If you’ve spent any time in the inner north, you’ve probably seen St Mary’s House of Welcome. And you’ve probably wondered what’s inside.

The cream-coloured building on Brunswick Street – with its curved archways and modern glass mid-section – takes up the space of about two buildings. While its doors are always open to Melbourne’s homeless, they’re closed to everyone else.

This year, the architecturally inclined (or simply curious) will have a rare chance to see inside thanks to Open House Melbourne. It’s one of 200 buildings whose doors will unfasten for one weekend in July as part of the organisation's expanded 10-year anniversary program.

For Open House program manager Victoria Bennett, St Mary’s House of Welcome is her absolute favourite: “I’ve spent most of my adult life in the inner north of Melbourne and it’s definitely been a spot on my mind,” she explains. “Inside, it’s not what you expect at all.”

The unusual building has recently undergone a refit by Six Degrees, a Fitzroy-based architecture firm whose studio will also be opened up as part of the 2017 Open House program. “The first thing that hits you is the light of the courtyard and the open nature of it. It’s such a beautiful example of architects really considering the environment of the users,” says Bennett. “And visitors will actually be getting a tour from the staff, who all talk so highly of the renovation, and about what a difference it’s made to employee wellbeing.”

Most architect-designed homes are only ever experienced by the people who live in them, while many of the city’s iconic public buildings are closed to all but their staff. At its core, Open House is about taking good design and exceptional architecture and making it accessible – if only for the weekend. All varieties of building are represented on Open House’s inventory, from private residences to council chambers, university buildings to decommissioned psychiatric institutions.

The residential program is particularly strong this year, with 17 properties on the program – the bulk of which are modern, architecturally designed houses. In the majority of cases, the architects themselves will be leading public tours to unravel the thought-process that went into their conception. “One of the most difficult parts [of Open House] is to convince people to open up their homes to the public on the weekend,” she explains. “It requires a lot of reassuring, and a lot of generosity from the home owners.”

One such residence is Cairo House, an Art Deco block overlooking Carlton Gardens, designed by modernist architect, Best Overend. A single flat has been included on the Open House program for years. This year, they’ve gained access to a second, allowing visitors to contrast and compare.

“The flat that has been in the program already for a number of years has had a renovation done by Architecture Architecture. This year, we’ve got another studio in that same block of flats. Another architect has done a completely different take, and [the two architects] will be running tours together,” says Bennett. “It’ll be really interesting to hear both talks in conjunction; talking about how they’ve approached it, and taken into account the history and style and context of the building. It's definitely one of my hot tips for pre-booked tickets.”

Not only has the program more than doubled since last year – from 80 buildings in 2016 to 200 this year – it represents a significantly larger cross-section of suburbs. Until now, Open House has focused primarily on buildings within the CBD. This year, it includes outlying suburbs as far as Brighton, Beaumaris and Frankston.

Rather than stemming from a desire to grow for the sake of growth, the substantial expansion of the Open House footprint is driven by great architecture and building design. “These suburbs approached us with buildings that they thought were of particular importance,” says Bennett.

As well as an online nominations portal that allows owners and architects to submit their buildings for inclusion, an in-house committee of architects and industry stakeholders helps to determine what’s included each year. The committee is led by Tim Leslie, a founding member of Open House and principle architect at Bates Smart.

Another of the buildings that Bennett is most excited about is in one of the newly included areas. The heritage-listed Brighton Municipal Offices, designed in the 1950s by Kevin Knight of Oakley and Parkes, was inspired by one of the most iconic buildings in the world: the Guggenheim Museum in New York by “starchitect” Frank Lloyd Wright.

“It’s incredible, and completely original,” says Bennett. “It looks like a cross between the Guggenheim and the Starship Enterprise.”

Although the 200 buildings on Open House’s 2017 list will only be open to the public July 29–30, the organisation is running a whole month of complementary programming. More than 20 other events will take place throughout July, from talks and film screenings to DJ sets. “The size of the program really comes down to the capacity of the organisation,” says Bennett. “We’ve reached a maturity where we’re able to handle a portfolio and a footprint of this size, across a larger cross-section of Melbourne.”

Despite Open House’s newfound abundance, you don’t need to travel to the city’s fringes if the mood doesn’t take you. “You don’t necessarily have to come into the CBD to be able to appreciate local architecture. It’s just really exciting for people to have that access,” suggests Bennett.

“You really don’t need to leave your neighbourhood this year.”

Open House Melbourne Weekend 2017 will take place on July 29–30 in a variety of locations throughout inner and outer Melbourne. A complementary program of Open House events will run throughout the month of July. Full program and details here.

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