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‘Open House is about opening mindsets’

Victoria Thornton poses for the Herald at an iconic street corner in San Telmo, Buenos Aires.
Victoria Thornton poses for the Herald at an iconic street corner in San Telmo, Buenos Aires.
Victoria Thornton poses for the Herald at an iconic street corner in San Telmo, Buenos Aires.
By Cristiana Visan
Herald Staff
Creator Victoria Thornton talks about her project upon its arrival to Buenos Aires


The Open House project started 21 years ago in London and has so far spread to 20 cities around the world. BA is the first city in Latin America to set up such an event where people will be able to feast their eyes and their minds on 60 buildings over this weekend. Open House creator Victoria Thornton talked to the Herald about the project, what it aims to achieve and why Buenos Aires is an interesting place to be.

How did the Open House BA project emerge?
Open House is now in 20 cities around the world. Sometimes it starts because there’s been a volunteer in an Open City event who then goes back home and wants to take the project there. In this case, the connection was Barcelona. Let’s put it this way: a volunteer liked Open House London and took it to Barcelona and then another volunteer in Barcelona liked it and brought it to Buenos Aires.

It sounds almost like a cultural contagion…
Well, some people are calling it a “movement,” although I’m not sure I agree. It is a very democratic programme: the idea is that it is free for everybody, not exclusive, and it’s meant to help you know your city.

When talking about architecture, many reduce it to mere aesthetics. What about its functionality?
It’s very much a part of this project because we understand buildings as three-dimensional spaces. You have to be inside it, outside it and around it. By entering and finding out about a building’s uses, why it was designed the way it was designed, you start to understand what it’s trying to achieve beyond the pure aesthetic aspect.
How did you see this project change over its 21-year history?
I’ve seen people change. Nowadays more and more young people seem interested in their contemporary city as well, while in the early 90s everybody was much older. I guess there was quite a shift in people’s attitude toward their habitat, but I still find it necessary to encourage them to share their spaces, letting others in.

How does this social shift reflect on your project?
I would say people are more visually aware. That has changed, as well as their attitude toward seeing and looking at things. I also think the younger architects are more interested in engaging in conversation with the residents of their cities. Many of the Open Houses right now are started by young architects who want to have that conversation with the city. When we started, we had to work to persuade people to join us but nowadays a lot of people approach us to say they want to register their buildings into the programme.

Would you say this openness to sharing stems from a shift in people’s perception of public and private places?
Yes, I believe that concept has evolved quite a lot and people are more understanding of the public/private divide and aware of how this blend makes up a city.

What has surprised you the most during this shift in perceptions?
Well, I would have to say I was surprised by many building owners. During Open House, some actually rediscovered their building, by learning more of how it was designed and the effort that went into it. And so they started to recognize the substance, value of their building and were suddenly feeling proud of it.

The Open House project has expanded quite a lot over the years but mostly in the Western world. What about the East?
We got to Japan, Indonesia, a little bit in China. But you’re right, there’s a reason for it. The other day I was talking to someone who told me: “If I go to Thailand, I think of temples.” And it’s true, their architecture is build around that, religious architecture is a fundamental thing and there doesn’t seem to be a mixture of building types and maybe that’s why those countries haven’t shown a greater interest in the Open House project.

Would you say it’s a matter of different perceptions of what constitutes private and public space?
Most definitely. Their definition of private space is quite different. But, you know, sometimes Open House is about opening mindsets as well. It just has to come naturally, the people are supposed to become interested in the programme.

Did you get a feeling of Buenos Aires yet?
Well, it has been exciting, despite the bad weather we’ve had these last few days. What impresses is the cacophony of styles, cheek by jowl and that’s really interesting. When you make a city, it doesn’t have to be monochrome and the buildings can rise up against each other. I’ve noticed this especially with the contemporary blocks of flats and it makes you realize that they can all work together. The general view is that of tradition continuing, that you can marry and mix styles and structures.

What do you think about what’s on the menu at Open House BA?
Well, there’s quite a lot. I mean, we started in London with 20 buildings and now we’re at 800 — but we’ve been going 20 years. Starting with 60 buildings is more than promising and I can only hope that, over time, people will decide to share more.
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