Designer & Architect – Alastair Parvin

ALASTAIR_BLUE_SMILE

Alastair works as a designer and architect at the London based design studio 00/:. He’s currently designing and discussing the open source architecture project Wikihouse and “A Right to Build”. The Wikihouse project has also been featured at TED.com.

 

Connection:

We met at the OUI Share Fest in Paris.

Brewing Time:

50min for the very essence.

Taste:

Intense, wholesome and a bit overwhelming.

Number of Questions:

13 – 17

Comments:

It is always a mind-(un)ravelling experience to talk to Alastair, when topics just undress and set fire to more and more association and connection chains. This interview represents only a third of the entire lunch-break conversation. Although we had set up for a 45min gathering, he took his time with no stress, when it turned into a 90min lunch break.

Place:

Sunny lunch break in St. James Square, London.

Feedback:

“Keep going with the awesome project!”

Conclusion:

To be honest, I couldn’t before and still can’t really see myself working in the field of architecture, but the way of how people work together on a project, like studio :/00 and the Hub Westminster is definitely something I would like to see become part of my life more.

 

Alastair_Atmosphere

Alastair, How would you describe your job? You are an architect, right?

I trained all the way through to become an architect except the last part of the final exam, so I can’t legally call myself an architect, even though I’m technically trained as an architect. It just doesn’t matter that much any more. It matters if you want to do a particular kind of work in a particular kind of market.

So, it depends on what you mean by an architect; I think of myself as a designer. Sometimes I think of what I’m actually doing is design economics.

Can you be more specific about that?

Well, if you are a designer, think about the economy behind your products and you will know what a design economist is: Why did chocolate bars get smaller in the last few years? I find that really fascinating. There are shareholders, who want to get their profits, but the problem is, the market for chocolate isn’t getting any bigger, so what do they do? They get designers to invent chocolate bars with new shapes disguising the fact, that you are actually getting less for your money. That is a very depressing form of design economics, though. The more optimistic side of design economics is the economies that shape cities or the design economies that shape houses, so that’s where I came from.

 

What is your motivation?

I get to do my hobby as a job. Also, there is a quote by Cedric Price: “Architecture is peripheral to the most important social aims. I wish it was less peripheral, that’s why I’m an architect.” So it is actually  just about how do you make yourself as useful as possible? I am trying to resist, to call it social architecture – What does social architecture mean? All architecture is social.

I’m always careful with saying it is a social motivation, because I think almost all motivation is social in some sense. I think it is just as the Athenian quote says: We all like to die and think we left the place better than we found it; that we were at some point useful along the way, in a very pragmatic boring way.

 

How did you get into this work?

After I graduated, for a while I was freelance, and I would’ve liked to work with the design studio 00:/. They were working on interesting projects, but they didn’t have enough money to employ me, so I hung out with them and got more and more involved in their projects. At some point they had the money to fund a research project, that I then worked on, titled “The Right to Build”. It is about the economics behind the housing in the UK. That project allowed me to collaborate with 00:/, so over time I got more and more funded by 00:/, which is great.

Do you think it is generally possible for other people to work as architects without having a degree?

Oh yes, they can work as architects without a degree. Architecture is a weird thing, where the title is protected, but the role is not. There is nothing that an architect does, that you can’t just go ahead and do anyway. It is quite liberating, because you can do it in different ways, whereas the particular formulation of the threshold says: This is how we design it. We work for this kind of client in this kind of way.

But there has to be a certain level of knowledge they have, right?

Yes, but if you can do it? The irony is, that even some of the most famous architects are not actual architects. They never qualified. For example,Thomas Heatherwick, who is one of the most famous architects in the world: He’s not qualified. There is also a great quote by Bruce Mau that says: “We should be less interested in the world of design and more interested in the design of the world.”

What kind of skills do you need then?

Discuss what kind of skills. If you read Michael Sandel about Market norms; intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, social economy vs. monetary economy, in a way the market economy seeks things to be metricized, to make them measurable, which in a way is good. It is scientific but equally it seeks them to metricize to trade on them. So, e.g. students in university are not working for money, but they are working for marks, which is also an extrinsic motivation, just like money. This has led to this misconception of “list your skills!”. How do you list your skills? Maybe you can do this: What’s really your skill? – And don’t adopt an existing category, but look what really is it that you can do. We talked about this in Paris, didn’t we? And I said, my skill was the ability to connect small things to big things and big ideas, and see big ideas in small everyday things. So really pragmatic decisions. And that’s the only thing I’m really good at, but that is not in the skill set or the list of skills that you are “allowed” to have. What you list as your skills matters less and less. What matters is, what you do with your skills, now and why.

