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Creative Spotlight: A Q&A With Sam Jacob

Posted 01.12.16  - Culture

Responsible for architecture that blends art and functionality with historical and political references, Sam Jacob is a subject of fascination.

Jacob is perhaps best known as one of the three founders of FAT Architecture, the award-winning studio with a playful post-modern aesthetic whose commissions came to be instantly recognisable - see A House For Essex (designed in collaboration with Grayson Perry,) The Villa in the Netherlands, the BBC Studios in Cardiff, and Hackney's Blue House.

FAT closed its doors in 2013 after 20 years which led Sam to open up his own company, Sam Jacob Studio, in London in 2014. This eponymously named project is already responsible for a number of stand-out sculptures: MK Mehir, a 1:1 scale replica of a standing sarsen stone from the Avebury stone circle, made from iridescent hard-coated foam and situated above a porte-cochère in Milton Keynes’ Midsummer Boulevard, blends references to ancient traditions with modern aesthetic. Another creation includes A Very Small Part Of Architecture, a tomb located in Highgate Cemetery - the same burial ground as Karl Marx and Lucian Freud -, which is based on a design from 1921 that was never created... but we’ll get to that later.

MK Menhir in Milton Keynes

Alongside being a master of design Sam is an active scholar, acting as both a professor of architecture at the UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago), visiting Professor at Yale School of Architecture and as director of Night School at Architectural Association.

Sam’s journalistic work also stretches wide, writing social and political opinion pieces as well as about matters of design - he is a columnist for Dezeen, Art Review and Architect’s Journal, architecture editor for Contemporary magazine and a contributor for Frieze, Metropolis and Log, alongside writing and editing his personal blog, Strange Harvest.

A champion of post-modernism architecture, Jacobs had much to say when we quizzed him on his past work, current projects and vision for the future:

TA: Sam, how would you describe your aesthetic? Was FAT Studio’s design style reflective of your own?

SJ: FAT was a particular project really - an idea about architecture and communication, about how architecture might act as a narrative device, about how issues like taste might allow architecture to address social and political issues. But it was precisely because it was a project that it had to end - in a way we felt like it had explored and achieved what it set out to do.

Now, with my new studio, I feel that we can work differently. Our work now is in some ways more subtle and considered. Our projects now have a more spatial and material quality though in some ways there are many ideas that have carried across.

TA: Do you think post-modernist architecture is here to stay?

SJ: I would say that we are all postmodernist now. Not in the stylistic sense, but in the actual fact of being after Modernism. At the same time, many of the ideas that postmodernism talked about - the collapse of categories, of high and low taste, the confusion of meanings, our relationship to images are not academic subjects but part of our everyday life. What that means for architecture is a responsibility to face our contemporary situation as it actually is - to recognise the complications and conflicting demands of the modern world. In other words, being postmodern is the only way to be really modern.

TA: When creating a post-modernist piece, is it difficult to balance unique design with functional requirements?

SJ: There are always tensions in an architectural project. These might be between function and organisation, between budget and scale, between materials and use, between city and interior, between site and arrangement. Working though these tensions is actually what makes architecture… architecture. That’s to say finding the moment of productive compromise is what makes a project interesting.

TA: You once said: ‘Copying is fundamental to how architecture has developed but it also threatens the foundational belief in originality.’ FAT created a ‘Museum of Copying’ which included a replica of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, and more recently you created a recreated a Calais refugee shelter (Dar Abu Said) for an exhibition at the V&A - can you explain to readers who may not be acquainted with the “phenomenon of copying” what it is, and what your views about it are?

SJ: There are a number of ideas here: First that the act of copying is part of the technology of how we work - it’s embedded in the keyboard strokes of copy and paste that we use many times a day. It’s part of the way architecture is made: copies of digital files, drawings and so on that are transmitted from one party to another. But copying is also part of the way we develop language and culture. Think of how shared architectural languages like classicism or modernism developed - essentially by first copying a reference (ancient Greece and Rome for Classicism, industrial buildings for Modernism), then by other architects ‘copying’ that language. I argue that this is - when done in the right way - an important way that culture develops. You could think of the idea of the sample in music to see just how creative the act of copying can actually be.

The recent project for Venice [Villa Rotunda Redux] explored another idea: that architecture is a form of information itself. Here, we made a digital 3D scan of a temporary shelter in the Calais "Jungle", then transmitted that information into a 1:1 replica to make a new kind of monument to the migrant crisis - but a monument that was in effect a form of reporting, the transmission of data from one state to another. In the context of the Biennale, which was titled Reporting From the Front, we took the idea almost literally: asking how architecture itself might be able to report, to act as a medium of communication.

TA: You recently erected a tomb by modernist artist Adolf Loos in Highgate Cemetery. What inspired you to do this and how did you adapt the original designs?

