With the range of stakeholders in any building project, the practice of architecture has always involved a high degree of complexity. The trans-disciplinary London based architecture and engineering practice Interrobang take this to another level, and the Founding Director Maria Smith is about to make it even more complex in her role as Chief Curator of the Oslo Architecture Triennale, exploring the theme of Degrowth. She talks to Katherine Simpson and John O’Reilly about the changing architecture practice, degrowth and architect as a social therapist
“I choose the term ‘conviviality’ to designate the opposite of industrial productivity,” wrote philosopher and catholic priest Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality (1973). “I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment… I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value… as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.” Illich and his work is one of the antecedents of the emerging Degrowth movement.
Since the 1992 Earth Summit the term ‘sustainable development’ has grown into a mainstream discourse, influencing ways to reimagine relationships towards a future that cultivates a ‘flourishing web of life’ (Kate Raworth) where social, economic, culture and the economy are valued equally. But in the age of the anthropocene, of peak oil, and increasingly rapid climate change, the Degrowth movement (which is increasingly visible in conferences such as The Post-Growth Society event in Brussels in September 2018), questions long held notions such as sustainability, growth and development.
This boundary thinking is a challenge for society but also a challenge for the architect profession, opening up the boundaries of what the future architect’s practice might consist of. In the interview below Maria Smith explores the current disciplines of construction – architecture, engineer, management – and how architects may need to transform in the face of the profound challenges facing us all, where it is a social practice as much as a professional one. In the paper by Professor Leif M. Hokstad and his colleagues at TRANSark on ‘Transformational Learning in Architectural Education’ they describe the difficulty faced by learners in dealing with troublesome knowledge, knowledge that challenges and transforms their existing knowledge and their sense of self. The learning means moving through a ‘liminal state’ which they describe as “one of unrest, disorder, but also of affordances and dynamism. This process may also be seen in terms of an initiation process, where the learner is passing from a stage of innocence to a stage of insight and belonging in a group sharing the same kind of insight. Liminality thus represents a middle position in the transition from being an outsider to becoming an insider, and contains both an individual as well as a social aspect.” In our transition to a world in which we haven’t ‘defutured’ the world of our children and grandchildren, the future of the architect may be less of a professional outsider and more of a social insider. Architecture as convivial practice.
In the interview below Smith discusses what the capabilities of the architect might need to forge resilient societies, somewhere between a social therapist and holistic architect. It’s a practice where the architect maps different boundaries for themselves, decoupling the house as a living machine and re-orienting their practice towards helping us restore and create new relationships with buildings, their purpose and their communities.
KS: The name Interrobang (‽) merges questioning and exclamation, indicating a question expressed in an exclamatory manner. Why this name?
The reason we chose an interrobang is that it’s a punctuation mark that is a combination of two things. The example we like to give is that it’s the punctuation mark you need to give at the end of ‘What the f**k‽’. We try to inject dynamism of our ambition as well as show a blend of different things coming together. The point of Interrobang is to work across disciplines. Rather than a multidisciplinary practice where you might have architects, structural engineers and building services engineers working together on projects with borders between the disciplines. Our goal is to work transdisciplinary – for individuals to work across disciplines. [Maria drew a sketch of Interrobang’s transdisciplinary practice – see image]. We create a situation where a person’s discipline defines the expertise they bring to a project, not the restrictive zone within which they can operate.
‘Our goal is to work transdisciplinary – for individuals to work across disciplines.’
MS: Interrobang emerged from Webb Yates Engineers. Could you tell me a little about how that happened and the transition?
Webb Yates Engineers was founded in 2005 as a structural engineering practice which has some structural engineers working within it. I joined in 2015 as the first person of an architectural background. We set up Interrobang as a project within the engineering practice and we now have people in architecture, engineering, building services backgrounds working together to form this slightly different relationship between the discipline.
‘The industry is troubled in lots of ways. Many architects say that we’re becoming increasingly marginalized and ‘de-skilled’, because our scope is being eroded by project managers and different specialisms taking little pieces out of what were traditionally within an architects role’
KS: In terms of the transdisciplinary model you have drawn are these based on existing models of architecture or beyond?
