Are Factory Fifteen Inventing The Future Of Architecture?
Still from Royal Re-formation
Downloadable architecture. Speculative filmmaking. Utilizing the beauty of construction and the power of surrealism to drive innovation. These are the issues explored in the films of newly formed filmmaking collective Factory Fifteen, who are Kibwe Tavares, Jonathan Gales, Paul Nicholls, Richard Young, Christopher Lees, and Dan Tassell—all recent graduates of Nic Clear’s visionary Unit 15 course at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London. Their short films have created quite an impact online, with a combination of surreal imagery and stunningly realised futuristic cityscapes. Using the distribution channels of the internet, the group have seen a spiralling interest in their work in a short period of time.
Schooled in architecture, Factory Fifteen are not architects in the traditional sense, instead they are filmmakers who use architecture to explore ideas surrounding technology and its social and political impact. After studying together under course director Nic Clear and Simon Kennedy, they all agreed that strength in numbers would be the best way to approach the commercial and artistic world, so in June of this year, they officially banded together as a company. And in a world of shrinking opportunities for graduates, it was a smart thing to do, especially since their approach to architecture through the lens of animation is one that seems to have resonated with online audiences.
Kibwe Tavares, who made the sci-fi film Robots of Brixon (below), used images of slums and real locations to power his vision of a robot underclass living in Brixton, London. His dystopian vision of the future ends in violent clashes with police, intentionally echoing the 1981 Brixton riots (and prophetically, the ones that took place in the same place, and throughout England, two weeks ago). Tavares explains the group’s approach and impetus for creating the work that they do: “There’s a lot of debate within architecture asking: what is the future role of architecture? And as the virtual world expands, we’re taking more control of how the digital world will affect our world. What we’re creating is an ‘architectural perception’.”
The “architectural perception” the group is trying to create is one that will beckon architecture to come down from its ivory tower and greet the masses, allowing it to be shared and explored, discussed and dissected the way we do other cultural forms, like films, fashion, music, and art. This isn’t to say nobody discusses architecture, many people do, but it isn’t talked about in the same water cooler way the non-filmmaker casually chats about a movie. It doesn’t get fawned over in weekly glossy magazines or online blogs, like fashion. It isn’t a shared cultural experience like music. Yet we are constantly, literally, surrounded by it. And despite the fact that it may, in effect, be the most populist of the cultural forms, it has an elitist air to it, a (perhaps untrue) notion that to understand the contours and beauty of a building, you need schooling, to be educated on the subject. And maybe the reason for this is how it’s been represented.
Robots of Brixon
One way the group feel they can bridge the gap between the trained and untrained mind is through the medium of the moving image. The moving image becomes a level playing field where, not only can they ruminate on architecture’s potential future in a form where anything’s possible, but also use the medium’s inclusiveness as a way for the untrained eye to engage with it.
Paul Nicholls, whose work Golden Age—The Simulation (below), is an abstract journey into the virtual forms architecture can take says: “I think that film offers something which architecture has been trying to achieve for a long time: narrative. Architecture projects, particularly in education, are built around telling the story of your proposal. This is traditionally done by a carefully constructed portfolio of hundreds of drawings and images. A five minute film, in my opinion, can say a lot more about an ‘architectural’ concept than a million drawings, as its much more accessible and, more importantly, digested by the eye. Even in professional practice this methodology of storytelling exists in every planning report, competition, or client proposal. Film is a natural evolution of this, made more potent with recent technological advances, making it relevantly affordable to produce whatever you can think of.”
Golden Age—The Simulation
This idea of animation giving architecture a new structure and conceptual clarity through narrative is echoed by Dan Tassell. “It’s making a space in itself, without having a drawing of a building, making a film with a narrative. You are creating space and telling stories about space, and as a way of conveying ideas, it’s really important and unique.”
Giving architecture form through animation is one that was instilled in the group from their time at Unit 15, which has been using the moving image to transgress the old ways of thinking, to subvert and critique the status quo, for the last 15 years. Their former teacher, architect and theorist Nic Clear, says, “I originally became interested in animation as part of a critique of traditional forms of architectural representation, particularly orthographic drawings. It seemed absurd that something like architecture that is experiential and immersive is developed and represented using conventions that had changed little since the 18th century. Animation can communicate spatial ideas much more effectively than conventional forms of architectural representation, including model making, especially to a non-architectural audience. I have always argued that digital film, animation and motion graphics can be used to generate, develop and represent architectural ideas and practices—the way animation is used within the architectural profession merely as a visualization tool is a real waste.”
Dan Tassell’s The Battersea Experiment
So, animation becomes a form of expression that can convey an idea in a much more direct way than a written document—it has an instantaneousness to it, an immediacy and digestibility that is intrinsic to the moving image format. Dan Tassell called the films “visual essays” and this is how we should see them. They’re not straight up predictions but more explorations, a journey into uncharted realms. Jonathan Gales explains, “We can use it as a way to envision technology in a way that hasn’t been done before.” To which Tavares added: “Any idea can be explored. If you’re talking about technology, instead of just saying this is what it looks like, you can explore the motion of it, you’re creating the idea. With a building you don’t just say this is what it looks like, but you say, this is what it is. And you don’t have to have the trained architectural skills to understand the result.”
