Overview: Open the doors, and open your eyes

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The Independent Online

London Open House this weekend is an architectural bonanza that has grown into a major cultural event. At least 250,000 visits are expected to be made and unless there is a large number of serial visitors, this amounts to a lot of people.

Plenty of them will be prepared to queue, and away from the public buildings, churches, offices and theatres, some private owners are quite likely to open their front doors to a first-day-at-the-sales type crush. Their only motivation is pride in a job well done and it still surprises (and delights) the organisers that they take the disruption in their stride.

For an architect, it goes without saying that these are dream clients, while for the neighbours it is a perfect opportunity to check out the results of the building work they have been monitoring for months. These visitors are not interested in labels in the style of housebuilder's show-flats (where the brand of kitchen takes top listing), what they want to take home are the architect's vision and tricks of the trade. It is innovation they are after.

But the organisers of London Open House see this opening of "eyes, minds and doors" as going beyond the buildings themselves. Director Victoria Thornton wants people to take the value of good design into the wider environment, so that the streets are not just someone else's affair.

This is a message particularly appropriate in the week that a national campaign is launched to find the worst wasted spaces in Britain (see Property News, page 9). According to CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the neglected state of urban public space adds up to a figure the size of Greater London.

In the early summer, London Open House began a programme for 2,000 schoolchildren to explore some of the most interesting contemporary buildings. "Children might as well walk around with blindfolds, they are not taught to look at what's around them," says Thornton, "but the 'wow' factor hits them when they are shown good design. Their response was that they didn't realise how fantastic some buildings were."

At a primary school in King's Cross, which is open at the weekend, the structural engineers Alan Conisbee and associates have built what they call a "Sci-High House" to replace the miserable old shelter, which the children hated. With their parents and teachers they sat down with an engineer and came up with a wood-and-brick building with two raised platforms - one a teaching and performing area, the other for play with musical instruments - and a fireman's pole. It's also self-sufficient in energy, with a wind turbine, photo-voltaic cells and a water collection tank. The engineers found no lack of interest from the children, many from parts of the world where they understand the value of renewable energy.

Comparing and contrasting different buildings is a good way to build up knowledge about what makes for good design and a pleasant environment, Thornton believes. "Otherwise, how can you decide on the qualities of a building?" If only, she says, she could get a major housebuilder on board - because that really would be an achievement.