SJ: The idea came first from the site - the incredible setting of Highgate Cemetery, full of mausolea and monuments. But our piece was not designed to be a monument to a particular person. Rather it was the centrepiece for a series of talks about death and loss organised by the Architecture Foundation.

A Very Small Part of Architecture resurrected Austrian Modernist architect Adolf Loos’s 1921 design for a mausoleum for art historian Max Dvorák. Though never built, the image of Loos’ design has haunted architectural culture ever since. In our new version, the original heavy dark and masonic form was recreated at 1:1 scale using a lightweight timber frame and scaffold net to create a ghostly reenactment of an unrealised architectural idea.

A Very Small Part Of Architecture at Highgate Cemetery

The piece took its title from Loos’ essay Architecture (1910) in which he argues that ‘only a very small part of architecture belongs to the realm of art: The tomb and the monument.’

Built within Highgate Cemetery, among the many monuments and memorials to the dead, A Very Small Part Of Architecture is a different kind of memorial - not one dedicated to a person, an event or a moment in time, not designed to remember the past but instead to imagine other possibilities, altered presents and alternative futures.

TA: Which of your FAT projects was the most fun?

SJ: I’d say the curation of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Titled A Clockwork Jerusalem, it was an exhibition about the story of British Modernism. It was a real pleasure to have the time and space to develop the research for the exhibition - to interview people, to spend time looking through archives, to find the unexpected. Then to be able to work with this material to develop a narrative for the exhibition, and then finally to find ways to display the story - which used very different methods: from immersive installations, to giant sized collage based drawings, to very straightforward museological displays. It was great to be able to work all the way through from research to the show, but also to address such an important subject matter - to be able to tell an alternative story about the history of British architecture and its role in shaping modern Britain. It was also poignant as it was the final FAT project, so felt like the end of chapter for me, but also great to be able to put a full stop to FAT in such a public and significant event.

TA: What design or project (in general) are you most proud of?

SJ: I think the Heerlijkheid [The Villa], a project in Rotterdam for a cultural centre and park. Partly because of the very long and rewarding design process, partly because it was a moment when a particular way of approaching design seemed to develop, partly because of the scope and scale of the project. It’s not often that you get to design a building and the landscape that it sits in. It was also exciting because it was really the first big commission we had - and at the time we were still very young (in architectural terms).

The Villa in Hoogvliet, Netherlands

TA: What has been the most rewarding element of your career – be it in designing, lecturing or writing?

SJ: What I love about architecture is that it’s such a broad subject. Really, we can see the world through the lens of architecture and design - it’s endlessly fascinating. For me, making architecture means not only designing and building but also thinking, writing, talking. For my kind of practice, each way of working inspires and develops the other. I couldn't write in the same way if I wasn't involved in projects day to day, but I wouldn't necessarily approach design projects in the same way if I didn't write. When it works well, it’s a virtuous circle.

TA: Who are your designer influencers and idols?

SJ: There are a few. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown have certainly been an important influence when thinking about architectures relationship to history, wider culture and the city. Rem Koolhaas for the ways in which an architect can pursue ideas through both writing and building.

TA: If you could redesign one building what would it be and why?

SJ: With architects it’s always the next project - the thing that starts to fascinate and obsess you in ways you could have never imagined before you became involved. At the same time though I think London’s City Hall is pretty disappointing as a public building. Shouldn't it really be a place where the very idea of London is made into a public forum? Couldn't the landscape around it be a little less corporate and bland? Couldn't it be a place that really operates as a democratic space?

TA: Do you find your experience as a designer makes it harder for you to critique other people’s work?

SJ: In some ways, yes. I find it very hard to write about other contemporary designers work for example. Perhaps it’s knowing too much about the design process, sympathising with the necessary compromises, being familiar with the issues. So I tend to prefer other forms of culture for inspiration. Reading for example, I find a great way to find inspiration and ideas.

TA: What political or social issue do you think has had the biggest bearing on present-day design?

SJ: The obvious crisis is really a financial one. In a place like London, the extreme financialisation of the city has really transformed opportunity and affordability. The fact that economic values have been driven so high through private investment and interests means that far less of the city is really open to most of us. Simple things - how to live, how to work are made far more difficult - and impossible for many. The question then might be how might architects contribute to finding alternatives to this model of developing the city. Are there ways that we can use design to help make a more inclusive, more open idea of the city?

TA: What is inspiring and exciting you in the industry today?

SJ: The most inspiring thing is to see young architects and designers bringing new ideas into the arena, offering new ways of looking at old problems, figuring out different ways to practice, shining light onto issues that others have ignored.

TA: What would be your piece of advice to budding architects?

SJ: Stick to you guns. It’s hard to make architecture and even harder to take a more conceptual approach to design. The only real secret is to believe in - and keep developing - your own approach, to work hard and to find as many ways to get your ideas out into the world.

Elle Jenkinson - T&A Editorial Team

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