Rewriting the Brief for Architecture: Finn Williams

On the eve of the vernissage, RCA Blog talks to Finn Williams (MA Architecture, 2007) – tutor in RCA Architecture’s ADS2 and co-curator with Jack Self and Shumi Bose of the British Pavilion Home Economics exhibition at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

RCA Blog: Can you talk a bit about how you came to curate the British Pavilion? 

Jack and Shumi approached me soon after the British Council put out the open call for proposals to ask if I would be part of team with them. I knew Jack through Fulcrum and Shumi through her role in David Chipperfield’s Biennale curatorial team back in 2012, and I’d contributed to Real Estates: Life Without Debt, a publication they co-edited. I really like their work, so applying for the open call together felt like too good an opportunity to pass up. Having said that, I work full time at the Greater London Authority, and I teach at the RCA, so it was always going to be on top of whatever else I was doing

It’s rare for national pavilions at the Biennale to have an open selection process. Most of the time it’s based on reputation, so the British Council are quite bold to say ‘it’s going to be about ideas instead.’ And that gave us an opportunity to do something we were really interested in, something propositional. We were all as surprised as we were delighted to be unanimously selected. 

Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
RCA Blog: And how did Home Economics develop to fit with Biennale curator Alejandro Aravena’s theme, ‘Reporting from the Front’?

For us, the Biennale is an opportunity not just to critique what’s going wrong in British housing – that it’s not responding to the challenges of modern living – but also to say there are alternative models out there and architects have a fundamental role to play in shaping those models. That may not mean designing exactly what the layout should be, or what the façade should look like. It may be a more structural, fundamental role about designing policies, financing structures or delivery mechanisms. Less than a third of new homes in Britain are designed by architects. We need to rethink how we influence the vast majority of our built environment that doesn’t fall within the traditional architect’s brief – that’s what I understand as the front line of architecture.

RCA Blog: Home Economics is explicitly about private spaces…

You can’t ignore the fact that the home – as an asset as much as a private space –is the driving currency behind the way the built environment is produced. Especially in London, it’s all about the housing market, and that market defines what goes up as well as where people move, who can afford to live in the city, and what kind of city we end up having in terms of its population. You can’t affect how London is changing at the moment without meaningfully getting to grips with the home.

RCA Blog: Can you explain the time-based curatorial rationale for the exhibition? 

Seeing the home through time, through periods of occupancy, gave us a different angle to look at the home – instead of things like the location, typology, tenure, cost, which an architect would normally rely on – and develop models that are applicable to diverse social groups and places. We learnt a lot through looking at the home through the lens of time, and as far as we can tell, that hasn’t been attempted before as a curatorial approach to an architectural exhibition.

Each period represents the amount of time you spend in a home, and asks, what is a home for a day, or a month? And that, for us, was a way of trying to get to grips with the way patterns of domestic life are changing. For example, the growing impossibility of home ownership means a lot of us are living month-by-month in unsecured tenures, in the rental market – whether you’re an international student, an asylum seeker, or an agency worker. At the same time, we’ve got 50,000 Airbnb bedrooms in the UK that are being lived in day-by-day. And of course we’re all living longer, and will increasingly need to think of our homes decade-by-decade. So we’re interested in how these shifts in time will change what our homes are like…

Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
RCA Blog: And you’ve selected a new generation of architects, to reappraise the model?

We were very conscious when we chose our participants for each of the five curated spaces not to choose the architects who are already producing great housing in England. This is not a show about the best of what we’re already doing, it’s about what we could and should be doing next. 

That’s not to say we don’t hugely respect the KCAs, MLAs, Mæs and 6as of the world, and think they’re each innovating in their own right. But to add something useful to a conversation that is already crowded, we wanted to bring together a different generation of practitioners who hadn’t really built anything yet, but who we thought were asking interesting questions about the home, and particularly about changes to the ways we live.

We chose art collective åyr for the period of Days, Dogma and Black Square (Maria Giudici, who teaches in RCA Architecture’s ADS1) for the period of Months, the  British-Venezuelan architect Julia King for the period of Years, and Hesselbrand for Decades. As a curatorial team, led by Jack, we’re doing Hours ourselves.

RCA Blog: Your view of the built environment is explicitly holistic, so you’re not just interested in architects as designers?

We have two groups of people we’ve been working with for Home Economics: participants and industry advisers. It was really important for us that the exhibition wasn’t just about floating some new ideas, it was about grounding new thinking in dialogue with a group of people who are out there delivering homes and innovating in their own way; pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible in housing. 

