This is a conversation between four people about living in the present. Which means, at least for our purposes, a conversation about inevitability and possibility, anxiety and hope, the flexible and the fixed. About life and how it happens: where, in what, and with whom. Stephanie Macdonald is a found- ing director of 6a Architects, whose work is distinguished by its sensitivity to the relationship between structure and environment; Vinca Petersen is a photographer who documented Europe’s raver and traveller scene and has since co-founded Future Youth Project, a charity facilitating what she calls ‘physical and emotional journeys’. Jack Self is an architect and director of REAL Foundation, dedicated to alternative forms of development, property, and ownership. We met on a Thursday morning in London.
I want to begin by asking how each of you experience the present, or what that means to you.
Jack Self: There’s this great British author, JG Ballard. Many of his stories focus on dystopias of the extreme present and often begin with very minor and inconsequential accidents, but by the end you’ve reached an incredibly extreme condition. You think, ‘Yeah, that’s totally fair, he should go and steal his neighbour’s post’, but before you know it, he’s eating his neighbour’s dog over a fire, and that seems perfectly natural. In a sense, the relationship I have with the present is that small things which have been building over the last decade, arguably two, are all seeming to come to a head in a way that, I think, obscures an obvious future.
Stephanie Macdonald: Maybe there’s a more positive slant to it. Take someone like Richard Wentworth, a sculptor who we found very influential, who documents the everyday, the small things that are happening in the city, in an almost pathological way, and uncovers from that really deep trajectories through culture. His project, ‘Making Do and Getting By’, has been reiterated and expanded by him over years and years, but it’s a lovely place to start: it’s just the cataloguing of one street, and its changes and its unruliness. There are all these clues in our built environment, and if you see that, you can be articulate with it.
Jack: I think you’ve actually hit it perfectly—a critique of everyday life, where the very minor signs of everyday life, the detritus, but also the spatial relationships, are really interesting in the sense that they represent much larger, more abstract concepts—political, economic, and so on—but then also reinforce possibilities within the built environment and within everyday life. Looking at questions of patriarchy and gender relations within the home, it’s very significant that the head of the table is both the literal head of the table and the metaphorical head of the household. All of these systems of indirect control have very precise spatial relationships. And as architects we have a positivity, because we believe that you can intervene in everyday life through de- sign and have quite a significant—we would like to think—possibility of changing society.
Stephanie: Richard’s discourse about this is also incredibly positive and optimistic and ten- der. There’s a humanity to it, the way someone has displayed all their gnomes on their balcony, or the display in a second-hand shop, or the care taken with things, or the misbehaving, like propping a door with a boot.
Vinca Petersen: I was listening to what you were saying about this idea of small things leading you to strange places. I think that pretty much describes what happened to me from 16 to about 30. I left home at 16 and went to live in this squat in London and started raving, then I found the travellers, who were living this free way of being, not just dancing all night and taking drugs, but actually living in a different way. I ended up living in a live-in vehicle—several different ones. My interior design and architecture improved over the years, but they always had wheels, until I was 31 and became pregnant, and decided I should live in a house. I suppose what I’m saying is that people look at parts of that time in my life and think it’s quite extreme, but I ended up there in such a logical way, to me, through small decisions, and not necessarily being aware of the present but having no value for any other time. I see it almost as a problem now, or when I tried to reintegrate back into what was available as society and culture.
Jack: Are you a nostalgic person?
Vinca: No, not at all.
Jack: Because I think that we live in an era where the absence of a stable future has made a lot of people very anxious, wanting to grab on to some sort of past, real or imagined, so we see a rise in nostalgia, and conservatism, in many ways. I feel zero nostalgia. I haven’t had a great past, maybe that’s why. There are always great things that you look back on fondly, but I think there’s a profound difference between thinking fondly of the past and feeling nostalgia, which is almost like a homesickness for another time.
Stephanie: One is an awareness of the past and the other is a sort of—
Jack: Longing for it.
Vinca: We had this phrase, ‘We live now and in the future’. If you started to talk about the past, or relate to it in any way, people would sort of glaze over. We found that it strips away prejudice. If you don’t have a past, and no one’s interested in your past, or what you’ve done, or where you’ve come from, it’s a really nice place to start.