MS: Part of it started from my own interests when I was at university. I was arrogant and thought I could do an architecture degree and an engineering degree at the same time. I was humbled quite quickly, to realize that I’m not actually a superhuman. But, I still felt frustrated that my technical understanding wasn’t where I wanted it to be. For a number of years I worked with individuals at Webb Yates on various projects before joining and I knew that they are not your typical engineers. They have a wide-view and creative mind as well as the technical side. The industry is troubled in lots of ways. Many architects say that we’re becoming increasingly marginalized and ‘de-skilled’, because our scope is being eroded by project managers and different specialisms taking little pieces out of what were traditionally within an architects role. My reaction to this is to view architects as generalists, who have a broad overview of everything. For instance, big complicated projects with lots of specialists and different things happening – an architect is somebody that is able to have enough knowledge of all of these different things that they can put stuff together. However, in order to do that we need to up our skills game, especially in technical areas. A big part of a current architecture degree is philosophy. I love philosophy as much as the next person, but it doesn’t necessarily help you with your drainage details. It’s finding that balance. We have to somehow not lose those cultural and social ambitions that architecture students spend time thinking about. We also need to be empowered technically because engineers have access to engineering imperatives where ‘things must be like this’ but they’re locked out of the creative process. What happens in the early stages of projects is that a lot technical constraints aren’t taken into account because the architects don’t have that capability and the projects suffer. The engineers are relegated to a ‘making it work’ role which is rubbish for them as well. So, everybody’s unhappy and projects aren’t as good as they should be. It was all those frustrations that led to this transdisciplinary model.
KS: You’ve been talking about that these actors within this process. What are the three most significant borders that matter in the practice of an architect?
MS: One, between architect and engineer. Two, between the architect and client and three, between the architect and contractor.
KS: Could you elaborate a little on each one of those?
MS: I spoke a little about the interface between the architect and engineer and the border between those roles has become too solid – which is causing problems. That border needs to become permeable to pass things along and can move around. The border between architect and client can exist where architects are trying to be their own clients. I think that’s partly happening because of commercial clients and developments – that’s where you make money. Often, I’m finding this because clients tend to be quite hard-nosed business people, and architects negotiating for reasonable fees is difficult. There seem to be lots of indications that architects are thinking about ways in which they can get in on this because that’s the seat of power. As well clients often feel architects don’t really understand how business works. They don’t understand the kind of financial pressures that they’re under. I think a blending of those roles, to understand each other better would improve the relationship.
There are initiatives like YADA (Young Architects and Developers Association) where they have parties for architects and developers under-35 to get to know each other – to build a general understanding about each other’s perspectives and realise where everyone is coming from. Again, it’s all about breaking down the borders, really. In terms of architects and contractor, it’s a difficult relationship. It’s rare, but when you have a situation where you respect each other’s role in the process and you’re building a relationship over a period of time – it can be rewarding. Yet, too often it’s combative and the builders are worried about their profit margins and are trying to de-risk the projects and the architects tend to promote these aesthetic or cultural ideals that the builders don’t necessarily have the capacity for, in terms of resource and profit from the margins. It is difficult and often feels like people pulling each other in opposite directions.
KS: What about your practice, the physical, mental and maybe virtual spaces that you move through. Could you describe some of that?
MS: In terms of workflow, the big thing is BIB (Building Information Modeling). This is where you have a 3D digital model of all the information about the entire building project. Within that, you cut sections and you cut elevations and draw details on to that. It’s a centralized thing and the idea is to move towards this ‘Holy Grail’ where you just basically issue a model, and builders can build off that model. This is changing practice a lot, including the way we work together as disciplines. We are all working on the same drawing and people have different access to change certain things but not other things. We constantly reload and synchronise – we yell across the office ‘synchronise!’ There’s that virtual digital interface and an interface between people that’s happening in the model and there is an amazing thing called ‘clash detection’ where we run a program on your model to check where things are that are hitting each other and it generates a report to help figure out what we are going to do about them.
KS: We’ve talked a lot about transdisciplinary working and I’d like to talk about the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019 (OAT) which is a perfect example of this. You’re the chief curator and you’re working with a multidisciplinary team with E-flux architecture, Matthew Dalziel, think tank director Phineas Harper and urban researcher and artist, Cecilie Sachs Olsen. How did this partnership happen?