They include PegasusLife, who are designing extraordinarily high-quality and interesting new housing for older people. Also Naked House, who are a new housing association formed by a group of young Londoners looking for housing – some of whom work for Hackney Council’s Housing Department – and are experimenting with how much you can afford not to build, to bring down prices. The Collective are part of a new generation of disruptive developers in London, who are not playing by the rules at all. They’re pioneering a model of ‘co-living’ – the residential equivalent of co-working. We’ve also got Fergus Henderson, ex-architect and chef, who’s had experience in the hotel trade. As well as people from the financial sector, a high-street bank, the design and innovation unit of Accenture, as well as Arup as our structural engineers… 

Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
RCA Blog: So breaking down the perceived dichotomy of designers as the innovative, creative people, and industry people as more pedestrian thinkers.

It’s been much more of a dialogue, with no direct pairings – more like two pools of people who’ve initiated conversations, and in some cases they’ve formed quite close partnerships, in others it’s more indirect influence. Some of this, we think, will result not only in built work, but hopefully the kind of built work that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. 

RCA Blog: That means the outcome of the Biennale exhibition will be not just a moment of presentations to an international audience, but grounded, thoughtful work that’s going out into the world.

Yes, we want to do something about the issues we’re raising. It’s an important platform for us, but more significantly an important platform to make a difference to what’s happening to housing in Britain. If it results in one or two built projects, then that’s starting to move things on.

RCA Blog: That leads to the question of what biennales are for. In the art world over the last 20 years, for example, the biennale is acknowledged as the most significant disrupter of the art market model – alongside the internet – really breaking the stranglehold of the dealer as expert and turning the market upside down. I wonder whether there’s a parallel with architecture?

I think that’s a really interesting question. The biennale has certainly become an industry in its own right, and Venice is the first and still the foremost of the Architecture biennales. I do worry that they’re the same bubble of people, moving from city to city, showing each other the same kind of work, and having the same conversations. And I wonder how far they really affect the places they go, or the practices back home of participating countries. We were really conscious of that in the way we set up the exhibition, and that’s partly why we’ve involved industry partners very closely and will be continuing to feed the ideas from the Biennale back into practice in the UK.

But at the same time, biennales do offer this very rare platform to produce a speculative project that also has a large public audience and enough profile for it to be taken seriously. That’s what we’ve been most interested in. None of us as curators, participants or industry partners would have had the space to do this thinking in normal practice, so the Biennale has provided the opportunity to develop some genuinely new ideas that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. But they’re meaningless unless we get them back into practice in the UK, and they start feeding into what we do as a matter of course.

We’ve been keen to communicate the show not just to an architectural audience but also a wider industry audience, and if possible to a mainstream public audience. So we’re really pleased that it might be covered on the News at Ten, for example, and in broadsheets like the Financial Times. For me, that’s a much more exciting place to broadcast ideas than the most elite, beautifully edited architectural journal.

Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
Home Economics, British Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016
RCA Blog: I’m interested in the idea that you’re deliberately layering the exhibition for different audiences, and how that comes back to the relationship of the Biennale to architectural practice and education.

We wanted to make sure the exhibition communicates both to people from an architectural background and – almost more importantly – those without an architectural background. We really wanted to avoid architectural conventions like the section, the plan or the elevation, and to produce an exhibition that was very directly engaging. So we made a decision to make the show as a full-scale set of interiors, and to use the home as an entry point. We all live in a home of some sort – so it’s a common and familiar format for everyone.

RCA Blog: Directly challenging the sense that people have of ‘this is the architecture that I live in, and I understand, and there’s this other “Architecture”, which is completely rarified’?

Exactly. Although we show everything at a 1:1 scale, we’re not limiting our proposals to the interior – we’re proposing radically new models. In one room, it’s redesigning the mortgage, in another room it’s completely rewriting space standards, in another it’s ripping up what rent is about. We’re using the 1:1 full-scale interior as a way into those subjects, so people have a common starting point.

We’ve tried to simplify those interiors, so we’ve been thinking about it as if the exhibition is an architectural model that’s been shrunk down and then scaled back up, in the sense that when you build an architectural model you don’t put all the details in. There’s a kind of approximation or simplification in model making, where the detail of a door becomes a bit of cardboard on top of another piece of cardboard with a bit of UHU in between…

RCA Blog: And that’s what keeps it speculative?

