After closing a remarkable chapter as cofounder of FAT Architecture in 2014, architect Sam Jacob went on to found Sam Jacob Studio. His most recent work spans both scales and disciplines: a master plan for 250 homes coexists with a proposal for light industrial workplaces, an art commission for Milton Keynes, countless exhibitions, and uncanny clothing items such as plank- and insulation-patterned scarves. If that wasn’t enough, he regularly shares his sharp analysis of contemporary architecture as a writer, columnist, panelist, and speaker. As his career has evolved, so has his exploration of flatness, composition, representation, authenticity, and authorship. Stewart Hicks of Design With Company talked with Jacob to discuss these and other aspects as they relate to the topic of character.
Stewart Hicks: The structure of our issue of MAS Context on Character is broken into three categories. One is the construction of the inhabitant, or the construction of the subject of architecture, and thinking of inhabitants as characters. The second category considers buildings as fictional bodies, and the third focuses on moments when architects construct themselves as characters, or architects as characters. We hope to uncover parallels and crossovers between the categories that would not happen in isolation. One of the projects that strike us as particularly related to these concepts is your clothing line. We are interested in the idea that you would want to dress up people like buildings, or dress up people like drawings of buildings. What motivates this impulse of yours?
Sam Jacob: Cold hard cash. We just received our first shipment of T-shirts. Can I interest you in a 100% cotton shirt with silk-screened brick pattern printed edge to edge? We’re about to go into full production. You can be the first to sport the new look.
SH: Is that all? Let me get my credit card.
SJ:There is something fun, especially with the T-shirts, that comes from a position of thinking broadly about architecture as encompassing everything around you, or that everything is architecture. I suppose that is the instigator. In some ways, it’s like clothing as architecture, clothing as the home. This is less about technically providing shelter, and more about a symbolic thing where, in a sense, the façade of a building becomes the façade of you. We conflate clothing as an elevation and what we normally think of a façade or the elevation is equivalent to a T-shirt.
It is also about representation and communication, and thinking of physical things as forms of media that carry information. This is true of all physical things regardless of their material makeup. Of course, more familiar things like paper can be information. A stream is information, a brick is information, and that’s the kind of question our work is thinking about. That is how the T-shirts and the scarves—don’t forget the scarves are part of the clothing line—fit in as this slight conflation of stuff which we know isn’t building to allow you to think about building as something different from the typical.
SH: Do you see it going both ways? You are saying it is about the communication of building, or the communication of a person as a building. Do you see it going the other way, where the building takes on the qualities of the person or the clothing? I’m thinking of Gottfried Semper’s theory of bekleidung, the use of textile, or anthropomorphizing buildings. Do you see it as a two-way street, or do you see it as a one-way street?
SJ: I don’t think it has to do with the material, it has to do with something else. You have to remember the F in FAT was fashion. That didn’t mean that we wanted to be fashion designers. What it did mean was that we recognized and argued that architecture is fashion, which is what architecture usually tries to deny. Buildings typically reach for timelessness, to be beyond the whims of fashion, and all of the kinds of references that Adolf Loos talks about are architecture being different from the feather in a woman’s hat, and says that ideas of fashion are fickle, feminine, and fundamentally nonarchitectural are completely wrong.
Architecture is absolutely fashionable. The things which seem timeless and beyond fashion are the things which go out of fashion most quickly, and I’ve always thought that is a good thing. That is something to be celebrated in architecture rather than brushed under the carpet. In one sense, there is an acknowledgement that taste and fashion are things you work with as an architect. You work in your moment. You address your circumstance in time, and also in place. That is one side of it. The other side of it is an idea that architecture is a form of representation, but the subject of its representation is architecture. I think that’s maybe the difference between what FAT was doing and what we are doing here now. The subject is architecture which is communicated through architecture.
SH: Speaking of fashionable, that dovetails into something else that you have written about lately: postdigital collage drawing. I recently read your essay “Architecture Enters the Age of Post-Digital Drawing”1 published in Metropolis magazine in conjunction with re-reading “Beyond the Flatline” included in Architectural Design’s “Radical Post-Modernism,”2 and I thought there was an interesting connection. In the former, you are arguing for an imagistic flatness to resurrect the possibility of treating drawing as a primary site of architecture. In the latter, you are arguing for another kind of flatness at the scale of culture. Do you see a connection between these or are they separate issues?
