London-based architect and writer Jack Self is Founder and Director of the REAL foundation, an organisation concerned with alternative forms of development, property and ownership. Self is also Editor-in-Chief of the Real Review, the foundation’s quarterly publication. Notably becoming the youngest person to take on the prestigious role, this year, the recent Architectural Association graduate curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, following the likes of Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. As well as being a Contributing Editor for the Architectural Review, his writing has appeared in publications like The Guardian, 032c, New Philosopher and BBC News. His first book, Real Estates: Life Without Debt, now in its second run, brings together a thoughtful collection of essays from diverse contributors including Pier Vittorio Aureli, Roberta Marcaccio and Brett Steele. With the imminent release of the Real Review’s second issue, Something Curated met up with Self at his east London studio to learn more about the REAL foundation, his thoughts on architecture’s relationship with capitalism, and his plans for the future.
Something Curated: What was your journey into this field?
Jack Self: Every architect creates their own myth about how they would play with Lego or how they would draw sketches as a child and that from a very early age they knew that they wanted to be an architect. It’s quite disingenuous to present yourself that way. In my case, I stumbled into architecture. It was presented to me by a family friend as being the most holistic profession. If you want to study law, then you have to be a lawyer. If you want to study medicine, you have to be a doctor, but if you go and study architecture almost everything in the world appears to be relevant. You can go and study 15th century Italian fortifications or you can go and study how flowers unfold and see how that might be relevant to new structural forms. There’s a huge variation within it. Not knowing what I wanted to do as a teenager, I thought this would be a good way forward.
Of course, architecture, when I started studying it in the mid-2000s, was very different from the world we live in today. It was a time when there was a huge amount of development going on and very little critical reflection on what this was doing to the world or to society. It wasn’t until I became very involved first in the student protest of 2010-2011 and then the Occupy movement that I began to think that architecture might have a more central role in the way in which society is structured than I had thought previously. I went away and did a masters in philosophy majoring in neoliberal economic theory. Actually, it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. What I learned from this was, architecture, and space generally, are hugely influential in the way that we relate to each other and the world, much more so than I thought. For example, we discussed the circular table. I do believe my parents divorced because we had a circular dining room table. The head of the table is both literally and metaphorically the head of the table. When you sit at a circular table, it destroys those hierarchies.
You could equally point at something like the history of the bed. In the 1950’s, it was very common for couples to share single beds. Now, that would be considered very unusual. In a way, the politics of what you might call the matrimonial double bed becomes integral to how we think we should relate to other people. As soon as you begin to open that up, and particularly for me in the home, as soon as you begin to explore the home as a site of experimental relationships, it opens up the world of architecture in a completely different way. Suddenly you realise all sorts of things which are about power relations and their spatial outputs. We’ve just published an article in The Real Review about the algorithm of Uber and how that changes the city and how that changes the people working for it. For me, that is a form of architecture. I don’t know if that explains how I got into the field.
SC: Could you talk about the REAL foundation, the ethos and narrative behind the organisation, and how it came into being?
JS: The REAL foundation came out of a huge frustration that architects are extremely good at thinking of many things as design problems. They think of technology, of environmental conditions, of historical and social conditions, preservation, urban contexts, demographics, geography, geology, structure, but they do not on the whole consider the company and the architectural firm itself as a form of design problem. The architectural firm since the 1950’s has been at the avant-garde of corporate structures. For example, the unpaid internship was originally an architectural concept, which came from the history of apprenticeships, but very quickly it was adopted by other corporations and used in different ways. It seems strange to me that the architectural firm as a structure had not been reconsidered in recent times.
We were supposed to just assume this structure. As an architect, you are effectively part of a service profession. You have to wait for someone to come to you. There is no possibility for self-initiated direction. For me, who feels that certain types of social and political arguments are very important to promote actively this was not an acceptable model. Instead, what we have done is created an architectural institute or a cultural foundation which also will start to do architecture. What that means is that whether you are doing a magazine or a book or an exhibition or a building, they are all forms of a cultural and social experiment.
