All architects take cues from the city around them, but the way that AOC samples London is different. Sampling, building up references from a project's context, is at the heart of this east London practice's method. We visited the four founders in their studio for a discussion of this rich and allusive way of working.
Daisy Froud I don't think of us as working in London until we're doing a project outside London. Then, I immediately get concerned that the whole way we work, which is about a really close engagement, about going and being in a place as much as possible, about building up informal relationships as well as professional relationships with a project, wouldn't happen.
Vincent Lacovara And to a certain extent that's born of the place where we were educated and where we decided to set up practice.
DF So we assume that intimacy, and I think that that intimacy is a key part of the way we work.
Geoff Shearcroft We try to be quite explicit about sampling things from our surroundings, so we joke about the fact that your walk into work will influence how you resolve a problem in your current scheme. So when we were doing the Architecture Foundation, there were two, maybe three buildings that were very significant, formal precedents, just buildings that we walked past on the way in. Our offices were down the road in Bethnal Green, and on that particular walk there were a couple of houses and an old pub ...
Tom Coward Although they were on your walk, they were also typical conditions within London's fabric: what you do with the funny corner at the end of a terrace, those corners where you get the more extreme expressive buildings ...
VL The problem set in the brief, a triangular site, reminded us that there were a lot of triangles in London that we were all really familiar with but we never talked about before. All the triangles of London came out of the woodwork – like Sicilian Avenue, Holborn.
TC We identified that it had the same kind of scale as the site of the Architecture Foundation. It was interesting because there was so much in the brief about an active street frontage that was quite a difficult thing to deliver within the context of the building itself. Looking at Sicilian Avenue as a model of urbanity was interesting because it was quite a unique thing in London. So sampling is weird because it's about generic things but it's also about particular things. It's also not about literal translation, it's something that triggers your imagination and allows you to build something into a proposal.
GS We advocate an architecture that's rich in associations,so the technique of sampling things is a regular device. A lot of that sampling is from London and from the culture we were educated in, but equally it could be from a shared book or Tom's travels – Tom went around the world and has this amazing slideshow of images that we have as a screensaver. And that has really worked well within the psyche of the office.
TC So for the Architecture Foundation, there were a number of London buildings that were referred to, or London situations, but also designs from Japan ...
DF The toilet is the one that comes to mind ...
TC The toilet was in Taipei's main railway station. It was a wall that had been painted as a countryside scene with a train going through it. But halfway along the wall there was the door into the cleaner's cupboard – the door was open and the bucket and the mop were all on display, so you get this weird disjuncture of two ideas. So these things get used as images, but also as ideas about layering or about openness or closing.
GS I guess the important thing about these examples, whether they're from London or elsewhere, is that they are not necessarily named buildings. So it might be modest things, but the ingenuity with which they've been placed in a space makes them relevant to some reference within an architectural proposal.
VL Lucy the Elephant is one we always come back to ... Lucy's quite interesting. We do have this kind of wealth of references that we draw on and refer to in projects, but what's interesting is that we don't really talk about it when we do a project.
GS Sampling is kind of a dirty word within architecture, people don't admit to their sources so much, or they do in a very closeted manner. It's almost like it's embarrassing to admit that you spend all your time looking at buildings and learning from what already exists, whereas obviously that's all we should be doing.
TC To look only at the most academically profound pieces of our culture is kind of missing the point ... a lot of culture that actually exists in cities is through informal methods and relatively frugal means.
VL So to solve a problem, why would you not use everything that's available to you?
DF It's objects as well as buildings – partly to use as shorthand internally. Like the "gold tooth" for the Architecture Foundation. That was really useful for us early on, this lump of gold that was filling up a gap – there were a lot of large buildings around the site, and then there were these things called mini-gems which just plugged gaps. The Black House, a project that wasn't actually built, one of the really resounding images for that was a Mars bar sliced in half, that allowed both us and the client to sum up how we wanted the end of this house to feel. And for the Lift we found a top hat a really useful metaphor. And because that project was involved in a massive community engagement process to build a brief, we used to literally carry a top hat around with us to help people get their head around what this building was going to be.
TC Sampling is as much about a means of communication as it a working process.
DF And some of that is internal communication. It's different to a PR choice, like "Right, this building is The Glove, because it really wraps around this public space" ...
TC It's trying to get closer to the essence. Natural nicknames are amazing.
DF Like the Gherkin?
TC We're kind of interested where things slip and become part of culture.
VL Well, they're characters. They have a life of their own, people have a response to them as buildings and objects.
William Wiles Not always fondly – the Gherkin is a very fond nickname, but ... the "electric shaver", the Strata tower in Elephant & Castle, isn't fond.
VL Someone the other day said to me that she likes it because it looks like an owl, and actually likes it.
DF I always think of Lord of the Rings – Sauron's tower.
GS The naming of things, if you try and do it before you finish designing then it's a good way of testing associations, aspirations, subtle things that you don't really see.
TC What's interesting about this whole conversation about sampling, referencing, using metaphors, is that it's actually quite dangerous, it's quite difficult ...
TC When it works it's very easy and beneficial, but trying to explain to someone kind of abstractly what that process involves gets very confusing – if you talk to people about "well, we're going to form some associations and make some references and kind of merge something together" ...