MS: Well, I’ve known Matt for a very long time, we studied at university together and when I started Interrobang he was the first person I brought into the fold. I used to live with Phin on a narrow boat and Cecilie is Matt’s partner, it’s a family kind of thing. We’ve known each other and work together in various kind of guises over the last 10 years. When we saw the call for OAT we thought it would be interesting to work together and do something that was about architecture but much broader and looking at political and economic issues.
KS: You called yourself a family, could you tell me about how you manage the boundaries of those relationships, including the personal relationships, which sound quite close, the project management and the collective goals with such a diverse group that goes beyond ‘the family’ and the rest of the Triennale?
MS: There’s six members and eight associate members and there are loads of different institutions involved. The Oslo Architecture Triennale is tiny, it’s three people but the way it works is with partnerships with loads of other institutions like the National Museum and the National Association for Architects, so it’s quite complicated in terms of project management. We have this internal system that is working and is flexible. I see it where you have a rock and a barnacle. So, there are lots of strands and there’s one person who is the rock for that strand. But, there’s another person who is the barnacle on the rock and they are there to support but they’re not the rock. We have a system where we make sure that there’s fluidity between every partnership and there are enough strands that create connections between every single thread. [Maria sketched how the rock and barnacle system worked].
KS: So, the Triennale, you’re going to explore new ways of shaping society, through debating, questioning and experimenting ideas of degrowth. Could you explain degrowth in the way you see it?
MS: The way we talk about degrowth is essentially challenging the supremacy of economic growth as the major measure of success for humanity and recognizing that we are trapped with this growth paradigm in order to manage things like public and private debt and so on. Rather than actually being about something that brings us wellbeing, environmental or social justice – any of the things that actually mean anything to us.
When did you become interested in the degrowth? What was the Triennale’s response when you proposed the theme and how do you expect the architecture world to respond?
MS: So I’d heard about degrowth from an architecture student that I was critting a few years ago and I was immediately interested – it made a lot of sense. When there was the open call for OAT and they were looking for a theme and curators to come up with an agenda. We thought this would be a perfect opportunity and format to explore what might architecture be like in a degrowth future? As well as what architects might be able to do in order to help bring about a degrowth transition. A lot of people go into architecture because they love art, culture and social justice. They think these things are important, when they graduate and get ground down on the frontline of capitalism, working in the property industry – there’s a great deal of pent-up anger and also an understanding of two conflicting worlds. I think there’s probably a potential hotbed of Degrowthers in the architecture world – they just don’t know about it, yet. Well, that is the hope.
KS: In the context of degrowth being about wellbeing and new ways of building and shaping communities – could degrowth help create a more equal society?
MS: Yeah, I think degrowth helps because it foregrounds the good stuff, the important things that are meaningful to people. Things that we probably ought to be worried about – being considerate, nurturing, thoughtful, caring. Rather than going after a very quantitative singular goal like GDP. You can’t add apples and rainforests. That shift in mentality is what we need in order to bring about a degrowth transition.
KS: Let’s chat about the future. How will educational training of architects change in a world of degrowth, could you describe a few components of an ideal curriculum?
MS: I think if architecture isn’t so much about creating instruments of financialization and we’re creating buildings because somebody needs one rather than constructing a building because it’s a great investment vehicle then I think architecture will be different. Architecture education is going to need to grounded in genuine environmental concerns, not just less bad, actually, more good. There are some courses that are already doing that, but there is still a lot of focus on design ethos that is hampering those decisions for example the hierarchy of what constitutes good design is still warped.
KS: The ideology of good design and preference is warped in what way?
MS: It’s things like, have as few materials as possible so we can articulate different forms to show the way things come together. A lot of these modernist ideas are still very strong and result in a justification for environmentally compromised projects. And that’s just wrong and archaic.
KS: What are the components of this new curriculum for architects?
MS: In the future, I think architects will be working much more with existing buildings. It’s going to be more of an ongoing relationship that you might have with a building and its users. Projects might be quite small, shifts about how we look after something and how we make something work. We won’t be waiting for a building situation to get dire until we do something it. The balance between building and maintaining will need to be learned. One thing I think will be cool and something that we’ve been exploring with is architecture as ‘depense’ – being able to create things together as a community, self-building but also crafts and those kinds of activities as things that people do as a hobby. At the moment architecture isn’t something that people do as a hobby. If architecture is thought of as a community activity that people do in a slightly less professional way, I think will contribute to the idea of private sufficiency and public luxury.