 

What is your work environment like?

I work at the studio 00:/, who are co-partners with the Hub Westminster, a shared workspace for social entrepreneurs. The Hub Westminster is an interesting space because it involves a high degree of mixing, i.e. unplanned meetings. That is brilliant in some ways, because it suits us. It is very open edge, but it is also limited in some ways, because it is very hard for us to just get a CNC-machine. So my ambition is, that I would love to get a space, which is both, a factory AND an office, but also a kind of cafe, where people can come and hang out. That would be my dream, but Hub Westminster is really good to start with, it just unfortunately doesn’t have a making area.

 

Is there a collaborative or competitive spirit in the design and architecture scene?

Collaboration has such a positive valuation. I’m quite suspicious about the religion of collaboration. I mean, yes and no. It depends on what you mean by collaboration and for what purposes. If you mean sharing their IP (Internet Property), not as much as it should be, because architecture is a massive project. We keep re-inventing the wheel, or you get people doing the opposite, which is coke cans – one size fits all. There is a twist on collaboration: People don’t know how to distinguish between collaboration and group work. Generally speaking group work is a consensus kind of work model. Let’s say, if they redesigned the EU-flag: The current Eu-flag is the classic example of group work: reductive identity, which means every country loses its identity with the group identity. Whereas for collaboration the equivalent would be: Everyone still has their flag, and you would end up with a deck share of all the colors. The irony of that is, that often the most successful platforms for collaboration are the ones that require the participants to speak to each other the least – that is a difficult truth, right? But if you look at open source software, it works so well, because you just share code. They can copy and paste it, and never need to ask that much. You need a way to structure collaboration – which is quite free and allows people to make independent judgements, so the authorship is their own. We just put out a set of rules, which we base our working on. So are we talking about economically collaborating or are we talking about intellectually collaborating? Is it sharing resources or is it actually sharing ideas? Collaboration is a big word. There really is a whole universe in there, which hasn’t been interrogated.

 

What is your work / contract situation with 00:/? Are you a freelancer?

I am not a freelancer. 00:/ is a collaborative design studio. So we are architects, designers, tech people, social geographers, and we collaborate on several projects, Wikihouse is one of them. We don’t actually have a contract, it is basically based on trust. We all just want to work together. It is a place between being a freelancer, and people being employed, trying to come together, to eventually work together as a company. There is no controlling hierarchy, but we are none the less part of a company. We had to really think about how to structure us as an organization, to prevent people from working isolated. When you haven’t got someone else to consult, you are only and solely responsible for not making mistakes, whereas it is much better to work on two projects with two people, than one person doing one project. So, how we work together is trying to drill it down to a simple set of rules and protocols, to collaborate in the best way possible.

 

How are Wikihouse and your job funded ?

In a variety of ways. But fundamentally covering my time, a lot of it is 00:/ investing. This is one of the myths of the open source economy: It is not for free, at least the development aspect isn’t. There are a lot of ways paying for it though. Wikihouse is mostly funded by us investing, because we think it is worth building. A lot of the actual prototypes are funded, because someone came and said, “Hey, this is a great idea! Can you build us a Wikihouse?” It then is built in a museum or at a design biennale as part of an event. We are also trying to crowdfund a little bit. The best way though are commissions coming from individual people. At the moment we are looking to build a Wikihouse for someone who lives in London, which is ideal.

 

Is there a lot of pressure involved in your work?

Yeah, hack loads, but it is self-created pressure to some extend. Generally there is the pressure of accountability; if you made a promise to someone, you don’t want to let that person down. And at the same time it is hard to say ‘no’, because you want to be nice to people. So you are afraid of social pressure and of being seen as someone who lets people down. That is the main pressure: You don’t want to be over-promising and under-delivering.

Are you expected to follow any dress-code at work?

