The latest issue of Ark/Finnish Architectural Review is out NOW

I thoroughly enjoyed doing the piece on Jeremy Till, now available to peruse in paper form on p. 76 of Ark 1/2013, and as pdf here.

I have so far only scanned the contents of this issue but I do look forward to reading J. R. Curtis’ (he of Modern Architecture Since 1900) Long View on architectural criticism.

The Till interview goes like this:

Critic who sees scarcity as socially produced

The architect Jeremy Till is known for his sharp commentary and critical writings. The one building usually associated with him is his home, the experimental Straw House in Islington (London 2011). He designed it together with his wife the architect Sarah Wigglesworth, whose practice it now houses. Till had been head of London’s Central St Martins College of Art and Design for a few months, when I interviewed him in October. Previously he had headed the University of Westminster’s and Sheffield University’s architecture departments. Since 2010 he has been sharpening architecture’s conceptual toolkit through Scibe (Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment), a research and education project involving four European universities.

University of the Arts London, King's Cross

University of the Arts London, King’s Cross

Till’s office is on the recently opened campus at King’s Cross-St Pancras. Its former Victorian warehouses now house a magnificent culture factory, which art and design students from all over the world already seem to consider home.

Professor Till likes to talk – and write – about how futile it is for architects to pretend they are above politics. Architecture in any case depends on politics, and to build is always to wield power. Till elaborated on these ideas in Architecture Depends (2009), which was both loved and hated and awarded a RIBA prize. Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture (2009) co-written with former colleagues from Sheffield, Nishat Awan and Tatjana Schneider, is a kind of handbook of alternative architecture.

Scarcity and revolution

Sustainability is no longer adequate as a starting point for architecture, Till feels. He is fascinated by the notion of scarcity. It is very real and yet produced by the social system. The concept of scarcity is also far removed from the fashionable politics of austerity. ”The important thing is that scarcity forms a bridge between economy and ecology”, he says.

The July 2012 issue of Architectural Design that Till edited together with Jon Goodbun and Deljana Iossifova, focussed on scarcity and on the  implications of dwindling resources for architecture. The issue insists on acknowledging some frightening truths: the chronic shortages of oil, metals, food and water we are facing, a polluted world. Its contributions are a call for bold and revolutionary thought, and they demonstrate that this work has already begun. Till himself believes that impending scarcity will offer good opportunities for architects in particular to grapple with the world’s difficult problems.

Does his belief in new opportunities specifically for architects arise out of the way they already grapple with such complex problems? ”I don’t think they do, actually, but they could. In the 2000s, the profession was derailed – except maybe in Finland where things are probably better – into producing really shiny objects for the high end of the market and very efficient construction at the low end. I am still optimistic though. Architects are good at understanding complex spatial relationships. They also see them as social and ecological relationships.”

Till makes the case through an illustration from the early 1970s: Jaime Lerner trains as an architect, becomes mayor of Curitiba in the Brazilian state of Paraná, sees an appalling infrastructural problem and applies spatial thinking to it. Lerner’s concept of space was not limited to the physical infrastructure, and the result was an innovative rapid bus transit system, which has been copied in dozens of cities around the world. It could be characterized as a metro-system at street level. ”But it’s fifty times cheaper”, Till points out.

The issue of Architectural Design and the book, Spatial Agency, contain many other interesting cases. In addition to relatively recent examples, the book also presents ideas that were born of the politicized atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s. One that Till recommends looking into, is Supports, John Habraken’s proposal for integrating mass housing and community design.

Nothing is self-evident

Till is under no illusion that the challenges the world faces are grave and difficult. Visions of impending doom should not, however, automatically lead to cuts and technocratic package solutions. We need to think more creatively. ”We have to ask, what do we want and what are we capable of”, he says.

An enthusiastic tweeter, Till rummages around on his mobile for some catchphrases. “If you hit a dead end with your problems, then you have to change the questions”, he says, drawing on Ezio Manzini. “You can see users as problems but you can also turn them into solutions.” Till appreciates the fine way that Manzini, like the economist Amartaya Sen, highlights the significance of capacities. “As architects we are also good at seeing capacities, capabilities, opportunities.” For Till, nothing is self-evident though: “If you approach users as part of power relations and as environmental and social relations, they immediately enter a dynamic. And you have to listen, you have to be alert to time.”

Time is also seamlessly related to scarcity, which is about limits. It is clear that endless growth is impossible. “Architects define themselves through designing buildings. New buildings add stuff to the world. And that, de facto, produces scarcity. So it would be better to ask whether the situation requires a new building, and that is different from increasing efficiency.” As an example of an architects’ practice that does not respond to every spatial problem by building more, Till often cites 00:/, based in London. Their solution to lack of space at a school, for instance, was simply to intervene in timetabling. Till adds that the growth in material things is driven by our desire for novelty. In a context of scarcity, however, the point should be to redistribute, not to add.

We must acknowledge the political

How can asking the right questions or making creative use of existing capacities be taught? Till does not have an easy answer to this, although the question is both familiar and important. He explains that he has tried to teach about the way an architect’s work goes beyond producing a building, in other words, an object. As he talks about teaching he admits he may sound like he hates architecture, but he immediately adds that it isn’t so. He should not be teaching if it were. “I still think this is a fantastic discipline!”

Till has often claimed that the built environment is dross. However, it is not architects who are mainly responsible for this, since the design process is no longer really in their hands, but in those of a project manager. “Because a project manager only understands market values, he sees things as quantitative problems. All the architect does is decorate. And nobody asks important questions.”

The latest Venice Biennale did, Till admits, give hope. Amongst horrible, really awful things, he also found playfulness and a radicalism that one might well compare to the counter-ideas of the 1960s and -70s. “They have never had a profound effect. Our situation now is much graver than then – those possibilities are still available”, Till reminds us.

He wants to be optimistic: when you expand the thinking, practical possibilities will follow. “It’s a classic neoliberal act to claim that you can only operate through the market, that making cuts is the only way. Economically it’s rubbish and socially it’s disastrous. Why not ask whether the way you are setting up the problem is just wrong? Maybe lack of growth is not the problem, maybe it’s the solution. To back up his ideas he mentions Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth.

Occupy St PaulsTill admits that his position is deeply political, but he is fed up with apologising for it. For example, in winter 2012 he addressed the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s cathedral, which was an ambiguous experience, since not everyone was happy to welcome an esteemed professor. Normally his critical stance raises eyebrows, but then to be uncritical is also to be political, he points out. “Conservatives typically claim that they are not political but rational. And the same goes for the so-called apolitical architect: ‘I’m not political, I’m just working out a rational solution, blah, blah, blah’”, he mocks.

Till has arrived on an early flight from Hong Kong that morning, and after an hour he begins to show signs of fatigue. He glances up at his yellow cycling jacket and wishes me a pleasant rest of the evening.

Kirjallisuutta | References:

Jeremy Till: Architecture Depends. MIT Press, 2009. (katso Arkkitehti 5/2009 | see Ark 5/2009)

Jeremy Till: “Architecture and Contingency”, Field online  2008. Vol. 1(1). pp. 120–135.

Jon Goodbun, Jeremy Till, Deljana Iossifova (eds.): Scarcity: Architecture in an Age of Depleting Resources Architectural Design. Architectural Design July 2012 / Wiley, 2012.

Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider, Jeremy Till: Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture. Routledge, 2011. Katso myös | See also

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