Week 2 | Upstairs, Downstairs: 18.01.10

January 18, 2010

“We don’t want Jamie Oliver picketing the studio!”

What are we doing here?

Our MO is flexible living and working practices. The office 9-to-5 is increasingly out-of-date. Workplaces are moving closer to home, working practices are growing increasingly disparate.

At aberrant we research and design buildings, interiors and furnishings with this shift in mind.

Love stories of recession

Take a snapshot of our current projects: we run a studio at London Met studying flexible living and working practices; Gordon Wu CityLocal enfranchises the urban home worker in Shenzhen, China, and our forthcoming publication, Love Stories of Recession, is the fictional account of five generations of itinerant workers.

Since historic working practices are enjoying a revival, what can we learn from the past? 

That is what we are here to find out. Looking back through the last three hundred years, we intend to mine the V&A and RIBA collections to discover and uncover the most successful historical working precedents. From studying plans for the proto-industrial weaver’s house and an 18th-century writing cabinet, right through to a late 19th-century painting depicting factory life, we aim to explore the ‘life’ that surrounded each precedent as well as study the period, location and social setting.

By the end of our residency, we will apply our research results to a contemporary design that questions future working practices.

Where to begin?

This week RIBA introduced us to the design model for Easton Neston country house , which was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and dates back to the 17th century. The model house has a grand staircase leading down to a large public area at the bottom. The steps are deliberately long and shallow to engineer a slow, short-stepped walk out of those who use it. That way the grand staircase is ensured to deliver a grand entrance. Except the walk down the grand staircase was slow. Very slow. So slow the entire household chose to use the servants’ steps instead! 

Easton Neston country house

And this problem has not been confined to history. Have you ever skipped down a flight of long and shallow steps in a public space, squeezed an extra step or two into your natural gait and almost broke out into a run? Did you doubt your ability to walk normally when you eventually reached the bottom? Get in touch. Let us know your examples. 

What’s that smell?

Our trawl through the RIBA collection began online at architecture.com. But on Tuesday as we sat at our desks in the studio busy hunting for clues about 17th century working life, a pungent smell interrupted our research. We wondered if the RIBA collection had a ‘scratch and sniff’ element to it, or maybe it was London? Perhaps it was one of us? Suddenly a new hunt was afoot. 

Exploratory sniffing ensued, quickly followed by suspicious glances around the studio and reckless finger pointing, but no one at aberrant would take credit for the aroma and there were no visitors to pin it on. 

We applied logic to the situation: ‘whoever smelt it, dealt it’, but that also failed to uncover the perpetrator and set off a retaliatory round of ‘who ever said the rhyme, did the crime’. 

Sherlock Holmes would have recognised the V&A’s aging sewerage system breaking down. The familiar smell of rotting eggs transported us back to what it must have smelt like to work in 17th, 18th and 19th century London (and sometimes 20th and 21st), and it took a while for our productivity – and our noses – to bounce back. 

Nosing around in Victoria’s & Albert’s back room 

On Wednesday, with noses completely recovered, we had our induction at the National Art Library. The catalogue includes 750,000 records, providing access to a collection comprising more than a million items.

National art libary

The library is closed to the public on Mondays (an excellent time to go if you can finagle a V&A staff member to sneak you in), but it is definitely worth a butcher’s on any other day of the week. Visitors have to place a cushion on the table just to view the books, so they must be good!

On Thursday, we got ourselves lost. It was bound to happen. This place is cavernous and we have a skeleton key that opens every room in the building, more or less. 

Too much freedom must be a dangerous thing. Why else would we ignore the signs and the maps and try our own shortcut from the architecture galleries to the theatre and performance galleries? 

Our shortcut didn’t work – as a shortcut, but we did stumble across a part of the new medieval and renaissance galleries, which resembles the great court in the British Museum. The space is impressive and we particularly liked the oak staircase from a townhouse dating back to 1530, but that’s quite enough stair-related excitement for one week.

Four Meetings and an Interview

It’s snowing again so half of the museum’s staff decided to ‘work’ from home.

During our meeting with the V&A’s Schools Programme Manager – who should have been entitled to a snow day as much as anyone – we discussed the workshop we are going to be running with a local secondary school. 