VL "Don't worry, I'm going to wander down the street at work and come up with some ideas for you."
TC People don't expect that to be a useful design process ... [they say] "well, why don't you know all the answers" ... but in a way it's no different to Robert Adam going to Split and measuring up Diocletian's palace, and then coming back and treating it almost as his own work – but I suppose we do it in quite a relaxed and immediate and democratic way.
WW You now work on Redchurch street, a really varied part of east London, one that's changing fast.
GS It's fascinating – Redchurch Street is now E2's most expensive street according to our local estate agent. That's definitely not why we're here, we got here just before that happened. What is fascinating is the completely non-planned nature of it. 10 years ago a cab wouldn't go down Redchurch Street, too dangerous. And then through a combination of predominantly economic but also social things, it's slowly evolved, like every area that's regenerated. I'm not aware of any organisation trying to plan that. It's very bits and pieces, and that's very London, and I think that has very much defined the way we approach the city.
DF Actually, one of the things I love about being in this area is that we are next to what's often claimed to be the first example of social housing in the West ... [it's a] reaction to the Booth poverty maps and this decision to take away the slums, and to put in this vision of sanitary, "decent" homes. What I find fascinating about those maps, and what I get excited about being here, is that relationship: people knew the facts about poverty, but it wasn't until someone made a graphical articulation of it that people could see how close the black, the "vicious, semi-criminal" was to their nice coloured bits, that there was the motivation to do something about this, and the power of a piece of graphic imagery to generate change in that way. What's also been fascinating in the regeneration is that they've been taking up the tarmac and the cobbles of the slums are still there, it's an amazing chronotope of space in that way, you've got packed layers of architecture, which London has everywhere, but because of the change that's happening here ...
TC £7 cappuccinos is the change that's happening here.
DF West London is creeping up the road towards us! Albion, for a while, was a colony of west London, but now the rhizomes have come out and it's spreading ...
VL The same thing is happening in Dalston now. For the first time, since the new East London Line has opened, I'm able to get from Croydon, where I work, to Dalston just like that. So for the first time I popped my head out in Dalston and it felt like I'd arrived in the suburbs. Everything had swapped around.
DF The other thing that's quite interesting is the number of respected big-name architects who have done very small buildings slotted into the gaps in the streets round here, and they could all be described as the kind of building that's responding to context. But it's fascinating to be able to see the [Tony] Fretton house, the [David] Adjaye, there's a Maccreanor Lavington building, a Stephen Taylor building ... I used to train planning councillors in design, and I would just take them around these streets to see all the different responses that you can have to one physical context without that being about copying the past, and they found it really fascinating. It's this tiny little test bed.
TC So there's actually a complexity to London that demands that we produce work in a way that is different to other parts of the world, where perhaps architects aren't involved or things are seen to be simpler. So that can only be a good training ground to produce complex and refined pieces of work.
VL So you're not bringing a solution, you're bringing a way of looking at a problem. Going back to our attitude or how we learn from London in the work that we do, it seems to have generated this attitude of sampling and collaging things, and obviously we wouldn't necessarily want to sample those same parts in a completely different location.
TC Even those architects who export universal proposals, perhaps the ingenuity comes out of the complexity of London – because they all start by doing small pieces of work within the fabric of London and trying to find a way of giving a sense of place in their own way, that demands a lot of ingenuity – you have to take 20 broken party walls and turn it into a wonderful habitation, which is kind of the essence of London ever since the Fire. We didn't listen to Christopher Wren, we just got back out and pitched our market stalls and put our garrets back up on their old sites and let the mess of legality wash over us.
DF But then there's that amazing tension ... everyone still talks in the cliched way about London being a place of villages, which it is, and if we're building in one of London's villages and it still has a village feel then there's a whole level of parochial-ness about what's possible, and a strong sense of identity about what's appropriate, and yet you're in a global city. It's not really part of England in that way, it belongs to the world, but within it, perhaps more than many other cities, there's an almost anal focus on preserving the local architecture – and that's kind of an amazing combination of things.
TC It's interesting that because London is constantly on its knees, on the point of collapse, in terms of infrastructure, and yet it's constantly going to go on forever. The ability of a terrace house to be reconfigured every 20 or 30 years to suit new cultural aspirations is amazing.
VL The dilapidated Victorian house.
TC ... Just a pile of tatty old bricks that was built 200 years ago. It's a robust lump that can be augmented endlessly. That's a difficult thing that gives you opportunities and takes opportunities away from you. The question is, is there something that could be learned from some of those tatty old lumps that are constantly being good?
VL 1930s suburbia is now getting to that stage where planning policies are coming into place to protect its character – protect the very character that not long ago was being scorned as being repetitive.
DF We constantly come back to the semi.
GS The very thing we find fascinating in suburbia is that it's character is constantly changing, and yet the reason somewhere becomes less interesting is when it stops – so the question is whether this area will reach the status of somewhere like Chelsea, reaches a peak, and stops.
TC Or basically Albion just gets rolled out along the street and we fall out the end.
GS Because that's not the character we're talking about – that's not the London we're discussing in fact, that kind of controlled containment of character.
DF Yeah, aesthetic fascism. Down with aesthetic fascism!