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AOC interviewed by Jesse Seegers
Agents of Change Interview
May 22, 2008
London, England

CONSERVATISM

Jesse Seegers: Your approach of bringing together a kind of Pop architecture visuals, somewhat like Superstudio or AMO, and a more socially conscious ideal a la the Smithsons, generates something that’s less reliant on the visual and more on process and content. Are you scared that this might be misconstrued as conservative?

Vincent Lacovara: Instead of Pop you might say Folk.

Geoff Shearcroft: If you’re re-appropriating – collaging - the past, to move forwards, then the things you produce are more familiar, more likely to resonate with people, and less avant-garde, less extreme. Folk is never seen as avant-garde, because it always builds on a past; you identify something in the past that you think works, and then build on it. Bob Dylan, for example, is only that far ahead of Woody Guthrie. And yet, it’s a big jump. Dylan took a very familiar potpourri, and then turned it in a social direction. He spent two years just singing Woody Guthrie songs.

Generally in all our work, we first find something relevant from the past, and then massage it and collage it and explore it before moving forward. And that move forward might be tiny. Incremental. So in that sense it might be seen as conservative, but we have never thought of it as such.

VL: I’ve heard similar things about people whose work is described as similar to our own. Referencing the familiar can often be construed as not being radical. So it is necessarily conservative.

GS: We believe that the revolution doesn’t have to look odd. It could look deeply familiar. In fact it should look deeply familiar.

VL: As an immediate reaction, the last thing we’d ever want to be called is ‘conservative’. And if it means keeping things exactly the same as they are, we’re definitely not conservative.

GS: Because we don’t spend time claiming that what we’re doing is ‘new’, it’s associated with what’s not-new i.e. the Past.

JS: So what would you say that you spend most of your time trying to do?

GS: Make things that work. That work a little bit better. Bringing two or three very successful things together in unexpected yet successful ways. It’s a bit like sampling. An unexpected combination that is nonetheless ultimately familiar.

But we know it has been called conservative. For example when we did the Architecture Foundation competition, Kieran Long suggested that the building was rather conventional. He meant it as flattery, because he likes that kind of thing. But at the time, we felt “woah…” He said, “it’s got a bottom a middle and a top.” And we said, “Well, yes, actually.”

Tom Coward: It’s got stairs. And windows. And walls.

GS: But it is a four story lump of glowing gold…

TC: If you want to create something that allows people to engage with it, it can neither be too commonplace, nor too remarkable. If something is really remarkable, everyone will look at it and say ‘Wow!” but they’ll be too scared to touch it, or sit on it, or eat it, or whatever. And if you do something too commonplace they won’t notice. So actually the fruitful field is that middle territory.

GS: Doing something curvy with an unlimited budget for Mercedes is a conservative project at the end of the day, isn’t it? We’re fast getting to a point where, because you can do anything formally, and enough weird formal things have been built, that actually formal exoticism is not avant-garde anymore.

TC: And everyone is doing everything, aren’t they?

GS: If you can scan a model, and three years later, bar-coded bits come out of a machine that can be put together to make anything, thethat’s not very interesting. That’s really conservative. It costs lots of money. but as long as you’ve got money you can do it. That’s another reason why we’re interested, for example, in social housing. Because to try and make social housing good, on the limited budgets available, then that’s a revolution, that’s radical.

VL: Yeah, we have aid before the radical thing is not trying to make it radical. For housing it’s about making it work as really good housing, and that’s kind of it.

GS: The Lift, the temporary demountable performance space we designed, is a good example. It’s a big tent, and for two years, from competition to funding, it just had a random pattern that we liked. It was an idea of what a pattern might be rather than the actual pattern. We’ve now been developing a pattern to apply to it, and we wanted it to be deeply familiar, to work on both an urban level and on very up-close, and yet not be like anything else, which seems contradictory.

In the end we’ve taken the metaphor of a quilt, found a tile of a quilt from googling ‘quilts’ and, on a page of about 500, there was one called “Best Of All.” We chose that, because it was actually the best of all. We got everyone in the office to color it in different ways, around a set a rules, then brought them all together and collaged this thing into a pattern.

We then showed it to the client group and their reaction was that it made a very big odd object seem very homely, which was exactly what we were trying to do. The community representatives involved said that they’ve never seen anything like it and yet that it didn’t shout out. It also reminded people of other things, yet not too overtly.

JS: I’m curious how the collage method operates. Coming from a multi-disciplinary background, how does that collaborative philosophy function within the office?

GS: Very rarely do we draw a specific shape; it’s often a found shape, that then changes and changes and changes. We very quickly lose authorship. So with almost any project we do, it’s impossible to say “that bit was me, and that bit was me.” Which was kind of why we set up AOC. We did some work together near the end of college, and realized that there’s this amazing release at the moment where you do lose your own hand. You don’t know which bit is yours, the whole is greater than the parts. And although every building is obviously like that, it goes completely against the myth of the architect’s sketch.

We often produce what we call a ‘spatial constitution’ for projects, which is where you bring together lots of things that are a bit like it, but not. It’s spatial, and it’s of the world, but it’s not a design. And you draw it all in one hand so it suddenly acquires a unity. And then, the jump to the building is a lot more legible; it’s a lot more accountable.

