Beyond Built Architecture

December 2, 2013

Factory Fifteen is an animation studio based in London that researches the mixed use of film, animation, music, and photography. They call themselves Synthetic Architects who work in film and animation to produce the imagined, the unreal, and the surreal.

Jonathan Gales, one of its founders, answered this interview about their work, experience, and expectations.


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Concept of the future city for the exhibition Under Tomorrows Sky (Detail). © Factory Fifteen.

DPR: To start off, how was Factory Fifteen was born?

JG: Factory Fifteen was formed at the end of our time studying in Unit 15 at the Bartlett. We all met in the post-graduate architecture course in Nic Clear’s unit. We were all interested in architecture, but not necessarily to become architects; it was the film aspect of Nic’s unit that drew us I suppose, and the opportunity to be free to study what we wanted to. Originally, six of us from Unit 15 formed the collective that is Factory Fifteen: Paul Nicholls, Kibwe Tavares, Dan Tassell, Chris Lees, Richard Young, and myself. We put on our own exhibition and film screening around the time of the summer show, celebrating the work we had finished. It was a pretty exciting time. A few weeks later we had an opportunity to take on a job, which three of us (Paul, Kibwe, and myself) setup Factory Fifteen as a company to undertake.

DPR: We know that you have different backgrounds and trainings, from architecture to engineering, animation, and photography, among others. So how did you three meet and decide to work together?

JG: Whilst studying in the unit, we were encouraged to learn and try new techniques and explore all aspects of filmmaking that interested us. I was really into the photography and camera department, and was freelancing for a music label making music promos. There was quite a lot of skill swapping in our unit, and we all traded tips of things we were good at for things we weren’t. Paul had a lot of experience in Architectural Visualization, and was working in a few offices in London in and around university work. The summer between 4th and 5th year at the Bartlett, a large visualization job came up where Paul was working, so Kibwe and myself joined him to work at the same firm. We all pretty much worked there for the summer, so we got to know how each other worked in practice as well as being friends at university. I think this really helped solidify our ambition to set up our own studio. We had a good idea of the cost of the work we were undertaking, and how much people were getting paid.

DPR: Being at architecture school, you had the opportunity of studying with Nic Clear on topics such as “city and science fiction.” How was your experience with Nic? Had this research been a primary influence of some of your further works?

JG: We all chose to study in Nic’s unit for similar reasons, but the main ones were the attraction of animation techniques within architecture school and the agenda of the work being wider than built architecture. I was really drawn to the opportunity to study urbanization and socio-political aspects of the built environment. There were a lot of conversations that would question the role of the architect in the traditional sense. Not that it was cynical, but there was a lot of critical thinking. I didn’t want to specifically learn how a building is constructed, although this is something that you cover parts of within the course. I was interested in the idea that people outside architecture have as much or a larger impact on the development and design of architecture than the architect. I think Unit 15 was a really interesting environment to be part of. It has, in some ways, impacted how we approach and treat projects we take on now, but also projects that we try to conceptualize and initiate. The relationship between film and architecture is an interesting one. As professions, they have a lot of parallels. For me, great architecture is about space making, telling stories, and inviting people to move within them. Film is not so different.

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Tourist Town artwork for the film Jonah. © Factory Fifteen.

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Tourist Town artwork for the film Jonah. © Factory Fifteen.

DPR: Academic education has been in the focus of several discussions during the past years, with so many architects arguing that it needs to be refunded and go through a radical change. What do you think about architecture schools and their role in the current times?

JG: I think there is a lot of discussion (good and bad) about architecture schools, and what is or should be taught within them. Architecture is an incredibly vast subject. I think that first we must acknowledge that there are different types of architecture schools that teach different types of courses. I come from an arts background, and am much more interested in the design and theory of architecture. Perhaps it should be made clearer by the universities what type of course they choose to run. But, I think in architecture you need many different minds; it is inevitably a profession of collaboration. I think that if you want to learn how a building is constructed there are more efficient, less painful, and cheaper ways to find out than studying architecture. I have always been fascinated by theory, and believe that we should continue to learn to question why we should build what we are building, not just how. I also see a great value to studying architecture because it is a fascinating subject. There is, at least in the UK, a tendency to assume that everyone who studies architecture will go on to become an architect. It was only in my later years of study that I found I loved it as subject, but saw so many opportunities in other professions with the skills and mindset I had been developing.

Architecture is changing and evolving with new technologies and production methods. Although the majority of people who study architecture will go on to work in practice on relatively normative building projects, I think its important to develop and test things within architecture schools.

DPR: Related to the previous question, can you explain briefly your thoughts about the polemic that emerged when your work Robots of Brixton won the RIBA Silver Medal, the article written by Patrick Schumacher, the open letter by Léopold Lambert, and all the debate around architectural education?

JG: This was quite an interesting time, I suppose it had been “bottlenecking” for a while, and that year was the cherry on the cake. It’s quite easy to assume that a lot of beautifully presented work lacks substance behind it, or that it is not a serious project because the proposed program is avant-garde and seemingly ridiculous. I don’t think that there is a resolution to this argument, as I said earlier. I saw our education very much as a foundation of skills and critical thinking that can be applied to numerous things. Some people would prefer that everyone designed mixed-use developments within regeneration areas, and used only AutoCAD as a tool. Perhaps this would save us a few debates and prepare students for time in practice. I personally enjoy some of projects that are imagined within education. Students should be having fun. Undoubtedly, they should be executing their work to the highest degree, and acting truly as designers. I guess some people can’t indulge in something other than traditional curriculum. I think there are a few units out there that are breaking away from the norm, and really questioning what architecture is now and what is our relationship to it.