SJ: “Beyond the Flatline” was about a flatness of culture precipitating through the internet, and collapsed boundaries. It was saying that high postmodernism was made in a time when distinctions between high and low culture still existed, but talked about a time to come where they were about to dissolve. When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were comparing Caesars Palace to Rome, for example, they were touching on an early moment where this more contemporary form of culture we’re more familiar with was beginning to emerge.
We make work using Google Images almost every day to pull up and look for something. But in this process of looking, we bring up a range of completely unrelated things into one matrix, which probably only exists on one screen for one moment depending on how your Google profile changes, depending on how the Google algorithm changes. You could say images, like facts or information, are sucked out of their context—whatever web page that might be—and collated by a machine to form an accidental mosaic. I think that’s a very good example of flatness of culture.
The distinction between high and low, which worked as a comparison for Venturi Scott Brown, and pop art in general, does not work now. It does not have the same resonance because we don’t recognize high and low as being distinct because that tradition of postmodernism in architecture, art, music, literature, and culture in general has done its job. It has eroded the institution of the university, the academy, or the museum to the extent that you go into the museum and you see a pop group rather than seeing classical art. We are currently in a very different situation. A joke that sets up a dialogue between these two opposites to produce an effect is much more difficult to make because we are in it, and we can’t see it. It is the kind of circumstance which surrounds us completely all the time. Jokes about columns don’t work anymore.
On the other hand, there was very literal flatness which FAT was interested in, which was both graphic in terms of prioritizing the use of certain computer programs, and was directly oppositional to the extreme three-dimensional space which other digital applications were beginning to allow architects to explore. We were arguing for flatness or nonspace as a position to highlight aspects we thought were being overlooked, such as taste and fashion, to address issues of architecture’s deep social-political significance. We had a slogan which was “Taste not Space.” It was a ridiculous statement of intent, or manifesto in aphorism, which was to say the space is not important. Of course, that translated into buildings which used flatness, flat facades with graphic cutouts. I’m sure you have seen a few of those flat buildings, which became the product of both a way of working and a way of thinking as a direct opposite to the spatial gymnastics of architecture of the late 1990s.
There was also a punk attitude akin to not using the full range of the possibilities of music. Obviously limiting your repertoire to the equivalent of three chords like a flat façade. I think that was where that argument of flatness ended up. I have been less into the literal flatness now, and I am much more interested in the space of representations.
The piece for Metropolis magazine did two things. One was to expand the possibilities of the computer as an architectural drawing machine. Rejecting the tools of architectural drawing like AutoCAD, SketchUp, and Rhino in order to concentrate on the idea of a graphic space which is equivalent to a piece of paper. What happens when you start with a blank screen and you put a mark onto it? And how does that begin to generate a sense of space or logical space within that representational world? It is exactly the same as making a mark on a piece of paper or on a canvas or on a piece of tracing paper. It is a very old-fashioned idea of the architectural drawing simply transplanted into digital space with the tools that we have today.
Although it may be rejecting the construction of architectural worlds within digital space, it uses elements of digital three-dimensional tools to create things, fragments of something, or fragments of something else, little bits from Illustrator, little bits from Google Images, little bits from Photoshop, all composited into something which has a much looser conception of space. This space’s definition does not come pre-described by XYZ lines in a 3D program. It opens the possibilities for what the space might be which can be invented through the agency of drawing, rather than coming to you predetermined by a coder working for AutoCAD. It relates to representation, but not necessarily with flatness in the same literal way.
What is happening is more like an inhabitation of the flatness of the page or the flatness of the screen with alternative forms of spatiality. Some of these are incredibly straight forward, like an elevation. But I also want to reclaim ways of looking and ways of consuming space which exist in the act of drawing, rather by telling a digital camera to look at a digital model. We force ourselves to construct all of those relationships, how something works on a page, and how you then view it. One difference between drawing on paper and on the screen is that your screen is connected to so much other stuff and has a very fluid relationship with the world, like fragments of the internet which suddenly appear in the drawing layered in a layer of fifty-five in a group with a mask on it in Photoshop. It means that the page, the screen, isn’t quite so isolated as it used to be from the rest of the world. In fact, the screen is the same place the rest of the world comes to us. It is the same place we watch our TV, and read our news, and have conversations. It makes the act of drawing more about looking than about drawing. Looking becomes as important as the act of drawing because you are one step removed from the drawing itself. You are consuming it while you are making it.
