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Interview: Smout Allen

Exploring the hidden meanings of landscapes by holding ‘a seance for a place’, Mark Smout and Laura Allen’s architectural speculations create a poetic ambiguity that subverts the conventions of drawing and modelling. Interview by Peter Cook and Will Hunter

Mark Smout and Laura Allen are senior lecturers at the Bartlett School of Architecture, where they run a diploma studio which frequently collaborates with BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh. The pair both studied and taught at the school while it was under the directorship of Peter Cook, who ushered in a new era at the Bartlett between 1990 and 2006. In many ways this continued the architectural speculation that Archigram − of which Cook was a founder member − popularised in the 1960s. Alongside Smout Allen, the culture of the school developed with units led by Nat Chard (who emigrated to Canada) and CJ Lim (still in residence), among many others. AR Deputy Editor Will Hunter also studied at the Bartlett while Peter Cook was head.

Peter Cook: Let’s start by talking about the manoeuvre in drawing. In some architectural cultures I think it isn’t fully understood. People think in certain Classical, Minimalist, and even some digital approaches there is an inevitable consequence in everything. Whereas with the manoeuvre you intervene to articulate − but also deliberately to pervert − the inevitable.

Laura Allen: The making of the representation is important to us. Since we never really get a building from what we do, a lot of the process and ideas are simply embedded in just a couple of drawings. They’re not to build anything from; they’re there to help us imagine all these environments and all of the life that this thing has. And maybe all of those little manoeuvres are where you lay a seed for later on − for further development of those ideas as and when.

Mark Smout: That’s partly the function of working in an education environment. The majority of our initial work is still hand drawn creating a large ‘incubation’ phase to any project. It’s kind of floating around with a few manoeuvres and ideas, before you actually have to be incredibly precise. In every problem there is a potential rather than a particular solution, and that’s the way we teach and talk about projects.

Thames Gateway Sketch

A sketch of the Wet Lands project, which proposes an architectural oasis infused with waterscapes and soft infrastructures for the Thames Gateway

PC: The key thing about the drawing is it doesn’t have to be literal. You can draw something, and say that it has a certain atmosphere; that it might do something; or you might come upon it in an odd way; or a variety of types of materiality. Whereas the working drawing is showing: ‘This is what it is’; ‘That is what it is made of’ − end of conversation. With what you two do there isn’t an ‘end of conversation’ − it’s probably only the beginning of a conversation. And it raises the issue of what is the ‘moment of creativity’?

LA: A lot of students ask us about how we ‘do’ a drawing − which really surprises me, because the drawings don’t have a particular viewpoint, aren’t really measured, they’re not complex constructions but then they’re not necessarily ‘sketches’ either. They can’t imagine where the starting point of the drawing is. They’re curious about how I didn’t plan it but just did it; but drawing is also a thinking process, we let it happen and there’s a point where that drawing’s run its course and we might move on to another one. It’s quite strange to me how many students nowadays don’t necessarily design with drawings to help push ideas forward, but instead use them to represent an idea they already had. Although we don’t teach drawing in any way, we do often make students stop talking about something and start drawing it. And obviously we then talk about how the drawing might help them to think about it and help them to describe it.

Will Hunter: What has caused this shift in the students? Has there been a change in culture? Does it relate to the computer?

LA: I think they don’t have an attitude towards experimenting with representation and visualisation during the design process. They arrive and they want to head quickly towards something finished, and to make designs that immediately look like buildings. I think the computer has changed the design process. We see lots of sections and plans in degree school that are simply cut from Rhino models and they’re nonsense − it’s a totally different outcome to designing and drawing in section. They can quite quickly make something that looks viable with the computer now. That’s quite tricky for tutors because we can’t see their design process, we can’t access their thought process, and it’s hard to convince students that this thing that looks like a building, isn’t there yet. It’s very difficult to unpick something.

WH: But isn’t there perhaps a change in the methodologies about how to design. From OMA and the diagram, to early Foreign Office and data. Maybe sometimes students feel that all the complexities of a project can be resolved in a really clever diagram, or that they need lots of research to validate their position − do you get a sense that students feel they can’t start speculating about space without these things?

