Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Fat. End of.

So, we've announced our end and, surprisingly, hearteningly and for all the right reasons, it feels good. Architectural practices don't normally just stop, but then FAT have never been a normal architectural practice. That's been both a blessing and a curse of course. We've never made it easy for ourselves. 

As Charles Jencks understatedly put it in the Guardian's FAT 'obit', we "went against the tide" of British architecture. Setting up your stall in direct confrontation to the tasteful, earnest, wet-liberal mainstream was never going to make us popular. Gleefully saying how much we hated it just alienated us more. Broadsides against everyone from Terence Conran to Ken Shuttleworth to Ricky Burdett were never the moves made by smart careerists. We've even been rude about some of our current clients for god's sake. 

All of which made us popular with critics, students and allies similarly baffled by the timidity of much architectural culture and the sanctimonious clap-trap that goes along with it. Few of these people employ you of course, or at least not to design buildings. Throwing brick bats from behind a curious and misleading acronym made us a tricky kettle of fish when it came to clients and the accursed need to pay the rent. Some of the people who did employ us have shown remarkable forbearance, others an undoubted courage in taking us on. But I like to think we've re-payed them every time with nothing less than total conviction and commitment to the cause as well as some - come on admit it - quite good buildings.

So what were we on about? Well, initially it stemmed from dissatisfaction, maybe even an anger about the limits of architectural culture, its disinterest in the world around it and indeed in anything other than its own internal discourse. We wanted to make architecture swim in the same fast waters as other forms of (popular) culture, to have the immediacy of pop music, the currency of cinema and the savvy of contemporary art. We wanted it to be sad and funny, smart and stoopid, popular and arcane. We wanted the exquisite melancholy of sweet nostalgia and the giddy joy of the absolutely brand spanking new all at the same time. We wanted it to embrace the immediacy and absurdity of fashion and celebrate the fleeting ephemerality of taste 

We also thought architecture could be about things other than buildings, about events and actions, spaces and people. Politics even. So we did art exhibitions that moved around on plastic bags and proposed urban plans that didn't involve building anything much at all. We entered a competition for regenerating an industrial area of Birmingham that took the form of a short story and some cartoons because we thought the place was largely ok as it was. We came second. Years later the client wrote to us to tell us that we should have won.

We railed against all those hoary old modernist myths that clung on to British architecture like tedious barnacles: truth to materials, honest structures, form following function, la-dee-bloody-da. So we designed an advertising agency office that took inauthenticity to new lows. A gold-leaf covered beach hut on legs which served as an AV room, an elongated work space based on the wooden forts of Russia and a library on wheels. In a church. And all knocked-up by a Dutch TV set builder for about a fiver and treated to look older than it actually was. There's no NBS clause for any of that, and I've looked. 

Our early heroes were perhaps predictable enough: Koolhaas and Tschumi for sure, a bit of Peter Wilson, a heavy dose of Archigram and some of Cedric Price's attitude. Later though other far less fashionable influences came in. Venturi Scott Brown of course (by way of Dan Graham, another influence and a great writer on architecture),  Charles Moore and - ye gads! - briefly even Michael Graves. Partly through VSBA we also discovered a love of classicism, mannerism and the baroque, Michelangelo, Borromini, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor. Soane too, especially his exquisite and sublime house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. But we also liked the sweeping, scenographic showmanship of Nash, not mention the sly wit of Lutyens and the vigorous fuck you-ness of Stirling, who of course only got better when he went PoMo.

Much of this came about through an enforced disengagement with contemporary architecture, a kind of deliberate exile. Looking back, Jencks is right. We were ploughing a very odd and lonely furrow then,  copy and pasting scratchy drawings of old churches and wooden huts and listening to Deep Purple in a messy studio at the top of an office block in Golden Lane. Eventually someone burgled us and stole Sam's Deep Purple album as well as my My Bloody Valentine ep's, although oddly they left the Rizzoli monograph on Stanley Tigerman.

Around this time, Sean designed his own house which distilled a lot of what was going on in our heads. South Park meets Adolf Loos we described it as, a surprisingly sculptural, spatially complex interior that looked like Le Corbusier had done some DIY on a London terrace house. On the outside it was clad in fake wood and painted baby blue and, predictably, a lot of people disliked it. A lot of people didn't and it undoubtedly moved us on a long way.

Then fate came to smile on us in the form of Nick Johnson of Urban Splash, Matthew Harrison of Great Places and a group of Mancunians who evidently took pity on a southern wine drinking jessie (me) and a scouser (Sean). On the way up to the interview for a job designing 23 new houses our lap top bust. So we turned up with no slides and no presentation - no pictures of our work at all in fact - and we won the job. There's a lesson there though we for one never heeded it. 