SH: Then it seems there is a deep relationship to “Beyond the Flatline,” because the flatness that you are identifying is beyond creating a literally flat architecture. You are rethinking the space of representation as it might live within this world of flatness to produce an architecture that isn’t literally flat. Instead it builds upon this drawing that lives on the screen, that lives in the world of all of these images and things and draws from it as a way of looking, right?
SJ: Yeah, in some ways. But I think in terms of what it, which is where the flatness came in, is to make things obviously not real to expose the fiction of architecture. All objects, three-dimensional objects, space, are also forms of representation. Often, they represent something, but the thing that they represent is themselves, which is a tautological circuitous ending up in the same place. I think for me it felt like a big change from what we had been doing at FAT.
SH: That touches on the heart of what we want to try to expose with this issue of MAS Context and by thinking about character in architecture. There are a couple of strands that we are following. One is the one that you are talking about—collage makers from Europe. That line of thinking comes out of Europe and proliferates elsewhere. There is that camp. Then, the other camp we are identifying is mostly from the West Coast in the US, from schools like UCLA, a couple generations beyond Greg Lynn, that are making objects which somewhat look like animals or something, and compose them into a 3D still life. What we want to do by using the word character is to bring these two practices together, even though they look very different. We are arguing that it has to do with this flatness you are talking about.
For the collage makers, a flower pot, a person, a cat, a column, and a window are all treated the same. They are all things to be composed, which is a kind of flatness. It treats space like an image, and objects as things to be composed like a still life. It is both a collage and a still life. This is in contrast to people like Andrew Holder, or Ellie Abrons, or even we would put Andrew Kovacs in this camp of people who are making collections of figures as physical still lifes. We want to say that those things are related, even though they look different. What you said about obviously trying to expose the fiction surrounding all objects and even 3D as forms of representation seems to be the hinge point that allows us to talk about these things in the same breath.
SJ: It is interesting that you say that there is a difference between European and US approaches, which, now that you mention it, does seem to be true. The European approach is much more classical in a sense. Or, in fact, it is very classical. It is very painterly. You are absolutely right. The images are composed with an incredible precision. I was thinking about it when you were talking about images and still lifes. I was thinking about the way that the artists Gilbert & George described what are now, or have been for about thirty-five years, flat things, flat photographic prints. They still describe them as sculptures, which is interesting.
I am also thinking about the idea of composition, which links both of the approaches you have been talking about. It wasn’t part of how architecture thought for such a long time. Composition, choices that you would make, that you would put something here rather than there, was a gestural thing. Composing something was seen as really old fashioned. Now, it has come back onto the table as a legitimate, and even significant way to work. That is interesting. I think it also relates to a rejection of a world where there was never any symmetry. Even though work was incredibly formal, it was never talked about in formal terms. The return of composition is also something which links those two worlds.
SH: Along the lines of composition, what are your thoughts on the relationship between the architect, the building or the drawing, and the subject, or the people that are interpreting those things? There are so many different ways of stating that relationship, all of them loaded with baggage. However, whether we talk about these productions as still lifes or collages, the history of those media are fraught with questions about this contested relationship.
SJ: In my teaching, what I spend most of my time doing is trying to de-author the student’s work, or to destroy the fictitious idea of the author with the signature. I think this mistaken idea is very damaging. I encourage students to take on other people’s languages, to speak with other, and even multiple voices. It is ridiculous for someone early in their career to believe that they have a voice or a more “authentic” voice, which ironically you won’t find by pretending to be other people.
Another issue of authorship was the end of FAT, which ended for a few reasons, but one of them was definitely feeling—certainly on my side—it had become a language and a style, which of course it was never supposed to be. Ending it was to destroy that authorial edifice which was part of the project of FAT. It doesn’t sound like much, but certainly when we named ourselves it was a way of not attributing a person’s name to the work. Up until the very end nobody ever knew who did what project apart from clients. It was like an explicit thing, which came out of its roots not as a defined group but as a loose collective as we liked to call it in the early days. That was another attack, or another way of dealing with the problem of authorship.
