Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

In New York City there is the Storefront for Art and Architecture where critical ideas that contribute to the design of cities and public life physically engage with the people whose lives are directly impacted. Other cities have their models too. In Melbourne, the Open House platform has been steadily gaining momentum by drawing the public into conversations about the built environment, asking questions about what we want our cities to look like, and how we want to engage with them now and into the future. 

Over the past decade Open House Melbourne has grown into a full time organisation with a year-long program of events including tours, talks and workshops that shine a light on the ideas and issues at the forefront of rapid change across the built environment. 

Highlighting the architects, designers, planners and developers who are charged with shaping Melbourne, the growing popularity of the annual weekend program confirms the interest, and yearning, for city dialogues at a grassroots level. This year the event also included the screening of 'Citizen Jane', the documentary about American architecture writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs. Giving the public a voice and a seat at the table is at the heart of this story of city making.

We caught up with Emma Telfer, Executive Director, Open House Melbourne, to talk about the open access spirit of the programs they run and the future of the city when it is put into the hands of the architects, planners and developers, and the public too.


MS: The Open House Melbourne program really gets behind-the-scenes of city making to see how cities tick. Tell me about the international mission of the Open House model.

ET: Experiencing cities is at the heart of the Open House model, that direct experience. It is a way of catalysing design advocacy and design literacy and it’s been really successful. When you think about the global audience of Open House, there are now more than 750,000 people around the world who annually take part and that’s really powerful. It makes it the world’s largest public architecture movement.

The 35 cities that now take part in the official worldwide network are becoming very organised. They are producing impact studies and looking not only at the London impact but the global impact of the model. Each city has their own unique approach. You have everything from the Chicago Architecture Foundation-run Open House Chicago, through to really small cities that are just getting off the ground. Obviously Chicago has a pretty impressive skyline and history of architecture and we are really looking to them and to London for what the next 10 years in Melbourne might look like.

Four storeys under the city of Melbourne is the Russell Street substation, one of the most popular sites on the annual weekend program. 

Four storeys under the city of Melbourne is the Russell Street substation, one of the most popular sites on the annual weekend program. 

Tell me about the curatorial approach that you bring to the Open House Melbourne program.

I am very much focused on the year-round programming and always thinking about how we can look at particular issues in the city, or a style of architecture in more depth. Last year we had a program called ‘What’s the beef with Brutalism?’ and that was using Brutalism as a character to explore how people are challenged by different styles of architecture. But also the need to value diversity in the built environment as our cities rapidly develop. This year's equivalent program was called ‘What would Jane do?” and it used Jane Jacobs' ideas and writing as a way of thinking about the future of Melbourne. Ideas like citizen participation in city development, activism and self-made cities, and we also had a series of city walking tours led by the Citizen Jane organisation. The approach has really started to form into a robust annual theme.  

It’s good to see a program that brings together themes that connect with the community and address issues impacting city life.  

Yes, exactly and I think maybe that is what's unique about Melbourne. It is very much about architecture but it is also about this idea of city making and the future of the city while celebrating the city’s past. We want to encourage people to feel that they can have a voice in the city’s development.  

That is so important. In many ways politics is disconnected and a lot of people feel that there is actually no listening and certainly little action.

It does feel that people are becoming more engaged and there are organisations and the media, for example 'The Age' in Melbourne, that have really increased their coverage of city issues. Especially future development and heritage issues which are hot topics here. Plus obviously organisations like the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with their design department. It does feel that there is broader awareness of the impact of design.

When you think about the global audience of Open House, there are now more than 750,000 people around the world who annually take part and that’s really powerful. It makes it the world’s largest public architecture movement
— Emma Telfer, Executive Director, Open House Melbourne


I hadn’t realised the program was now year-round.

That has really come into maturity this year and we now have three big programming moments including a program as part of Design Week with NGV and Creative Victoria called 'Open State'. With NGV we look at design more broadly and use the Open House model of open access applied to organisations that can demonstrate their design DNA through their facilities. We have opened everything from bombardier trams, when you get to see a tram designed right through to manufacturing, to Modscape Homes where you can see prefabricated modular housing being built.

St Mary's House of Welcome designed by 6 Degrees Architects connects past and present and the community of Melbourne. 

St Mary's House of Welcome designed by 6 Degrees Architects connects past and present and the community of Melbourne. 

This is your first year as executive director?

Yes, I took on the role at the start of the year. Prior to that I was creative director in a part-time capacity for two years but I have actually been involved with Open House nearly since the start. It has been an immense amount of growth in 10 years. The organisation has gone from being a voluntary management committee opening eight buildings in 2008, to a full-time team of four staff, a program that is year-round, and Open House Weekend with 200 buildings across metropolitan Melbourne. 

I was looking at this year’s program, well it’s more of a book, and noticed it hit the Readings Top 10 list.  

It has been on the Top 10 list since it went on sale at the start of July. It’s been great to work with Readings as a distribution partner to assist us reaching a broader audience. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Open House Melbourne this year, we also had 10 covers designed by 10 Melbourne artists who interpreted significant building which were open as part of our program. Everything from Medibank Place through to the Mission Seafarers. That was organised by Cornell who are our design patterns who do all of our design work pro-bono.  

Is our interest in architecture changing, perhaps there is a shift in the reasons why people flock to Open House Melbourne?