But we got to design the houses which were something of an odyssey into the heart of the English popular home. Just before we did that we curated a solo exhibition at Manchester's CUBE gallery (props to Graeme Russel, an early and tireless supporter) called - somewhat ludicrously - Kill The Modernist Within. Later, when someone looked at the houses in Islington Square, they declared that we hadn't actually killed the modernists, we'd just got them to do the planning.  

There were other don't-try-this-at-home marketing ploys. Our truly insane first website for one, with its pixellated pornography, bizarre self-deprecatory biographies and downloadable clip'n'fold grave stones, for which Sam bears by far the lion's share of responsibility. There was also the 'Konran Store' at the VandA, where we sold hand-made and genuinely hideous pottery replicas of design classics such as Aldo Rossi's coffee pot and the first IMac. Stephen Bayley's wife bought one of the former and I like to think of it ruining the otherwise impeccably tasteful interior of their house to this day.

Around the time of Islington Square, Crimson arrived in our lives and commissioned us to design some kind of decorated industrial shed for people to get drunk in next to a petrochemical plant on the edge of Rotterdam. A dream commission for us. It was love at first site and a marriage made in heaven, or at least in a mutual love of new towns, post-punk pop and doing the wrong thing. 

Bigger projects came - some great ones like the BBC - but also the inevitable weariness of all those PPQ's, interviews for jobs that don't happen and competition wins that lead nowhere. We might have started to moan a bit at times. But we grew an office and some wonderful people came to work for us. We even had staff reviews and there was a CPD session once, although Sean stopped it half way through because it was too boring and no one was listening to him anymore. 

And right towards the end we got commissioned to do two of the most wonderful projects ever: a house in the wilds of the county I was born in, designed with a cross-dressing, mega-famous potter with an even-bigger love of decoration than us, and the British Pavilion in Venice with our thoroughly likely old friends Crimson and our throughly unlikely new friend Owen Hatherley. Both projects will finish next year and, together mine two of the strongest themes in our work: a critical re-engagement with Modernism and what it means today, and an embracing of narrative, decoration and symbolic meaning in architecture. So, not bad ones to go out on. 

But it definitely feels like time for a change. 20 odd years is a long time to work with yourself let alone anybody else. And collaboration can be a job in itself even before you start the other stuff. As Sean said, it's one end and three beginnings and it really feels like a new start in the best possible sense. Like much of what came about, I can't recommend it as a career strategy, but more architecture practices should consider retiring. It's very therapeutic and people even say nice things about you. Then again this might not be such a rarity for everyone else. 

The BTL snarks have given us a lot of joy of course. The person on Dezeen who said, simply"Please stop this shit" will live on in our memories. As Bob Venturi said elsewhere, you have to admire invective of that clarity. It hasn't all been about annoying people though. Actually none of it has. We've done what we've done for the love of it, because we genuinely enjoyed stuff and thought you might too. For the record, we weren't pranksters and we weren't taking the piss. We were as serious as you like, as all the best jokes are at heart. 

What comes next is enormously exciting though too. A change is as good as a rest as my grandmother never said. And architecture, we have long maintained, is about change however much we architects try to resist it. So, there'll be more news soon from me. In the meantime there's lots of people to thank who aren't at FAT now but once were...too many for here but I for one am profoundly grateful to FAT's founding fathers for giving me the leg up - I was a johnny come lately to the party and they did the hard bit - and fellow travellers and early co-authors (hello Tom and Cordula and Geoff and Sarah and others) who sometimes get written out the script and to all the fabulous people who worked for and with us as well as the clients who gave us the chance to build. That last bit is important. And mostly of course I should thank Sean and Sam for a thrilling, inspiring and exhilarating nearly twenty years.  They're quite smart, those two.

So, ta ta for now. But, watch this space. 


Blaize said...

I live in a unremitting hellscape (California) where the main architectural features seem to be the overpass, the micro-mall, and the 2-storey condominium complex. The entire attitude seems to be, "Well, we've got the plywood superstructure up, and we have 2, 3 days before the wind knocks that down, so, BRING IN THE STUCCO TRUCK."

Hence my interest in architecture and design blogs.

Sorry F.A.T. Architecture is over. I look forward to your next project.

Michael Crilly said...

A few years ago when working for CABE we did a press release and programme that ran in the Guardian as 'Can architecture make you FAT?' (
Looking out over Middlehaven right now, the reverse question is often asked and a good mix of views in response. Always made me smile, even when the work remained unbuilt.