Last Updated on 24. September 2020

In this episode of “Meet the Londoner” we meet Phineas Harper, the director of “Open House London”. This free architecture festival has been held annually in September for over 30 years and allows visitors to visit buildings that are otherwise not accessible. Personally, I love this event as it allows me to discover a London that is normally hidden and secret. Find out more about the challenges the organizers face this year because of Covid-19, get insights into the festival and learn how you can support their work. Enjoy reading!

Dear Phin, please introduce yourself to my readers.

Phineas Harper from Open House London

I am Phineas Harper, an architecture critic and curator, and one month into being the director of Open House in London. I studied architecture after reading a copy of the Architectural Review magazine while working with the British Council in Kano, Nigeria as a teenager. A few years later I joined the editorial team of that magazine which started my journey away from architectural practice and into the discussion and debate of architecture in the public sphere.

What is Open House London?

A huge free architecture festival taking place every September in London. Hundreds of buildings which are normally closed to the public are opened up for one hectic weekend of tours and discussion. Last year 800 buildings were visited by around 250,000 people. There’s simply nothing else like it in the calendar of the city or of architecture.

What makes Open House so unique?

The scale. There’s lots of open studios and open garden days and so on, but London’s Open House is, to my knowledge, the largest and longest-running architecture festival of its kind in the world. London is a vast sprawling place, but for that one weekend it feels like the whole city is pounding the streets looking at great buildings.

 What are your responsibilities being the director of Open House?

Right now it’s getting us through Covid-19. Open House takes place in September but a year’s worth of organisation goes into making it happen. The charity has been hard hit by the virus stopping almost all our income and endangering the future of the festival itself as well as our wider educational work with children and young people. Even if the lockdowns are lifted by September, the virus will have made such a dent that the charity will not be out of the woods. As director I’m asking everyone who loves Open House and would hate to see it close its doors to help us out by becoming an Open House Friend and making a small monthly donation.

How do you find new venues/buildings? Do people have to apply to be chosen?

London is constantly changing. We try to show a rich mix of old and new buildings so no year is the same. That makes it tough to get in. Every year we have to say to lots of buildings who don’t quite make the cut while spending months negotiating with new buildings to talk them into it. I’d love to see even more curation of the mix with guest curators choosing personal itineraries.

Which is your favourite Open House building and why?

I have not visited yet, but am excited to see inside Trellick Tower. I live in Glenkerry House, a much smaller tower also designed by Erno Goldfinger for the local municipality but on the other side of the city. I am intrigued by how Goldfinger (after whom the James Bond villain is named) created a nearly identical architectural language in a totally different context. That would be almost unthinkable today yet both buildings remain so potent in their character.

Which building would you love to add for upcoming events?

The writer Owen Hatherley suggested we should add a north London housing complex built for the Soviet Trade Delegation and designed by the english architect Eric Lyons in 1957. The quality and size of British housing today remains among of the poorest in Europe so there’s huge scope to learn from the past and from other contexts.

The Open House weekend is a free event. How can interested readers support your work?

For almost three decades we’ve run Open House for free because we believe a good city is one in which all citizens can participate in urban exploration and dialogue. But achieving a free festival of this scale is a gigantic challenge and Open House receives no central government funding. If readers would like to support Open House, especially during Covid-19, please become an Open House Friend. There are some great rewards we are making to say thank you too!

Phineas about London

What’s a must-see sight in London

Walk or cycle the length of the Regents Canal starting at Little Venice in west London and ending at the Olympic Stadium in Hackney Wick in east London. That will take you through so many different fascinating spaces and neighbourhoods. Thousands of people still live on two metre wide narrowboats in this city so the canal is always busting with life.

3 words to describe London

Diverse but gentrifying

 Where do you go for a good breakfast?

Diddy’s at 69 Mare Street. Their toasties are great.

The best museum in London is…?

The Hunterian Museum of anatomical specimens

The coolest bar is…?

Diddy’s at 69 Mare Street. Ask for Diddy herself.

Your favourite part of London?

Impossible. The whole point of London is that it’s so many parts in one. None are perfect. We have some deep social inequality in this city, but everywhere you’ll find strange, remarkable and special places.

Fun stuff about Phineas

Which is your favourite ice-cream flavour?

Anything that isn’t chocolate

 Gin and Tonic or Pimm’s?

Only people pretending to be posh people drink Pimms

 Milk in first or last?

Oat milk. In last.

 Favourite Tube line?

The Docklands Light Railway — it is controlled by robots so you can sit at the front and imagine you are driving.

Open House London Weekend on social media

Open House Weekend is planned for 19. + 20.September 2020. The latest updates can be found on the website of Open House. Follow Phin and his team on Facebook (@openhouselondon2020), Instagram (@openhouselondon) and Twitter (@openhouselondon). There is also a newsletter and an app in which you can mark the chosen buildings for your visit.

Support Open House London Weekend

If you want to support Phin and his team, please check out the “international friends” section on their website for more details. Please help that this great event can survive the difficult Corona time! Thank you!

Dear Phin, thanks for taking your time for this interview and your insights into Open House weekend. I can only recommend the event from the bottom of my heart. In 2019 I was lucky to win a ticket for the BT Tower. On a perfect summer day with blue sky and an amazing view I was speechless on how beautiful London spread out beneath me. I could have stayed up there forever but there also so many other cool buildings to explore. I really hope that Open House can happen again in 2020. My wishlist of buildings will be long again this year…


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