|Talk of the Town|
AOC interviewed by Jesse Seegers
While architects in the past have welcomed public participation in the design process, it has long been underappreciated. Recently, its value has been reappraised, at least by one team of architects. Like their ‘80s-era predecessors, the London-based collaborative, AOC believe in talking with users as well as clients in the process of designing buildings and towns. And like others involved in content management today, they recognize group participation as way to rally people and resources for a collective goal. AOC formulate the contents of a commission into a set of shared concerns that in turn build an informal social network of individuals whose skills help the architects and community to realize public works such as housing and schools. In that regard, they not only design collaboratively, they also design collaborations.
JS: How does collaboration effect how you arrive at a design?
Geoff Shearcroft: Very rarely do we draw a specific shape. It’s often a found shape that then changes and changes and changes during the course of which we very quickly lose individual authorship. So with almost every project we do it’s impossible to say ‘that bit was hers and that bit was his’, which was kind of why we set up AOC. We often create what we call a spatial constitution for a project which is where we bring together things that are a bit like a building, but still are not quite a building. So it’s spatial and it’s of the world, but it’s not a design. You draw it all in one hand so suddenly it has a unity such that the jump to the building is a lot more legible, a lot more accountable. We create a great number of drawings to try to capture that process. One of the nice things about that approach is that the opportunity for happy accidents is far greater and the longer the project, the more that comes into play.
JS: Is it difficult to work with that collaborative, one in which everything is uncertain and subject to change, and then go through tender documents in which everything must be rigid and finalized?
GS: Yes, but you learn to get better at that. As part of the collaboration you need to talk to residents and the contractor in order to get them on board. The role of an architect is as much cheerleader as designer. It may be that most people don’t care what the final product is, but they care about the program, they care about the budget and they care about checking a box. You may be the only one who cares about the end product, but if you can get everyone along the way excited about it, then you’re far more likely to get there. When we worked on Wood Dene, a master planning project in South London, Peckham, the first thing we did was to get everyone involved from the Council on the site. A lot of them hadn’t been.
Vincent Lacovara: It seemed like an obvious thing to do. The first day we took a walk around the site, gathered together representatives from the housing office, planning department, local police, client group and some local residents from the residents’ association. We walked around the site together and the group included people who had been working together for a long time but had never met. Some had emailed each other or sent a fax once a couple years ago, but they’d never walked around the place together.
JS: And you facilitated that meeting?
GS: Facilitating makes it sound so grand, it’s more...
VL: We just arranged a meeting.
GS: It was quite casual. When everyone turned up people were wary because they hadn’t done it before. They wondered, ‘Well, this is strange. Why are we all sitting around this table together? Are we going to be made to do some kind of crazy workshop?’ Someone said something like, ‘I’m not going to stick anything on my head.’
GS: That’s where Daisy’s input was really valuable. Partly because of her background, she’s very good at promoting that kind of conversation. Just putting people at ease and encouraging them to relax instantly helps the project along. It’s a way of trying to preempt formal conventions with informal processes and possibly because of our relative youth and sometimes faux naivety we can pull it off.
VL: There is a genuine interest in catalyzing things and we all feel we achieve something. On that first day we brought those people together. I definitely find that as rewarding as making something physical and that’s something we try to develop. It’s a particular kind of skill and interest that benefits those housing authority projects. We’ve done quite a few projects in which it’s been more about bringing people together who haven’t necessarily ever designed anything.
GS: We began AOC based on Cedric Price’s idea that often a building is not the answer. By having a non-architect in your group, not only can you say and do that, but you can follow it through with meaning and even incorporate it into your business. So while you may kick yourself when you say, ‘no, you don’t need that extension or that new building, you need to talk more or go down the road and use that existing facility,’ in fact that generosity often comes back later. We talk a lot about generosity because it’s a word that tries to convey something about a public or publicness. It’s quite hard to talk about it without it sounding cheesy and idealistic, but if someone’s generous you know exactly what they mean. We try to design buildings that are generous in the sense of doing more than they’re meant to do as concerns their function and structure, particularly in the public realm. We’re slowly exploring this with our buildings and some of our other projects, but it’s quite hard to really define. I think in twenty years we’ll be able to look back and say, that was generous and that wasn’t.
JS: Do you consider that a long span of time in your work?
GS: We find it particularly useful in designing schools. A lot of schools want a long-term vision about where they’re going because they don’t want to end up with a portakabin. Actually if you get everyone from the school and all the parents to come into a space together then it helps on so many levels. Schools are such fantastic mini-communities and when they bring in the parents they realize that among those parents they’ve got a banker, a fund raiser, a lawyer and so on. Suddenly they’re all contributing to the school community using everyone’s skills. That doesn’t seem like much, but by talking about a new welcome area or whatever it starts a bigger conversation and that helps the school to begin generating a vision which might eventually involve some buildings.
