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A broader view of practice

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Three young designers with architectural backgrounds – and very different approaches – prompt the question: what next for architectural practice? writes James Pallister

ArcSoc talks, University of Cambridge Architecture Department, Nicola Read of 815 Agency, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Niall Gallacher of House of Jonn, 4 March 2011. Lecture series included vPPR, The Klassnik Corporation, Studio Weave and Glowacka Rennie Architects

A giant version of pass-the-parcel, coloured poo and Tesco-run prisons: these aren’t the most natural places in which to look for the future of any profession, never mind that of architecture. Three weeks ago, in a lecture hosted by the University of Cambridge Architecture Society, these things made appearances in a three presentations which, taken together, gave an urgent and clear voice to some of the abstract discussions circulating today about the ‘crisis’ in the architectural profession. More specifically: the destiny of post-Part Two students and the profession for which they are trained to enter, but – in the case of these speakers – are reluctant to join.

On the bill were three Cambridge architecture graduates in their late twenties: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Niall Gallacher of House of Jonn  and Nicola Read (full disclosure: she’s my partner) of 815 Agency. All three trained in architecture at Cambridge then at the RCA (Ginsberg and Gallacher) and London Met (Read), but after stints in practice had chosen to set out on their own, pursuing areas of interest unfamiliar to conventional architecture practice.

Read started her presentation with the well-worn quote of Cedric Price, that the solution ‘to your problem may not be a building’. For the past year or so, alongside her studio teaching at the University of Kingston, she has worked on several short projects that celebrate playfulness. Each project works as part of a broader line of inquiry into people’s behaviour in group situations. This body of ‘design as research’ highlights the fact that playfulness is something that doesn’t usually make incursions into the serious business of architecture. Yet, Read argues this sense of the absurd can become a vector through which an ascetic disconnection within architecture from the world and all its imperfection can be bridged.

After slides showing children busily making dens, Read showed her ‘Pass the impossibly large parcel’ project, made for one of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Friday Late’ evenings, a 2.5m diameter parcel layered with stick on moustaches, party hats and fake eyeballs that, when fully unwrapped, revealed an illuminated papier mâché balloon stuffed with one kilogram of goose coquille feathers; cleaner but still sensual versions of the guttural type of materials beloved of artists such as Joseph Beuys and Matthew Barney – felt, fat, oil and wax. Other projects included the Clerkenwell Feast, an evening meal produced during the LFA2010 with Crystal Bennes of Salon/London arts collective.

There are clear links to elements on the fringes of art and entertainment, or what art critic Nicolas Bourriaud rather grandly calls ‘Relational Aesthetics’. This is ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’. Think artworks like Carsten HÖller’s helter skelter at Tate Modern that create social environments in which people join in a shared activity together.

But where does this all sit within architecture? Clearly its concerns about place, scale and history are familiar. Such attention to manipulating people’s behaviour on a micro level, to creating an environment in which they feel comfortable playing within a scheme that has a larger narrative, is not normally the preserve of architects. In designing events to be played out over the course of two or three hours, the normal challenges of programme and usage over years is compressed and, unusually, the designer is there to watch it unfold and remark on its success – post-occupancy evaluation is built in.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg studied the Design Interactions course at the RCA, headed up by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, and is now working in a very young discipline, that of synthetic aesthetics.


Her main concern is exploring the ethical implications of bio-engineering through close collaboration with scientists and the production of objects, films and images. If previous revolutions in technology have the been the industrial revolution and the computer revolution, the next one, Ginsberg argues, will be the bio-tech revolution.

So far, the vocabulary with which the implications of this coming revolution can be explored is very limited – scientists may be trained to work on a molecular level, but not to envisage how the implications of their work may develop on a larger scale. Ginsberg’s work builds on this, deftly exploring scenarios in which developments on the scale of the molecular could impact on society. This is still unchartered territory, and one in which there is opportunity for artists and designers. Through her work, Ginsberg says, she has found a way to ‘ask important questions’.

Ginsberg showed her E. chromi project (designed in partnership with James King and geneticists at the University of Cambridge, currently on show at the Design Museum) which, through a niftily designed suitcase and some plastic poo, imagines a scenario in which people are alerted to any disease through colour-coded excrement. Other provocations include a disposable cup grown from keratin, the stuff from which hair and nails are made.

House of Jonn is a partnership between Jordan Hodgson and Niall Gallacher, both Part Two graduates of the RCA. According to Gallacher, the recession has been a good thing, giving them the kick to go it alone. But more importantly, the recession gave them the opportunity to snap up bits of work that would normally have been ‘sucked up by the belly of the industry’. A residency at London’s Hospital Club helped them with exposure, and skills gained through post-Part One work in practice helped them pick up sufficient freelance work to stave off the financial hardship that often comes with setting up a new business.

As with some of Read and Ginsberg’s work, House of Jonn’s installation for the London Festival of Architecture also played with scale. For two weeks Hodgson and Gallacher occupied the windows of Selfridges, squeezing themselves into the display areas and making a model city populated with photographs of curious passers-by. In one of their most recent projects – the design for Civil Unrest, an event that explored recent political protest for the Old Vic New Voices project – they managed to take a kind of dystopian project often associated with the RCA and cultivate it from the usual 2D image into a 3D experience.

Working alongside Thomas Greenall, they produced a scenario of privately run prisons, designing the dining hall, tableware, iconography and other associated paraphernalia for an event that combined theatre with dining.

Again, House of Jonn haven’t done any ‘conventional’ architecture projects and are reluctant to pigeon hole themselves as ‘architects’ and not just for fear of zealous ARB officers. They describe House of Jonn as ‘a creative agency with a focus on architecture and urban environments’. They were one of the groups consulted as part of the RIBA Building Futures report which came out earlier this month, and in his talk Gallacher pointed out a comment on the front cover of that report, which he said summed up the kind of space he and Hodgson occupied.‘In 10 years we probably will not call ourselves an architecture practice. It will be something else entirely’.

And there’s the rub. These practitioners – just one small subjective snapshot into the many different practices working in the UK today – could be written off as esoteric youngsters whose work has little to do with ‘real building’. Yet their approach shows a deftness and eye for opportunity that all practices will need to foster in the coming years. According to the RIBA Building Futures report, small-to-medium-sized design-led practices are under threat.

In 20 years time, it predicts they’ll be a rare beast. To survive, it suggests practices will need to adapt to change and show the kind of inquisitive flexibility that is clear in these designers. Nishat Awan, Jeremy Till and Tatjana Schneider, a little longer in the tooth than today’s subjects, write in their book Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture (June 2011): ‘Protection of a small patch of territory – that of designing buildings – has allowed others to claim the larger networks. Now is the time to step over the self-defined boundaries of the profession and share in that extensive spatial field’.

RIBA Building Futures will be hosting an event tonight (24 March) at the Gopher Hole, Old Street, London,where a panel of young, emerging practitioners including Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today; Feilden Fowles; Abberant Architecture; Pie Architecture; Feix & Merlin; The Assembly and Greyworld will discuss ‘The Future for Architects?’


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