There are many drawings where we try to capture that process, and try to bring the mix together and to move it on. And then you get happy accidents. One of the nice things about that approach, and the collage approach, is that the opportunity for happy accidents is far greater. And the longer the projects are, the more that comes about. There have been quite a few on The Lift.

PROCESS AND APPROPRIATENESS

JS: So how do you plan to have some sort of style when the content you’re working with is user, or client, generated?

GS: Our ambition is to be known for a process, and to produce many different buildings that are in very different styles, but that have a shared generosity, as well as a process that engages the user, the client.

In the 70s and 80s there was a lot of talk about community architecture and consultation that led to a very weak architectural language. We aim to generate objects with strong character, but with no predetermined style. James Joyce always ripped off different styles, and claimed, or tried, new styles as appropriate. We aim to work out an appropriate style.

It may, for example, be appropriate to do a classical building, but we haven’t had that situation yet! Tt may be appropriate to do… a blob. It’s bound to be appropriate to do a blob sometime…

VL: Do you think it’ll be appropriate to do a flowscape?

(Laughter)

GS: Yeah…

TC: Nah…

VL: That’s never appropriate.

GS: A while back, following something we said in the press, we were loosely affiliated to a group of architects called the G4, which was Will Alsop, Nigel Coates, FAT, and us. We all did a talk at the RCA, where we talked about a heterogenous architecture: different styles, different languages working together loosely, not being specific. One question at the end was, would you do a polite modern building, if it was appropriate? And some of the others said no way, it would never be appropriate. But we said well, we would, it would be…

TC: It would be appropriate in a scheme of mock-gothic castles, it would look quite interesting.

GS: So I don’t think we ever place a moral emphasis on one style being better than another. The emphasis is on the process. It will be interesting to see how that pans out in the life of the practice. Whether due to time, or laziness, we end up having stylistic characteristics… such as a fondness for pink.

VL: Or checkerboard….

EXHIBITIONS

JS: Exhibition design is one area where the architect has a lot more direct control over what content is seen, how it’s seen, and specifically issues of circulation that are often taken for granted. In your Soap Box Project, did you just try and make it as maze-y as possible?

VL: We did want it to be as maze-y as possible, yes, which was quite difficult given certain constraints like having to have means of escape in case of fire. The Fire Marshall did actually want us to put in fire escape arrows!

Architecture is particularly hard to represent in an exhibition, in a different form or format than it’s actual self. In college at the end of year show, at the Royal College of Art, all of the other departments, they show the thing that they make, and it’s really lovely for that.

GS: So for someone in Jewelry, there’ll be a lump of silver that they’ve spent three months polishing, and the visitor would feel “that’s lovely.” Then they go to architecture, and there’s text, weird models…

VL: Loads of confusing text over-complicating things to make up for the fact that we haven’t actually done it, actually built it.

GS: There’s an ongoing joke in the Royal College of Art, that no one really gets the architecture, that we can’t communicate it to people. Which is kind of rubbish, given the influence that one potentially has. If we can’t communicate, it’s fairly disastrous. That is one benefit of having a non-architect amongst us, very good at telling us when we’re disappearing up our architectural ass. We’ve had quite a few awkward situations with press in interviews, where we’ve said something that’s been taken completely the wrong way. For example, quite early on we talked about the fact that we had “a hunch” - that there was this idea about evolving things - and we were criticized for it.

VL: It was as if we had ‘admitted’ that we only had a hunch.

GS: It’s as if should have a fully resolved theory right from the start.

POLY-OPOLY

GS: One of our first projects was the board game Polyopoly. This took Monopoly, subverted the logic, and used it as a tool for exploring alternative futures for derelict areas of cities. It offered groups of citizens a tool generate their own kind of architectural self-help, and explored ideas about how you get people together working as a community to create their own thing. It was also about an architecture that appropriates familiar items - kind of late to mid-phase Archigram, in terms of the outcome. All the graphics we did for that were quite appropriated, re-thinking how familiar things work in new combinations.

JS: How has that gone in practice, trying the game out with communities and architects?

GS: It was for a competition- shortlisted but not victorious - and ended up being repeatedly exhibited, yet never played. But it does actually work as a game.

Because of that, the RIBA and CABE asked us to design a game that could be used among local communities to plan for change in a specific area:, the Building Futures Game. This is a workshop-in-a-box, which takes about three hours. A central element is a series of trump cards suggesting different things that you can do to your area, each with an indicative time taken to deliver and cost, as well as a score for how it helps the local economy, generates social capital, offers “wow” factor, delivers ecologically. You basically identify a set of aspirations within a budget and then play them out over time, drawing in the detail. So gradually you get more and more involved, more and more speculative. But also it’s quite practical in that you have to make decisions.

JS: Do they actually make the connection?

GS: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing, you get councillors saying to developers “oh you can’t do that obviously,” when the developer says “Let’s get rid of that project.” That conversation would normally happen in a more confrontational way. But here it is through the smiles of a game.

VL: There’s an amazing number of people who I’ve met who’ve played it who don’t know that we had anything to do with it. Someone doing a town planning degree told me about it. He said “We all got to play this game the other day, someone from CABE came in. I was a developer, it was lots of fun.” I said, I think I know the game you’re talking about, glad you found it fun.
 







Published by Geoff, Vincent and Tom speaking to Jesse Seegers
Volume
Issue 17, 2008

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