MS: Yes I agree. The diagram and the role of data in contemporary architectural education is very interesting but they are ingredients rather than a recipe. What’s unhelpful though is that research can often mean hours on Wikipedia. Students can get into a position where they feel that every next move needs justification or rationale and that shouldn’t be the case. Ideas can’t always easily be compressed or concentrated into diagrammatic form. And it takes skill to paraphrase architectural ideas and make a really clever diagram.

Wet Lands Isometric

A sectional isometric view of the Wet Lands project (click to see a larger image). Extremes of water scarcity and abundance in London’s fresh-water supply and floodplain are buffered by a series of architectural and technological interventions

PC: Talking about how the work is presented, I think it’s very useful for people like you and me to do as many lectures as we can. It’s a very good discipline forcing you to say what you think it’s about, and sometimes to deliberately different audiences: a local audience; a high pollutant audience; an audience that won’t remotely know where it comes from; another audience that has seen everybody, heard everything. When you have to re articulate it, sometimes your views can change.

WH: Does the story of the project change with the retelling? How far do you try to make the project’s representation − its models and drawing − contain the whole story?

LA: The Thames Gateway project can be presented in lots of different ways depending on who the audience is. When we presented it to science and urbanism students, we spoke about it in relation to the serious issues of London’s water resources. The existing relationship is that water is controlled by infrastructure and hidden from the city; and we talked about creating a new relationship so that it becomes part of a visible and shared ecology with the city instead. They were very interested in that. But they didn’t really get excited about the detail of the architectural proposition like we do. They couldn’t read the drawings and they’re not familiar with the architectural language we commonly use to describe the work; they couldn’t understand what we meant by ‘porous housing’. Other audiences need a different visual and descriptive language. There’s always a danger of being too esoteric. That’s fine, we’re just as excited about the ideas as we are about the drawings at this stage and we need to work on how to communicate work like this to a broader community. And at the moment the drawings are more about capturing the ideas for us. I don’t try to make them contain the whole story − not in relation to communicating to other people. But in the process of drawing it, it potentially does.

Wet Lands Plan

PC: There are some schools that really create a culture. Where there’s a great awareness of what’s going on in the whole school. SCI-Arc is one, the Bartlett is definitely one − and still one − but I struggle to think of the next two or three. And this brings me on to a related point: to what extent you expose yourselves to external criticism, meaning not just critics that you hang around with? What happens if you get somebody like Nat Chard?

MS: We did a teaching event with Nat Chard, Geoff Manaugh and all our collective students that went on until two in the morning in a beach house in Florida. It was really interesting to see the correlations that exist between us and those that differ. Nat has a very particular ideology on materials, say, and a different context that he draws from, and Geoff is a sci-fi and technology nut with an encyclopaedic mind, there are some common threads and some points of disagreement as well. It was a fantastic experience.

Sketchbook spread

Sketchbook for the Lanzarote Envirographic Architecture project. Photographs of the lunar-like surface of the island are montaged with drawings

PC: Well it’s like in the States. Actually Thom Mayne and Steven Holl are very good friends. The work is definably different from both brilliant guys and they know that they are sort-of allies − given the rest of the scenery − the same way as old lovers who aren’t together any more. Ito and Hasegawa in Tokyo are similar. When I was doing this thing in Ito’s school the other day, there was a little circuit of people who were obviously kind of allies, who know their individual work may be different but compared with the rest of people are in a sort of pocket.

LA: Sometimes it can feel that from the outside we all get put into one big Bartlett pocket. But the thing is we know what CJ Lim is doing, but we hardly ever see it until he has already done it. We don’t have joint crits, we don’t really have conversations about our work, but we do about our teaching. I think it’s because time is precious and you have a little idea and you’ve got to get it out rather than share it. We probably share more via our students. His students are very ‘him’, and our students are very ‘us’, and they cross-fertilise.

