Where I Work: Gregory Wessner organizes NYC’s biggest ’Open House’

Posted On Wed, September 26, 2018 By

Posted On Wed, September 26, 2018 By In Archtober, Interviews, Where I Work

As a media sponsor of Archtober–NYC’s annual month-long architecture and design festival of tours, lectures, films, and exhibitions–6sqft has teamed up with the Center for Architecture to feature some of their 70+ partner organizations as part of our Where I Work series.

“Nothing replaces the first-hand experience of a great building or city,” says Gregory Wessner, the Executive Director of Open House New York. And from October 12-14, New Yorkers will be able to experience stepping into building such as 3 World Trade Center and the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn, along with public spaces like Domino Park and Hunter’s Point South–all as part of this year’s OHNY Weekend.

Wessner joined the organization five years ago, during which time the Weekend has exploded in popularity. Ahead of the big event, he gave us the low-down on what it’s like to plan tour and talks with more than 250 buildings and projects across the five boroughs, his favorite buildings in NYC, and what we can expect from OHNY in the future.

The digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, always one of the most popular sites on OHNY Weekend. Photo via Walter Dufresne for Open House New York.

You joined Open House New York as Executive Director in 2013 after serving as the Special Projects and Exhibitions Director at the Architectural League of New York. What made you decide to make this move?

I worked at the League for the better part of 20 years and had held just about every position you could have. As exhibitions director, I had curated a pair of exhibitions about architecture and planning in New York and the transformation the city was undergoing in the decade following 9/11. And then I was lucky to curate a small companion show to “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” at the Museum of the City of New York. So in all, I had spent about seven years working on issues around New York architecture when the job at Open House New York became available, and it seemed like a natural extension of that work. But the brilliance of Open House, which I didn’t fully appreciate until I started working here, is the emphasis on experience. Exhibitions are important, but nothing replaces the first-hand experience of a great building or city.

LED light fixture manufacturer Stickbulb, one of this year’s Factory Friday participants. Photo via Stickbulb

OHNY is probably best known for its annual Weekend in October that opens the doors of normally off-limits buildings and spaces. This year will be the 16th for the event. How has it evolved over the years?

When the Weekend first started, in the years following 9/11, just giving people access to places that were normally closed to the public was sort of revolutionary in and of itself. But I think over the past 15 years, New Yorkers have become much more engaged and informed about how the city gets designed and built. So to reflect that, one of the big changes we made was to introduce thematically curated series into the overall Weekend framework, to group buildings together in ways that let us explore issues and ideas in more depth. For instance, this year, we are partnering with Made in NYC to organize Factory Friday. More than a dozen factories will open to show the public what the spaces of 21st-century manufacturing look like. Not only is it an opportunity to see some cool spaces, but it also helps the public understand how important manufacturing is to the city’s economic and social health. OHNY is always going to be about celebrating great architecture, though more and more we are trying to focus that in ways that feed into the conversation about how we design and build the city.

When does the planning begin?

Honestly, it sort of never ends. It feels like we are in some stage of Weekend planning all year long. But it starts picking up in May and then gets really intense in late summer. Because of print deadlines and such, all of the Weekend programming is in locked in by August. I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to be totally slammed with work and everyone else is posting beach pictures.

How does OHNY Weekend compare to Open Houses held in other cities?

An extraordinary thing about the Open House Weekend idea is how it spread around the world in such a grassroots way. It existed only in London for the first 10 years before it came to New York. After that it spread to cities around the world–the list is up to 40 and growing–and always initiated by local residents who wanted to have the same access to their own city. Each city is run independently, and there are slight differences to account for cultural and geographic specificities, but the basic idea is the same, whether you’re in Chicago or Lagos. What is really inspiring is that in every city, the public response has been overwhelming. It’s a simple idea that has really struck a chord with people all over the world.

Domino Park, Two Trees
Photo of Domino Park courtesy of Daniel Levin

What sites on this year’s Weekend are you most excited about?

This is an almost impossible question to answer because we work with all the sites so closely that it’s hard to parse them in that way. Personally, I am always excited by whatever series we are presenting in a given year. I like the way a group of sites can be assembled to tell a story or explore an idea. So Factory Friday, or Works by Women, to name just two that are on the schedule this year. I am also excited that we have a lot of newly completed projects this year…3 World Trade Center, Domino Park, 122 Community Arts Center. I think it’s important that we highlight new work, because it’s what keeps the city fresh and relevant, and it’s the legacy that we leave behind for future New Yorkers.

Is there a site or sites that you’d love to get on the roster in the future?

For me, the dream sites always tend to be the ones with the most impossible access issues. I would have loved to organize a day when the public could get in to see the Second Avenue subway tunnels in their unfinished state. Or the East Side Access tunnels now being built under Grand Central. Infrastructure is always a favorite because people have a deep desire to better understand how the city works, but it inevitably has complicated access issues.

In the past, has there been one site that’s been the most challenging in terms of logistics?

Construction sites are always a bit challenging because they aren’t meant to have groups of people walking through them. Factories, too, for the same reasons. Any place where safety is an issue. The other category of sites that is challenging is private residences. They always attract huge crowds and while most people are very respectful, I am always amazed that visitors think it’s okay to go into someone’s closet or open their fridge.

Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building via Flickr cc

I’m sure you get this all the time, but what is your favorite building or space in NYC?

Another impossible question. I am definitely a parks person. I walk down to Brooklyn Bridge Park almost every weekend. I love Hudson River Park, the East River Promenade. I love the perspectives of the city you get looking back at from the edge. As for buildings, I might say the Flatiron Building. Our office is right up the block and even after five years, I come out of work every day and marvel at those dynamic perspectives it creates. Even after a century, it is still such a radical building.

Original Penn Station, Pennsylvania Station, McKim Mead & White, lost NYC landmarks
The original Penn Station, via Wiki Commons

What about buildings we’ve lost. If you could bring one back what would it be?

Penn Station, obviously, because what replaced it is such a travesty and so beneath the dignity of New York. I also have to add that the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, less than 15 years after it opened, still makes me sick. What a loss and what a waste of resources.

Outside of the Weekend, what can we expect to see from OHNY in the near future?

We have been really encouraged–inspired even–by how much interest and demand there is for the programming that OHNY organizes. So to the degree that we can, we have been repositioning Open House as a platform for public education around issues of how we design, build, and preserve the city. The challenges that New York will face in the future–whether from climate change or income inequality or population growth–are tremendous and they all have implications for how and what we build. More and more, we would like Open House to be a place where the public can get access to high-quality information that they can use to shape their choices about the future.


Learn more about Open House New York here and view the full roster of events for OHNY Weekend here >>

And to explore all that Archtober has to offer, click here >>

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