23 January 2006

FAT's postmodernism

I'VE BECOME FASCINATED LATELY with the work of the London office FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste), which recently has been commented upon here, here, and here. While at first glance, the architecture seems (at best) a weak update of earlier, perhaps more genuine attempts at architectural postmodernism, I think there may be something deeper going on here. After spending a short time on FAT's website (which, I'm sure not coincidentally, recalls that of Venturi Scott Brown), my initial disgust slowly is replaced by a more intellectual -- dare I say political? -- curiosity. Sure, it's easy to write these guys off (like I normally would) as typical anything-goes postmodernists, completely devoid of taste, ethics, conscience, or any other such redeeming quality. But this time I hesitate. Why?

It's simple: although on aesthetic grounds much of their work renders me mildly nauseous, FAT is nonetheless exonerated in my eyes by their relentless and engaging polemic. A refusal to accept the status quo -- in their case, the persistent dominance of English modernism as the benchmark for acceptable taste -- imbues FAT's project with something greater than mere "attitude." I identify with and commend the eagerness to reinvent architecture, how it is represented, and what is expected of it.

I also am intrigued (and even at times amused) by FAT's written polemic. Their website is full of mini-manifestos, many of which again bring to mind the legacy of Venturi Scott Brown. "Maybe its time to decriminalise decoration and arrange an amnesty on ornament," FAT asks us in Everything Counts (In Large Amounts), a treatise on the evolution of architecture in the age of electronic communication.

FAT member Sam Jacob, in a piece on his own website Strange Harvest, caught my attention with a subtle yet definite elaboration on the central premise of Venturi + Scott Brown's 1972 masterpiece Learning from Las Vegas. Check it out:

The Pop Vernacular is a both a graveyard for the old and the superseded and the spawning ground of unexpected futures. A cornucopia of architectural salvage. The Pop Vernacular draws on all of time and space. And despite its familiarity, it glows with optimism and freshness. Far from the end of history, it is the well spring of the imminent future.
For those of you who don't remember your postmodernism, VSB begin their manifesto with the assertion that "Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect." Yet I would argue that they never really followed through with proving Pop's revolutionary potential (at least in any political sense beyond the superficial and symbolic). Although VSB's embrace of the formal language of Pop was a valiant polemical move, especially at the time, their approach ultimately is misguided as it fails to offer a way out of the black hole of consumer capitalism. Call me crazy, but it seems like here, Mr. Jacob is suggesting a potentially progressive -- if still totally vague -- role for the Pop Vernacular. Is he hinting at an instrumentalization of Pop that maybe goes beyond that of Venturi and Scott Brown? Or will he end up at the same claustrophobic dead end of the windowless, decorated-shed interior of some casino on the Strip? Can't wait to see.

I'd be interested to see if anyone has any other links/commentary/criticism with regard to FAT and their work.

link: FAT
link: Sam Jacob's Strange Harvest
link: Hugh Pearman's FAT is a postmodernist issue: British pranksters get serious.


J said...

In case you live in NY/CT, I thought you might like to know that Sam Jacob is delivering a lecture named "Everything you Can Eat" at Yale this Thursday. FAT is cool.



progressive reactionary said...

J- thanks for the heads up on the lecture. would love to go, but I don't know if i'll be able to make it up from NYC in time. if you happen to be there, let me know how it goes!


Norman Blogster said...

Sean Grifiths gave a talk at my uni a couple of years ago. I'd seen the images and obviously hated them, like every other self-respecting cool architecture student. His talk wasn't too hot either I seem to remember - can't remember the content, but can remember some images. Maybe tried too hard. However, he really redeemed himself when he opened the floor to questions. I got the impression you'd be completely converted by going for a pint with him. He was just plain speaking, honest and you couldn't nail him for anything. Very original. Very antifreeze. I have complete respect for what they're doing now, even if the images still jar. And this has made me question the whole image thing. Oh, and their how to be a famous architect should go down in architectural history.

progressive reactionary said...

mr blogster - i identify with your gut-reaction of disgust towards the work of FAT, as well as your simultaneous respect/admiration. Indeed, the most admirable aspect of their practice (and you could say the same for Venturi + Scott-Brown, who are clearly a primary influence here) is their attitude: a kind of in-your-face iconoclasm mixed with an acute populist sensibility. It comes as no surprise to me that Grifiths was totally friendly and easy-going -- Venturi + S-B likewise are two of the most good-natured, open-minded architects you will find. There must be some strange cosmic correlation between pop architecture, likeable personality, and horrible aesthetic??

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