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FAT in conversation: The death of the architect


Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland, and Sam Jacob discuss the death of the architect

Tue 4 Aug 10:50

Sean Griffiths It’s been 18 months since we decided to split FAT and while I miss you guys, I have to say it’s been pretty good. I’ve been doing all kinds of different things – some architectural stuff, some installation art, some design consultancy – alongside teaching and writing. I have yet to meet a project manager, attend a Design Team Meeting or look at an OJEU notice, all of which has significantly added to my quality of life.

Although it was great fun being in FAT, towards the end I got tired of ignorant planners, Kafkaesque processes, sociopathic clients – even if our last client was a paragon of virtue.

I came to the conclusion that the profession in its current form will not survive and that the successful architects of the future will not be architects at all. They will be engaged in a much wider range of activities, will be more entrepreneurial and will operate outside of the profession.

Architects, having surrendered so much of their discipline in the recent past, will also lose their creative role to artists, designers and inventor/makers, all of whom, in practice if not education, operate on wider platforms than professional architects. Certain well-known practitioners are already demonstrating that this process is under way. Perhaps it is not happening in quite the way we anticipated, but the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries that we dreamed about when FAT started is happening.

As you both know, I’ve never been one to complain, and you will therefore also recognise that for me, the death of the architect is a totally positive thing. What do you reckon?

Tue 4 Aug 12:48

Sam Jacob I think you’re talking about the battle between the definitions of architecture – as discipline or as profession – which are often at odds, partly because the discipline is the idea of architecture that echoes down the centuries, down the millennia. The ‘profession’ is, relatively, a recent invention and has essentially hijacked the term to make it mean something else. The ‘profession’ is always going to be both suspect and paranoid because its a usurper. A little like Macbeth, driven by dreams of power and influence and ambition, the profession’s achievements are driven by the same character flaw that will lead it to its final death. By making architecture a function of business and bureaucracy, it has offered up an idea of what an architect is that can easily be picked off by those better prepared for business and bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is ceding its disciplinary ground to other forms of creative practice.

The original cross-disciplinary FAT was, as it stated, a project about the discipline – essentially how it might be reimagined in the late 20th or early 21st century. And all of its ideas about killing your heroes, killing the Modernist within, telling the great and the good that they were ‘the worst thing that ever happened to British design’ was entirely necessary. A history of the discipline is a history of the multiple deaths of architecture, a history of funeral rites totally necessary to make way for new ideas of what architecture might be and what architects might do.

Tue 4 Aug 12:51

Sam Oh … and that’s also part of the narrative of the death of FAT … that ending it was important to make the distinction between profession and discipline.

Tue 4 Aug 13:33

Charles Holland Personally, I love a good OJEU notice. Can’t find enough of them to fill in to be honest. Ok, so that’s entirely not true, but I’d like to counter the idea that architecture gains credibility, artistic legitimacy or even just interest through its negation. I know its about death’n’all that but the stability of architecture as a discipline and architecture as a profession is not that neat for starters. The discipline itself is constantly defining itself by reference to other things, other discourses, other disciplines. Whether philosophical, artistic, or commercial, it constantly seeks to legitimise itself by referring to other things, which is ironic. James Stirling said: ‘Never talk to your client about architecture.’ Well, I think we may have stopped talking to anybody about it.

I would see the current tendency in education especially (but also beyond it) to say that architects should see themselves as politicians, planners, enablers, artists, activists – anything but architects, basically – as just another example of this disciplinary confusion. Personally I find it amazing how little anyone in an architecture crit refers to any actual architecture. Other projects, books, films, ideas, something you had for breakfast that morning, anything but boring old architecture. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t make architecture more interesting or relevant by looking elsewhere.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think architects can also make excellent architects. Then again, I’m an architecture geek and I have a pretty endless enthusiasm for the subject.

Wed 5 Aug 10:33

Sean I’m not sure that the discipline of architecture echoes down the millennia as a discrete thing.

Other than in recent times the most revered architects were often something else as well – Bernini (painter, sculptor), Guarini (monk, mathematician), Wren (alchemist, astronomer, scientist, politician). It would be a mistake surely to disassociate one aspect of their respective practices from another.

Other architects were also playwrights, fashion designers, pyrotechnics experts and military engineers.

FAT didn’t see architecture as autonomous. It was explicitly as influenced by ideas in art, pop culture, philosophy and so on just as much as by any ideas that came from architecture. That was both its strength and, perhaps, why some architects found it problematic.

So perhaps people discussing all kinds of other things other than architecture in educational institutions is a symptom of the fact that architecture is not an autonomous discipline and that the promotion of that idea only comes with the establishment of the profession (now in decline).

In the future the most innovative architects will be like this again, doing all kinds of things as well as buildings.

Wed 5 Aug 11:14

Sam I think there’s something here about the limits of architecture as profession – of what can be achieved through building alone. Think of Wren complaining at the end of his life that he had been condemned to ‘spend all his time in rubbish’ (ie that his career as architect had taken him away from his ‘fertile’ youth – where geometry, astronomy, and so on were as – if not more – important than architecture). Or think of the politics of being an architect – of Vitruvius complaining even then of the crass commercialisation of architecture: ‘Other architects beg and wrangle to obtain commissions; but I follow a rule laid down by my masters: not to seek employment but to be sought out.’ (Which reminds me, Sean, of your favourite marketing strategy of sitting waiting for the phone to ring) and how ‘our forefathers used to entrust commissions to architects of approved descent in the first place’.

