Interview with Architect Jack Self, London
What was your journey into this field?
Every architect creates their own myth about how they would play with Lego or how they would draw sketches as a child and that from a very early age they knew that they wanted to be an architect. It’s quite disingenuous to present yourself that way. In my case, I stumbled into architecture. It was presented to me by a family friend as being the most holistic profession. If you want to study law, then you have to be a lawyer. If you want to study medicine, you have to be a doctor, but if you go and study architecture almost everything in the world appears to be relevant. You can go and study 15th century Italian fortifications or you can go and study how flowers unfold and see how that might be relevant to new structural forms. There’s a huge variation within it. Not knowing what I wanted to do as a teenager, I thought this would be a good way forward.
Of course, architecture, when I started studying it in the mid-2000s, was very different from the world we live in today. It was a time when there was a huge amount of development going on and very little critical reflection on what this was doing to the world or to society. It wasn’t until I became very involved first in the student protest of 2010-2011 and then the Occupy movement that I began to think that architecture might have a more central role in the way in which society is structured than I had thought previously. I went away and did a masters in philosophy majoring in neoliberal economic theory. Actually, it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. What I learned from this was, architecture, and space generally, are hugely influential in the way that we relate to each other and the world, much more so than I thought. For example, we discussed the circular table. I do believe my parents divorced because we had a circular dining room table. The head of the table is both literally and metaphorically the head of the table. When you sit at a circular table, it destroys those hierarchies.
You could equally point at something like the history of the bed. In the 1950’s, it was very common for couples to share single beds. Now, that would be considered very unusual. In a way, the politics of what you might call the matrimonial double bed becomes integral to how we think we should relate to other people. As soon as you begin to open that up, and particularly for me in the home, as soon as you begin to explore the home as a site of experimental relationships, it opens up the world of architecture in a completely different way. Suddenly you realise all sorts of things which are about power relations and their spatial outputs. We’ve just published an article in The Real Review about the algorithm of Uber and how that changes the city and how that changes the people working for it. For me, that is a form of architecture. I don’t know if that explains how I got into the field.
Could you talk about the REAL foundation, the ethos and narrative behind the organisation, and how it came into being?
The REAL foundation came out of a huge frustration that architects are extremely good at thinking of many things as design problems. They think of technology, of environmental conditions, of historical and social conditions, preservation, urban contexts, demographics, geography, geology, structure, but they do not on the whole consider the company and the architectural firm itself as a form of design problem. The architectural firm since the 1950’s has been at the avant-garde of corporate structures. For example, the unpaid internship was originally an architectural concept, which came from the history of apprenticeships, but very quickly it was adopted by other corporations and used in different ways. It seems strange to me that the architectural firm as a structure had not been reconsidered in recent times.
We were supposed to just assume this structure. As an architect, you are effectively part of a service profession. You have to wait for someone to come to you. There is no possibility for self-initiated direction. For me, who feels that certain types of social and political arguments are very important to promote actively this was not an acceptable model. Instead, what we have done is created an architectural institute or a cultural foundation which also will start to do architecture. What that means is that whether you are doing a magazine or a book or an exhibition or a building, they are all forms of a cultural and social experiment.
Do you feel that the relationship between architecture and capitalism is a constructive one?
Well, capital is amoral. It doesn’t have any real desires. If it’s profitable to make solar panels, it will make solar panels. If it’s profitable to run coal-powered stations, it will make coal stations. It will do whatever creates the most profit. Within that, architecture is an agent of capitalism, so it can be used for both good and evil. We have a long history of both, ranging from Trump Tower to the amazing history of British social housing projects. A question that I do sometimes get asked is, “Are you a political architect?” For me, architecture has no political qualities in and of itself. It is that I am a politically engaged citizen who is also an architect. I think in that sense we all use our own careers and our own fields and disciplines to pursue the ideas that are important to us. That’s what I would say.
I think we’re at a moment now which is very precarious and dangerous for the relationship between capitalism and global society. The next four or five years are likely to be some of the most unstable we’ve seen since the end of WWII. Within that context, I think what’s important about architecture is no matter how bad a situation an architect is given, no matter how unkind a client or how small a budget, we always have to make a proposition for how we can make the world a better place and how we can live better within that. I think that’s a very powerful message for me in terms of what the world of capitalism and architecture might be, which is no matter how bad things get, we must always be thinking of how we can improve it, how we can make a proposition or proposal.