FAT's Imperfect Proportions

The London-based architecture firm creates designs which challenge modernism

A bunch of architecture students in Manhattan listen to a lecture by the principal of a self-deprecating firm called FAT, and almost no one laughs? Such was the unlikely scene at Columbia University last fall, when Sean Griffiths explained how his London practice outgrew its desperate youth to become a band of award-winning, mainstream-flouting mavericks.

Bearded like a Bloomsbury intellectual, with a Liverpudlian accent and Elvis Costello glasses, Griffiths rapidly PowerPointed through work that mashes up cartoon landscaping with kitsch vernacular, mixing false fronts and Moorish screening. Upon showing an office for the Netherlands-based ad agency KesselsKramer Griffiths observed, "It's built so crappily that it's stood the test of time: It still looks crappy." Maybe no one laughed because they couldn't believe that FAT gets away with it all.

The six-person firm is run by Griffiths and co-principals Sam Jacob and Charles Holland and headquartered in a crumbling '60s low-rise in the formerly industrial Farringdon district. The office settled on the name FAT, an acronym for "Fashion Architecture Taste," in the early '90s, Griffiths explains, when he formed a loose partnership with half a dozen other barely employed architecture grads.

"We thought we'd be a magazine/think tank/discussion group like Archigram," he recalls. "‘FAT' is meant to be inclusive. ‘Fashion' because we're ephemeral, transitory, and ever-changing. ‘Taste' because we question whose taste is good taste and who decides. ‘Fashion' and ‘taste' are our positive acknowledgements that architecture is never timeless."

Their work has been called "mere facadism," and Griffiths takes that as a badge of honor. He describes his own three-year-old London townhouse, clad in bright blue and parapeted with outlines of cloud puffs, as "South Park meets Adolf Loos" and calls some details "totally pretentious."

When asked about aesthetic influences, Jacob shoots back, "We don't have influences, we copy things." Griffiths chimes in: "We've always questioned Modernism's domination. Gehry, Pawson: Everything is abstract and disengaged from culture. We're more interested in a wider context, in taking from books or movies, all the stuff around us." Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown pioneered this kind of omnivorous pilfering 40 years ago, and straighter-laced postmodernists like Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern have obsessively drawn on the past. But FAT turns it into something cooler and wittier than its antecedents.

Until recently, the firm hasn't had much chance to build at home, so instead they've made their bones in the Netherlands. "The Dutch design scene is the closest thing to what we're doing," Jacob says, referring to Droog's warping of tradition. KesselsKramer, a 1998 commission in which FAT converted a church into offices, borrowed a visual vocabulary from garden sheds, lifeguard towers, and picket fences. The church's former organ loft now serves as a screening room. And recently, FAT added concrete faux gables, pierced with quatrefoils, to a 1960s art academy at Boxtel and papered the halls with supergraphics, offset by crystal chandeliers. The school's Goth students ("you'd see Marilyn Manson at the bandsaw") are delighted by the historical references, Griffiths reports, though during a design-review commission hearing, city functionaries bickered over the project in Dutch. Griffiths was able to make out only the words "Disney" and "superficial."

FAT's largest project yet, a park at Hoogvliet on the outskirts of Rotterdam, begins construction this spring. Community facilities will include a reception hall, boating center, and pet cemetery. Plastic-log fencing will evoke a bygone era of family-run theme parks, and thatched roofs will be dyed a bright pink. But why the huge, Hollywood Hills-style sign reading Heerlijkheid (domain or loveliness, in old-timey Dutch)? "To give it a sense of place and create a direct connection to the community," Griffiths says. "There's an oil refinery on the horizon, so we went for the motorway service station aesthetic."

Back in the U.K., FAT's prospects are improving. It recently designed the restaurant Meals at Heal's, a dowager London department store that retailed Arts and Crafts furniture a century ago. In the café, oak-veneer screens sliced into cartoonish arboreal outlines frame pink-upholstered banquettes, and the edges of laminate tabletops are bent into trompe-l'oeil tablecloths. Holland calls the space "very artificial, very stylized, decorative but twisted, and slightly unsettling." He also points out its sweet yet erudite references to the punctured patterning in seminal Arts and Crafts interiors, like Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, Scotland.

FAT has even started winning British architectural competitions after a decade as a bridesmaid, never the bride. Islington Square, the result of a 2003 contest, is an enclave of 23 low-income townhouses in a previously rundown area of Manchester that was master-planned by edgy modernist Will Alsop. The judges included the future residents.

"We had a grip on what people want," Griffiths says in explaining the win. "We talked about their homes, free from jargon and preconceptions." Jacob describes the intensive preliminary research process: "We took photos of the residents' sitting rooms and gardens and ran workshops about their preferences. DIY is also popular, so we created generous spaces inside and out that could be customized for different-sized families." The brick exteriors reference a neighboring Victorian hospital, and the townhouses' oversize gables will stand up to the huge buildings going up in the brownfield development: "We wanted to make the facades big and powerful, so as not to look insignificant or overshadowed," Jacob adds. FAT also tried to preserve the vernacular of the working-class home. "Those interiors are sort of a dying folk art," Griffiths argues. "Our design may look flippant, but we're actually being socially responsible. We set out to build a community." Residents can customize window shapes and balconies and are encouraged to add hanging baskets, birdhouses, and flowerboxes.

The Manchester project recently won Building magazine's Regeneration Partnership of the Year award, and FAT's work is on exhibit through June at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art. With such accolades, Griffiths is confident that the architectural establishment has gotten over the funny acronym. "We've been waiting for years, and now the work is coming all at once," he says. "People are saying, ‘Oh, you can build!'"

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