I heard a rumour that the IAF was conceived in the back of a taxi!

In 2004 during the European Forum for Architectural Policies in Brussels, a group of Irish architectural and cultural delegates, (Shane O’Toole, critic; John Graby, ex CEO RIAI; Antoinette O’Neill, former Arts Council architecture advisor; Michael O’Doherty, ex OPW) emerged from a taxi with a smile on their faces.

They hatched a plan.  You see there was no designated organisation in Ireland with a core single mission to communicate architecture to the public, and they wanted to do something about that.  The IAF was officially convened and launched in June 2005. The intention was that this new cultural organisation would be independent, formative and above all else, ensure that architecture served the people. The Board of Directors were aware of the very popular Open House initiative in London and a group of board members including the architectural writer Sandra O’Connell went to London to visit Victoria Thornton OBE (founder of Open House) to ask permission for the IAF to deliver Open House in Dublin. It was felt that the core values of Open House (awareness & education) allied well with the values of the IAF. Open House was deemed an effective platform to communicate the existence of a startup like the IAF. This move was literally like going from zero to sixty, or anonymity to visibility in one action. The Foundation delivered our first Open House Dublin in 2005 to an audience of 3,500 visits and we have grown this festival to 33,000 visits to buildings. The rest, as they say, is history.

What impact do you feel Open House Dublin has had – on attendees, participants, or even the city itself, in the fifteen years since the festival began?

Open House Dublin has an audience that is engaged and growing, a network that is national and international, a sector that is active and responsive, a following that is in need of innovative solutions and creative responses to urgent issues in the contemporary built world. Its impact is palpable.

Open House Dublin has focused the public on the role of architecture and good design. It’s an established festival on the Dublin cultural scene, and architecture is now celebrated as culture. It has facilitated and produced platforms for Irish architects to meet the public. Open House Dublin has given profile to architecture. It has championed and promoted engagement with architecture in mainstream media. It has provided a one-stop shop for people to looking to connect with a variety of events about architecture. The festival has even influenced and has been written into government policies on architecture.

Open House has made connections and established partnerships between a variety of audiences, professionals and organisations. The audience profile has grown broader and deeper. The programme attracts the general public, professionals in the built environment, and policy makers. And we will continue to serve the needs of these constituents and build a programme to engage across multiple sectors.

Do you think that public awareness of design and the built environment has changed in that time?

Yes, we have a public with a better appreciation for the built environment around them, the impact of design and to what architects do. Young people have new design skills and a greater creative confidence. We have created a richer cultural space in Ireland that fosters innovation and wellbeing. And the most consistent outcome is that we have engendered joy.

Open House is a leading barometer measuring, through creative engagement, people’s genuine interest to become agents of change in their built environment. Open House is an example of learning from direct experience and can speak unambiguously to contemporary concerns from political, social, cultural to environmental issues, where learning and sharing are the touchstone. This growth is indicative of an international shift in the public’s need to engage in how their city works, coupled with a growing desire to understand and experience the impact and value of good design on their lives now and on the lives of future generations.

“There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time.” Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara Freespace Manifesto 2018

By empowering people with knowledge around the impact of good design on built environment, we aim to ensure Dublin always improves – becomes a liveable and vibrant place now and in the future.

The city has seen significant change in those fifteen years. Any thoughts on what OHD might look like in fifteen years time? What are your ambitions for the future of the festival?

Now, I feel our city is broken. But I have hope that we will fix it. Open House has always reflected critical thinking in architecture practice; to encourage initiatives, which push the boundaries on definitions of architecture and its effect on society, culture and community.

In 15 years time people will be living in the city and it will look and feel different to how we experience it today. Dublin will be a city built and designed with respect for its inhabitants, natural environment and a desire to provide for future generations.  It will contain mixed development in close proximity, integrating as many uses as possible within the same space. There will be reduced congestion and pollution, enhanced public spaces, thriving local economies and efficient public transport. I would like to think that Open House Dublin will be an active agent in enabling this transformation.

The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that Open House Dublin is quite a different festival in 2020 – how do you think the public health measures that are in place might impact on our relationship with our built environment?

Who could have predicted these extraordinary days? Our world has been turned upside down. Our relationship with our internal and external space has utterly changed, forming a new critical perspective on the quality of the buildings, streets and public spaces that we inhabit.  We have learned to adapt to new patterns of behaviour, reduce our physical space and minimise our social contact. Quite simply, our lives are radically different. Or are they? Maybe this pandemic has simply thrown light on communities and systems already under pressure. It might have laid bare the imperfections of our city, but it has also revealed the best of our city and its people. So as the Covid- 19 health crisis continues, and we are exposed to unprecedented social, economic and ecological challenges, it is time to analyse what we have learned and to discuss where we go next. If we start asking the right questions now, then there is opportunity.

What buildings would you like to see added to the festival in the future?

Oldie: The CIE Chassis Factory, designed for the manufacture of bus and units for diesel locomotives –was the first of Michael Scott’s famous trilogy of buildings for the new national transport company (the others being Busáras and Donnybrook bus garage).

Newbie: Dublin City Library – ‘To make a 21st century city library is to make an Imagination Hub; a place for the democratic gathering of citizens, to provide a facilitator of creative life’ . Grafton Architects, with Shaffrey Architects.

Nathalie Weadick, Director, Irish Architecture Foundation