That’s to say, architecture as building is – and always has been – compromised in its very nature. But architecture has also always been about more than the design of buildings. Or, to put it another way, it’s about the design of buildings but also about much more simultaneously.

That was the tradition that FAT saw itself as part of – why it wrote, taught, talked, curated, exhibited, speculated and did so many other things that to others might have seemed odd, bizarre, or otherwise outside of contemporary architectural practice. Without doing all of those things – which to our minds were always ‘architectural’, even if it was a project about shopping bags – there would have been no way the we could have designed the kinds of buildings we did.

The desire to innovate – or to make architecture relevant to the ‘will of an epoch’, as Mies put it – is as much about the destruction of old models as it is about the proposition of new ones: industrial structures of early Modernism as a way of destroying 19th century models; collecting adverts as a way of re-booting the Modern project for the Independent Group; gadgets and gizmos as Archigram’s way of escaping old ideas of the built environment; Pop Art for Venturi and so on and so on. Kill what you love, in short.

Wed 5 Aug 13:20

Charles I think we’re in agreement that architecture is impure, sprawling, involves lots of other things, people, activities, etc in a way that is a given, unavoidable.

My point before was that it is always eager to define itself through other disciplines. And FAT certainly did that, testing the limits of what an architecture practice is, of what architecture is considered to be, of where it is to be found (on a plastic bag or a stuck-on moulding or in a conversation).

But if the question is how you might rescue it, where it might go to, how it can be resuscitated, then one might also ask not where its limits are but where its centre is. Not in the way that the ARB does, through trying to protect its legal status or prosecute malpractice, but in the sense that if architecture can be anything and if architects themselves can be anything then what is it? What constitutes the discipline? What do architects do?

I ask the question – slightly unexpectedly – to push the other way, to see if there’s something in the centre worth recovering? In redefining its limits we might have hastened its demise.

Of course, I’m aware I’m starting to sound like Brian Sewell.

Wed 5 Aug 13:24

Sam Nick Clegg, more like.

Thu 6 Aug 16:05

Sean Although this is not the business section, I’d like to reiterate that, for doing buildings, sitting by the phone waiting for someone to ring with a job was by the far the most successful strategy. But one of the reasons people did ring us up was because, prior to doing any buildings, we set up our own projects, doing stuff with business cards, shopping bags and art. All that was key to people like KesselsKramer, a forward-thinking communications agency, approaching us to do their offices. Some of most interesting practices still do that sort of stuff but they tend not to be the people getting the jobs.

As for the limits and the centre of the discipline, these are surely both arbitrary and ever-evolving in response to circumstance. For Brian Sewell, painting and sculpture are the centre of art, but we know that an awful lot of contemporary artists don’t agree.

The same is surely true of architecture. An ex-student of mine is now an art director. She’s still designing environments for films, games, virtual realities. Is that still architecture?

I’ve just met a researcher who’s made a film about Rye Lane in Peckham – an amazing multilayered, multicultural, multi-activity hotch-potch of all different stuff – which is, of course, under threat, as the council want to ‘improve’ it by neatening it up with some architecture, which will no doubt be in nice materials and be nicely detailed. Of course it will kill the existing unacknowledged architecture of overlapping uses and cultures that create an actual urban/architectural experience with a specific multi-sensual aesthetic quality. Is what exists in Rye Lane at the outer limits of what we call architecture? Is what will replace it part of the centre? By the way, the woman who made the film is an architect by training. Architects can do and do do all sorts of things.

Thu 6 Aug 16:21

Charles That’s what James Stirling said when someone asked him what his marketing strategy was: ‘I have a phone. Sometimes it rings.’

But he did have a phone.

Is there a contradiction here? On the one hand there’s a sense that architecture is dead because it is so hopelessly compromised. And yet on the other an acknowledgment that it is the compromise that makes it valid, vital. It isn’t and never has been a pure discipline. Which isn’t to say that there are aren’t things intrinsic to it, or more intrinsic to it than anything else.

The death of the architect is a purist idea, though, a no compromise deal. It has been pronounced before, not least by Tafuri. Aldo Rossi said that there was only architecture. It was everything else that was fucked-up. Architecture could only be itself. Not sure where the coffee pots fit in there.

So is there an important difference between the death of the architect and the death of architecture? With the death of the architect goes all the stuff nobody cares about – OJEUs, the ARB, etc – but is architecture still worth pursuing? Because if a film or an attitude can be described as architectural, the word still has important meaning as distinct from other disciplines or areas of knowledge, thought, etc. Or should we rename the whole thing, call it something else?

Wed 12 Aug 12:50

Sam I’d argue that the death of the architect is entirely necessary in order to invent what newer, more relevant ideas of what ‘an architect’ might be.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Well there's 10 minutes of my life I won't get back......

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  • as ever, thanks for reading it Paul, and commenting!

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  • Ha ha....;-). I'm (was) a big fan of FAT......shame they are no more.....

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  • same!

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  • A really astute piece - I thought - and a very timely conversation questioning what we do and why. To make a living?... to BE an 'architect'?... I'm currently a sole practitioner trading as an 'architect' but my 'career', like many, probably began during college by chasing down design opportunities for pocket money - in my case, by designing t-shirst and posters for bands . In addition to the usual small / large practices with varied commercial and public portfolios (requiring equally varied skill sets), it has included, teaching, radio broadcasting, self-build, community technical aid, project management, graphic design and most recently... thatching! Yes, I am quite old now:-) Much of it has been fun (of course), all of it paid. This is how I've carved out my living as generalist... AND as an architect. But I can't help feeling that the more I strive to BE this kind of architect, the idea of being part of an architectural profession becomes increasingly redundant

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