SC: Tell us about the concept behind the Real Review, and how you envisioned it as being different from other architecture publications.
JS: The Real Review originally came out of the fact that I used to be the reviews editor for The Architectural Review magazine, and that post was then closed. There is now no English language review of books about architecture, but it comes at a time when there is not only a popular interest in architecture but more architectural books are being published than ever before. Very quickly, Real Review changed its tact slightly to become really a review of what it means to live today. In fact, we use the format of the review, which is not used by almost any other magazine; what makes the review so different is it looks back in order to look forward. It’s not about creating opinions which sit in isolation on the web server somewhere. It’s about using the material reality that we find ourselves in to make a proposition for the future. In that sense, the Real Review is unlike any other architecture magazine as well because it is aimed at a general audience. It is the UK’s only general audience architectural magazine.
SC: Congratulations on co-curating the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale this year. Could you tell us about how the opportunity came about and how you approached the project?
JS: Britain is almost unique within the Biennale structure as being one of the few countries to hold an open competition to find a curator of the Pavilion. Most countries will appoint a curator, which means it’s a question of nepotism, being involved in the right networks, and so on. In Britain, we have a very strong sense of fairness, I think. It began as a completely open competition, and then we were shortlisted to a group of four. My anticipation was, because the previous architects who had done it were people like Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, they’re huge practices, very famous people, that we were perhaps included as the kind of young group at the end that might be interesting to have involved as part of the diversity of the process but actually had no chance of winning. To win it was an extremely unusual thing. I’m the youngest curator of the Pavilion, ever.
Within that, we were asked to respond to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s brief, which was, “The frontline of architecture”. As a military metaphor, I find this very confusing, but in a way, if we think about what the frontline of British architecture might be, it’s unquestionably the housing crisis. What we did, instead of looking at the housing crisis as purely a numbers game and saying, “Well, we need to build more houses,” we turned it completely on its head and said, “What happens if we start to think about space through the lens of time?” It’s the first exhibition ever to be curated through time spent in the home, so there are five new models for life and five time periods associated with them: hours, days, months, years and decades.
The power of this is to say if you look at a city as a static moment in time the occupancy and overcrowding become very problematic. If you look at it as a breathing organism, in which people are coming into it and leaving on a daily basis, you begin to look at the dimension of time. It gives a completely different reading. For example, if it were very easy for us to live in the city, if it were as easy for us to live permanently in the city as it were to hire an Airbnb or a hotel and it were as cheap, we might find that we prefer to spend six days a week in the country side and one day a week in the city. These questions about having empty homes in Scotland and not enough homes in London suddenly change very rapidly.
SC: Can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
JS: The REAL foundation has a wide range of projects that we consider all to be pursuing the same questions at different scales. They range from actual architectural projects – we have a scheme to design new forms of ownership and new ways of financing housing in the UK, through to more traditional architectural projects like single apartments. The majority of our work is in the cultural sphere, which includes exhibitions in London and in Europe and new publications. We are just about to publish another book we produced and of course the magazine as well as lectures and events.
SC: How would you describe your professional role?
JS: My bio on my website is Jack Self is an architect and a writer. Personally, aside from the work I do with the REAL foundation, I write quite extensively. Writing to me is very important for two reasons. One is that we think we know what we think but often we don’t know what we think until we say it out loud. It’s not until you get into an argument or a discussion that you actually realise sometimes that you hold beliefs you didn’t know you had. Writing is very useful, for me personally, to help me understand what it is I believe. It’s also very important for promoting alternative ways of thinking about conditions and situations and therefore pursuing a certain type of ideological and cultural argument.
SC: Could you talk about the process of editing Real Estates: Life Without Debt – what motivated the project and how did you go about selecting contributors?