The issue of character and personality is interesting in the case of The House for Essex project. Partly because we were working with someone who possesses a gigantic personality and charisma, a person who is a personality, who has TV shows, and is a national treasure not for their art, but for being on TV as a cultural talking head. So, dual authorship of a project.
In addition to the dual authorship, there was Greyson Perry’s invention of the character of this woman called Julie. The building is dedicated to her in the same way that the Taj Mahal was dedicated to lost love, and the building then narrates the story of this fictitious person. It is called a house, but nobody lives there. People go rent it and stay in it for the weekend or a few days. It is a transient inhabitation, like an immersive theme park. You immerse yourself in a fiction for a moment. It is not part of, you could say, life.
All of those things were interesting, and what you see in the building is a form of architecture coated with layers of invented character, the story of Julie, figures of Julie, tapestries of Julie’s life, pots depicting moments in Julie’s life, the motorbike which ran her over, tiles, all of this stuff. . . . You could say the building is encrusted with this storytelling apparatus. All of this has nothing to do with us in the project. It has completely to do with Greyson but, of course, it was the thing that attracted all the attention. When it was reviewed, that was what people talked about but that obscured the architectural arrangement, which tells a different story in the way it arranges the sequence of spaces. That is another kind of narrative or character of the space that does not operate on a visual level, but modifies your experience and modifies your personality when you come in through the front door. After you do, you walk forward into the kitchen, through a set of doors and into the big chapel-like space where most of Julie’s story is told. However, if you go up the staircase, you are presented with a choice. You can go one way into the bedrooms—there are two bedrooms—and one way into a bathroom. If you go into the bathroom, you can keep going and turn a corner where you find the bathtub. The bathtub sits right on axis, right from the route that you have come down. You sit in the nude, stripped of all your clothes, looking out of a window as if you were in a weird psychology mixed with the planning of Versailles. There you are, nude in a bathtub looking out a window on this public access.
The other choice you make is to go into the bedrooms, and you walk through the bedroom into the wardrobe. Then you walk through the wardrobe onto the balcony, where you address the interior public space. On the one hand, you are nude facing the world. On the other hand, you are clothed, dressing and addressing an interior civic-ness. That’s a story which has never been told about the project, because the fictional story of Julie is so powerful that it overpowers the architectural and spatial characteristics.
SH: I am happy that you brought up that project and I loved the way you described it, which is a lesson for architecture in general, beyond the particularities of that building. A building is a dialogue between these two narratives, one encrusted in the materiality and form, and the other as people occupy the space. Buildings are composed of bricks, and if each brick is a representation or has a story, whether it is a green tile of a face of Julie or it is a brick, it doesn’t matter. This set of narratives is brought into confrontation with how people are scripted or choreographed through space.
SJ: I’ll try this idea out on you, Stewart. Is there something about the fact that I was describing The House for Essex in such basic terms like the elements of a house: bedroom, wardrobe, bathroom, front door, and those kinds of things? If you take out all of the other parts of that project. Maybe it’s interesting because it’s so extreme in its fictional content. It’s as fictional as a cathedral in terms of the stories it’s telling, except that in this case nobody believes the story of Julie.
In terms of that spatial sequence, what it is doing is simply using those very familiar architectural components to make a different kind of experience and to place you in a different context. The aspects that are supposed to be most private become most public. In some sense, what that is trying to do is to say that the architecture itself becomes the content. Even though that project is the most extreme in terms of things looking like other things. On a very reduced diagrammatic architectural level, it is actually saying the content of it is really architecture.
Maybe a defining feature of the type of character that I am interested in is where the content is derived from mundane architectural scenarios with a reduced, impoverished architectural language. That is in contrast to that other school that pushes the figuration of the architectural object to an extreme so that the thing becomes the character. In the first model, the building never escapes being architecture, whereas in the second one, it is always knocking on the edge of it becoming something else, or looking like something else.
There is a tension there. Whether that is true or not between Europe and the US, it is true as a division in long tradition of architecture that thinks about these kinds of ideas. Does it talk about something, or does it become something? I think that is the important difference in terms of approach. Does it become something else, or does it remain the thing that it is? I am interested in finding seem fictional at all. One option is to make up something and apply it to the project in the same way that Julie’s story is made up and applied. Another option is that the fiction can already be embedded in the project. It can already be embedded in the situation or the object or the architecture or the drawing.