FAT’s sassy, witty style was too cool for the straight world of architectural design, says Rory Olcayto
Sean Griffiths, Sam Jacob and Charles Holland were better writers than any of their peers, their penmanship witty, well-crafted and smart. I’d hazard a guess that it will remain so unless, of course, FAT’s split, announced this week, proves to be more traumatic than their press release suggests. It doesn’t always work out. Lennon post-Beatles was rubbish. Harrison? Bor-ring. McCartney? Frog Chorus.’ Nuff said.
Jacob writes about the poppy stuff of everyday life – Chopper bikes, coffee culture, Christmas decorations, Roadrunner cartoons, suburban houses that double as skunk farms. His AJ column of 2008-09 is a treat, a treasure trove. We were lucky to have him for a while. Go look them up. Try ‘Foam and the End of Materiality’, in which the author ‘digests the aerated structure of his Starbucks latte and Thatcherite ice cream’. Or ‘What we can Learn from Acme Corp’s Flawed Anvils’, in which Jacob wonders if ‘design died in Wile E Coyote’s vast cartoon desert of the un-won West’.
Griffiths is a bit more traditional, more typically architectural, using canonical tropes to place FAT’s work into a long-view narrative, making criticism of their work as whimsy redundant. He’s often funny, too, when he does reportage, as in a dispatch he did for BD where he described Cannes’ Croisette during post-crash MIPIM as ‘like a scene out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. ‘An emaciated cow lingers on the street…The sense of being in a desolate western is reinforced when the first person I bump into is Maxwell Hutchinson, past president of the RIBA. As you know, western towns always contain someone, a jester-like figure, or quack who wears a bowler and a brightly coloured waistcoat. Max fulfils that role here.’
Holland’s writing is measured, earnest, decent, the least flippant, always politically correct, which makes it sound dull by comparison. But that’s far from the truth, as anyone who’s spent time on his blog, Fantastic Journal, can tell you. In recent months he’s written a brilliant review of Mike Leigh’s Naked, about the film’s use of townscape and interior space and about the terrifying persona of the protagonist. But, like Griffiths and Jacob, he’s pretty funny, too. ‘15 Steps to a 100% Jargon free Life in Architecture’ is a hoot, in which Charles explains that ‘The threshold is carefully calibrated to express a sense of transition from public to private spaces’ actually means ‘This is the front door’.
Curiously, their buildings share some of the qualities their writing styles exhibit. Holland’s library in Thornton Heath is FAT’s ‘straightest’ project, the most sober, the most spatially accomplished, the most thoroughly Building Controlled. (You could even say a bit CABE-y). Jacob’s Dutch community centre in Hoogvliet is the most pop-art project in FAT’s portfolio, Sprite-ish, a Mario-land graphic. But not so interesting inside. Each elevation, however, each surface, is deep enough to drown in. And Griffiths’ Doctor Who HQ in Cardiff, the BBC Studios for which FAT designed a billboard elevation, could well be inspired by a Jim Woodring cartoon (Google-image the name, you’ll see what I mean) but is probably that bit closer to a baroque Venetian facade.
FAT’s buildings, like the writing, are witty, well-crafted and smart. Yet in the world of architectural design, where sober and dour still rules, that’s not always a good thing. FAT should probably have been an ad agency; it would have made a bomb. Still, Nescafé Gold Blend’s loss was very much our gain.