DPR: If the academic world needs a change, and you have been working on the margins of architecture, if we talk traditionally, how do you perceive the future of our practice?

JG: It’s incredibly hard to predict what the future of our practice will be. I think the role of the architect needs to adjust to the realm that we now operate within. As you say, we are working on the margins of traditional architectural practice, so I would not like to comment directly on a profession I do not directly practice. We do, however, consider our practice as an extension of architecture, and are defining ourselves as architects outside of the traditional practice. I think this approach needs to be echoed throughout the profession if it is to continue to excel and engage in what we define as architecture.

DPR: Do you understand your activity as filmmakers as “architecture”? Is the medium the message, or is the message independent of the medium?

JG: Yes… and no. I believe that what we are doing as filmmakers and designers is, in part, an iteration of architecture, though I am under no pretense that we are practicing architecture. We work to create projects that engage in narrative and envisage space. Some are from an overviewing perspective, though we are taking the direction of the projects now to the end user perspective. All projects engage in some way with the built environment, posing “what if” scenarios, or using the visualized environment to aid the narrative of the story. I feel that our work engages as architecture should, although its product is more temporal and ephemeral than a building. I suppose in some ways that allows us to comment on things without the responsibility of the project imposing on people for the duration of its life.

We are very much using our means and skill sets to engage a message. The way we work, the tools we use are just tools. I think there are many parallels with the way we work and how an architectural studio works. I think film and animation are fantastic mediums, which are unique in framing some projects, though I’d like to think that the message of the projects surpasses the mediums. Our recent studio work has centered much more on the design of environments within films and stories. We have evolved our process collectively to approach projects from a design and solution point of view, whether they are film, print, commercial, or other. I think it’s clear to talk about the design projects where we are literally designing buildings in relation to traditional architecture. The difference comes with the output, as our product is graphic, and won’t go to planning, tender, or encompass design and detail changes in the same way traditional architecture would. Most of us have worked in the UK on projects in stages A-D [Appraisal to Design development], so I suppose this has had an affect on our current ambitions.

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Concept of the future city for the exhibition Under Tomorrows Sky. © Factory Fifteen.

DPR: Can you explain your experience with the Unknown Fields expedition from Chernobyl to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan?

JG: The Unknown Fields expeditions have had an interesting affect on our work. I think initially I saw opportunity and a fearlessness to construct projects through working with Kate Davies and Liam Young. They are really interesting people who have an incredible knack of getting to amazing places and creating stuff from nothing. Chernobyl to Baikonur was an incredible expedition. I didn’t know what to expect when I went, but all I can say is that some of the experiences from the trips will stay with me for a long time. I mean, not many people are walking around a 200,000-person city abandoned for 30 years one day, then watching a radio satellite launch at a Cosmodrome another. I enjoy the way that Kate and Liam engage in the present to pose questions about the future. Our project “Gamma” was a test for us, an extracurricular project we ran whilst working commercially. It did, however, allow us to create a film project that continued the ethos we practiced in Unit 15, and hope to continue throughout our careers.

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Images from the film Chupan Chupai. © Factory Fifteen.

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Images from the film Chupan Chupai. © Factory Fifteen.

DPR: Many of your films (GAMMA, Megalomania, Robots of Brixton) present a dystopic urban future, some of them deeply related with science fiction from the 60s and 70s. Based on the current evolution of technologies and social and cultural issues, how do you envision the future of our cities?

JG: I think that the evolution of our cities will be to some degree symbiotic with the evolution of technologies. Our cities are getting smarter and technologically occupied increasingly by a variety of parties; some authoritarian, some anarchic and open source. I think that it is inevitable for any technology that is successful to become utilized by governing bodies, but what I find interesting is the development of technological democracy that has emerged with user content driven platforms like social media. We have recently completed an exhibition project for the Lisbon Architecture Triennale titled Chupan Chupai ,which touches upon this subject. We created a short video piece that explores how children play with the city. Through the game of “hide and seek,” we follow a group of children who interact with surface control of their city to help them hide. Two children go further than hiding and hack the surface to immerse themselves in the city infrastructure. In our piece we wanted to show how gesture based control can be adopted to interact with our surroundings. We wanted to create a colorful project that breaks away from the dystopic a bit. I wouldn’t go as far to say that it was “utopic,” but we like to frame it as “heterotopic” as with some of our other projects. Also, we shot the project on location in India, which we were interested in thinking about in context of its technological and production industries, as well as its current infrastructure.

DPR: One more question to conclude the interview. What is the importance of storytelling in your work?

JG: Storytelling is becoming increasingly important in our work. Initially we were quite focused on the design of scenarios and what stuff could look like. We are now developing projects that are driven by the narrative although the subject may use the environment heavily to explore that narrative.

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The Skyliner design concept for The Mob film. © Factory Fifteen.