The school’s sole stipulation is that the workshop addresses the school canteen in some way. Erm…

We talked about a few ideas, ranging from the educational to the surreal to redesigning chicken nuggets in the shapes of architectural structures so kids can learn how to distinguish a dormer from a mansard roof whilst eating their way to obesity. But the latter was swiftly shelved. We don’t want Jamie Oliver picketing the studio. 

Ultimately, we decided we’d take the kids to the theatre and performance galleries to view the amazing collection of stage sets and costumes that live in there. The aberrant team tried on a few of the costumes in advance of our visit, with various degrees of hilarity – think gorillas in misty grey tutus with a fresh rip in the seat! But we’re hoping our school kids have been taught to stay away from those bleedin’ chicken nuggets.

Stage set 1 stage set 2  

The workshop brief says the school is putting on a stage show and the only space available is the school canteen. The challenge for each student will be to choose their favourite stage set and come up with a new design enabling lunch to be served in the canteen during the day and the show to be staged in the evening. 

The prize for the class Smart Alec whose design solution is to stage a show about school kids set in a school canteen at lunchtime will be…drum roll please…a guided tour of every exhibition at the V&A!

On Thursday, we had a meeting with the printers of our book. The launch date is set for 10 February and the illustrator Rosalind Richards visited the studio on Friday to show us her work in progress. 

We had an interesting conversation with RIBA about archiving work in the digital age. They told us that in the past, time has been a useful barometer in gauging what architecture works are collected for posterity. But with the advent of digital methods, the increasing absence of paper records and the ability to permanently delete works at the touch of a button, institutions like RIBA have to become speculative collectors, accumulating work as soon as it’s completed – similar to wine-buyers and contemporary art collectors – rather than waiting for the benefit of hindsight. 

On that note, RIBA said they might start collecting our work! So let us drink to a vintage year when they uncork our work at a retrospective exhibition in three decades time, and trust that Gordon Wu ages like a good Pinot Noir and not mouth-shredding anti-freeze.

For one of our more peculiar engagements this week, we were interviewed by a research doctor for a ‘before and after’ residency comparison study he is undertaking. As the idea is to record the entire transformative process of the residency, we had ‘before’ photographs taken of our faces and we will have ‘after’ interviews and more photographs taken at the end of June. 

By our reckoning, that gives us six months in the dinosaur gym to make the physical legacy of our residency akin to the ‘after’ photos in the adverts for cosmetic surgery or drastic weight loss, not the prematurely greying, saggy-eyed effect of a residency at No. 10 Downing street or 1600 Pennsylvania avenue. 

Architecture: The Next Generation

For the new term, we invited our students from London Met to come to the V&A. At first, the lavish heated surroundings of the softroom-designed Sackler Centre proved a welcome change to our freezing studio space on Holloway road…that was until we showed our class the plush 100-seater auditorium with intelligent whiteboards, microphones and raised speaker’s podium where they will be presenting their crits from now on. There’s nothing quite like the fear of public humiliation to cast off any residual Christmas sluggishness. 

But there was some good news for them. We have finalised the details for our studio trip to the Outer Hebrides at the beginning of February, including a trip around the factories of Harris Tweed and to the homes and cottages where individual weavers produce the fabric; a practice that has been occurring for hundreds of years. 

We have hired a mini bus to take us around the island, and judging by the photos this bus has been on the island as long as the weavers have. We did say there was only ‘some’ good news.

Spotlight on aberrant

Ruthin 1

Look out North Wales! The ‘Reflecting Wales’ exhibition – staged in Cardiff in October 2009 – is going ‘intra-national’. Opening at Ruthin Craft Centre in February 2010, aberrant will be showing something a little bit different this time. More information to follow.

Architecture trade magazine BD’s highlighted our residency in their guide to the cultural New Year:

“Architecture Residency: aberrant architecture – until June 30
Visit aberrant architecture at their studio residency at the V&A to experience their work in progress and find out about how they work and to see if the museum residents’ special access to the vast collections for study and research inspire new ideas amongst the practice.”

And our first open studio is on Wednesday 20 January, so please drop by the Residency Studios in the Sackler Centre to find out more of what we are doing. You can also drop in our neighbouring resident, the digital designer Christian Kerrigan, who we have been watching through the window spray pieces of wood blue.

In other news, Kev has proven he can still draw by sketching a self-portrait in lead pencil and sticking it to the wall of the studio. Next stop, the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy.

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