When asked whether they hope that one day these ideas will be manifested in the real world Gales replied that that wasn’t necessarily the point: “Sometimes that’s not important, sometimes it’s just important to start a conversation, make the discussion apparent. In the same way as in politics, we’re exploring the ideals of architecture and modernism. It’s never going to get realized but the fact that someone’s voiced that, hopefully it will fuel people’s ambitions.”
Electric Avenue from Robots of Brixton
When watching Factory Fifteen’s films you’re immediately struck by the abundance of sci-fi and dystopian imagery—no doubt influenced by the great cinematic architecture found in films like Blade Runner and Metropolis, which all the members studied. The worlds are thick with industrial landscapes where buildings remained unfinished, crumbling and reforming in perpetuity—yet these images are not seen as depressing and restrictive, but rather uplifting, sublime even. This sci-fi aesthetic isn’t just unique to the group either, but is rather cultivated by Unit 15, which has been exploring ideas like virtual and augmented realities, cybernetics and robotics, synthetic biology and utopian science fiction in relation to architecture, for the 15 year period it’s been around. This highly regarded course has always aimed at being a critical counterpoint to what’s going on in mainstream architecture. Not just formally and conceptually, but also socially and politically. And these social and political issues are reflected in Factory Fifteen’s skeptical outlook of what’s happening in the industry at the moment.
Gale’s Megalomania (above) is a critique of the incredible pace at which cities are being developed without much thought being given to their long term sustainability. This can be seen all over the world, in the US and UK, and in the mega-constructions of the east—namely, China, Dubai, and especially Kazakhstan’s Astana. Astana is a new capital city that was built from nothing, and the results look eerily space age and clinical, shiny and white, towering above the streets below, looking like an imagined city from a utopian 1960s sci-fi film—but despite the vast amounts of money being pumped into the huge constructions, they lack quality, and concern is expressed over the rate at which the construction is taking place. With sustainability low on the priority list, profitability and notoriety become the main driving forces behind these projects. And the brevity with which they’re constructed raises questions: How much maintenance will they need? What will the cityscape look like in 20-30 years time?
“It’s an irony of iconic architecture”, says Gale. “Every city wants an iconic skyline but they’re all going to end up looking the same. Everybody wants big, dramatic buildings—it’s all about the outline, the façade.” The group also bemoan the unnecessary building of offices in London when there are plenty of plots lying vacant—11 million square feet according to them. Gale continues “This whole idea that there’s not enough space for people is kind of a myth, the space is just being really badly used. Companies don’t want to move offices, they want a new tower. And they don’t want to move into someone else’s tower, so there’s a lot of empty office space.” It’s this greedy, careless attitude—the same attitude that turned the News of the World toxic and is laying waste to the global economy, and no doubt helped fuel the recent British riots—that seems to have overcome and come to define most of modern commercial architecture. And it is in this climate that Factory Fifteen have set up their commercial and artistic practice.
Concept still from Megalomania
Artistically speaking, they seem to have already achieved some early success—for a non-architectural audience, their films undoubtedly make for exciting viewing. In the 14 films they produced while at the school, a whole diverse range of ideas are explored in a highly engaging and stylish way. We get surreal visions of shifting landscapes and mutating forms, where architecture becomes a state of mind, a filter through which to view the world just as you would through, say, music. Ideas of simulated architecture, downloadable architecture, digital fabrication, and the way in which digital technology could impact the industry—all are explored in a way that is astonishing and captivating. The films work as both great looking animations and explorations of architecture’s future.
Paul Nicholls, whose abstract films perhaps deal most explicitly with the ideas of downloadable architecture and the aforementioned subjects, explained simulated architecture as: “What I mean by this is an architecture designed by a set of programmable rules and processes, which govern the end result. Like ones which exist in computer software now, say, a digital fluid simulation. A set of parameters are set, which is then interpreted by these rules, and as a result, form is produced. This is a simple example but one which illustrates the way I am speculating the design process could go in the types of worlds illustrated in my graphics and films.”
Paul Nicholls’ Golden Age—Somewhere
Watching the films isn’t meant to be a crystal ball-type experience. This isn’t a prediction of the future, rather imaginative examples of possible hypotheses. Nicholls continues: “I think my films are an extreme example of how the notion of a network and the notion of the home will merge. The internet will evolve, in my opinion, more dramatically than has previously been visualized. Films like Minority Report, although set in the next 100 years, are dramatically outdated even today (in terms of its digital foresight). My work is about the post-digital. When technology becomes invisible, it blurs the boundaries between spaces. My film Golden Age—Somewhere [above] alludes to a world where spaces can be downloaded. One need not leave the ‘home’ to go to the park or visit a friend. This might seem far out, but Google Art Project allows us to visit any museum in the world, through the same tech as Google Earth but with interactive ultra high-res images. Skype allows us to talk and interact with any of our friends or relatives from anywhere in the world. These types of things are only going to become more immersive, more networked and more invisible. What is interesting is the social implications, and how we value objects, spaces and simulated interaction. Microsoft keeps banging on about cloud computing, this is just the start.”