I want to discuss this relationship between ideas you had about past, present, and future, and the home structure you were living in at that time.
Vinca: My space was completely constructed around being able to move quickly, being able to adapt. Being able to be, I guess, undercover. If you relate that to more solid spaces, and solid homes, that fluidity goes really quickly. But I find I live within houses in a very similar way: I can let them go very quickly, and move and adapt, almost like a hermit crab changing a shell. It would be interesting, in architecture, if it was very changeable, so you could constantly adapt to what you’re doing and who you are at the time. It would be more relevant to living life in the present.
Stephanie: A lot of our buildings try to not necessarily be a house, or an office. We’ve worked with a lot of houses that turn into galleries, or houses that became fire stations, and fire stations that then became galleries, and houses that became cafés, and then the other way around. When we were designing Juergen Teller’s studio spaces, the planning policy in that zone is all about work, so it could only ever be a workspace. But many workspaces make amazing houses, so that was always in the back of my head: that you could live there one day, if you wanted to. And that comes down to having a really good relationship with the external spaces, our place in nature, our place in ecology, and recognising that we are a constructed world. That’s the grass, the tarmac, us, the buildings, the bees; we’re all the same, in a sense. If one thinks about it like that, then the spaces start to change and perhaps become a little more fluid.
Vinca: Is that because people want to feel like that in a space?
Stephanie: Well, when you were talking about your travels, it reminded me of this exploration of how we exist with our external environment. How much of the city is concreted, how much is actually allowed to grow? What’s a room? Is it with a tree in it, or is it with a desk in it? Where do you work better? I met these two amazing women at a school that we looked at in Woking, who work with children from an area that had a lot of problems, and to work with these children, they brought the idea of teaching change through nature, through cycles—that change is a natural and inevitable part of human life. This was a very unusual and progressive curriculum, and it brought a huge stability to that school. It was amazing—all these seasonal rituals and things that they did, with big standing stones outside. As much of the class was conducted in the landscape around them as in the class- room. It feels like that’s what you, Vinca, were also getting in touch with: being outside of the structure of just being part of the GDP.
Jack: To go back one step—not very far actually—one of my long-term rants has been against ideas of functionalism, which I think is at the essence of what you’re describing. Modernist architecture had an idea of functional- ism which came out of factory production and production lines, and it wasn’t very long after optimising Ford’s factories that people were like, ‘What happens if you do this to a house?’ Of course, the consequence of that is you start doing things like designing kitchens, which had never really been conceived of as a space before. What you ended up with were highly gendered spaces where you get girly kitchens with long benches optimised for one woman at home during the day to make meals for her family. But if you change the family structure, if you have two or three people cooking in one of those kitchens, it becomes entirely impractical. For me, the terrace house is probably the greatest piece of architecture that Britain has ever come up with. Because they’re not based around functional activities; every floor just has two rooms: one large, one smaller. The depth of the room and the height of the ceiling are in proportion, so that you can read a book at the back of the room during the day without artificial light. They’re based on good abstract qualities of space, which have good environ- mental qualities to them. And as a result they end up being used for all sorts of things. A floor can be a bedroom and a large bathroom, or two bedrooms, or a living room, or a studio.
Stephanie: They’re also fantastically specific about their relation to light, to the street, to privacy. You know, the really big windows on the first floor, the piano nobile, the setback of the light well below ground, so you have a bit of privacy from the street.
Jack: I mean, for architects, with a terrace house, it’s like the best of times and the worst of times, because they have on the one hand so much possibility and on the other hand they’re so specifically designed that they’re very difficult to do something new with.
Vinca: When I stopped living in a truck with a seven-and-a-half tonne box lorry in the end, it was brilliant, but I had to start living, so I moved into this small terrace house in London. I couldn’t afford it in the end, so I moved to Ramsgate and bought a much taller house, because I could, and then had to fit it full of lodgers to pay for it. And I’ve ended up, in the past year, moving into a small, two-up, two- down terrace. And something happened when I went into that space, which is exactly what you said: it’s blocks. It’s four blocks and a couple of blocks on the back. And every block is brilliantly useful. I love that house, and it feels like I’ve got a shell again. I’m not living in a house, I’m living, and it’s the perfect fit. It feels like how my truck used to feel.
