Don’t let its thin profile and inexpensive paper fool you, Jack Self’s unassuming architecture magazine, Real Review (designed by OK-RM and winner of the 2016 Stack Awards Launch of the Year), has shaken up the independent magazine scene with its radical design and thought-provoking content. Chief among the themes it tackles is how design shapes the way we live and how it can be used to either support or undermine ideals like democracy, equality, and inclusivity.
As the magazine gets set to launch its third issue, we wanted to find out more about what role graphic design plays in all this, so we sat down with Self, who’s also the director of architectural practice Real Foundation, which co-curated the British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Let’s start with a simple one: how does design, specifically architecture, shape the way we live?
All buildings are designed to place your body into a specific relationship with a power structure. When you go into a church, it’s attempting to instill a sense of awe and wonder (and thus control) in you through its space; when you go into a metro rail system, the station design and tunnel structure is attempting to reduce your experience into a particle in the flow; when you go home, every piece of furniture, every type of room, and each room’s relationship to another room, is enforcing and reinforcing social power relations.
To see this more clearly, try removing elements in your mind: what if no one put doors on bathrooms? How would you form a different relationship with defecation? What if there were no private kitchens? Who or how would you do the cooking then? Suppose there were no “master” bedrooms and no double beds. What would it mean for a family to all have their own single rooms?
So the spaces we live and work in make certain social structures seem inevitable, when maybe they aren’t?
The power relations created by spatial conditions are often subtle: pharmacists dispense drugs from extra high counters; the teacher stands at the front of the room; restaurants put mirrors on the walls behind tables so the person with their back to the room doesn’t feel threatened. The point is not that spatial conditions produce inevitable relationships, but that on the whole we’re not very good at understanding the impact or consequences of the performance of space.
Last time we spoke, specifically about the role independent magazines play in social and political activism, you said that if we want to promote values like democracy, inclusivity, tolerance, and equality, space is a good place to start. Can you elaborate?
If you want to intervene in material reality and everyday power rituals, first you have to understand them very well. This spans situations as trivial as how L-shaped sofas make proper discussion impossible (you cannot look the other person directly in the eye), to conducting intense demographic, economic, and political analyses of urban and national conditions.
This relates to the idea that major social change happens in small steps rather than giant leaps, right?
Yes. Take the women’s suffrage movement. There has not yet been a single event, like a violent revolution or definitive conflict, which has overturned the millennia of patriarchal rule. Rather, there have been many defining moments. We are slowly (more slowly than I would like) closing the pay gap; we are slowly seeing male-dominated professions opening up; we are slowly seeing greater equality in domestic labor and childcare, etc.
“This gradual progress is more stable and harder to undo than a revolution, because the reform exists by changing mindsets over generations.”
Compare that to how easily the Arab Spring was overturned in Egypt. However, incremental change requires strong, enduring ideological commitment to projects that will last longer than your lifespan.
What’s an example of an architectural change that supports a social change?
If you look at the bedroom, the bathroom, or the kitchen, those core rooms that we imagine as being central to the house have undergone very, very long periods of incremental evolution as society changes. The question for me is always whether the mutations within the space change our social relations, or is it that social relations change and are reflected in differences in the house itself?
For example, before the 1600s there were no corridors. All rooms joined to each other. That meant that if you’re sitting in a room reading a book someone else could pass through that room at any moment. The invention of the corridor brings with it the concept of privacy. It separates the aristocracy and the servants. But did the corridor follow from people saying it would be quite nice to not be constantly interrupted and have some space to ourselves? Or was the corridor invented for some other reason and the consequence was the invention of privacy?
You mentioned the women’s movement. How could the arrangement of space promote gender equality?
In the 1980s, Delores Hayden wrote an amazing book called The Grand Domestic Revolution. It details several strategies used by what she calls “material feminists” in the late 19th century. For example, a group of women felt their domestic labor was going unnoticed by their husbands, so they designed a house floor plan in which the shortest distance between the head of the dining table and the armchair next to the fire (the literal seats of power in the home) passed through the laundry and the kitchen. Suddenly, men could not avoid seeing their wives hard at work for their sole benefit. It was an attempt to overturn the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.”
That’s a very cool idea. A lot of homes now have open-plan kitchens that make it part of the living space. Do you think that’s helping bring about more equal sharing of household chores by making housework more visible?
The short answer is I don’t. Although we’ve removed the walls between the living kitchen and dining rooms, we have not really considered the nature of those spaces. The walls have been removed because of size pressure. We’ve ended up in multifunctional IKEA Swiss Army knife spaces. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve created a freer space.
We’re more sensitive to power relations within the home now, but that’s not necessarily because of the design of the home. The majority of homes are still extremely patriarchal and conservative in the social model that they present. In spaces where we’re seeing greater equality, it has to do with the fundamental change in the family structure itself. It’s multiple couples or individuals sharing an apartment and being forced to create a situation of equality between unrelated people.
You don’t just publish Real Review, you’re also a practicing architect. How do these ideas come into play in your practice?
We’re really interested in mass housing. Most of our work deals with different categories of ownership and creating financial and corporate structures that reinforce or create different conditions of space. We designed a housing block for Croydon, which sadly wasn’t built, where half of your rent would go towards your private, mini-apartment and half towards communal space. That requires a level of negotiation, so the democratic structure of the building is built into the rental contract and into the way the space operates.
