Open City

Open City

Sonja Lee

During the eight years architect Scott Lauer spent working in London, he volunteered year after year at Open House London, an event that offers the public rare access to 500 years of urban architecture. When he returned to New York in 2001, he was intent on bringing the event to the city he loves. After two years of phone calling, letter-writing, board-building, and sponsorship-seeking (nearly single-handedly), he launched openhousenewyork (OHNY). The inaugural 2003 event was a weekend-long affair that drew over 45,000 people to 85 sites as diverse as the city itself, ranging from the historic John Jay Harvey Fireboat to a rooftop greenhouse at Barnard College.

Since then, the extravaganza has grown, with more than 100 sites last year visited by over 50,000 people. The High Line had 2,000 visitors, while Gracie Mansion and City Hall each saw 1,700 people flock to its doors. In its short existence, the nonprofit organization has gained important support from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Council for the Humanities, New York State Council on the Arts, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, and Target.

This year, OHNY introduces Open Dialogues, a series of on-site talks with architects and designers, as well as a full- fledged children’s program that includes tours, workshops, and even an architectural curriculum targeted at teachers. New sponsorship from radio stations WABC and WNYC promises to publicize the event to an even larger audience. This year the program is beginning to look like what we dreamed it would be,, Lauer said.

In his spare time ((the other five days a week,, he joked), he consults at anderson architects in Chelsea, where OHNY’s office are located.

How did openhousenewyork start? Well, when I came back from London, I just assumed someone would take it on. I kept saying New York needs this. When is someone going to do this?? I waited but it wasn’t happening. I guess I realized that I had to take it on. That was in 2001. I began to make phone calls. Initially I got this sense of skepticism from peopleeafter all, I had no money, staff, track record, or significant volunteer base. And people thought, How can we open buildings to the public in the shadow of 9/11? People suggested we start small. But I thought, we’re New Yorkers. We don’t start small.

How do you find sites?
Well, we’ve got a lot of advisers. We look for guides and speak with historians, civic arts organizations, and city council members. We love for people to come to us with suggestionssthe quirkier, the better. We want to represent the different sensibilities. We like to work with nonprofits. There are so many fantastic organizations out there doing interesting thingssit’s definitely a perk to get to support them. But part of the time, we sit around with magazines, cutting up things like The Architect’s Newspaper.

What makes people want to come?
Part of it is voyeurism. I think that deep down people have a natural curiosity about each other and how their neighbors live, work, and play. We all want to see into others’ windows. This year the Kushner apartment is really neat. It has real subway doors! It’s cool to work with private homeownersspeople who use their means to realize their dreams and that’s inspiring. We’d love people to walk away from openhousenewyork empowered to make changes in their own homes, offices, neighborhoods.

Working with the city is tough! It must not be easy getting permissions.
This year’s tour of an MTA substation took three and a half years of determined phone calls! This MTA site is built in the early 20th century, with detailed aged brickkbut it’s also hidden. So we’re revealing that. And people will get to see how power for the system is distributed.

You seem to have a lot for infrastructure buffs. Are you one?
I guess I do have that weakness. There’s a turn-of- the-century power plant at Pratt, which is great for gear heads. Over the past 40 years it’s been meticulously restored, and it has bright red generation equipment. The original designers were so proud of it they built a viewing gallery. Designers might not think of the inside of a power plant, but the design of the equipment is neat. A fringe benefit is learning how things work. We also show the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station, where much of the city’s recycled paper goes. Architecturally, the structure is not noteworthy but it’s interesting because it describes an important civic process.

You have a lot of spaces with extra-ordinary views.
Well, I love to climb. And I love views. The view from the Croton Reservoir is pretty special, as is the roof deck of the arsenal in Central Park. I’m excited about inviting visitors to tour the grounds of the hospitals on Ellis Island’s far end! They’ve been shut for 50 years.

It seems that you are broadening openhousenewyork to appeal to families, with more programming aimed at kids.
The kids’ component is important. We want to send people away with an appreciation of designnthe event can be a great teaching tool, too. Besides, kids also bring their parents.

What are your favorite sites this year?
Well, it’s a range. It really depends on what you like. There’s a tour of the MoMA conservation studios, which the public rarely gets to see. Le Roy Street Studio is worth checking out, for their space and work they do. I would encourage architects to look closely at our series of open dialogues. It’s a chance to speak directly with architects around the city to address a wide range of issues. For example, Serge Drouin, an architect from Renzo Piano Building Workshop, will be discussing the New York Times Company building.

Do you personally visit all the sites?
Well, I’d like to but I realized pretty quickly that it’s impossible.

What will you be doing over the weekend?
Ask me on October 7th! It’s overwhelming, there’s so many cool people and places to see that I can never decide.
Tess Taylor is a CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTSSbased design writer.