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Interview: Charles Holland of FAT Architecture

Oct 12, 2011
  • Article by Simon Sellars
  • Photography by Courtesy FAT
  • Designer

Charles Holland is one third of FAT Architecture, alongside Sean Griffiths and Sam Jacob. Recently, he visited Australia to speak at Flux 2011, the student architecture congress in Adelaide, and at the AIA in Melbourne. He spoke to Architectural Review Australia about the issues raised at the congress, the debate surrounding his recent remarks about architecture competitions, FAT’s print collaboration with Charles Jencks, and the novelist J. G. Ballard.

Simon Sellars: Do you agree with Flux’s theme that architecture is ‘in crisis’? Especially for emerging architects, there seems cause for concern.
Charles Holland: Yeah, although I suspect the conference could have been themed like that at a number of points in history! There are a few key issues: the amount of architects trained versus the amount of jobs available; the marginalisation of the profession within the built environment; the loss of power and loss of control over the end product; plus all the big global issues. These are probably perennial concerns that move around in terms of what’s most important. But you’re right: it’s a particular way of looking at it if you’re entering into the process as a student. I’m actually very exercised at the moment by the profession. Some of the things other speakers were raising – about how architects are trained and how we work – seem much more relevant to me now than maybe five years ago, when I was quite interested in cultural issues outside of architecture work.

SS We spoke earlier about the Royal Institute of British Architects’ report, ‘The Future for Architects?’, a hard-hitting look at what architects must do to survive past the next decade. Related to that, should the profession engage more with, say, social issues and less with the kind of ‘designer lifestyle’ perceptions it’s often bracketed with?
CH Well, architectural culture and architectural language are very insular. Architects spend a lot of time trying to impress each other and trying to refine language, and certainly since the 1950s or sixties there’s been increasing disengagement from any kind of social and political issues. By re-engaging with those, perhaps we can increase architecture’s relevance. Something that came up at Flux was ‘spatial agency’, a term developed by people like Jeremy Till in the UK, which tries to define what it is that architects do in a way that doesn’t get weighed down by the stuff you’re talking about, like making things look nice.

SS You were invited to speak at Flux partly because of your blog post, ‘Dear other architects’, which exhorted architects to stop entering competitions on the grounds that it’s a waste of time and money. The responses on various online forums were quite vitriolic. It obviously touched a nerve.
CH The debate was really interesting because it challenged a lot of myths and prejudices, such as the idea of architects being artists and therefore not being bothered by money – that’s a really hoary old myth that needs to be put to bed. No one wants to work for nothing, so why do any form of work for free? The idea of valorising some sort of poverty-stricken, starving artist to me is: a) totally wrongheaded and suicidal; and b) just a total cliche?, really, of artists starving in garrets.

SS That got lost in the heat of the moment. It was said you carried a personal grudge.
CH Someone said I wrote that post because FAT hasn’t won anything, which isn’t actually true – we’ve got quite a good record. But it’s simple: because of the sheer amount of time, money and effort that people put into architectural competitions, and the natural enthusiasm architects have for what they do, we’re open to certain forms of exploitation by clients – sometimes ‘well-meaning’ exploitation in that the client hasn’t really thought of it as such, and then architects, in turn, exploit the next rung down on the food chain.
In order to do loads of unpaid work, you need to have loads of unpaid people to do it, and it all seems to connect to the idea of valuing cultural work and valuing architecture. If we collude in the idea that what we do is not particularly valuable, it’s pretty hard to then turn around and say “why doesn’t anyone value architecture?”.

SS One of your critics suggested: “Charles Holland may be right about not entering competitions, but he doesn’t have an answer for what to do instead.” But it struck me that you do: FAT’s art projects, and the speculative projects, writing and lecturing work that you and Sam Jacob have done, could be a viable alternative.
CH Yes, but that’s also very hard to monetise! We’ve always been interested in defining a body of knowledge that’s not purely about buildings, but also a kind of architectural or spatial imagination. Writing, both for architectural and mainstream media, and speculating and doing exhibitions is all important work, and it all goes back into the practice, even though it’s been untheorised by us over the last few years as to what exactly it is we’ve been doing. I think when we started off we had a very clear idea: “These art projects are going to be about these kinds of things.” As we’ve gone on, we’ve developed more individual voices, but it all goes back in. It all helps to build a critical profile similar to what we do when designing a building.

SS In Australia, there’s a call from emerging architects, and some established ones, for an open competition to decide the architects for the new Venice pavilion. This arose in opposition to perceived elitism in the closed competitions previously deciding the pavilion’s fate, so could it be an exception to your ‘no competition’ rule?
CH I can understand the impulse to open up the process. The open competition is historically one in which – theoretically at least – young and emerging talent can emerge. It’s a tough one, this, because clearly an open invitation has a certain democratic appeal and one can see exactly why young architects would call for one in order to get a shot at something really interesting like the Venice Biennale. But still, I think, architects need to understand the resources required in doing such things and that they need to have other, less expensive ways of trying to find work. It’s putting competition work in some sort of context that’s important, understanding what you want to get out of it, rather than this habitual, “spend vast amounts of time doing unpaid work” mindset.

SS Your post was obviously a polemical satire, and reminded me of some of the provocations Ashton Raggatt McDougall have unleashed to jolt reactions from ossified architectural debates. Do you feel any kind of affinity with ARM?
CH Definitely. FAT, with Charles Jencks, have edited an upcoming issue of Architectural Design, called Radical Post-Modernism – they’re one of the practices profiled in that. They’re probably one of the more obvious practices for a book like that! But yeah, their work is interesting. I think it’s definitely brimming with similar traditions, a kind of no-nonsense attitude and an interest in popular culture.