JS: I wrote for it, I was the editor and it’s effectively my book. It was co-edited with a colleague. Real Estates is a book which centres around an architectural project which asks a very simple question: “Is it possible to build social housing at London Bridge? At the very epicenter of the city? What are the conditions that would make that possible?” As I went on to explore home economics and the British Pavilion this year, this was the first project, begun in 2012, which looked at the role of time in the way in which we design. What it used was a very long term financing mechanism in order to reduce the cost of rent and it was a project for a high rise skyscraper in the City of London. It was gold plated because the value of gold rises over time. Although the initial cost is quite high, it also allows you to pursue social projects and programmes and fund them through the rising value of the gold itself.
That was also a very important project in understanding the value of materials in architecture. The valuation of the property fluctuates with the commodities market. For the great Modernists, the expression was, “Form follows function.” In this case, the building was called the Ingot, and it’s form following finance. The exact dimensions of the building are a perfect extrusion of the financial forces underpinning the structure. The book itself was then a series of essays that were commissioned either to sell out the core themes that surround this project or to respond to the project itself. I used it as an opportunity. I think often when we are reading things by people that we admire very much, we feel a strong sense of separation from them.
2011-2012, when I started doing the book, I had been on Twitter for a couple of years. I had recently been involved with the Occupy movement. I had seen the power of social media to create a flat hierarchy between people that I couldn’t imagine previously communicating with. I took this as a strong sign that all it takes is to reach out to these people. Most people’s email addresses are available online these days. I was very selective about choosing a group of people I admired enormously, and I simply got in touch with them, which I think is a general life lesson that if you feel inspired by someone’s work you can reach out to them.
SC: Do you feel that the relationship between architecture and capitalism is a constructive one?
JS: Well, capital is amoral. It doesn’t have any real desires. If it’s profitable to make solar panels, it will make solar panels. If it’s profitable to run coal-powered stations, it will make coal stations. It will do whatever creates the most profit. Within that, architecture is an agent of capitalism, so it can be used for both good and evil. We have a long history of both, ranging from Trump Tower to the amazing history of British social housing projects. A question that I do sometimes get asked is, “Are you a political architect?” For me, architecture has no political qualities in and of itself. It is that I am a politically engaged citizen who is also an architect. I think in that sense we all use our own careers and our own fields and disciplines to pursue the ideas that are important to us. That’s what I would say.
I think we’re at a moment now which is very precarious and dangerous for the relationship between capitalism and global society. The next four or five years are likely to be some of the most unstable we’ve seen since the end of WWII. Within that context, I think what’s important about architecture is no matter how bad a situation an architect is given, no matter how unkind a client or how small a budget, we always have to make a proposition for how we can make the world a better place and how we can live better within that. I think that’s a very powerful message for me in terms of what the world of capitalism and architecture might be, which is no matter how bad things get, we must always be thinking of how we can improve it, how we can make a proposition or proposal.
SC: Could you tell us about a project that you are most proud of?
JS: The Ingot, which I already spoke about.
SC: What do you think are the problems architecture needs to solve in London currently?
JS: I think the idea of solving a problem is already a very tricky way to imagine it. We can’t ever solve problems in society. You can’t solve poverty, for example. As long as we have capitalist relations of property and the capitalist concept of real estate, it is impossible to solve the housing crisis. It’s intrinsic. In fact, capitalism requires a shortfall of housing in order to function because if there were huge amounts of low cost, easily available, high quality housing, people would suddenly find that their motivation to be in shitty jobs would be a lot less. They would devote themselves much more to ideas of leisure and alternative forms of artistic practice or creative work. Capitalism in order to create more value can only do two things: it can either build more supply or it can create more demand. If it can create more demand by also reducing supply, then of course you get higher levels of profit. The problems that we face are unsolvable.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. I think a good example of why that’s possible is capitalism says we are going to have profit forever infinitely, which of course is an absurdity. The planet is a limited surface. Even the universe conceptually is a bounded entity, and yet this kind of utopian impossibility of infinite profit allows us still to structure our societies. If we think of alternative models that existed in the past, they may not serve as such great examples. The idea, for example, of communism in which people will not own any property and there will be no concepts of real estate or profit. Of course, they seem impossible and utopian because they are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be a utopian dream towards which you are trying to move.
