” I felt inspired by that sense of ever learning and ever needing to be provoked by an insistence that architecture should be led by the evolution or the development of a strong concept – that’s a really important lesson. ”
Jonathan Sergison on the Architecture Concept Book
JT – James Tait (Author of the Architecture Concept Book)
JS Thank you for agreeing to talk about your book. I remember meeting you many years ago now when you were the recipient of the RIBA Silver Medal in 2008, you were keeping very good company at that point because the winner that year of the Gold Medal was Alvaro Siza who I imagine is an architect that we both hold in very high regard. I felt there was a certain crossing over of interest between you and Siza to do with re-use, but also a great sensitivity for landscape. If I think about Alvaro Siza’s work, more than anything else I think about a very delicate and careful situating of projects in landscapes. Is that something you would like to comment on?
JT One of the things that has always struck me about Siza’s work is that while he is very sensitive to the landscape, he never tries to emulate it or imitate it – each are autonomous. If you look at the Boa Nova Teahouse or the Leça de Palmeira Swimming Pools, they are inserted seamlessly into the landscape but are still very much human made ‘insertions’. His approach has really inspired me and is something I would like to think my thesis project shared in terms of an ethos with Alvaro Siza’s work.
JS Anyway, we shouldn’t be talking about Siza, we should be talking about the Architecture Concept Book. I feel that the audience would be in the first instance, students of architecture. Is that what was behind it when you started putting it together?
JT The book actually started out as a series of private sketches that I never really intended to be published. I was out of work when I started them in the middle of the recession at the end of 2010 and it was really just a way to keep my mind active and thinking about architecture. I moved down to London from Glasgow to work at John McAslan and Partners and later DSDHA, but I had started something and I wanted to keep it going. Every night I would write and sketch after work. By the time I moved back to Glasgow, I had about three years’ worth of sketch books, thoughts and drawings. I went for an interview at the Mackintosh School of Architecture to be a studio tutor, and showed the Head of Year my collection of sketches and thoughts – he suggested I should try and get them published. So I did! I suppose the book never really started out with an intended readership it was really a collection of thoughts.
JS You are describing a situation that is familiar to me emerging from Architecture school in a time when there wasn’t very much work. What a gift it really is if you are strategic with the way you take that as an opportunity. I can see something very constructive has come out of the circumstances and I think that is worth recording because it has proven to be a gift. So, how did the book develop then to its current form?
JT Thames & Hudson were fantastic in developing it into a more focused book. They saw it as an alternative primer to architecture, for students looking to learn about the fundamentals of architecture, but from a different viewpoint. Its primary readership would be students. As students we were always encouraged to have ideas but we weren’t quite taught about the reality of taking these ideas further. I see a lot of students with great ideas and very energetic early stages of a project… once they start having to put these ideas into more concrete proposals, the energy often dissipates. The book is trying to guide students on how to hold on to that original concept, that initial energy, throughout the design process. I think it is useful for architects as well because the majority of architects working in practices maybe get lost along the way in terms of design. I know many people who work for big practices who spend more time writing emails, schedules and specifications or churning out drawings than actually designing. The book is trying to remind those architects why they love architecture. That the reason they do what they do on a daily basis is to realise an original concept and carry it through to reality.
JS From my own reflection on the book I am reminded of, for example Herman Hertzbergers’ ‘Lessons for Students in Architecture’ and also ‘Constructing Architecture: Materials, Processes, Structures; a Handbook’ by Andrea Deplazes. These are books that we can look at throughout our careers. I think it’s very true what you say. I read the book and I felt inspired by that sense of ever learning and ever needing to be provoked by an insistence that architecture is led by the evolution or the development of a strong concept – that’s a really important lesson. I also found myself being reminded of Rem Koolhaas’s Venice Bienalle from 2014, Fundamentals. I enjoyed the section of the book where you addressed elements of building, parts of buildings – doors, facades, stairs, services. How did that come about?
JT Architects have elements that they can play with and assemble. I think by separating these elements we can study their qualities in more detail and get to the essence of what each of them do. It is easy for an architect to assemble all of these elements together without interrogating them on their own. That section of the book , ‘Assemble’, was an attempt to rephrase some of the elements through my own lens but also to explain to students the capacity and potential of these elements to be used as architectural devices rather than being purely functional. For instance, a staircase can, in the wrong hands, be just situated in the plan as a way to get from one floor to the other. Its’ potential as a device that can bring light into a deep plan or to help you experience movement through the building is often left unrealised.
