Melbourne Open House 2011

Architecture Australia editor Timothy Moore speaks to Open House founder Victoria Thornton, while Marcus Baumgart muses on the Open House 2011 experience.

Open House began in 1992 in London as an initiative to introduce private buildings to the public. Since this time it has spread to ten cities worldwide and changed its name to Open-City in order to incorporate various architecture advocacy programs to educate aldermen and citizens alike through direct experience. While it is the promotion and showcasing of the buildings in the city that achieves notoriety for the organization and its affiliates, particularly at the Melbourne and Brisbane Open Houses, it is the subtle nuances of the scheme in London that provoke a distinct change in the way we can learn to engage with the city. Victoria Thornton, founding director of Open-City, articulates these details, by expanding on the conditions of making buildings public and the need for educating the public to understand the complexity of the city.

Timothy Moore Open House taps into a generational shift towards an open-source culture of sharing, something that took hold in the 1960s counter-cultural movements and again in the humanitarian architecture of the last decade, with crowd-sourcing models. What was your stimulant for sharing buildings with Open House?

A view towards the Century Building on Swanston Street.

A view towards the Century Building on Swanston Street.

Image: Peter Davies

Victoria Thornton When the organization first started in 1992 we had a Conservative government in London. The city had become very much a private world, with almost no public buildings for seventeen years. By this time I had been travelling to look at the architecture of the world, but realized I was not looking at architecture in my own country. In truth there was a void of opportunity for non-architects to really get inside and understand buildings and spaces for themselves. The profession says it wants the public to understand the value and role of architecture in their cities and towns, but actually they were not letting them in. You cannot have a conversation with the door shut. Open House, to push the metaphor further, opens the minds and doors of people into a conversation about engagement and dialogue with the built environment.

Timothy Moore By identifying and mapping out these spaces in the environment over a forty-eight-hour weekend, it also illuminates, like Nolli’s 1748 map of Rome, that previously internal closed spaces have a civic potential. The negative space becomes “positive.”

Victoria Thornton This civic potential, however, depends upon the actions of the building owners. I believe that building owners are stewards of the city. They have a civic obligation and responsibility because when you create or modify a building, you impact upon everything and everyone around you. For example, when an architect, with their client, projects a building onto the public landscape, this abets our recognition of the city and ultimately our engagement with it.

Timothy Moore Is this broader thinking the reason why you changed names from Open House to Open-City? And what happens when you go from advocating a building to advocating an entire city?

Victoria Thornton Buildings are a way into a conversation about the city. People can recognize them: it’s a simple concept. Of course, you spread out and end up between the buildings, but the city remains subliminal. And when we first started, there was not a huge consciousness about the public dimension of the city. Look at Melbourne. No-one wanted to live in the centre twenty years ago but today there are over 50,000 people living there.

The Origin green roof.

The Origin green roof.

Image: Luis Ferreiro

Each city involved in Open House was driven by different motivations. In Barcelona, the city wanted to recognize the Catalan heritage. Rome wanted to be seen as a contemporary city. And then there is Tel Aviv, with approximately 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings in its centre; they are using architecture to open up the city with a dialogue to the outside world. However, there are also commonalities. Meeting with other Open House organizations recently, I discovered that when each person showed images from their city, you could identify the older buildings as being part of a particular city, and you could most probably recognize the city itself, but when it came to looking at the contemporary architecture of each city, you could not really tell what city you were looking at. What is the contemporary vernacular? Can I recognize the contemporary city? Does it have specificity? For example, in the Docklands of Melbourne it seems very global, not distinctly Melburnian or Australian. I wonder: will the next wave be more contextual? Will it be smaller practices mending the spaces in between?

Timothy Moore The acknowledgment of scale is important in the programs within Open-City. You have Open House, which occurs on a city level in global cities. But there is also an advocacy program that is targeting local councils.

Victoria Thornton This program specifically targets local planning committees. In England, planning committees are made up of non-professionals. Whether this is good or bad, that’s the system. And those on the committee are making decisions for us about our environment. The question is: do they have the skills and language to articulate what comes in front of them and respond in an informed way? Open-City endeavours to build up better tools and vocabulary for them to understand the built environment. What we do is take a mixture of councillors from different areas. If we are examining housing, for example, we will look at the planning application, and then the councillors are asked to assess it. Then they will go and look at the project with the client, architect or owner and assess it in situ. We then ask them if they would have given the planning permission if they had known what they had. In tandem, Open-City encourages citizens to get involved with local walking tours. We use direct experience in the city to engage its residents. Open House is a really good catalyst, without being overtly political, to open the minds of people to a conversation about the city. By opening up buildings, advocating quality design and being sophisticated and complex about the understanding of the city via direct experience, then you can have an informed debate about what you want the city to be.

A day off in Melbourne
– Marcus Baumgart

As a resident of Melbourne’s central Collins Street, living in the city is a personal project. To live in cities well takes skill, application and, most importantly, time to acclimatize, as the subtle layers of meaning and experience are revealed by chance encounter and repeated exposure. I have got better at living in Melbourne over time, but I saw Melbourne Open House as an opportunity to see aspects of the city that are not revealed in my daily routines.

Alive: the substation.

Alive: the substation.