Jack: This is a question of the appropriation of space, because a lot of architects often make the mistake of saying, ‘OK, we’ll make lots of moving screens and moving partitions and walls’. Look at the Pompidou Centre in Paris: the entire interior is non-structural so you can arrange it in any way you want, and it was supposed to be infinitely configurable. They found one setting they liked about 30 years ago, and they’ve just never changed it. I think it’s much better to say, ‘How can we create spaces which are extremely rigid, and extremely fixed, where you only do them once, but anyone who comes in to that space—ideally, irrespective of cultural background, gender, power relations, and family structure—can find a place for themselves within that home, and can adapt it to their own desires for life’. That design for the present, in fact, does give you a type of positive vision for the future.
Would you say that’s the difference between home and house?
Jack: For me, a house is a very technical object. It’s a consequence of construction methodologies, planning regulations, available materials, and different types of labour conditions, as well as the geography of the site, and topography and so on. The home is a psychological and emotional construct. It’s a very fragile relationship between people and objects in a space, which is what can make a yacht a home, which is what can make a seven-and-a-half- tonne truck a home. Which is what can make a terrace house a home. For me, the construction of normality comes about from a familiarity with these objects and people and space, and they’re constantly falling away, and new ones are coming in. And if that change is very slow, you don’t notice that your home has evolved, and if that change is very rapid, you feel a sudden rupture. But that, I think, is also where that positive possibility for the future comes in, through an intervention in the present. You might only change one thing—you might change the table from being rectangular to circular—and as a consequence have a minor alteration in the structure of that family, which then has a consequence much further down the line.
Stephanie: You make me think of Georges Perec as well, writing about the infra-ordinary, in his Species of Spaces. One of his exercises was to have your kitchen in the bathroom, or to go and sleep in the living room. Move around each day. Try a different space. And I think I’m with you on the kind of modernist thing of not being interested in function or lots of moveable screens, and flexibility—that’s a misnomer. The more specific a space is, the more adaptable it is. That might be a super tall or a really large space, but if it’s got the right light, and it’s picking things up to make it really inhabitable, and it’s delightful to be in, if there’s the shadow of a tree leaf playing across the space, and you’ve got seasonality, if you can see across and there’s a view in its courtyard. The gap between houses or a road or something. It’s partly contextual and it’s partly material. The authenticity of materials is really important. You read if it’s developer spec, and that this is not about you but about the square-metre value, and everything feels like it’s paper thin. Paper thin can be great, depending on what you’re doing, but you read the intention. There’s a lot of translation in architecture, and I think it’s really good to try to strip that back. That’s what’s so great about a van: there’s no translation there, it is what it is and you can move. It’s got a steering wheel. It’s not about being righteous or virtuous about it, it’s more about having a kind of comprehension of what you’re in, and how that fits culturally. You understand where you are. And that does provide a framework for you to change in it.
Vinca: The first thing that came to my mind was that there’s an honesty in a home. I suppose you could say that a home really is about the person that’s in it, and them being honest with themselves. The first book I ever made was a photographic book in 1999 called No System, and it looks quite extreme now, but at the time I thought I had produced quite a palatable book, basically inviting people to come and live like I did. I felt like it was a brochure.
And living like you did at that time meant—
Vinca: Everyone did it for different reasons, and in different ways. It was highly political in one sense, and just absolutely back to basics in another. In relation to living in the moment, it was all about doing what you want to do, when you wanted to do it, in the way you wanted to do it. So, something you desire maybe in your early 20s. And then politically, obviously, it was about not being observed or measured or examined.
Jack: I’m fascinated by that. You describe on the one hand quite an individualistic concept of doing what you want when you want, but of course, for people to live together, you also have to have some sense of social contract or community. I’m wondering if you can somehow capture what that community might have been like?
Vinca: I’m probably the worst to ask, because I always felt like I was an outsider in that community. I always had an urge to move more, to not be pinned down even within those groups. But I think what happens any time a group of human beings gets together is they have to create a certain structure, and there are always leaders. And leaders can come in different forms, like DJs that are really good, or people who are good at cooking, or the person that’s got the generator at that time. It was always very practical, but the politics would come about over time. My idea of a nightmare now would be to live in a hippie community.