SS Does Radical Post-Modernism reclaim post-modernism?
CH Sort of, although we also tried to profile practices that are very unobvious, or who might indeed be horrified to find themselves in that sort of company! I guess it’s an attempt to say, you know: “We know what you think postmodernism is. We know that it’s vulgar, brash 1980s commercialism.” But that we also know there are many things within that tradition that are much more productive to return to, like a kind of open-minded attitude to the everyday, learning from the cultural landscape. In a way, it’s a continuation of various modernist projects. You could see that in Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour looking at Las Vegas in 1970, an update of Le Corbusier looking at grain silos. ‘Radical post-modernism’ seems to us to be a totally legitimate way of continuing that project of looking outside of architectural discourse to find inspiration, to find purchase in what’s happening now, in mass media and mass culture.

SS At your AIA talk, Ian McDougall asked about FAT’s work, “Aren’t you worried it will date?”, obviously an in-joke about the charges ARM get levelled with and that FAT must too. Later, I overheard him going through a list of other questions he wanted to throw at you, like: “But what about sustainability?”
CH Yes, we were laughing at this for the past few days, actually, because the question everyone asks at the end of FAT lectures is: “Well, what about sustainability?” – as if to say, “Well, don’t you care about the world?”

SS Does that stem from the attitude that because a building is ‘brash’ and ‘colourful’, indeed postmodern, it can’t be ‘sustainable’?
CH Partly. In the past, there has definitely been a style associated with sustainability, certain things – south-sloping roofs, PVs, the odd windmill – which, although obviously functional to some extent, are also about looking the part. Our work has achieved very high targets, actually, but doesn’t particularly advertise the fact.

SS Let’s talk about J.G. Ballard. I’ve been following the interest among British architects in his fiction, and noticed a few posts on your blog that also argue for his relevance. What attracts you, as an architect, to the work of a novelist?
CH I must admit I’ve never been into Ballard for particularly architectural reasons. I just think he’s a really interesting writer! But certainly he describes unusual sorts of contemporary places, maybe slightly overlooked spaces, and he’s given us the term ‘Ballardian’, which people use when they describe some kind of bleak manifestation of contemporary life.

SS In the AIA talk, you spoke about the influence of collage on FAT’s work, especially pop artist Richard Hamilton, and how collage could frame architecture in a way that uses found objects to create a new environment. I was intrigued by your comments about FAT “mis-learning from history”, and what happens, as in collage, when cultural meaning changes through the deliberate clash of signifiers. Ballard does that in his more experimental writing.
CH Yeah. I really love his more extreme writing, especially The Atrocity Exhibition, where he’s playing with the concept of how you put a bit of fiction together and what the sources for that might be, literally copying from other works. My introduction to him was years ago, when Sam and I were obsessed with the movie JFK, and from there we found Ballard’s Atrocity story, ‘The Assassination of John F Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’. I then read the rest of the book and I was just sort of fascinated by it, that you could just insert one thing into another thing and it would be a massive shift in what it all meant. That technique has been very influential on us, that sort of collagist, cut-up sensibility.

SS Ballard’s Shepperton house was up for sale recently. It was an iconic building despite being so determinedly unrenovated, so suburban and downbeat. It was almost anti-architecture, yet anyone who travelled to Shepperton to interview him there felt compelled to comment on it!
CH And there was something perfect about it just turning up on this really crappy local estate agent’s website, totally unsung, with no mention of Ballard at all. That house was always totally unexceptional and his life there was totally unexceptional – the point being his work was more exceptional than him – and then it ended up on this totally unexceptional website, with rather shit photos of his slightly overgrown garden! It all seemed too perfect.

SS Yet it had such a powerful presence. I thought it’d be a shame to see it spruced up.
CH I actually think it’s quite nice that someone might move into Ballard’s house. It reminded me of when you see houses by well-known architects – sometimes they pop up on a normal estate agent’s site but they’ve got modifications and someone’s painted it a horrible colour. I wrote an expanded essay in Radical Post-Modernism about DIY and the lives of houses over time, spinning off from the pictures of Le Corbusier’s houses in Pessac, which were built in 1929 but photographed very famously in 1969, when they’d been completely transformed: they’d got bird boxes on them, and hanging baskets, and people had built garages on them and so on. There’s a photo of them looking sculpturally magnificent with moody shadows, and then there’s a photo of them 40 years later adorned with all this stuff. That sort of thing really interests me, the idea that houses evolve over time, and what happens to them, and who lives in them.

SS Ballard’s house wouldn’t last a day in Australia in that state. Renovation’s an obsession here. We’ve got three reality TV shows on home improvement screening at once.
CH The way houses get adapted and changed is really interesting. We’ve got this great book in the office called The Name of the Room: A History of the British House & Home. It’s got a chapter called ‘The coming of the knockers through’ which is about 1980s DIY people who are obsessed with making these massive living room/kitchens connected by big archways. There’s this great photo of a man sitting in his chair in the middle of a massive archway, proudly showing off this vast, hewn extension at the back of the house!

SS Ballard was so anti all of that. It’s as if his imagination had performed the ultimate ‘renovation’, corresponding to the drab suburban houses he wrote about that undergo strange mental transformations projected by their occupants.
CH But that’s the thing about ordinary houses. Most people are brought up in architecturally unremarkable places – that’s probably the majority of experience. Very few of us are brought up in architecturally adventurous environments, yet all these forces play out in them.

FAT Architecture:
‘Dear other architects’:
Flux 2011:
J. G. Ballard:

Simon Sellars is the editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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