Aberrant: Diverging Design

PORT MAGAZINE (online) 7 August 2012

In a few weeks time, the studio will head to Venice to represent the UK in the 13th Biennale of Architecture.One of the most important architectural events of the year, being chosen for Biennale signals a highpoint for the studio, which so far has enjoyed a brilliant — but surprisingly young — career that’s seen them collaborate with the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as taking on peculiar projects such as El Paso bar in East London, and the Tiny Travelling Theatre, which featured at Clerkenwell Design Week 2012 — all in the short time since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2007.

Why did you decide to call your practice Aberrant?

Kevin Haley: There are two answers to this: the first comes from what we think the word means — going against the norm, being different and being multidisciplinary. It tells people that we have a different approach to architecture and design. I think it also brings together our interests in art, design, culture and architecture. The other answer is that when we first started out, it was a strategy to get to the top of every list of every exhibition [we were in], to make sure to have two words with ‘A’ in the title. It is seem to work wherever we go. Every time we are in something we are always on top.

Why do you think that young architecture practices are trying to form closer ties to art world?

Kevin: For me it’s because I came from a background of interiors and art, and then I moved into architecture.
David comes from a traditional architecture [background]. We’re interested in collaboration and learning from
other people, being involved in different processes that can build skills.
David Chambers: I don’t think it’s a trend. Architecture is not just about buildings: it is about taking an approach so you can replay something in the scale of a building, or a piece of furniture or an installation. For us it’s definitely not like we just work in architecture. We see architecture in a much broader sense.

Which architectural practices or artist are you interested in it at the moment?

David: Someone doing a lot recently is Sou Fuijimoto.
Kevin: We were looking at Terunobu Fujimori for the Tiny Travelling Theatre.

Your practice has been selected for the Biennale of Venice 2012 in the British Pavilion Venice. For the Take Away you will be representing Brazil. How did you develop your research? What does this project represent for your studio?

Kevin: Maybe the end!
David: My wife is from Brazil, so I have been to Rio de Janeiro quite a few times. Over Christmas last year, we went to a beach town called Buzios (about two hours drive from Rio). Whilst driving through the countryside I noticed a building in the middle of [some] trees — it was identical to another building around the corner from my wife’s family’s house in downtown Rio. It turned out it was a prefabricated school, built by Oscar Niemeyer in 1980: they built 508 identical schools all over the city and state of Rio de Janeiro, but in different contexts. When the brief for Venice Take Away came out, we were looking at example projects in other countries that could perhaps provide lessons for the UK. We met a lot of people for this project from different schools, and I guess this piece in Venice explores the idea that you can do something with standardisation that’s interesting and of high quality.
Kevin: I think a big part of our practice is [invested] in research. Venice Take Away is showcasing the importance of research in architectural practices. I think it’s a great opportunity for people to see what we do, and that [we’re not focused] on just one type of project.

Aberrant’s vision of architecture is well summed up in the 5 points of their manifesto:

1. Think before doing
2. Embrace normality
3. People before design
4. Architecture is not simply about buildings and what they look like
5. Observe the way people live and work
at present

In your manifesto the word “iconic” seems to have negative connotations when associated with  architecture — “we care more about people than iconic building”. What reduces the value of architecture in your opinion?

Kevin: For me, the Gherkin, is the big icon of London. You go anywhere on the tube, you see it next to a red bus, you see it as an icon of London and for everyone that comes to this country that’s what it is. But what annoys me is that is not a public building, so you can’t access it. You can’t enjoy that space. What’s problematic is the use of space. Is it iconic or good architecture? I just wonder, with this kind of project, what is the process about? I have a kind of respect for that, but I don’t think it’s the ambition of our practice.
David: For example, with the Shard they wanted a kind a “logo”. Something that can be reduced to a kind of pictogram that helps to sell a picture. I think we actually understand that, I think a lot of our work is like that as well. A big thing for us is the idea of design layers; the problem with a lot of iconic architecture is that they only have one layer — [they are] instantly recognizable. But then if you scratch below the surface, there is nothing there. I think that a lot of stuff that we try to do is quite graphic and you can engage with it quite quickly, but then also if you look into it, you engage with it, you experience that for little bit longer.

In your manifesto you talk a lot about the role of the people in the design of a new project — how can buildings bring people closer?

David: We start our research work at home, focusing on the everyday problems of people, but approaching them in a different way. The fact that people are working from home – what does mean for them? There is the problem; we aim to address these sorts of questions. I gave a lecture at the V&A, a 20th century course for people with no design background — they really enjoyed the lecture because I was talking about issues that affect them. Increasingly, people are working from home for a couple of days a week.

One of the projects that I was talking about is El Paso — a bar we redesigned — a place where people can also work. I never really thought that a local pub could be a place to go and work from as an office. Thinking about design in everyday situations, maybe it’s different to thinking about big buildings, but actually people appreciate that and the architecture too.

As all eyes are focussed on London as the Olympics get underway. What do you think the still missing from London’s architectural landscape?

David: It probably needs public housing. I think renting is still really expensive and the trouble is that people are increasingly marginalised. I guess that historically, the great thing about London is that it’s like a patchwork, with many little villages [clustered] next to each other. Paris is more a core of affluence and then there is a ring around the outside where poorer people are relegated. I think it’s something quite special about London, but increasingly the poorer areas have been arrogated. I think the best strategy is to try to maintain that idea of community.