I don’t like making decisions about what to where in the morning I usually just wear these jeans (plain dark greyish-black jeans) and a shirt. I also think it is a good idea to cross-dress, if you are in an environment in which people expect you to be corporate, then dress down and if you are in an environment where people expect you to be a bit of a hippy, wear a suit.

What do you like best about your job?

// LIKE //

It’s my hobby. I like doing it. That might be a facile thing to say, but the irony in that is, that people who do really well in something, often end-up not doing it, because they end up managing a company. In a world where it is not about having ideas, but about making ideas happen you experience that paradox very, very quickly.

// DISLIKE //

So what I have been doing lately is chasing Wikihouse around, because it gets a lot of press. The press industry is this super fast moving machine, where they just send at you. Take management and things like that: These things are all very important, actually disruptive, but the irony is, that then you don’t get to do the thing that you are here to do. I enjoy doing all those things, but at the same time, I get really, really angry and annoyed, if I don’t actually get to do the thing that I am here to do. Yesterday evening for example I thought I’ll have an evening off, so I can actually design a Wikihouse.

So you DO actually still get around to designing Wikihouses?

Yes, sure, but at the same time you think: Oh god, all the emails I am not replying to right now. I really hope people don’t feel let down. It is so hard to deal with people’s expectations. It really fills me with anxiety, because I never had to deal with this before. You want people to know that you are good will, but equally, you physically don’t have that much time in the day. You can’t say yes, to everybody. Honestly that is the reality. I could literally spend the whole day just doing press if I wanted to, but then I’m saying “no,no,no no no…I’m fed up with over-promising.”

Couldn’t someone else be doing this?

Well, yes, sure, if you got resources, if you got a volunteer, but 00:/ is investing in this. We are not making any money yet, so the resources are limited.

 

What do you think should be the future role of architects?

When I was a student, I was always thinking about how architects need to be less interested in stuff, more thinking about systems and strategies. Which is right, ultimately when we are here, we should be interested in people, and the organizational systems. So that is a big future for architects. But at the same time, after having thought through that, having been interested in those systems, having seen through that, let’s get interested again in material well-being, as well, let’s even get interested in the idea of architecture as a paid service. So we are talking about this idea of: Can we still work for clients, i.e. everyone instead of just for a few people? So that is another way, in which I would say, the role of the architect is slightly evolving.

Let’s take something like the Wikihouse; instead of designing every building, you as an acrhitect will design the tools. That seems like a really dumb and practical answer, but that is a fair answer. Because on a straightforward mass level, either you are doing every single person’s building – in which case you can only work for rich people – OR you are making one-size-fits-all coke-cans, which is fine, but everyone gets a coke-can OR you create a set of tools, that others can then use to make it themselves. And you got to remember, that tools are not only things like Wikihouse, but also institutions, forms of organization, subcultures and infrastructures. What are the institutions that we are part of everyday? Places like the Hub Westminster, that are a collaborative open work space, where it is possible to meet someone in a very, very low threshold way, where together you get access to stuff.

If you wanna be really pragmatic about it, to make something that absolutely everybody can use straight away by themselves, would be a huge amount of work, but for half of that or even less, anyone can pick up within half an hour, when somebody is helping them or introducing them to, why wouldn’t we make those platforms more social, why wouldn’t we make such institutions that encourage that? It is the same again with Wikihouse. So, the community factory is about factory, but it is also about community, which I take is very important. 

 

What do you think is the most common misconception about architects?

That they design buildings. Architects design only a tiny proportion of the buildings in the world. Most of the buildings don’t have anything to do with architects.

 

— THANK YOU for your time, thoughts and insights, Alastair! 

ALLASTAIR_DANK

Related LINKS:

www.architecture00.net

www.wikihouse.cc

TED-Blog Post about Wikihouse

The TED-Talk on Wikihouse

More interesting insights and thought on architecture

 

Question Set

1. How would you describe your job?

2. What is your motivation?

3. How did you get into this job?

4. What kind of skills do you need then?

5. What is your work environment like?

6.  Is there a collaborative or competitive spirit in the design and architecture scene?

7. What is your work / contract situation with 00:/?

8. How are Wikihouse and your job funded?

9. Is there a lot of pressure involved in your work?

10. Are you expected to follow any dress code?

11. What do you like/dislike about your job?

12. What do you think should be the future role of architects?

13. What do you think is the most common misconception about architects?



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