The scaffolding has come down, revealing the first glimpse of FAT's extraordinary A House For Essex. Designed in collaboration with British ceramic artist Grayson Perry and commissioned by Alain de Botton’s alternative holiday rental project Living Architecture, the house will be the final built work that FAT complete. The bejewelled two bedroom dwelling, topped with a shimmering golden copper alloy roof and clad in glinting green and white tiles, sits in the rolling landscape of Essex - Charles Holland (FAT) and Perry’s home county. Adorned with sculptures integrated into a wider narrative that spatially recounts the life of a fictional character called Julie, the barn-like shape, bold colours and decoration has not simply garnered widespread attention but has also captured people’s curiosity.
Find out more about the project in an interview with the architect after the break.
One of FAT’s first large commissions was from Urban Splash, a developer who asked them to design twenty three new homes in Ancoats, an up-and-coming laboratory of alternative design in north Manchester. Despite turning up to the interview with nothing to show (their laptop broke on the way), they won the job. They had previously curated a solo exhibition at Manchester’s CUBE Gallery entitled Kill the Modernist Within (1990), challenging an established set of ideas which would later be encompassed in the Islington Square (2006) project.
With a consistent string of subtle thematic connections to contemporary Dutch architecture, they were soon commissioned by Crimson Architectural Historians to, as Holland puts it, “design some kind of decorated industrial shed for people to get drunk in next to a petrochemical plant on the edge of Rotterdam.” Later their nonument in Den Haag even made it onto a Dutch postage stamp; in another Dutch project, they installed a lifeguard’s tower and a wooden fort in a church in Amsterdam. Back in the UK, they friezed the BBC TV Studios in Cardiff with their precise, cookie-cutter style that threw baroque fluidity and post-modernist ornamentation together in one colourful sweeping architectural gesture.
We caught up with Charles Holland, the partner of FAT that took the lead with the design and resolution of the house, to ask him how he approached what was always destined to be a high-profile project. “Alain said he couldn't think of any other architecture practice that Grayson could work with apart from FAT. We approached it as fans of Grayson's and as architects intrigued by Alain's idea of a proper collaboration between art and architecture.”
The project is fundamentally about “a really rich collaboration of art and architecture, a house that is an artwork that you can live in.” FAT, who have always enjoyed telling stories through spaces, acknowledge that “there is also a more specific narrative that has now developed into a story about how the building came to be where it is and who lived in it.” This will be revealed in more detail when the house opens properly in the new year, although there’s a glimpse of what’s to come in a recent interview with Rob Wilson of uncube. The important thing, according to Holland, “is that this narrative, this invented history, is manifested in the building.”
FAT’s projects have often induced polemical discourse and, more often than not, have centred around the age-old debate over context and what it means to architecture. Holland, in response to the suggestion that A House for Essex could simply be interpreted as an uncontextualised object, explained that “it depends on what you consider the context to be.” The project, for both Holland and Perry, is “deeply contextual in terms of narrative and reference. Making a building in Essex that somehow counteracts the often negative associations of the place was very important. The fact that it is actually in a beautiful piece of landscape - albeit one with a view of a massive container port - seems right and turns assumptions about Essex on their head without sentimentalising the place. Like a wayside chapel, it is sited at a confluence of routes. So its initial starting point was as a house-come-chapel that celebrated the ordinary virtues of Essex.”
In Holland’s self-penned response to FAT’s announcement of the end of their practice on Fantastic Journal, he described how they had continuously and purposefully “railed against all those hoary old modernist myths that clung on to British architecture like tedious barnacles: truth to materials, honest structures, form following function, la-dee-bloody-da.” In a time when the architectural fashion pivots around “truth to materials” and “honest structures”, how accuratee would it be to describe ornament and decoration as synonymous with disguise? For Holland, it is rather about communication and storytelling. “A House for Essex is a story in a way, an elaborate piece of fiction.”
“I suppose you could say that decoration - a la Venturi and Scott Brown's decorated shed - is applied to otherwise humble or banal structures and there's an element of camouflage in that. But that's not our game here - we're more interested in creating a rich contemporary symbolism, albeit one pushed to the max where it becomes almost overwhelming and disorientating.”
Now at a point where we can examine the body of FAT’s projects as one holistic entity, I asked Holland how he would retrospectively place the practice within a wider architectural dialogue.
“Well, Hugh Pearman, editor of the RIBA Journal, said that we changed the architectural weather. I think we have paved the way for a much richer, less restricted idea of what modern architecture can be and we've done this through collaboration, through borrowing from other discourses and visual fields and by working across disciplines and as teachers, writers and critics as well as architects. We have seen a lot of interesting new practices take on these ideas in a way that seemed highly unlikely when we started out.”
“We have also always asserted the primacy of architecture as a cultural act, something that has resonance beyond the discourse of architecture. We also wanted to make a splash, shake things up a bit and we certainly did that.”
Although the FAT team started to go their separate ways at the end of 2013, it feels that with the opening of their exhibition at the British Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, coupled with the near completion of the House for Essex, it really is the end of a fascinating, design-affirming movement. Not only have they acted as a much-valued point of controversy in an often bleak and sterile architectural world, but they’ve also livened it up with their playfully serious - or perhaps seriously playful - approach to creating architecture.
Their final built project has come out of everything they did, as the apotheosis of their evolving ideas about "decoration and symbolism, games of scale and historical allusion and plays of external form against internal surprise and delight."
For Holland it has also been a profound project on a personal level, “not just because of the ideas articulated above but also for the sheer challenge of getting it built, together with Mark Robinson at Living Architecture. We've been helped by some terrific builders and craftspeople but it's still been a hell of a challenge. I feel like I am ready to take on pretty much anything now.”
Some people immediately like their work, some do not. I must admit that it personally took a number of years for me to understand and appreciate what they were doing and now, in hindsight, I feel naïve. Most architects and practices either collapse into history, peter out, or are "led away by the bailiffs", but FAT’s intrinsic sense of the unconventional has lent them a kind of immutable purpose.
The future looks bright. Charles Jencks has said that “they were too clever by half” and, in making “a tactical manoeuvre of going explicitly against the tide, they were always given the B-movie commissions, which is a great shame.” Although they have split they have certainly not retired. Their work in both Venice and Essex is, thankfully, only the end of some mysterious new beginning.