Richard Young’s The Un_Reel
The way in which digital technologies will affect our environments in the home and in the workplace is perhaps the most exciting part of Factory Fifteen’s speculation, where augmented reality and projection mapping will become fully integrated into our lives. Tavares spoke about watching a football game in your home, but instead of watching it on a 42" screen, you’ll be fully immersed in the experience—through a combination of projection mapping and AR, you’ll be transported to the stadium, sitting in the stands with your mates instead of on the sofa.
Along with enriching our leisure experiences, new technologies will also bring pragmatic benefits—for instance, the internet could be used as a way to streamline how we use our resources. While this is something which is already being explored by various innovative architects and designers, it seems to have caught mainstream architecture off guard. Tassell says, “With the internet, it’s all happened so fast and everyone’s a bit shell-shocked about what to do with it. I think we’re only using a fraction of its potential, the way that buildings could be networked together globally or share resources. I think there’s such a massive underlying potential for the internet. Buildings can be a lot more globally linked, a house that could work out what it needs when it needs it, smarthouses, regulated systems, so you can micro-manage everything.”
Of course with these advances, especially those used for entertainment purposes, come new social problems. The materialism we saw in the recent riots in the UK, where trainer stores and gadget shops were targeted, is a problem that aspirational technology brings, along with the many benefits. Tassell continued: “I think one of the most interesting aspects to all this is the social aspect: who actually pays for all this? Is it an enclave of the rich? How will it be paid for? If you can’t afford the technology, will you be bombarded with virtual adverts and that’s how you pay for it? At what point does the line get drawn for these kinds of technology, when does it go from a luxury to a necessity?”
Christopher Lees’ Spider City Funland
For Paul Nicholls, he sees applications of the gaming world being carried over into architecture, augmenting our lives as virtual spaces merge with our daily experiences: “I see the built environment transforming in the not too distant future into one which replicates what we already see in the gaming environment. More and more people live their life online through avatars or social networks, these ‘environments’ in themselves have rules. World of Warcraft keeps their ‘tenants’ happy by releasing new downloadable content, new levels, new equipment. This is a world of occupancy, of play and work, governed by capital gain. We are already living our lives through these ulterior capitalist motivations. I think this kind of thing will evolve out of the ‘screen’ and into the very fabric of our lives.”
Perhaps, lastly, it’s important to talk a little more about the group’s aesthetic. With a group of early 20-somethings you’re naturally going to have differences, and the ideas they’re trying to represent can be theoretical and complex, so how do you show that as an animation? Tassell explains: “As a group, I think we quite enjoy that slightly retro tech-quality. I think the reason it’s appealing is it’s quite hard to represent something that’s so abstract, such as a micro-second transfer of information. You need a more physical manifestation of technology, so we explore the more abstract uses of technology using this retro aesthetic. As technology progresses, it becomes more invisible, things like the screen are likely to disappear, so it becomes about how you can represent that.”
Jonathan Gales’ Speculative Landscapes
There’s also a lot of construction in their work—buildings half built, their internal mechanics on display, naked, for the world to see. Construction, for them, is an aesthetic to be celebrated. Gale says, “I personally think construction is something that is more architectural than the finished building. It’s a kind of festival, it’s so vibrant, there’s a machine element to it. Some of the time, when a low cost building is finished it’s a disappointment.”
This idea of construction being almost magical is echoed by Christopher Lees who uses the term “urban theatre” to describe the excitement of seeing a building rising out of nothing. It’s also something that they’ve learned to appreciate through studying the late modernists. Buildings like the Lloyd’s building in London or the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris have their “guts”—pipes and drainage—on display. The mechanisms that are usually covered with walls are given the chance to shine and revel in the limelight—and this, interestingly, gives the buildings a machine-like quality, like giant robotic forms. Gale adds: “There’s an honesty in parts, we don’t want to see things covered over in plasterboard, we want to see things.”
So there you have it. Is this the future of architecture? Well, only a time-traveling cyborg could tell you that, but probably the best summation of what these guys do comes from themselves. At the end of a number of questions put to Nicholls he left the following statement: “Factory Fifteen are architectural researchers who work within film and new media.” And maybe the real glimpse of the future they’ve given us is their speculative, interdisciplinary approach. As creative boundaries continue to blur, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and programmers’ roles all blend together. Maybe the future will be one where visual artists and architects work alongside one another—where specialization gives way to a hybrid, multi-skilled approach.