JS: In your approach of bringing together Pop visuals à la Superstudio or AMO and a more socially conscious ideal à la the Smithsons you generate something that’s less reliant on the image of the building and more on process, content and public participation. Are you scared this might be misconstrued by the public or the architecture profession as too conservative?
GS: That’s the best question I’ve ever been asked because it sums up everything we’re interested in and I think the answer is: we don’t really know. But if you’re re-appropriating or collaging the past to move forward, then the things you produce are more familiar and less avant-garde, less extreme. Generally with anything we do the first task is to find something relevant from the past and massage it before moving forward, and even then the move forward might be incremental. So in that sense it can be seen as conservative, but then it’s more likely to resonate with people and therefore more likely to work. For that reason I never thought of it as conservative.
VL: My immediate reaction is that conservative is the last thing anyone would ever want to be called. If it means keeping things the same as they are, we definitely don’t think we’re conservative. I’ve heard these kinds of things about people who are described as doing work similar to what we do and it might have something to do with referencing the familiar such that it can be construed as not necessarily radical and therefore conservative.
GS: We believe that the revolution doesn’t have to look odd. It could look deeply familiar and in fact it should look deeply familiar. I’m intrigued by that.
VL: I’d hate for it to be misconstrued as conservative, but…
GS: But, as we know, it has been called conservative. Remember when we did the Architecture Foundation competition? Kieran Long commented that the building was rather deeply conventional. Now, he meant it as a flattery because he likes that sort of thing, but at the time we were caught very much by surprise.
GS: It is a four-story lump of glowing gold – it’s not that conventional!
Tom Coward: In a way though, if you want to do something engaging it must be neither too commonplace, nor too remarkable. If something is really, really remarkable everyone will look at it and say, ‘wow!’, but they’ll be too scared to touch it, sit on it, eat it or whatever. And if you do something too commonplace it won’t get noticed. So actually the furtive approach is in that middle territory.
GS: That’s another reason why we’re interested in social housing, because to make social housing good is radical, even revolutionary.
VL: Indeed, what’s radical about it is not trying to make it radical. We’ve talked about that before. For example, housing is about making it work as really good housing. That’s kind of it.
GS: So for example, our project The Lift is a temporary demountable performance space. It’s a big tent and we’re now developing a pattern to apply to it. We want it to be deeply familiar, to work on an urban level and very up-close, yet not be like anything else which seems very contradictory. Basically we took the metaphor of a quilt and found a quilt pattern by googling ‘quilts.’ From about five hundred search results we chose one called ‘best of all’ because it actually was the best of all of them. We got everyone in the office to color it in different ways according to a set of rules and then brought them all together and collaged them into a pattern. We showed it to the clients and they thought it made a very big, odd object seem very homey which was exactly what we were trying to do. The residents said they’d never seen anything like it and yet it wasn’t too loud or too different. An Islamic woman said it really reminded her of many of the things of her past, yet not too overtly. So the idea is to design an object which works for a number of people who have very different aesthetics and associations, but without it being too labored. And yes, technically it’s a tent – a steel frame with PVC stretched over it – and yet the form and pattern trigger lots of different associations in people which hopefully means they feel they can own it and therefore go into it. In the end our ambitions are to be known for a process and produce many different buildings in very different styles but which all have a shared generosity and a process that engages the user as well as the client. In the eighties there was a lot of talk about community architecture and consultation. That led to a very weak architectural language. With what we’re generating the object has quite a strong character, but it might have a different style. James Joyce always ripped off different styles and claimed a variety of styles as appropriate to his work. We’re trying to work out an appropriate style. It’s incredibly hard but it’s something we’re exploring.
TC: Well, trying to convince the client…
GS: It may be appropriate to do a classical building, but we haven’t had that situation yet; it may be appropriate to do, I don’t know, 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?
VL: That’s never appropriate.
From left to right: Geoff Shearcroft, Vincent Lacovara, Daisy Froud, Tom Coward
'The Lift', demountable performance and meeting space
A spatial constitution, 'The Lift' - A collage of ready-made spatial elements
'Polypoly', the game in the city - Players imagine their way around the board, appropriating existing elements and adapting the landscape as they go. Conversation and negotiation generate open questions about the environment. Possible stories are played out.
'Polypoly', urban cultivation game - Appropriating the model but subverting the logic of a well-known board game, Polyopoly swaps hard cash for time, skills and knowledge, and production-line hotels for a collage of opportunities.
'New Centre for Architecture', Southwark, London - An easy icon, wrapped in gold, the form is deeply familiar, rich in associations and actively encourages adaptation.