It keeps it speculative and it has a kind of economy of attention where you really concentrate on the architecture. When you scale the architectural model back up to life size, there’s a simplification that goes on that we hope allows people to focus on what we really mean by the architecture. We are also using a layer of props – household objects and domestic goods – that give clues to the way spaces are used.

RCA Blog: So using elements of defamiliarisation?

Yes, and that’s really important. We’ve tried to keep a constant tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar in everything we do: the home is by its very nature familiar, but what we’re proposing are unfamiliar models. For example we’ll all recognise how our use of smartphones is changing the way we use our furniture, but if we redesign furniture accordingly it starts to become unrecognisable.

RCA Blog: Because that’s where the challenge comes back… Within this collaboration with Jack and Shumi, you’ve negotiated a space of common interests. But your own practice is challenging industry perceptions...

It’s always been important to me to combine public practice with another parallel research practice. It’s very useful to have an outlet for ideas when you’re working in a large, public-sector organisation. Teaching’s always provided that for me. But also the talking, writing and research that I do through Common Office helps me find a critical distance to the day job at the GLA.

At the same time, the experience of the day job is probably the thing that makes my independent research interesting. I would have nowhere near the same opportunities to teach or talk or write if I was designing residential extensions. The very direct exposure to the reality of the development industry that you get from working in the public sector, at all scales and levels of quality, is a really useful thing to be able to bring into an academic or theoretical environment. 

RCA Blog: Does it feel to you that there’s a strong political element to it, because you’re dealing with money and opportunity?

Yes, and that’s another area where my independent practice is vital because, as an officer within a political organisation it’s very difficult to be political (even with a small ‘p’). Having another outlet allows you to think about politics at a safer distance from work. So one of the things I’ve done independently is set up NOVUS, which is a think tank for public planners. We have about 130 members, really brilliant people hidden away in public authorities across England, who care passionately about the built environment but feel the hierarchies and political structures of their day jobs limit their ability to take on bigger issues. So NOVUS gives a level of anonymity for people to get together and not just talk shop, but collectively write papers on those issues. That’s important to be able to sustain the kind of idealism that a lot of people enter public practice with over the longer term.

If NOVUS is about the brilliant people who are already hidden away in local authorities, the thing I’m starting up at the minute is a new social enterprise to get the best new urban designers, architects, planners – the kind of people who are coming out of the RCA now – into public practice. It’s a kind of ‘Teach First’ for planning – a programme where you recruit the most ambitious, talented people, who want to work for the public good, for year-long placements on the front lines of local authorities, alongside training, mentoring and collective research.

RCA Blog: I’m guessing there isn’t a strong tradition of those people going into the public sector?

There was 40 years ago, when 49% of all architects worked for the public sector. Now it’s 0.1% in London. We’re sitting in the Boundary Estate now, which was designed by graduates from the Architectural Association who joined the London County Council in their twenties, and their first project was building this groundbreaking and socially progressive public housing project. How many graduates coming out of the AA would consider going into the public sector now?

RCA Blog: It feels in many ways that we’re still at the tail end of an apolitical age group… where there’s less engagement with social issues and more aspiration to be a world-renowned, singular practitioner. Do you see that changing?

I think that goes back to the way we’re taught, or at least that’s what architecture magazines make you think you should end up doing. But I think the RCA is relatively rare in breeding a kind of architect that doesn’t make those assumptions. So certainly the students in our studio, ADS2, are incredibly sophisticated in their political and economic understanding of what’s really going on in current practice, are critical of it and have developed workable alternatives. I think there’s a new generation of architects who want to do something more meaningful than churning out flat layouts for a big-name practice, but can’t see where or how.

A lot of them won’t have even considered working for the public sector – there’s still an assumption that it’s a bit of a last resort. But for me, working for Croydon Council and now the Greater London Authority has been a privilege. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some extremely talented people, like Vincent Lacovara at Croydon (another RCA graduate), on fascinating projects that feel like they’re making a real difference. Perceptions of what it means to work in the public sector don’t reflect that at all. That really needs to change. 

Home Economics isn’t specifically about public practice, but its aims aren’t so different. We hope it shows young architects that there are other ways of using our training to influence the built environment, rather than simply reacting to a brief. In fact, to be able to start to impact on the housing crisis, or the levels of inequality built into the city, it’s vital that we start writing our own briefs.

The exhibition Home Economics has been commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016.