16 Aug 2018 / News
Q&A with Emma Telfer

We caught up with Emma Telfer, executive director of Open House Melbourne, to hear about this year’s highlights and the importance of architecture in our city. Emma shares her thoughts on public engagement, good design and the need to make architecture accessible.  ICON’s own Kyle Reeve was fortunate enough to be involved in the Designing For Life event, a panel discussion forming part of the broader OHM program.


What role does good design play in the built environment?

Our greatest challenge is to explain exactly what ‘good design’ means within the built environment. People understand a well-designed product–they can hold it, comprehend it–but architecture, somewhat perversely, is less tangible. How do you describe the power of good architecture? Through Open House we believe that the first step is simply to expose the general public to more of it, and to have the owners, managers and designers of good architecture explain why it is so important.

How important is public engagement in creating good architecture?

It is crucial. Architecture in Australia has long struggled with an unfair public perception that it is a ‘premium product’, something that is reserved for the wealthy and socially connected. What those within architecture and the built environment need to do is better communicate the value, and accessibility, of good design.

For citizens to understand and engage with the built environment, they need to feel empowered, not locked out of the conversation. That’s what the year-round program of Open House works to achieve. We want every citizen to participate in the discussions, the debates, and the shaping of their city. Without genuine public engagement, poor design will invariably triumph–that’s a world we choose not to imagine.

What role should architecture and buildings play in our city and how important is it for these to be accessible to all?

Architecture and buildings–and the unsung infrastructure that connects them–should enrich our lives. Ironically, the best architecture is often that which you don’t immediately notice. It’s the practical, well-designed train station, the sewage treatment works, the carefully considered masterplan, the elements that exist to keep a city moving. Combine this with moments of truly beautiful modern architecture, and grand heritage buildings, and the many layers of our city come into focus.

By locking these important architectural experiences away behind closed doors, we do our citizens a disservice. When we delve into the inner workings of our cities, we are better informed when those big decisions are made–like a major new road or rail project, or the demolition of an important building. The more accessible we make our architecture–the best examples, as well as the less successful ones–the more we all appreciate better outcomes.

 In what ways does Open House Melbourne enhance awareness of the built environment?

For many of our visitors, Open House is the first time they’ve been consciously exposed to good architecture. Taking tours across the weekend is a gentle way to begin thinking about the built environment. It’s not like attending a lecture, you’re experiencing architecture first-hand, and often hearing about the experiences of its occupants.

Once you’ve gotten hooked on this excitement and intrigue, we offer a year-round series of programs and events that allow you to delve deeper into the city (and regional cities like Ballarat and Bendigo). This is where the public can take their newfound awareness and apply it to become active citizens.

What has been a highlight with this year’s Open House Melbourne program?

The expansion of our program into a fully-fledged festival of architecture and the city is probably the biggest highlight but within the program itself, the Australian Ugliness is a major new video work and installation by Eugenia Lim and WOWOWA. The work takes Boyd’s ideas from the 1960s and stretches them to consider gender, race and identity in relation to our built environment.

The video installation by Eugenia Lim brings forward a female, performative and Asian-Australian perspective to the screens and spaces of Australia. With visual poetry, pathos and wit, this is Australia rendered both familiar and strange, a country at once confident and ever-anxious. Led by the gold-suited figure of The Ambassador (performed by Eugenia), the artist-filmmaker shape-shifts as student, tourist, client, property investor and resident across more than 30 sites and spaces across Australia, interrogating the diversity, liveability and the sustainability of “the Australian Dream”.

Working with WOWOWA, Eugenia brings Boyd’s last projects, Neptune’s Fishbowl (1970), back to life. And what a glorious gold shrine it is.

The Australian Ugliness really embodies the Open House spirit of critical yet accessible enquiry as it subverts high-composition architectural photography while evoking the comedy of Jacques Tati’s film ‘Playtime’ to consider the human experience of the built environment – and the simultaneous alienation and belonging that exist within notions of ‘national identity’ or ‘national architecture’.

Not only does The Australian Ugliness demonstrate a major step-up in Eugenia’s practice: in ambition, production values and audience-reach, it also demonstrates a major step-up in Open House Melbourne’s programming; this is the first time we have been able to co-commission a major new exhibition and I’m incredibly delighted we were able to cut our teeth with Eugenia. The work is on until 25th August at the Dulux Gallery at Melbourne School of Design.

What do you expect to see in future Open House Melbourne programs?

 Increasingly, we are tackling big city topics through public talks, tours and debates – we produce over 50+ special events that are designed to build a groundswell of interest in critical issues for the city. The Apple in Federation Square Debate is an example where Open House made a critical city issue more public, allowing for both sides of the issue to be interrogated in a big public forum.

Stay up to date with the latest from ICON.