As the London Festival of Architecture 2016 kicks off this week, the AJ talks to festival director Tamsie Thomson about what is happening during the month-long festivities
The role of festival director is new this year, what does it involve?
The festival has been run by a board of people who’ve partly been representing themselves and partly their organisations. Then we also had project managers who have done an amazing job but who come in for just a short amount of time. The idea behind the role of festival director is to provide continuity, to allow the festival to grow and to help it to do what it does better.
We have lots of amazing organisations who are our partners, from the Design Museum to the London School of Architecture, and they hadn’t really been looked after and thanked because there wasn’t anyone to do it. My role is to nurture these relationships – the architects, the cultural institutions, the schools of architecture.
I was brought in because my background working with architects at the RIBA, and we are now very clear on our mission. It is around celebrating and promoting the role of architecture and architects within London.
What role does the festival play in promoting architecture?
London is the global hub of architecture. Architects come here from all over the world to study and to work. But also people come here to buy the architectural services. London architects are working all over the world designing everything from big stadiums to social housing. There isn’t really something that pulls all that together, champions it, promotes it and shouts about it.
’Architecture is a poor relative to things like film, fashion and product design’
Architecture is generally a poor relative to things like film, fashion and product design. Even though it is economically more important, for some reason it is not getting the recognition. There is a really important role for the festival in shouting about it.
Architecture is yet to have its Jamie Oliver moment. In the way Jamie Oliver is talking about good food, at the moment TV architecture is still very much at the pornography stage. We have Kevin McCloud talking about a beautiful house you could have but really understanding the importance of good design and the impact it has on your life is missing.
Have you made any changes since taking on the role?
So far most of the changes have been around making it work better. Because it has been a mainly volunteer workforce we haven’t really had any systems or procedures in place.
The big changes will be in 2017. We are already looking at having geographical hubs and hope to work with local authorities, community groups and developers to create focus areas.
And what do you have planned for the future?
We are aiming to have our theme for 2017 confirmed by autumn this year to give us more of a year round presence.
We’re talking about an exciting opportunity to bring all the schools of architecture together into one place. It will be a great opportunity for graduates to showcase their work but also for us to show the thinking that goes on and the training available here.
I’m also really keen that we work towards revealing all the research that happens in practices. I would guess that less than five per cent of the research that happens in firms actually makes it out of the studio doors. It’s an enormous waste – both for the practices but also for everyone else.
As a city we have gone a bit pavilion mad. We’ve reached peak pavilion
I’m also very keen to evolve the pavilion model. As a city we have gone a bit pavilion mad. It is pavilion building for its own sake. We’ve reached peak pavilion. I’d like to go back to 2008 when things like the closure of Exhibition Road launched the beginning of a conversation which led on to the shared surface work. That is another role the festival can have. It can use these kind of pop-up events and the temporary nature of the festival to come up with a site specific solution or to investigate a city-wide condition. London could become a testbed and the festival could become a way of doing live research.
Are there any events which are radically different to those which have happened before?
There are more of them – at the last count 325 events. But it’s not just about numbers there is also a quality element to it. We have turned down some things because we didn’t feel they fit with the theme of community.
We’ve had a lot of contributions from community groups which is a result of the theme.
How do you make the festival relevant to both the profession and the general public?
It is to do with the content of the events. People just self-select. At the moment our ambition is to contain events for both the industry and the general public. In the reality, at present we are not really hitting the man on the Northern Line. Most of our audience are people who have a connection.
What issues do you hope to highlight with the festivals programme?
Within the main theme of community we have picked out a series of sub-themes. They are not new and ground breaking because the festival is reflecting what people are thinking, talking and writing about right now.
One of those sub-themes is housing regeneration. This is really important to me. It is interesting but also really disappointing and saddening that the issues which I studied eight years ago are still the same. There has been no movement at all. How we handle estate regeneration and the housing crisis are two massive issues which are hugely important to architecture. Architects have yet to solve the issue of housing regeneration.
The other theme that has come out is creative workspaces. It’s a discussion around what happens to the city is artists and creatives are pushed out of an area. What does it mean for a city that is branding itself as a hub for creative industries?
We have another theme looking at community effort which looks at communities doing it for themselves.
Why did you decide to focus on the theme of community this year?
It seemed really topical. We spent a lot of time thinking about the housing crisis and the creative industries – basically all the sub-themes – but then we thought there is one think that links it all together: Community.
How is the festival addressing the ethical nature of architecture?
Holistically by seeing architecture through the lens of community. It is seeing architecture not as object making but as somewhere people live. We are taking the architecture beyond the building as a single plot.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m really excited by the BFI film programme – especially the Ballard. I’m a huge J G Ballard geek.
I’m also going to see the Destruction of Memory film at the British Museum. It’s based on a book by Robert Bevan around the destruction of architecture and of artefacts.
I really like the idea of an event called the Smallness and the Bigness. It is an interpretive dance piece in the Cressingham Gardens estate in Tulse Hill.
There’s so much…
London Festival of Architecture 2016 runs until 30 June