SC: What in your opinion is one of the best completed architectural projects of the last decade and why?
JS: One of the projects is called CCTV Tower by Dutch firm OMA, which is run by Rem Koolhaas. It was the Chinese state television tower. It’s interesting for a number of reasons. OMA were invited to rebuild or make a proposal for the World Trade Center after 9/11. They realised that they were misplacing their energies, and they would put it instead into, rather than rebuilding the past, looking to the future. In China, at that time, there were a number of television stations, some of which were very progressive, almost like the BBC of China, which looked to transparency, that were very young, and others that were extremely old, to do with communist propaganda. Because they were separated, there was no opportunity for progress.
What CCTV did was create a huge loop in which all the people within the building were forced to cycle through all the different spaces in order to move from one studio to another or from office to office. As a result you got a huge mixing between the old communist guard and, lets say, the new pro-democracy, pro-transparency television channels. That, I think, is a really good example of how architecture can intervene in highly problematic, highly politically loaded scenarios and make a positive proposition through something as simple as circulation within a building as how we might change society. That’s, I think, a very important example. It’s in Beijing.
SC: Are there any particular topics you want to address in your work in the future?
JS: The Real Review is not a thematic magazine; however, there are certain conditions which become unavoidable. One that is very important to us, at the moment, on the editorial team, is the idea of global civil war. It was an idea first hesitantly explored by an Italian philosopher called Giorgio Agamben, but it really takes on new relevance in the current context. What it suggests is that if WWII was about the conflict between nation states, that eventually one of them ran out of weapons and that’s how the war ended. Today in a globalised system, you don’t have any moment at which there is enough conflict for people to run out of resources. What you get, on the one hand, is a kind of cold war in which whether it’s the South China Sea, whether it’s Crimea or whether it’s Syria, these global superpowers, their forces are never dissipated. It’s like water sloshing around in a bathtub.
On the other hand, what you have is, almost within every other country in the world right now, some form of civil war, which ranges from actual insurgency like Boko Haram in Nigeria through to actual civil wars like in Syria, failed states like Libya and then lessening degrees of that. You could describe the outcome of the American election as a form of civil war, in which there are two very clearly determined and fundamentally and ideologically opposed groups. Even British Brexit and the subsequent decline or difficulties that we’ve had in constitutional in parliamentary democracy in this country are also a form of profound division between very different groups. This, in a way, is like a global condition of perpetual civil conflict. It’s not yet clear how we are going to restore unity and progressive values which are not based on xenophobia, nationalism or racism, but which are based on inclusivity, democracy and equity. They are the ideas which REAL Foundation is pursuing the most.
SC: Are there any writers, thinkers or architects that have been influential in your career?
JS: There are three writers who have been most influential to me, and the list of architects is huge. There’s tons. The writers may be more interesting to comment. The first is J.G. Ballard, an English novelist. He created an entirely new genre of science fiction, which was really about the extreme present. He took conditions that occurred now and pushed them to their most logical, and therefore illogical, extreme in order to explore what the consequences of reality were. That was very powerful. Then there’s the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who wrote Simulacra and Simulation, which in a way is the basis for The Matrix movies. Basically, he looked at what you might call the philosophy of the image and moments at which reality gets subsumed by its own image. He was writing about the impact of what credit cards did to your perception of reality, in which he said the ability to go out and own an object instantly and then pay for it later means that you have no connection between the debt that you’re paying and the object you own. He was speculating on concepts like Instagram in the 1960’s long before we had personal computers or any idea of the proliferation of the image.
