Enfants Terribles

Architecture’s menu will miss its helping of FAT

The most alarming thing about the news that the practice FAT is to split in the summer after 23 years was – good grief! – 23 years. That’s a long time to be ‘alternative’. Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland and Sam Jacob started off with stirring manifesto statements such as ‘kill the modernist within’, showed they were exceptionally media-­savvy with a wincingly accurate essay on how to be a famous architect, were very knowing and were wry and amusing about everything. Artists got paid better than architects, so they went in for public art commissions, and were among the first to open new seams of work for the profession. Time passed and they started to do real buildings. Not always just buildings, either. Proper landscaped places, given half a chance. They are, exceptionally good. All three are also considerable teachers and writers. They’ve cracked Yale.

 

I wanted them to rebrand as Griffiths, Holland and Jacob, and get a brass plate by the door. Instead they named their office in a 1950s Clerkenwell block ‘Appletree Cottage’

So good were they, in fact, that from quite early on in their career when they appeared to be settling down mainly as architects, I wished they’d drop that silly name. Fashion, Architecture, Taste. It was a period piece, a postmodern joke. I wanted them to rebrand as Griffiths, Holland and Jacob, and get a brass plate by the door. Instead they pretended for a while they were living some rural idyll and named their office in a 1950s Clerkenwell block ‘Appletree Cottage’. They had an near-incomprehensible but deeply stylish website. It was as if they were purposely avoiding seriousness, denying pro­fessionalism, clinging to the ‘maverick’ tag. A bit like Will Alsop, who they get on well with. 

And to some extent they succeeded. As late as October 2012, when we put their and Grayson Perry’s design for a gingerbread-house Essex holiday home on our cover, we got a bit of flak from some (older, Modernist) readers. How dare we suggest this might be architecture? Never mind that the commission came from Alain de Botton for his ‘Living Architecture’ programme of distinctive buildings. It appeared that FAT (and Perry) still carried the power to shock. 

It is a very modern outfit in one way, moving smoothly between the worlds of art, practice, theory, criticism and academia. And very conventional in another: Charles Holland is an RIBA member. When Sean Griffiths showed me round his Blue House in Hackney, I was struck by how Arts and Crafts-influenced it was, though he typically worried (or pretended to) that the interiors might seem too modernist. My favourite FAT project remains the tiny security guard’s hut in The Hague, conceived as a seaside folly – a part-pyramid with a little house on top that is meant to periodically catch fire. 

Why the fascination with a small trendy London practice with what might be seen as a disproportionately large media profile? Simple. FAT changed the architectural weather. It gleefully pursued a different course, and had fun doing it. It spawned imitators. ­Architecture needs diverse approaches and a questioning attitude to remain healthy and relevant. You may not like its work, but the profession owes it a lot for its 23-year experiment in doing things differently. We’ll hear a lot more of them in their solo careers.