Jack: I mean, it’s a tale as old as the shift from nomadic to agrarian, fixed lifestyle. As soon as you stop moving, someone’s going to want to be the king.
Vinca: When I stopped living on the road, which was a kind of free space, supposedly, but was always very intense, socially and practically, I could suddenly choose my space. And there was a freedom in that for me. At the same time, how do you move from living in a way which is very unstructured to living in a way that isn’t? How do you not live life in the present? I find it incredibly difficult to plan anything, not because I’ve got a brain that can’t plan, but because I have no value systems for the future. I’ve been living in a house now for 14 years, and it’s still a difficult thing.
Jack: I think it’s a shift between questions of abstraction and questions of presence in the world. I have two radically different concepts of myself. One is a being that is present in the world and has a sensitivity to time and space. That being’s favourite activity is to lie in the sea on my back, looking through my feet at the horizon, because in geological and deep earth time, the colour of the sea and the sky was fixed billions of years ago, which means that it is the only permanent, if you could call it, landscape of the planet. And when I’m in that water, especially if it’s warm, that’s when I feel most at one. Then you have this sort of game that you play, which is almost like chess, in which you recognise there are specific pieces with specific rules. You can play well or play badly. You can’t get out of the game; you have to engage with it in some manner, to navigate through this human construction. Very few people will explain the rules to you, which sometimes makes the motions of the pieces very abstract and con- fusing. I think there’s a huge variation in individual disposition, between people who live purely in that present sense of being, which I guess in its most ultimate fantasised form—at least for me—would be a kind of yogi, or a medieval hermit. And then at the other end are some of my young students, who are not challenging me or my colleagues, and inheriting verbatim the social structures and assumptions of their parents. Which means that they’re not even aware of the fact that they’re within that game of chess.
I think that has a lot to do with anxiety about the future, and the different ways people mitigate that.
Jack: In my opinion, the possibility of punk is the possibility of being able to live free from the previous generation, whether that’s through the welfare state, whether that’s through squatting or occupation of different kinds. I have only one dream—this is my dream for society and what I dedicate my en- tire life to—which is that no one would ever have to pay for housing ever again, and that they would always have a high-quality and appropriate standard of housing, of whatever kind, and in whatever location they wanted, because I think removing the pressures of how you will be housed radically changes your en- tire relationship to what you do with your day. It changes how you relate to other people, and what you conceive of as your life and as the present. That’s the only thing I’m trying to do, and that’s why I’ve recently rethought how to do that.
Stephanie: On that level, my dream would be that everyone gets free education with that. Because then I think, it doesn’t matter where you live, you can comprehend, you can understand and make sense of the world. And you can challenge orthodoxies like religion and politics. If anything, that’s the biggest tool for equality, if we’re going big.
We’re at the end, so we have to go big.
Vinca: Poverty, in a way, creates ultimate forms of living life in the moment. That’s what we haven’t talked about. We’ve talked about hedonism and all that, but actually if you’re going to a favela, when you talk to someone about what’s going on, it will be about that day. I am a photographer, and I always had a camera, so I always felt like I was a bit of a fraud, because part of the hedonism and the ethos of living like I did was living life absolutely for the moment, but I really wanted to take a picture as well, or go back and write something down, just because I thought it was so great that I had to petrify it, solidify it, carve it into something. So, for years and years, I lived on the road and was again never quite there when everyone was living life for the moment. When my son was one, I had a massive mortgage with my partner, and he was working 12 hours a day, and I had a baby that didn’t sleep through the night till he was five. My father was living alone, and he was 86, and one day he phoned me up and said he was lonely and not well, and I said I was lonely too. I looked after him in the last seven months of his life. It was the most intense, hardcore, difficult, but incredibly wonderful experience I have ever had. One day, I was on the lawn hanging out the washing. And I’d left the one year old sort of vaguely safe, and the 86 year old was moaning about something, but he’d had food, and he’d been to the loo, and it was kind of alright. I was hanging out the washing, I was halfway along, and I suddenly went, ‘Oh my god, I’m living life completely in the moment. I’m utterly here, there is nothing else, anywhere, that is important. Everything is this moment, and me hanging out the washing’.