwebs of democracy”, but challenge planners and policymakers because of their heterogeneity. Maria Vassilakou of Vienna, Asier Abaunza Robles of Bilbao, and Ali Grehan of Dublin City Architects related stories of successful citizen engagement in planning. In all cases there must be a vision, real resources, effort to establish shared values to guide the process, and investment in engaging the marginalized.

Several presenters highlighted truly innovative government efforts to address the challenge. London’s first-ever Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Matthew Ryder, described building an integrated evidence-based approach to pushing for equality, civic participation, and collective identity. Queensland Government Architect Malcolm Middleton succeeded at having good design principles codified in the regional development plan – and then, as board chair, was able to use Open House Brisbane to showcase examples. James Parkinson discussed the success of Crowdfund London, which puts government money behind projects that are able to garner grassroots public support on a crowdfunding platform.

Mark Cridge of MySociety builds tech tools to help people interact with government more easily, such as by filing requests and complaints. But he cautions that if governments aren’t prepared to deal with these inputs, and don’t build such tools into their own systems, they will fail or only serve to amplify the voices of those who are already engaged. Dan Hill of Arup painted a futurist vision of urban technology that arrives piecemeal, one small step at a time rather than in huge leaps, and is distributed and networked rather than centralized and massive.

Lily Bernheimer teased out the attributes of well-loved spaces that work for us psychologically in her new book, The Shaping of Us. She finds that we fare best in environments of ordered complexity – neither complete chaos nor oppressive sameness, but the lovable jumbles that arise from organic growth. Marten Sims of Happy City uses galvanic skin response and subjective feedback to determine what kinds of streetscapes provide positive stimulus, with results that align with Bernheimer’s findings.


Day 3: Open House cities share knowledge

Open House Worldwide members. 

The third day of the conference was a closed session to permit Open House cities from around the world to share highlights and best practices.

Representatives from New York, Dublin, and Rome discussed sponsorship and partnership:

  • Sponsorships and partnerships depend on relationships cultivated over time, and based on delivering a high-quality event whose content aligns with the partner/sponsor’s interest
  • Financial sponsorships are easier to secure at lower levels, where marketing or philanthropic decisionmakers can approve them without needing executive/board review
  • Sponsors aren’t interested in one-size-fits-all opportunities, such as a menu of benefits at arbitrary price points. Negotiate!
  • Partners can hook in in very substantive ways, such as producing branding/advertising or other materials that require significant professional labor

Chicago, Buenos Aires, Belfast, and Lagos shared info on how they curate and engage sites:

  • It’s helpful to have an overall vision for the goals motivating the program, whether it’s simply showcasing great architecture or building public engagement and trust.
  • Partner organizations can help curate sites relevant to them and provide volunteers to support.
  • Working closely with all sites helps ensure smooth operations, and that they get what they want out of participating (and hopefully repeat).
  • Exchanging proof of insurance or having some other plan concerning liability is important to protect sites and programs, and can help open doors to sites that might not otherwise consider participating.

Vienna, Melbourne, Helsinki, Slovenia, Bilbao, and Oslo offered varied perspectives on special programs and research conducted by their organizations.

  • Many cities are expanding into year-round programming, public debates, and tours in order to maintain audience engagement and fill voids in local program offerings.
  • Many cities offer special hands-on activities, either during OH weekend or at other times, to engage children in design and construction education.
  • Programs can have thematic focuses (housing construction, accessibility) or can be offered through innovative lenses (tours integrated with poetry or photography, or jogging, biking, or skateboard).
  • Engagement with the architecture/design profession is also a goal for some, offering professional conferences/meetings or clinics to help connect architects with the public who want to hire them.
  • Most cities collect data, but vary in how much and how sophisticated it is. Some cities are exploring opportunities to collaborate with research partners to learn more from attendees or turn the event into a way to learn more about what the public wants from the city.


All Open House cities work with volunteers in different ways. Santiago, Vilnius, Prague, and Milan shared information on their approaches:

  • Cities generally prefer to have sites provide the tours/interpretation, but many (though not all) step in with volunteers to do it at the majority of sites when asked.
  • Social media has been a good way to recruit volunteers for most cities.
  • Most cities retain most of their volunteers from one year to the next and grow organically.
  • Volunteer training varies considerably, but cities that expect volunteers to provide tours/interpretation tend to offer considerably more training, including site visits, meetings with architects or site owners, coaching on public speaking, and guidance from more senior volunteers.
  • Volunteer perks include special preview events, post-event parties, and other things designed to build community.

Torino and Madrid then led a loose conversation about branding and marketing.

  • Strive to create a beautiful brand that matches the city, conveys that the city is open for exploration.
  • Being part of the Open House Worldwide family puts your city on the map globally.
  • Cultivate good relationships with the press to get good earned media for event marketing.


Receptions & Tours

 Tour of Bloomberg European Headquarters. Photo credit: Luke O'Donovan.

Tours and receptions provided time to network and take in some noteworthy London sites. Receptions were held at the residence of the Argentine Ambassador to the UK as well as the Italian Cultural Institute, both mansions in Belgravia, as well as in the impressive Locarno Suite at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Tours explored the brand-new Bloomberg European headquarters and an artfully-renovated private residence in a former industrial building.


Posted by aao on February 22, 2018 - 2:56pm