Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Profiles
Building Studies
Interviews
We Design Buildings to Be Misused
The importance of nooks, of cosiness, of Croydon, of the British culture of Do It Yourself, and of beauty in Milton Keynes, a conversation with AOC is very far removed from the run of the mill dialogue with architects. It is also coolly refreshing.

AOC (Agents of Change) have a profile which has outpaced their oeuvre, although they are doing their best to catch up with themselves. Their work is an eccentric mixture of the intellectual and the everyday, their concerns both high and low brow and they are as comfortable talking trash culture as they are about Heidegger or Le Certeau. They are that rarity, a firm of genuinely young architects, the ages of the founders ranging between late twenties and (very) early thirties.

They are also something even rarer, a group of culturally engaged, serious and very talented designers and polemicists with an unusually broad outlook focussed not on the development of a house style but on a committed engagement with communities, clients and bits of the city. As they say on their website ‘We can design you a home, write you a book or build you a city. Or design you a book, build you a home and write you a city’. That is not, unfortunately, the way most architects speak. That one of the founders is also a town planner at Croydon council and another has a background as a translator and an MA in Cultural Memory gives you some idea of quite how diverse and unusual their base really is.

I went to see them in their East London studio and sat down with founders Geoff Shearcroft and Daisy Froud in a cosy corner behind a pleasantly pink door. One wall is covered with an extravagant Morris wallpaper, brought down to harsh reality by the brilliant white of a stack of adjustable shelving. It works surprisingly well.

The first scheme they show me takes in a usefully panoramic view of all their concerns and obsessions. Crown Terrace in London’s Elephant and Castle, is a typically ragged patch of London’s suburban urbanity. AOC’s proposal is a delightfully quirky set of richly coloured and patterned volumes glimpsed behind a sober screen of brickwork. It is like looking at exotic fish swimming around in a minimalist aquarium.

‘What we’re looking at here’ says Shearcroft ‘is the question of how you can design housing with a grandeur and civic character on a Victorian street, whilst creating a hard edge for the park behind but which also brings in a kind of DIY domesticity.’ DIY is a bit of an obsession with the office. I ask him to explain further. ‘The modernists traditionally argued for a flexible open box’ he says ‘whereas it’s often the buildings that were the most specific in their function that have proved the most flexible [you need only to think of the warehouses and industrial buildings of East London or New York’s Chelsea to see how this has worked]. We spend a lot of time designing buildings to be misused. Le Corbusier built Pessac [a suburb of Bordeaux] and it was very quickly adapted by its residents, the modernist motifs went, the strip windows, the colours changed. Ironically, as architects have bought back into it the original features are being restored. So we’re trying to provide a screen, a facade which becomes the civic presence and grandeur, a concrete frame and then, basically, the rest is cheese - stuff which can be knocked about and altered at will, which can be as adaptable as Victorian terraces have proved to be.’

Daisy Froud, who is billed as a ‘cultural interpreter’ chimes in ‘We’ve also spent a lot of time looking at the semi-detached house. It’s a peculiarly English compromise. The English were never going to go for high rise so in the semi- you have this space you can make your own without losing the integrity of the design.’ So the question, is how you design semi’s at a density which is acceptable on inner city sites? ‘Can you stack them up?’ asks Shearcroft back ‘can they become sustainable?’, Froud adds ‘we’re interested in that, in how we can re-export the suburbs, which are so popular, back into the cities.’

The territory they prowl is one fraught with dangers. Kitsch, ironic detachment, a foreboding sense of Martin Parr’s brutal photographic studies of proletarian taste presented as entertainment for the middle classes, but they are far too sharp to be caught without an answer, and far too socially engaged to leave themselves open to criticism.

