Sam Jacob and his firm, FAT, challenge what we conceive as architecture. Using both history and contemporary theory, his practice channels ideas to networks of people with similar interests—seemingly infiltrating all corners of the architecture profession (and beyond). Taking pride in the expression of architecture outside its traditional means, Jacob says, “Lack of success in terms of square meters you build, as fast as possible, is no problem at all. We’ve had opportunities to think, opportunities to invent our own ways of making architecture.”
At last year’s Venice Biennale, we asked Sam Jacob about his Museum of Copying—an interesting subject since architecture is, in essence, an unending series of iterations (check out the interview here). As a writer/critic/architect, he teaches at the AA, blogs at Strange Harvest and Dezeen, tweets @_SamJacob, and oversees architecture, art and installation projects at FAT.
FAT was founded in London in the 1990s and is led by Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland and Sam Jacob, each of whom are committed to developing architectural culture both through practice and through design research at institutions including Yale and the Architectural Association.
Read the transcript of our interview with Sam Jacob after the break….
Sam Jacob: FAT has a particular way of thinking about architecture which is played out through a range of projects from social housing to education but also including night clubs, shop interiors, art installations and things like teaching and writing, too. It’s a very broad understanding of what architecture is but we’ve always believed that you have to be making projects in order for it to be enacted—for the ideas to become real. Our position at FAT is that architecture should be a form communicative art. We live in an age of communication, not of industry. Architecture should be able to reflect and respond to that. Architecture is a form of media in the same way that we are surrounded by cell phone broadcasts and the internet. Architecture, too, is exactly part of that spectrum.
ArchDaily: What should be the role of architects in our society?
Sam Jacob: I think the role of architects in contemporary society is to form an interface between sets of ideas between space or what architecture might be and the practical and social situations in which architecture is needed or wanted. That translation of ideals within architecture to specific moments, locations and communities is the job of the architect: to articulate the problems that face them, because these are problems not just for architects, but problems of the societies and communities in which they are working.
AD: What is the importance of innovation in your office?
Sam Jacob: For FAT, we’ve always tried to understand ways in which architecture can be relevant to contemporary culture. That means both looking forwards and backwards. What it often means is trying to reject the contemporary mainstream—the kind of things which architects do and the stuff that architecture looks like—and making it seem fresh. For us, it’s a strange idea of innovation in the sense that it doesn’t use the tropes that architecture usually uses (such as technological progress). It is often exactly the opposite. It’s often reaching back into history but using contemporary techniques or contemporary materials or a contemporary take on the things which you find. This allows us to progress and make things that excite and hopefully excite the people that we work for.
AD: What is the importance of the Internet for your work?
Sam Jacob: For us, the internet has been very important. We officially started as an office in 1995, and one of the first things that we did in an international sense was set up a website. Today that sounds pretty boring, but at the time it was quite exciting because it was a moment in which nobody exactly knew what the internet was. It hadn’t evolved into the online portfolio which most architects’ websites are now, nor had it become news or endless streams of projects after projects. It was a weird zone which allowed us to develop ideas through writing and graphics and pre-blog, pure html internet. That has been important in terms of developing ideas and networking and finding people who you might have something in common with or opening up opportunities where you have common interests. Finding ways to express yourself as an architect, beyond the traditional means, is increasingly important. And to find ways to make yourself visible but also challenging yourself to be relevant and interesting within these fairly new media environments.
AD: What is the importance of networking for your work?
Sam Jacob: Networking is fundamental to how architecture works. Despite the face that buildings don’t talk, architecture is all about people. That ranges from ideas within architecture and certainly links to commissions and opportunities. For us, networking has been important in terms of developing arguments, positions, and finding people you can talk to about the kinds of things you are interested in. It’s been fundamental to our own progression. Equally, it’s been really important in terms of getting opportunities to build; we try to meet as many people as we can.
AD: What would you recommend to someone who wants to study architecture?
Sam Jacob: It’s a very strange thing to study because, in a sense, there isn’t anything in particular to learn. There’s something about attitude; I don’t know if you can learn that. I had a very split education. Part of it was incredibly traditional and all about drawing plans and sections. The other half of it was the opposite—wild and speculative. That worked brilliantly for me but it was entirely accidental. I think that you certainly need to have some kind of technical, disciplinary foundation which will allow you to find ways of operating. Often, education now moves directly to speculative, which can be dangerous and leave things very watery and without any kind of contact with the real world. That might be interesting in a fictional sense, but it’s not enough of a challenge to architecture, which operates in the real world.
AD: From your experience, what can you tell us about running an architecture office?
Sam Jacob: It might have been a different generation, with different circumstances to now… or actually it’s very similar to now. We started at the end of the last recession in the UK (mid-to-early 90s). We started FAT straight out of college. But we didn’t start it as an architecture practice because the idea of being a young architect in Britain at that time was completely ridiculous—there weren’t any. So we began by exploring architectural ideas through any other form of media. The name FAT came from a magazine we never made. We began to make projects that were temporary curated urban art projects. Only gradually did we move into building, and that began with nightclubs and moved onto advertising agencies. Then, we finally got to build a building. It’s been a very slow progression, one which is at odds with the idea with starting an architecture practice these days. I’d say that lack of success in terms of square meters you build as fast as possible is no problem at all. We’ve had opportunities to think, opportunities to invent your own ways of making architecture.