The third author who I think is very powerful for me is Henri Lefebvre, another French philosopher, who wrote another amazing book called Critique of Everyday Life. He says it’s great to talk about complex ideas like capitalism and these ideologies, but actually they exist at very precise and material examples. He says if you look at a Parisian housewife who is at home during the day, she leaves her apartment on the fourth floor and she heads down to the corner where she buys some vegetables with some money – in that moment, as soon as you start to ask questions about her: Why is the woman at home during the day? Where is the rest of the family? Why does she live on the fourth floor? What sort of building is this? What is the concept of a store and why is she exchanging money, a currency, in exchange for a commodity? All of the ideas of social power and political relationships as well as all of the ideas about capitalism can be embedded in that one example. I find the way in which we look at sometimes trivial and overlooked simple examples, in which very powerful ideologies are in operation, is a huge inspiration to me.
SC: Your primary role has shifted from designer to critic, writer and curator – was this movement organic or something you had planned?
JS: Not at all. In fact, the only reason that I don’t design more built work is because I do not yet have capital or access to capital in order to achieve those visions, but I design a lot. Recently, I’ve moved from doing hypothetical designs, mostly for high-rise structures, into really fine grain furniture. I collaborate a lot with other people. I collaborated with a British and Scandinavian firm called Hesselbrand to design a range of furniture, one of which was a day bed. I had conducted real research into what the role of the bed in the home today was, and basically in 2014, the bed overtook the sofa as the most used piece of furniture in the home. For the first time ever, it’s now a place where we’re eating, where we’re doing our emails, where we’re watching live or catch up television, where we are socialising through our social media. It’s a place of production and reproduction. Especially in environments where there is a huge amount of pressure on the home itself where you have a high density of people living together, and the bedroom becomes, in effect, a micro apartment, the bed becomes the most important piece of furniture there. What Hesselbrand and I worked on together was if the bed and the sofa are now the same thing, is there a typology or a form of furniture that can be reimagined.
We looked at the idea of the daybed. A daybed, which as a single unit is a place of work or rest, but when you bring them together they begin to form other configurations which also create unexpected relationships between people. Being a designer, to me, is very important. In a way, in order to progress some of my grander ideas about new forms of housing, as is inevitable as a young architect, I have to scale it right back to what’s actually possible and start at the level of furniture. Now, we are beginning to do interiors and exhibitions, and then we will begin to do housing and it will grow from there. For me, the role of writing and designing are really important to relate to each other because writing and being involved in cultural activities helps you to understand what you can do, what you should do, and what you believe. Designing, then, is about making those ideas into reality. How you translate those abstract ideas to things which are real and exist in the world.
SC: Is there a piece of advice you could offer to those currently in education?
JS: There has been a trend in recent years with the rise of social media to think of oneself as a one-person corporation and therefore to discuss things like personal brand. Your Instagram account, as well as the way in which you design, there is so much pressure for a designer to rapidly develop a distinctive aesthetic and a distinctive approach, which is unique amongst their peers, but it takes many years to develop that. It’s something which is still on-going for me and will be for my entire life. Don’t feel too much pressure to find the answer immediately. The only way in order to discover the answer to the questions that you’re interested in is through time.
SC: What does London, particularly Cambridge Heath, offer you as the site of your organisation?
JS: It’s at the centre of London’s gentrification. It’s at the centre of a shifting focus between the West End, which has traditionally been highly commercial, to a new East End, which as a result of the Olympics is really a canary in the coalmine for how new forms of infrastructure, new property relations, and new types of space in the city are being explored. You have this huge social tension between the gentrifying class, of which I am myself a part, who like flat whites, who ride fixed-gear bikes, who are driving up the cost of rent in the area, and an existing population who remember the city before it was so much driven by capital. The real reason that it interests me is because in a post-industrial economy, most things are what you might call immaterial. We don’t go to factories and make cars. We sit at desks and code websites. In that sense, East London is really the centre for a vision for what that type of post industrial economy might look like.