Lanzarote Envirographic

Plan drawing for the Lanzarote Project (click to see larger image). The aim was to generate energy for Lanzarote using hydrological processes: like the Thames Gateway project, it is a response to climate change and its effects on water in the landscape

WH: But if you were to explain what it is you do to someone outside the Bartlett pocket, how would you? To someone who has no comprehension of the culture of the place and its terms − how do you define and put into words the ideas that drive your work?

MS: At its simplest it is driven by landscape. It’s not that we’re landscape designers, designing parks, paths and things. But we’re interested in making a reading of landscape, of the things that aren’t necessarily obvious at first glance, that are hidden in time, or from human sight. We look for deeper meanings and understandings, which might be to do with its history or its ecology. It’s almost like holding a seance about a place. We look for uniqueness in a context. And this narrative goes towards making a project and informs architectural ideas which we then like to think about in drawings and models.

LA: I’ve recently been trying to think about drawing in relation to writing, because most of the people at work encouraging us to talk more about our projects are writers. It’s really difficult, especially as I don’t enjoy writing. It’s very hard to find techniques in drawing that I can relate to the process of writing. You don’t start a drawing in the top left corner and finish in the bottom right; you rework ideas and the old and new stuff might all be there. Even if the composition is very defined, it can still be re-read differently each time and some ideas in a drawing, even if it looks well structured so to speak, are just an initial gesture.

PC: I think you’re in an era of academe that is very different from my period. It didn’t matter if you had the theoretical position. It was assumed you did, and you could do whatever work you liked without the pressure to publish. The fact that I’ve published several books is a ‘by the way’ clause. Personally I can write very easily, more like a journalist, quickly about what interests me. But I’m not good at research writing. Now it seems that the pressure’s on that. I think the influence of the writers in architectural education has been disastrous. It’s been overblown and there’s nothing much that any of us can do about it, because they know how to manipulate the academic system.

LA: But it’s interesting to talk to the writers because they’re unlike the designers in the school. They want to talk about design work, perhaps because they’re not competing with us. It’s a competitive place.

PC: Well if you don’t do what you do, they’re out of a job, if you think about it. Theorists and writers can only theorise, although they do very well theorising about nothing − and in historical depth too. Where would Ruskin be without the Gothic Revival? I don’t know. But some geezer’s had to do this stuff and they could pontificate about it. I think that another 10-15 years of dominance of theorists in architecture schools will be terrible. And as history will show, they held back architecture, I’m sure of that.

Blue Revetments thumbnail

A drawing for the Retreating Village project. Like many of their projects, the starting point was an ecological process: in this case, erosion (click for full image)

WH: But surely it will be the writers who write that history? I think they − or ‘we’ I suppose as I am among them − have a role in teasing out meaning and making connections between things that sometimes aren’t immediately obvious when you are making the architectural project.

LA: The writers don’t dominate at the Bartlett but they’re definitely a well-organised group. They meet together for a lunch and have a talk, whereas with us we’re all beavering away in our offices. But the writers ask us to explain things in some kind of detail, or with a linear process or to discuss an argument that maybe wasn’t there when we put the work together. They ask difficult questions and turn the projects on their heads. The problem is if you put something out there, it’s going to be interpreted and then perhaps misinterpreted. And that’s fine!

WH: Actually, one of your biggest collaborators is Geoff Manaugh, who I would classify more as a writer, I don’t know if he designs too? What do you offer each other?

MS: He doesn’t design but he does teach design and runs a studio at Columbia. I think we’re both interested in speculative ideas about land use and about technologies and the future relationship between man and the environment. We also share an interest in uncovering undisclosed, forgotten or emerging stories about the city. We share a sort of ‘what if’ kind of curiosity about what that might be … and a love of crazy golf.

PC: One of the things that interests me with your work: I don’t see a distinction between the drawings and models. And there’s a tremendous precedent for that in Constructivist art, with Schwitters and El Lissitzky. There would always be the drawing wanting to be the model, the model turning into a drawing − exploring the manoeuvre, space and presence of the object.