Another example is a hotel for artists and creatives. The idea was to create multiple branches around the world. Rather than charge a nightly rate, you charge annual membership giving them the right to stay in any room in any branch for the whole year. You then limit the time they can stay in one country to three months. What this does is use the different living costs to create an affordable base rate. It makes living in New York or London for three months more affordable. It removes barriers towards movement and freedom. You’re not a resident of any country, so you avoid paying taxes. The idea is that we live in a neoliberal global model in which the top 1% have withdrawn from paying taxes and have become this ultimately mobile entity.
“Many creatives today really love the idea of freedom of movement and mobility, but how can we open up the advantages that are only being seen by a very small percentage of the population to a broader group?”
We’re also doing things like designing a mortgage product for the Royal Bank of Scotland around creating affordable housing. We work on designing new financial products as much as we do on new housing models, because they go together. You can’t have one without the other.
Is that typical of the way other architects are working nowadays, too?
No, actually, in that sense my own work is very unusual because of the scope that it takes. It’s a response to the broader picture, which is that architecture itself is in crisis. After WWII, national governments asked architects to take a serious role in the formation of the state. We did housing. We did civic projects. We did a lot of very important infrastructure. And we felt ourselves to be a very important profession. Then by the 1980s and 2000s we were basically doing cultural projects and being used to create speculative wealth and luxury apartments, things like the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and so on. But since 2008 and the crash we no longer have the ability to really contribute properly to mass housing and modernization of society.
We’re also no longer finding large cultural projects, so it’s not really clear what architects are for. Architects have to try to raise public awareness about spatial conditions and their effects, to suggest to people that space is an invention, and that the way that we live is an invention.
“We live in design objects. There is nothing natural or normal, there’s no such thing as tradition, the way that we live is reinvented every couple of years. Once we understand that, we can begin to intervene critically in those spaces and really make positive propositions for the type of society that we want to live in. I think that type of certainty and willingness to make a proposal is lacking in society generally at the moment.”
Do these ideas apply to the practice of graphic design as well?
Of course. Graphics communicate ideology very powerfully. Consider the strategic use of gothic script by the Nazis. Or the power of a font like Johnston to communicate the value of transparent governance, as it conveys a kind of universal neutral authority (typifying the British obsession with clear public information). Just like other spatial conditions, graphics do not appear out of nowhere—that is, they’re always situated in a context. And this context, both temporal and spatial, whether on a screen, a page, or an entire nation, influences the possible actions of society.
In issue 1 of Real Review you wrote about classical architecture being an attempt to preserve elitist social class structures. Does that apply in graphic design as well?
The way style applies to graphic design and architecture is very similar. Imagine you’re designing a hospital in 1899. The basic functions of a hospital are pretty much fixed, but you could then apply a gothic style or a classical style, Greco-Roman for example, or some other Baroque style. You could apply whatever style you want to the outside. That then changes your whole perception of the building. We have these deep associations with different types of style. Even changing a font in a book completely changes the message. For example there was a very famous architect called Mies van der Rohe who only ever typeset books in sans serif. I think it was a type of Century Gothic. He only used a single weight and a single point size. So there’s almost no hierarchy across the book. That’s quite a powerful graphic message. It tells you a lot about the way he thought the writing related to the architecture. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a case of elitism in graphic design, although that can sometimes be the case. It’s more a question of understanding what different styles mean, what’s the discourse, what’s the history of that work and how can you use that in an intelligent way. Do you use it to reinforce a point, to give authority to an argument or to undermine it, to reject a particular direction that design might be going in, or to support it?
Do you think people who are concerned with social change need to spend more time thinking about design and architecture? Or conversely, that designers need to be more aware of the social implications of their designs?
Both. As designers we are always making proposals and propositions for how the world should operate and look. We make systemic and aesthetic interventions in reality. These are always ideological – it’s impossible to escape. We know implicitly that if we select one font, for example, over another, then we have made a statement of intent. We think we are setting a mood for the work, or giving it a kind of persona – I think design is sometimes seen as a sort of mask you can put on to play a role. But in fact, every design decision represents a value judgment and we have to take responsibility for its consequences.
What advice do you have for a designer who wants to put these ideas into practice? What questions could they try asking themselves?
Understanding the role of the project is very important. Normally a client comes to you with a brief. But okay, what if a client doesn’t come to you with a brief? How do you initiate that activity? Frequently I see designers have a desire for self-publication. They have the natural creative urge to make something. But if you’re not sure why, the product can end up being very unclear, and not necessarily through a lack of skill. You need to draw the limit on what you’re trying to do. It can’t be everything to everyone, it needs a very clear scope and field that it’s going to try and intervene in. Then you need to look at previous examples in that field and see where you agree or disagree, and then turn that into a proposition.
The other piece of advice is if you think you want to do something, begin it immediately. No one can know when they pick up a blank piece of paper what it is they’re going to put on it. If you did know it would not be a design. It would be a copy. The thing only becomes real in the process of being done, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to alter something.
If you could change one thing about the average Western home or office, in order to promote a more equal or progressive society, what would it be?
The one thing I would change is our structure of mortgages. You can talk about the design of the home, but none of it really helps unless there’s a reform of rental and mortgage services. I’d like to see great protections for people who rent and new types of mortgages which require less financial commitment. There’s a model called rent to buy where you don’t have a deposit, you just start renting and after two years that money becomes your deposit. I’d like to see more collective mortgages with glorified families grouping together and building collectively. That would be what I would change, the financial and legal structures that underpin housing.
Once you consider finance as a design field as well, we can just go in and design whatever we think is the best way. And that’s really useful for exposing the idea that finance and economics aren’t universal objective conditions. They are just value judgments by the people who have the money. It’s about understanding how architecture, finance, and legal structures work together to create conditions, and how can we intervene in all three of these to change them.