FAT | icon 028 | October 2005

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Sam Jacobs I was born and bred in Islington.

Charles Holland I’m an Essex lad.

Sean Griffiths I’m from Liverpool.

ch The common link is university in London. Briefly, Sean went to Manchester for his degree, and then Westminster, or the Polytechnic of Central London as it was known then. I was there in my degree and Sam was at the Mac [in Glasgow], and we both did diplomas at the Bartlett.

sj When we started FAT in the early Nineties it was an interesting time in London, a lot of things started happening. I suppose on the one hand it was Thatcher’s generation, people wanting to start things. But there were lots of examples of things happening in other spheres, like raves, people organising stuff. Even things like Soul 2 Soul, a weird boom and bust empire. People like [graphic agency] Tomato were starting. That idea of a collective of people working together seemed like a really great thing to do. Which is very different from what people are doing now. Now they’re starting up an architecture firm. This wasn’t an architecture firm until, I don’t know …

sg Probably about ten minutes ago.

sj Now people start up and they’re incredibly ambitious to build stuff. It’s only just dawned on us that that was what we were supposed to do.

sg We used to say we were a loose collective of artists, film-makers, fashion designers. And this was on the basis that maybe a fashion designer had been in the studio for ten minutes, who was somebody’s mate. But also a big inspiration at that time were the Young British Artists, who set an example of going out and doing something yourself.

We didn’t know them, but we were aware of their existence. A friend of ours worked as a janitor at the Saatchi gallery, so we always used to get invited to all the openings, to all the early events with Damien Hirst, with the shark.

Because there was no architectural work, a lot of people, like us and Muf, were delving into an area that might be called public art. There were people around like Bank, Beaconsfield – people doing street-based things, a kind of resurrected interest in a lot of late Sixties, early Seventies art theory.

sg It was the time of Cool Britannia before it was called Cool Britannia, when Oasis were really great. That six months that they were really great. Then it was the battle of Blur versus Oasis and bands starting up and clubs and art shows and architectural practices doing funny stuff. It was all kind of mixed up together.

ch That condenses quite a few years, I think.

sj I think it felt like that at the time. It certainly felt very different to how it feels now.

sg I mean the people we had coming through the studio, we had loads of artists like Sean McLusky and Pam Hogg. These kind of club people and musician types. It makes it sound …

ch Like Andy Warhol’s Factory, or something.

sg Well, it was kind of a bit like that, self-consciously like that. We did all these kind of art events, which often involved all sorts of people that you never ever saw again.

sj Certainly in our career, things have changed. For maybe five years it felt like there was really nothing interesting going on at all. Architecture was really boring.

ch Well, no one built anything. It was a lot longer than just a few years. For most of the Nineties no one built anything.

sg We used to get the odd job, but it was never enough where we felt we were a proper office. We were doing nightclubs. That was to do with the Criminal Justice Act, which came into force around that time [1991] and stopped all the raves. So people moved back into nightclubs. The nightclub promoters recognised that there was a big market for people who wanted to go out and get off their heads.

sj This was a time before Ministry of Sound and this idea of the superclub.
sg It’s also important at that time, it comes back down to the politics, and what everybody forgets now is that in 1995 there was a Conservative government – it just seems unimaginable now.

ch People were just a lot more pissed off then.

sg The sentiment was more aggressive, and more critical in saying that architecture is just another part of this hideous capitalist juggernaut and we need to redefine why architects only do this and don’t do that. And why should people who aren’t architects be able to involve themselves in architecture?

sj London’s unusual in that it hasn’t really been planned, totally different from Paris or New York. In a way it’s more like a kind of old-fashioned version of Los Angeles or an African mega-city. That lack of planning is certainly reflected in the attitude.

ch I think there’s a kind of lack of identity, in a way. I always find it quite hard to identify what London is. When you go to Manchester, people always say what do you think of Manchester? They have a sense of direct ownership of it, whereas if I met someone I would never ask what they think of London. I don’t feel the same sense of ownership over it. Your tiny little bit of it is the only bit that makes sense.

It’s much more harsh than say the Netherlands, where we’re working a lot at the moment. The Hague is a smaller place with a better standard of living, and in comparison there is a sense that London has the real sharp end of things. That probably helps with its cultural sense. You feel like there’s no spin-off area, people could really end up on the street.

sj If you think how much London’s changed in 20 years ... Twenty years ago everybody looked like they were an extra in Minder; everywhere looked like a second-hand car lot. It is totally different now.

sg The context of that though, Sam, is that you’ve got UK Gold TV and you spend your time watching Minder. You’re looking at it through Minder-tinted specs.

ch It’s always staggered us how many things are acceptable and how narrow the range of acceptibility is here.

sg I was always intrigued by the vitriol [from architects] poured on the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery [designed by Venturi Scott Brown, completed in 1991], which, when I was being educated, was the big, big row. And the utter hatred which was directed at that building. I just thought, why? What is it, what nerve is that building touching in this sensibility of the British left-wing liberal intelligentsia.

ch There’s a strong puritanical strain to English architecture which doesn’t want to look outside of a pretty defined area, and there is also something English about wanting to prick the bubble of bits of pretentiousness. I think we do spend an awful lot of time reacting to other stuff in a ludicrously angry manner. There probably is a sort of Anglo-Saxon strain of reacting to pretension or trying not to fall into similar traps.

sg Another peculiarly British aspect of this is the whole class thing. The liberal bourgeois intelligentsia have just this yearning not to be British. Richard Rogers just wants to turn the whole of the UK into some kind of vision of Tuscan villages. A public space becomes somewhere you have no buildings, some trees and benches and loads of cappuccino bars. Of course, cities are full of these things now.

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