Interview with Architect Jack Self, London

Interview with Architect Jack Self, London
31/03/2017 , by , in Interview Old

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.

Congratulations on co-curating the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. Could you tell us about how the opportunity came about and how you approached the project?

JS: Britain is almost unique within the Biennale structure as being one of the few countries to hold an open competition to find a curator of the Pavilion. Most countries will appoint a curator, which means it’s a question of nepotism, being involved in the right networks, and so on. In Britain, we have a very strong sense of fairness, I think. It began as a completely open competition, and then we were shortlisted to a group of four. My anticipation was, because the previous architects who had done it were people like Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, they’re huge practices, very famous people, that we were perhaps included as the kind of young group at the end that might be interesting to have involved as part of the diversity of the process but actually had no chance of winning. To win it was an extremely unusual thing. I’m the youngest curator of the Pavilion, ever.

Within that, we were asked to respond to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s brief, which was, “The frontline of architecture”. As a military metaphor, I find this very confusing, but in a way, if we think about what the frontline of British architecture might be, it’s unquestionably the housing crisis. What we did, instead of looking at the housing crisis as purely a numbers game and saying, “Well, we need to build more houses,” we turned it completely on its head and said, “What happens if we start to think about space through the lens of time?” It’s the first exhibition ever to be curated through time spent in the home, so there are five new models for life and five time periods associated with them: hours, days, months, years and decades.

The power of this is to say if you look at a city as a static moment in time the occupancy and overcrowding become very problematic. If you look at it as a breathing organism, in which people are coming into it and leaving on a daily basis, you begin to look at the dimension of time. It gives a completely different reading. For example, if it were very easy for us to live in the city, if it were as easy for us to live permanently in the city as it were to hire an Airbnb or a hotel and it were as cheap, we might find that we prefer to spend six days a week in the country side and one day a week in the city. These questions about having empty homes in Scotland and not enough homes in London suddenly change very rapidly.

Can you tell us about what you are currently working on?

JS: The REAL foundation has a wide range of projects that we consider all to be pursuing the same questions at different scales. They range from actual architectural projects – we have a scheme to design new forms of ownership and new ways of financing housing in the UK, through to more traditional architectural projects like single apartments. The majority of our work is in the cultural sphere, which includes exhibitions in London and in Europe and new publications. We are just about to publish another book we produced and of course the magazine as well as lectures and events.

Source: Something Curated

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