Yes, for the most part we have matured past it being about a sticky beak. When we first started it was about the idea of peaking behind closed doors. That dialogue has matured and it’s now about people being able to access these sites and learn about their significance and why good design matters. I think there is maturity now around the conversation of design and architecture. This year we will have had about 85,000 visits and we estimate that to be around 50,000 people. We have also had about 160,000 unique visitors to the website since the start of January so it is a huge amount of people accessing information about architecture in the city and the challenges. 

Within the weekend programming, how important is it to cross between past and present and future, what are you trying to address through that narrative?

Getting the right balance between past present and future development is critical. There is so much love for Melbourne's heritage and it’s such a hot topic. People feel that we are losing significant heritage for pretty mediocre development that is often replacing sites that are socially significant to the community. Within the program we have been exploring this idea of social significance and community attachment to buildings that don’t necessarily have architectural or historical merit. We are really committed to providing a platform for public conversation around this issue. But at the same time we have to provide the other side to balance the argument. Melbourne is a city that is growing rapidly and will have a population of nearly 10 million by 2050, so we also have to make room for new development to house people and for the city to evolve. So how do we agitate for great design outcomes in new developments? Another thing we are focused on is working with the emerging architects networks. This year we looked at about 14 projects. There were some really wonderful examples of what you can do with pretty modest budgets on pretty modest sites.

'A crafted tool chest in which to sleep, eat and wash' by Nicholas Agius Architects, inside the iconic modernist Cairo Flats building. designed in 1936.

'A crafted tool chest in which to sleep, eat and wash' by Nicholas Agius Architects, inside the iconic modernist Cairo Flats building. designed in 1936.

It’s very powerful to take people through buildings to experience how they feel and to engage first-hand with the architects who designed them.

We are launching a new series called The Naked Architect that is a workshop series to learn everything you need to know about commissioning and working with a residential architect. Each workshop is hosted in a different home, by the client and the architect, and each session with focus on topics like budget, fees and scheduling. Again, using that open access model provides real examples of how design can positively impact that process.  

Were there any surprises this year?

I think the surprise building this year was Eq. Tower. It was incredibly popular with queues on both Saturday and Sunday. I was surprised by this one as it is one of the new super tall towers on the northern end of the city. It is an Eienberg Fraser development and is one of the better towers down that end where there is not a great level of generosity at street level. People were keen to see the living conditions and the views. I guess that’s also what our program does provide, a look inside buildings that may challenge you. So it is an opportunity to go and learn more about a development. In Melbourne the conversation we need to be having in the city now is what is appropriate high-density development.

Tell me about the balance of public and private spaces, and the projects that tell the back-story of Melbourne?

Russell Place Substation has been on the program since the start and it is still one of the most popular sites. It is always fascinating and intriguing to see how interested people are by how the city works, especially if they get to go underground and Russell Place is about four stories underground. The beauty of that site is that it's not only an operating substation, so a live site, but they keep a number of pieces of equipment running just for Open House visitors to learn about the history of energy and electricity in the city. Including really wonderful things like mercury arc rectifiers. Another popular site is the Port of Melbourne boat tours. They take you through the operating port so you learn about why the port is a crucial part of the city's infrastructure. It is an important part of our programming to reveal how the city operates and all the elements that make up a working city.

Melbourne Central and the crowds that reached nearly 50,000 this year, a record for Open House Melbourne. 

Melbourne Central and the crowds that reached nearly 50,000 this year, a record for Open House Melbourne. 

We discussed the involvement of developers in programming, a profession not always popular in the city-making context. 

We try and work with developers who are really committed to excellence in design and really genuine about community engagement. Assemble is a great example. We worked with them on the Brutalism program last year, and we have a number of other developers involved in showing their projects. We try to put forward the best examples.

So next stop Ballarat, the first regional event for Open House Melbourne. How did that come about?

Ballarat is a big part of the program for the next 3 years and beyond. We are working with the City of Ballarat and Visit Ballarat to produce a full weekend where visitors can come up, stay the night, and have an experience across both days. We are opening about 20 buildings for the first year and it will be a mix of some never seen before heritage experiences, and there will be some special programming up there as well, Ballarat is a really beautiful heritage town, counterbalanced by a really strong contemporary residential program, so there are a number of wonderful houses we are opening by local architects and by Melbourne architects. It’s not all confirmed yet but we have had a lot of interest already from architects and building owners and even homeowners which is fantastic. It's a big operation to invite people into your home so it's great that Ballaratians are so keen on the Open House model. It’s taking on a life of its own at the moment which is wonderful.

How do you think the role of Open House Melbourne will develop over the next 10 years?

We are currently looking at the future of Open House Melbourne and we are potentially looking to launch a parent organisation and brand to help us better convey the depth and breadth of programming that we have. We are right in the middle of looking at that so if you have any great ideas please let us know! We are quite keen to provide a space within the city for conversations about architecture and city making, as well as the soft advocacy work around the future of the city. Looking for a home is our next pipe dream.

Thanks Emma.

Open House Melbourne was sponsored by Space Furniture in Melbourne who spent the weekend with clients and friends in and around the city streets exploring the breadth of projects including KPMG by Hassell Studio and the subterranean Russell Place Substation.