‘We try to design things in which the hand of the designer is not too present’ says Shearcroft ‘we’ve opened ourselves to a lot of criticism when we talk about the suburbs or about cosiness but we look at this as a long term project. We’re interested in aesthetic significance, in what things mean. Why is mock-Tudor still so popular? ‘and Georgian’ adds Froud (you sense there’s a stylistic feud going on here, who has the best mock?) ‘Why are people still sticking half-timbering onto their homes?’

We take a look at another model. This one’s clad in gold, a gorgeous lush of a block. Its faceted facades melt into a swirling filigree of golden foliage at the top whilst an impossibly retro one-storey digital clock rises out of the top. A large mixed tenure scheme in Peckham, this has to be one of the most intriguing proposals for the city in years. A complex, modelled tower (‘the people of Peckham, it turns out, actually wanted a tower’ says a bemused Shearcroft) anchors a dense network of courts and streets and substantial blocks, some of which will be designed by other architects.

Moving onto another domestic design, they tell me how the (unbuilt) Black House was conceived. ‘First we put all the client’s furniture into the field, then we arranged it so the views were right and that became the basis for the design. It’s extraordinary that when you design social housing you have to take into consideration pieces of furniture yet when you’re designing for private developers, you never see any furniture on a drawing. That’s because space standards are often more generous in social housing. The buy-to-let market has distorted housebuilding so that properties are not viewed as homes but as commodities, investments.’

AOC’s most recent project was, at least for a little while at the end of last year, one of London’s most visible houses. Plonked in the middle of Trafalgar Square, the wittily named No 1 Lower Carbon Drive (or 1 Trafalgar Terrace as the architects referred to it) was commissioned by the London Development Authority as a demonstration of some relatively simple measures which can be taken to bring the standard Victorian terraced house up to twenty-first century standards of greenness. This is not the overblown (or should that be underblown?) green bling (Gling as it has become known) of David Cameron’s rooftop wind turbine but sensible things like double glazing, and a heat exchanger. Fully glazed on one side, it was, says Shearcroft rather odd ‘the house was based on [co-founder] Tom [Coward]’s own home, the lobby was an exact replica of his. It was rather eerie standing there in this glass-sided house. But it does make you realise how generous these houses were. We were trying to show that some little measures, basic stuff can make Victorian houses as sustainable as some of the best modern developments. We had a neon cat in there, did you know a cat gives off 150watts of heat and energy? We also had one of those long furry dog draught excluders.’

AOC’s most published work was another stand alone curiosity, a pavilion in the wooded garden of theatre and film director Stephen Daldry’s Hertfordshire home. Shearcroft describes it as ‘a room at the bottom of the garden for intimate moments’, it seems to be a contemporary intellectualised version of the garden shed as male space for escape. Teetering on slender legs and using components and an architectural language borrowed partly from yachts partly from the severely functional forms of agricultural building, it is a poetic and delightful folly. It also, with its black staining, loggy legs and flip-up privacy panels becomes something of a hide, a structure paradoxically both self-effacing and surprising. A good metaphor for their work as a whole.

An equally intriguing scheme was commissioned by another public intellectual, Alain de Botton. The House for a Philosopher represented an attempt to analyse the relationship of spaces to different modes of thinking. Although never built (a building’s ideas can exist as much on paper as on a site, a point rarely made outside architecture) its vague specificity is another one of those complex, intriguing themes that just keep cropping up in AOC’s work.

‘We’re really concerned with how you can design something that is capable of evolving’ Shearcroft says as we begin to wrap up ‘I’ve recently started wearing second hand suits and I think clothing is a good analogy for architecture. We have all these cheap, throwaway things which are perfectly OK but the Victorians had a good suit made to last them a lifetime. And then probably handed it on to their sons. I just don’t think that the suits we’re making today will be around to become second hand. A good suit can be re-lined, can be patched and it becomes something else. I also think it’s a political agenda. If you can allow people to become engaged physically with their surroundings, that can have a profound impact.’
 

 

 

 

 

Published by Edwin Heathcote
Financial Times
12 January, 2008

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