Sean Griffiths: architect at home
I live in a house that FAT designed; The Blue House. I live with my mistakes.
I was my own client and it was a fantastic but difficult process. With time I’ve grown to like the house more and more. When we first finished it, I hated it. Because you notice the things no one else would – what you consider the mistakes that you made. Then you learn to live with it and learn to love the faults.
The house has a cartoon-like quality that we arrived at when trying to create a sort of ‘Pop Art’ version of architecture. The building breaks several explicit rules; the fake 2D façade is a kind of anathema to most architects and the inclusion of decoration elements and historical references is still not allowed. We were very much interested in a kind of deadpan representation of those things.
Inside, the house is, dare I say it, a sophisticated architectural space. There is a series of mature spaces which are quite ambiguous. They are free-flowing, dynamic spaces but also rooms. There is a whole layering of space that comes from an interest in Baroque architecture. And the idea of buildings within buildings. At the time we built The Blue House, the cartoon Southpark was very popular. We always used to say that house was Southpark on the outside and Adolf Loos on the inside.
The house functions very well for me. It was designed specifically as an antidote to minimalism and that idea that you should live in a kind of zen-like space, especially with young children. It is a comfortable space that can accept occupation and clutter and children. It was never intended to be pristine. My daughter was 2 or 3 years old when we bought the site and 6 when we moved in, so there is a childlike quality to the home. It has lots of spaces that can be used by children that are unexpected. In the back of my mind I knew this would be a house where she would grow up. Her room, especially, has lots of nooks and crannies.
I like the kitchen area of the house, where there is a big table that I’ll sit at, or there is a room at the back of the house where there are some bookshelves and a TV. Although I actually don’t watch TV very much these days.
MY WORKING LIFE
A fundamental aspect of our practice is that it is obsessive about not being obsessive about architecture. I hate it when you are with a bunch of architects and all they talk about is architecture. If architecture is about framing people’s lives then how can you make architecture without learning a little bit more about life? So we don’t tend to have a long working hours culture at the practise. We have our moments when we are pressured and people stay late, but generally people don’t work until 11pm every night like they are at some offices.
At FAT, we’ve always been very interested in culture outside of architecture. One of the things we find very limiting, or observe anyway, is that much architecture only relates to, or refers to, other architecture. But we are interested in a wider culture reference. Like film, TV, literature, art.
I think particularly in the late 90s a lot of architecture was very form driven. It was about the latest shard shape or blob shape, which of course has become mainstream now – it’s what they are doing in the city. We were always more interested in conceptual work. And our practice is driven by three different people and their different interests.
I am quite bookish. I like relatively heavyweight literature, contemporary writers, who tend to be American. But not anyone who is on Newsnight Review, I couldn’t bare to read any of their books. I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon lately which is something you have to dip in and out of as it isn’t easy stuff. It has a James Joyce complexity, it is full of literary illusion and is densely layered. It’s very postmodern, in the wider sense of the word, as it has multiple points of view. Reading it is a bit like eating Black Forest gateau with cream, ice cream and custard too. It can take half an hour to read a single page.
And I had a big phase of reading a certain kind of American crime writer like James Ellroy or James Lee Burke and that whole Californian underbelly thing. I think there is something about that in some of our projects – like The Blue House. It could be something out of a scene in a James Elroy book.
I’m not a big fan of magazines – I sometimes buy a Sunday newspaper but I find that most of what I read in Sunday newspapers to be profoundly uninteresting. I think newspapers are dead. You get the news on the internet anyway and the comment sections are entirely predicitable. And the only time I’ll buy a magazine is if I’m in an American airport and then I’ll buy the Economist and Vanity Fair. Because somehow it seems the right thing to do.
I read AJ and some of its rival organs. I find the technical information in the AJ useful and interesting and the news section too – who is doing what and what is going on. And I will look at the building studies. If I find the pictures of the building interesting I will be tempted to read the study. But often I’m not!
We’ll look at AJ online too. It is very much in a work-orientated way that those things are useful to me. I wouldn’t take AJ home and sit in the bath reading it. But there is very little in contemporary architecture I find interesting, and that’s the mainstay of many magazines, I’m more inclined to read a book on historical architecture.
Sean Griffiths is one of the founders of FAT.