Image: Jessica Brent

With so many buildings open, I needed some curatorial filter: I decided on the loose theme of power. I was interested in spaces that had been made by, and for, power. After all, these spaces are typically inaccessible. My working theory was that power creates unique and desirable spaces that offer a privileged vantage point for the surveillance of the city, and that the desire for these spaces, always out of reach, gives our cities their “spark.” I resolved to see at least two former or current residences, centres of corporate or financial power and even (at the literal end of the interpretive scale) an electrical substation and the roof garden of an electricity company.

My first stop was the most geographically peripheral – Newson and Blackburn’s 1853 Bishopscourt, the oldest house in East Melbourne, a one-time Government House and the traditional residence of the Anglican bishops and archbishops of Melbourne. The vagaries of fashion have in some ways been less than kind to Bishopscourt; in the early twentieth century a wing of the original bluestone mansion was demolished and replaced with an unremarkable Arts and Crafts extension. The result is an awkward hybrid, although its rambling spaces are comfortable and gracious enough. What is intact at Bishopscourt is an enormous and lovingly tended garden, a rare privilege on the cusp of the city grid.

Starting out from this far-flung outpost of civilization, I made my way across the Fitzroy Gardens and back to the Hoddle grid, a pleasant ramble that was undoubtedly a muddy ordeal for the residents of Bishopscourt in the nineteenth century.

The substation.

The substation.

Image: Lena Wang

In a jarring juxtaposition, my next stop was the utilitarian concrete vaults of the Russell Place substation inside the Hoddle grid. Channelling enough electrical energy to make the screen of my digital camera shimmer, the substation offers an insight into another Melbourne, a subterranean world that shores up the daylight world above. The vault is a major node of the infrastructure that keeps our toasters, hair curlers and electric blankets functioning, and it was a privilege to expand my sense of the depths of our city in this way. I was reminded that those who tend to this infrastructure have a different experience of the city – they see its streets and laneways in terms of its conduits, cables and hatches – and for a moment I could too.

The tower of Marcus Barlow’s 1932 Manchester Unity Building.

The tower of Marcus Barlow’s 1932 Manchester Unity Building.

Image: Peter Davies

A visit to Marcus Barlow’s 1932 Manchester Unity Building offered different insights. The restored boardroom and former office of the general secretary of the Order of Oddfellows provided a different vantage point on the city. The executive suite is an extraordinarily complete Art Deco set piece, and visiting the space is like visiting 1932 in person.

Almost. Now the flagship headquarters of Australia’s largest dental practice, Smile Solutions, times have changed for the Oddfellows. The founder and head of Smile Solutions, Dr Kia Pajouhesh, now occupies the lavish corner office, smiling down on the centre of the city, and we have him to thank for the painstaking and loving restoration. If I worked in an Art Deco fantasy land worthy of Hercule Poirot, I’d be smiling too.

This led me to my final stop, William Wardell’s masterwork, the ANZ Gothic Bank on Collins Street. I was already familiar with the banking chamber and the adjacent Cathedral Room, the dramatically vaulted former stock exchange, but I had never seen the private apartment on the upper floors. Originally the residence of bank manager Sir George Verdon, this nineteenth-century space has everything the twenty-first-century city dweller could desire: a spacious corner sitting room; a generous, panelled dining room seating fourteen; an octagonal tower room; a library with gilded walls; a private gallery; and a large private terrace behind Venetian Gothic stone tracery and open fireplaces throughout. It is the ultimate city residence, all the more desirable because no amount of money can make it yours.

Melbourne Open House throws the doors open to aspects of our city that are rarely, if ever, revealed. Twenty-four hours spent exploring these previously hidden spaces has recharged my sense of Melbourne as a city of desire – desire for privileged vantage points, for hidden perches and secret nests – and has illuminated how such desire charges the public realm. I was left with a sense of longing for the perfect city space akin to the surfer’s desire for the perfect wave. Life rushes by on busy streets, but Melbourne Open House reminds us how these spaces are tantalizingly close to the surface of our everyday world.



Published online: 1 Nov 2011
Words: Marcus Baumgart, Timothy Moore
Images: Jessica Brent, Lena Wang, Lena Weng, Luis Ferreiro, Monika Pedzinski, Peter Davies


Architecture Australia, November 2011

Related topics

More review

See all
Francis Kéré talking on video. Panic is not on the agenda: Deerubbin 2020

As COVID-19 began to bite in the middle of March, the Deerubbin architecture conference on a secluded island took on an air of urgency.

Prahran Square by Lyons Architecture and Aspect Studios. Car park to plaza conversion fails to square with locals

The redevelopment of a supermarket car park in Melbourne’s Prahran promised an inviting and welcoming open space. But local architect Domenic Cerantonio says the result …

Landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, from Landprocess, shared lessons from Bangkok. Defiant and spirited: The Architecture Symposium, Brisbane

At The Architecture Symposium, Brisbane, held on 13 March 2020, eight speakers reflected on the theme of water, refracting their architectural output through its unifying, …

Nightingale Village by Kennedy Nolan. Equality, diversity and global challenges

The 2020 International Women’s Day gives pause to reflect on what an “equal, enabled” world means in the face of global challenges.

Most read

Latest on site