JS It is interesting that you also focus on two elements that aren’t necessarily seen as ‘architectural’, Structure and Services…
JT I think Services and Structure, are probably the most critical elements for architects working today. I don’t think we have learned enough lessons from when Louis Kahn spoke about ‘servant and served’ spaces. With the more onerous environmental targets that we now have to achieve, we are almost hermetically sealing our buildings in a lot of ways and that’s meaning we have to increase the amount of services – ducts, vents, cables, air handling units etc. As Kahn said, we need to understand them better in order to control them. In terms of Structure, there is not enough use of the structure of the building as a formal device, as part of the architecture. With the majority of day to day, budget squeezed projects it is easier and cheaper to cover up the structure. The architect then becomes involved in a game of simply covering up elements of the building that we used to use as formal elements – to combine the structure and architecture as one cohesive whole. I don’t think they should be separate entities.
JS It’s an interesting point there you make about structure and servicing especially if you think about it in terms of the percentage of the total cost of a building. It’s such an enormous component – to neglect it is resigning yourself to just making the last sort of surface of spaces or facade. One of the other things which really struck me in the book was an insistence on defining things. The definition of words. The need to define the words. I found it really refreshing. There’s a sense in the book, that if you use a word you need to lay out the basis upon which you are using it…
JT I have always been interested in language, like architecture, language tells us so much about ourselves as a society. It has so many multiple meanings derived from so many different sources. In architecture, words often get used in the wrong way either through societal shifts in how we use them or sometimes just laziness. For instance, the use of the word ‘concept’ in architecture is a good example. It is very misused. In architecture we tend to think of the ‘conceptual architect’ as someone disassociated from the realities of realising the concept in built form. Sometimes we think of the ‘concept’ stage of the design as if it’s disassociated from the rest of it. The word ‘concept’ derives from the Latin ‘conceptum’ meaning ‘something conceived’, that something conceived shouldn’t just stop at the idea. The concept is the reason for its existence, the built architecture becomes the tangible manifestation of the original idea. I think it is important to know the reference points of what we are communicating. That understanding then leads you to be able to, use that understanding as a platform to then actually interrogate these aspects. So I am glad you picked up on that because it is a critical part of it.
JS It is a very interesting point you are making. Students start to acquire a terminology that they learn in school that is so rarely questioned. Students then quickly find themselves, using the same cliches or the same borrowed phrases… the point you are making in the book I really like. Finally, the book is structured using four themes – Assessing, Analysing, Assembling and Augmenting (all beginning with A!), did that feel very comfortable in terms of the structuring of the book?
JT The four sections, to me, mirror how I approach design generally. I think before we create, we have to assess the world that we are operating in. That’s why the first section, assess, focusses on slightly abstract concepts such as wonder and memory – then relates them to the built environment. I think the next step in the process is really about taking these concepts and then analysing how you deal with them as an architect. Then, based on these analyses and assessments – that’s where you start to assemble building components – by thinking about how you enter, how it is composed structurally and so on. The augment section really came from my own experience in practice and in particular practice design reviews. I was always struck by how someone through these reviews could take a design which everyone was fairly happy with and then find a way to augment it. Maybe the form or the colour of a particular building element, or its scale – maybe something had to be bigger and bolder or a bit more elegant. After a building was designed, there always seemed to be a process of augmentation – of accentuating the qualities that had already been formed. So, yes, there is a rigidity to how I have structured it but I think there is a clear thought process in terms of communicating how I approach design, and how I feel design should be approached.
JS Wonderful. The very last thing I wanted to comment on was that I was so happy there were so many sketches! The capacity to generate things so quickly and directly with pen on paper is something that I think many people need reminding of. The computer can be such an unquestioned means of production that I think to encourage students in the first instance to draw by hand, is a lesson that can’t be stressed enough…
JT I completely agree. Sketching is the way your brain expresses your solution to a problem by directing a message to your hand… when you’ve got another medium interrupting that, like a computer, you’re limited by what the computer can say back to you. So, yes I think for me I sketch in every project right up until construction. It is an eternal means of communication, it’s how architects have dealt with design problems and created things since the dawn of time and I don’t think any medium or any technology should get in the way of that.
JS Yes, absolutely. Well thank you for talking through the intentions and the ideas behind this wonderful book. I look forward to seeing the next one!
Jonathan Sergison is a founding partner of the Swiss / UK studio of Sergison Bates Architects. He graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1989 and gained professional experience working for David Chipperfield and Tony Fretton. Jonathan has taught at a number of schools of architecture, including the Architectural Association in London, the ETH in Zurich, the EPFL in Lausanne, the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Design and Construction at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, Switzerland. He regularly writes and lectures, attends reviews in schools of architecture and competition juries.