MS: We move freely between drawings and 3D, and both sometimes exhibit the characteristics of the other. It’s a fluid way of working and I think you have to be very comfortable moving forward without quite knowing everything. I use my sketchbook as a sort of vague memoir for ideas. I don’t work things out necessarily in there, but it’s also useful because I take it into the workshop with me while I wouldn’t take some of the drawings perhaps. Generally when we’re down at the workshop we work very furiously, so there is the love of the craft, but we’re also trying to create things quickly.

What was really interesting was when we were doing the Lunar Wood model, the CNC router − I think the company went bust as soon as it had made that one, so the software didn’t quite work − kept plunging and cutting these great big grooves out of what was a rather delicate drawing. So you had to go to a different bit of the workshop, find a different craftsman to insert new bits of wood into the mistakes. There are some great mistakes in there − patches and fillets.

Their installation Lunar Wood has a counterbalanced surface that moves in a wave, its equilibrium disturbed by jets of air from below

PC: The other thing that interests me is the collage, not necessarily literally, but the way of thinking to produce a hybrid which maybe hasn’t appeared before. Like if I take your Norfolk project where time and memory of the place is the key factor, and the drawing is to do with the ‘syndrome’. And it’s showing what perhaps is necessary to sustain the basic idea?

LA: The Retreating Village was designed very much like a kit of parts, it had to have a kind of ‘make do’ aesthetic and borrowed from farm machinery, caravans and fishing paraphernalia which I worked together. Some of the drawings were collages but I was collaging time or trajectories into the landscape rather than architectural elements to try to evoke the potential dynamism of the site.

Red Hulk thumb

Elevational view from the cliff edge for Retreating Village project (click to see larger image)

PC: You made an amazing model for the Giza Museum project in Egypt. And that was the daft thing because I would say it was probably more than you needed to do. And perhaps you’ve learned from that ‘craft fetishism’. That’s an interesting thing with the drawing, if you’re a good drawer you can avoid it. Once you’ve got the thing down on paper that’s enough for that stage and you move forward. The trouble with the physical object is it gets into the fine-tuning, which takes a long time in relation to the idea. So in some cases I think it’s good to have a fast project.

LA: I do too. It’s funny, Peter, that whenever you talk about drawing you point to your head, and every time you talk about models you make the shape of the model in the air. That’s weird isn’t it − that the drawing even when its completed remains a mental thing but the model doesn’t, it’s no longer in the period of the incubation?

PC: I think in any project, there’s a sort of light bulb in the sky period, then the development period, and then a period when you have to balance them out. I always leave something easy to do for the evening, and have gone to sleep many times over a certain problem. Then sometimes I can sit looking at a drawing, which isn’t remotely finished, and get an idea about it.

MS: That’s the beauty of the sketchbook though isn’t it? You can go through old ones occasionally and find hundreds of ideas and half-started things that got overlooked or designed out, that you really should revisit at some point.

Giza Museum

Giza Museum Model

Smout Allen’s Giza Museum project in Egypt (with Gavin Robotham). The scheme is shown as a part-model/part-drawing (top); and below it is in model form (above), a result which is too ‘craft fetishised’ for Peter Cook

WH: You’ve spoken quite a lot about the ideas point, but I wonder if and how you get a sense of closure with projects? Do you get a feeling it is done and you can move on? For conventional architectural projects it is the building of the thing. And that brings me to my other question about the role of production drawings adding a constraint to a project, which in a way is the ultimate test of an idea, whether it survives or not. In your work, what is that ultimate test?

LA: I suppose with our projects, which in the main are conceptual research or ideas projects, we can be indulgent or poetic with our drawings and models in a way that production drawings can’t be. We don’t necessarily need to be disciplined in the conventional sense and that can be liberating of course.

At the moment, we often test out the ideas by also considering them in model form, we make models that are interactive, that is to say that you can manipulate them, often they incorporate some kind of dynamic element so they are playful or can be played with. This is about allowing other people to have a greater level of connection with a project and to be able to interrogate it in some way that might be more accessible than the drawings we do.

Of course, it would be wonderful to build some of the projects we’ve designed and to have the opportunity to revisit them with all the constraints and compromises that would entail.

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