Open House New York: An Interview with Gregory Wessner

June 14, 2018
Open House New York: An Interview with Gregory Wessner

Founded in 2003, Open House New York (OHNY) is a nonprofit civic organization dedicated to connecting the public with New York City’s rich architectural heritage through a variety of events and programs. The organization’s biggest annual event, Open House New York Weekend, opens the door for architecture enthusiasts around the world to explore buildings usually closed off to the public. Originally inspired by the very first Open House organization in London, organization founder Scott Lauer began OHNY when he realized how easily Open House Weekend could be replicated in New York. Since then, Open House organizations have spread rapidly through metropolitan cities across the globe. Besides Open House Weekend, OHNY puts on additional programs throughout the year, including educational sessions on urban systems and a city-wide scavenger hunt. The overarching goal of these programs is to educate the public about the importance role architecture and design play in the shaping of a city, and particularly how our relationship to these elements have helped shape NYC into a vibrant place to live, work and learn.

We sat down to talk with Gregory Wessner, the Executive Director of OHNY, about his organization’s programming, the importance of understanding the built city and the future of architecture in NYC.

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What did the early days of this organization look like?

I wasn’t here at that time, so I’m speaking second-hand, but the planning for the first Open House Weekend, which was inspired by an event that happens every year in London, took place the summer before 9/11.  I think a key point about the development of Open House New York was that the planning really happened in the months and years after September 11th. The first weekend event was in 2003. New York at that time was a city of security and lockdown and very closed off.  Open House weekend was a reminder of the value of openness and access and giving the public and New Yorkers access to the city.  It was an important event specifically to New York at that time—different than London, which was just celebrating architecture and buildings.  For New York, it was a real reminder about the deeper meaning of being in a city.

Was New York picked to be the second city?

It wasn’t picked. In every city that has happened since, it is initiated from within the city.  London started the initiative, and there was no intention of it ever going anywhere but London.  There was a woman in London that had the idea and started the event, but there was a guy named Scott Lauer who is an American living and working in London that volunteered for Open House London.  He moved back to New York in the summer of 2001.  He went to a bunch of organizations and said, “There is this great event that happens every year in London, and we should do something like that in New York.”  All of those organizations said, “Yes, this is a great event, you should do it.” And so, he started the planning, and that is how it happened. I think once people around the world saw that the idea could happen somewhere else and that the model of a one-weekend-a-year event could be exported, New York became an example of “Oh, we could do that too.”

How does OHNY work with other branches around the world?

Every city is completely independent.  There is a shared set of values and we occasionally communicate and trade horror stories and support for one another, but there is no formal relationship.

What does the OHNY staff and board look like today?

Everyone associated with Open House loves New York. There is a real passion for the city.  A lot of the people have a background in either architecture or urban studies or some kind of related field.  Our staff is small; we are only four people, but we have a board of 22 people. It is a mix of architects and developers and other cultural figures. The board’s role is to provide guidance and long term vision as well as general fundraising and oversight.

Why does OHNY believe it is important for someone not involved with architecture as a career to know about architecture in New York? 

We don’t have a choice—we exist in a built city.  We live in homes, we go to work in offices or in factories or in schools. Every aspect of our daily life is shaped by the built environment. It is something that none of us can escape. We all share it together. Whether the city functions well or poorly, it’s really the responsibility of all of us to pay attention and advocate for better design and better facilities. The more each of us know about how a city is made, the better off we all are.

Tell us about your recent Urban Systems series of events. How do these help your mission?

I think when people talk about architecture, they think of grand and beautiful buildings. What we are really interested in is looking at architecture in its broadest sense, which is the constructed city. A lot of construction comes from places that support our lives day-to-day, like manufacturing facilities that create jobs or provide products that we use, or our food system.  We have to feed 8.5 million, as [well as] millions of people that are visiting on a daily basis. All of that food has to be managed and produced and consumed and distributed. That requires space. The urban systems series is really looking at aspects of the city that may escape our attention because they aren’t the beautiful buildings we think of when we think about Capital A architecture. They are, in many ways, more important. They provide jobs and provide sustenance.

Would you walk us through what we would experience at an OHNY weekend?

Everyone has a different approach to our weekends.  Depending on your interests, there really is something for everybody. It really depends on what your individual interests are, and how much stamina you have. You can spend two full days going around all five boroughs and seeing as much as you can handle.  Generally, I think what is really wonderful about it is that it gets people out to see parts of the city that they have never seen before.

How do you solicit support?

Like all non-profits, every year is a scrambling to put together our funding from lots of different sources. We have a pretty diverse funding stream that includes public support from the federal, state, and city governments. If you put those three together, that would be our single largest supporter. We do special events and fundraising benefits for which hundreds of New Yorkers buy tickets. This represents another major portion of our funds. There are individuals who love New York and believe in our mission who will support us with private donations.

Is there a favorite part of New York for you?

I don’t know that there is a favorite part. I love those moments of going someplace new and thinking “I can’t believe I am still in New York City”.  We did a tour of Dead Horse Bay, which is part of Gateway National Recreation Area. It is a former landfill that is sort of failing. The garbage is spilling out. If you did not pay attention to the garbage that was all over the beach, you might have thought you were on Long Island Sound or in the Hamptons. If you turned around, you saw the skyline in the distance. I love those moments when one can see the contrast between Midtown Manhattan and somewhere else. More conventionally, I love all of New York’s parks: Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park, Central Park, and Madison Square Park. Having places where you can get a break from street life is really wonderful.

Do you have a favorite building?

I am a huge fan of contemporary architecture. I love all of the new buildings that have been going up. It gives the city energy, and it defines this moment in time so that, 100 years from now, future New Yorkers will look back and remember what we left for them.

What advice would you give to someone interested in architecture?

Come to Open House New York. If you have an interest in architecture, urban planning, urban design, or New York, one of the most important things is getting the experience of architecture. A lot of people will read books and magazines and go to lectures, but architecture is a 3-dimensional art form, and one really needs to experience it.