SC: Which area of London do you live and what drew you there?
JS: I live in Hampstead. There’s very little to do there. I moved there after spending six years in Dalston. I left Dalston out of a kind of middle class guilt at having been involved in the gentrification of the area that I was in. I wanted to go to an area that was pre-gentrified and wouldn’t undergo profound social change. Hampstead is the ideal location for that. One other thing to add, I moved to Hampstead because the rent was cheaper near the Heath than it was in Dalston Junction.
SC: Favourite place to relax in London?
JS: I love Hampstead Heath. I like to walk on Hampstead Heath as much as I can, at least once or twice a week. When I worked from home, it was every day. The Heath is such an unusual escape from urban conditions. Because the Heath, in its more than 1,000 year history, has never been built on, it really is one of the only places in London where you can be surrounded by a form of nature, and you appreciate every single season. I used to hate winter in London, which I found crushingly grey, but when you’re surrounded by 100 year old oak trees it’s really a quite relaxing experience.
SC: Favourite place to shop in London?
JS: I don’t really shop. My luxuries to myself are never really objects. With the exception of books, I really try to have as few objects as possible. The Architectural Association Bookshop, which is in Bedford Square, is one of the most relaxing and pleasant book stores. It has such an incredible range of art and architecture books. It’s like a kind of hidden gem that everyone in the architecture world knows about, but not so many people outside know. Of course, the Architectural Association itself is a school of architecture based around a bar, which has quite subsidised drinks right next to Tottenham Court Road, so it’s quite an incredible place to go and buy a book and then sit at the bar and have a gin and tonic.
SC: Favourite restaurant in London?
JS: My favourite restaurant is called Fischer’s in Marylebone. It’s part of a group run by Corbin & King. It’s an amazing restaurant for a couple of reasons. The food is very good and it’s not insanely expensive, like many of the other restaurants in that same group. It’s also really interesting because it’s what you might call a new form of Postmodernism. It’s extremely refined imitation to the point where the owners will find historic chairs in Europe that come from the period in Austrian history they are looking for and then they will have them replicated in a British factory. They are true fakes, so they are real Austrian chairs but replicated. In a way the whole restaurant in itself becomes quite interesting because they’re real Austrian waiters, but it’s a completely fake Austrian restaurant. I like very much this kind of play on what is authentic, what is real and what is not. I find that in some way very representative of the time we live in.
SC: Preferred work attire?
JS: I always wear the same thing, which is a Lacoste long-sleeve polo in about eight or nine different colours and Reebok trainers. In 2011, when I was involved in a lot of social protests, I decided at that point to develop a ten-year plan. A ten-year plan is a very archaic idea, but also it is a form of resistance. It is so hard to know where we will be in four or six months, whether we will be with the same person, live in the same apartment, have the same job. There’s no stability. Against this, the idea of a long term plan and stability seem to me a very interesting form of resistance.
There’s this constant pressure to change your clothes to stay up to date to have the latest hair cut or the latest piece of jewellery. I decided that, almost exactly how I dressed at that time, I would remain the same for as long as I could. I used to have very long hair and a beard and a moustache. I shaved my head to a uniform number one. I wore a very nondescript and generic polo and very nondescript, generic trainers and I shaved my face, so there would never be any more question of personal taste or personal aesthetic. It becomes as much as possible a refusal of an entry into a system which causes you to constantly change.
SC: Favourite holiday destination or where would you live if not London?
JS: If I didn’t live in London, I would live almost anywhere in Europe. I’ve lived in Paris, which I enjoy a lot, and recently I’ve discovered Amsterdam. I found Amsterdam a very interesting experience because in a lot of ways the Dutch are a lot like the Anglo Saxons, but with some slightly weird twists which I find intriguing.
Interview by Keshav Anand | Photography by Steph Wilson