JOR: I guess the idea of those two bleed into one another, so when you get an ongoing relationship with a building, obviously, you’re potentially already part of the community. Because it’s part of their village or their street. The architect then actually takes a role of the custodian, citizen the professional …
MS: Social therapist
‘In the future, there might be a less professional relationship but a deeper relationship with communities’
JOR: Well that’s interesting with degrowth aspects of wellbeing and the different relationships with your environment, spaces and materials.
MS: I think there’s that awful thing where a child falls over in the street and nobody helps because it’s not their job. As more and more stuff gets commercialized in the name of economic growth the less things are done informally. In the future, there might be a less professional relationship but a deeper relationship with communities.
JOR: So in a degrowth future the client is quite different?
MS: Yeah, the power dynamic could be totally different. It will be more collaborations because of interest and skills in order to get things to happen.
JOR: I guess the architect might need to be more attuned to the antenna and all the different concerns of our community.
MS: Holistic architect.
KS: Love the idea of the holistic architect. With that in mind, what are the three ideologies that are outdated in the practice of architecture?
MS: Firstly, a house is a machine for living kind of idea, is still too prevalent and this idea that you have to be extremely utilitarian and efficiency is king, compromises the work on projects. I talked about design ethics and what makes good design. Clients are always trying to demonstrate the way in which we ‘add value’ to projects. Basically, what they’re talking about is trying to quantify how fees reflect how much more money a developer can make because he’s selling something that’s better in some way. I find that an unhelpful trajectory in terms of progress because it’s trying to pursue this commodification of everything and the interchangeability of everything.
KS: What innovation do you think is needed to shape new ways of how we think about building or creating spaces that work for both communities and individuals within a finite planet?
MS: Degrowth. I hope this is a question that we’ll get into more with the Oslo architecture Triennale. Because on the one hand to bring about change to an economy that isn’t predicated on endless GDP growth which in large part is a political problem. However, it’s not only an economic problem, there needs to be an informed electorate that is going to make the politicians feel like they can stand all these sorts of things. The architect’s role in this, as in many professions in the arts, is to help people to imagine that there is a world that isn’t necessarily predicated on economic growth, that it is possible, conceivable and has huge advantages. With the Oslo Triennale we are trying to show people a glimpse as to what that might be like and make it feel real. People say it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
JOR: Yes that idea highlighted by the late Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism
MS: Every profession, every arts practice or every walk of life can contribute to that imagining of what things might be like and how things could be different. The role of communicating that this is something that is important and highlighting or disseminating the impossibility of endless growth. The main the seat of power is not really in architecture, we need to go upstream a bit but that doesn’t get us off the hook.
KS: So if those are the innovations that are needed. What skills does the future architect need?
MS: They need to be better informed. They need to be more generalist, both in terms of understanding and being honest with ourselves about the impacts that we make happen and the role that we’re actually playing in propagating not good things. In order to fulfill this future role we need to have a broader knowledge base and interest. I like this thing ‘T-shaped people’. Every different shape of T is allowed but got to be a T.
KS: Thank you so much, Maria, you’re so articulate.
MS: No, just angry [laughter].
Æffect inspired reading
Stories: a civilization starter kit
Ideas of degrowth go beyond architecture. Marcin Jakubowski is a farmer and technologist he designed an open-source set of blueprints for 50 farming tools that can be built cheaply from scratch. He called it a ‘civilization starter kit’ to allow anyone to build their own tractor or harvester from scratch. His mission is to write an instruction set for an entire self-sustaining village.
People: Ivan Illich
Ivan Illich and his work is one of the antecedents of the Degrowth movement. His book Tools for conviviality published in 1973 encapsulates how conviviality can create individual freedom, autonomy and creativity and new relationships towards the environment and production.
Tomorrow: the architecture of a new economy
The Oslo Architecture Triennale is the Nordic region’s biggest architecture festival, and one of the world’s prominent arenas for dissemination and discussion of architectural and urban challenges. The Triennale will bring architects, urban practitioners and citizens to explore the architecture of a new economy on September 26 to November 24, 2019