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Playground city: An interview with art architect Nicola Read

22 August 2011 Tom Hunter

London Calling talks to architect Nicola Read from the 815agency about delight in architecture, playfulness and her part in the Alternative Village Fete taking place as part of Watch This Space at the National Theatre, 28th and 29th August.

The 815agency is a new kind of architectural practice interested in the idea that a new building isn't always the solution to a client's problem.

Set up by Nicola Read in 2010 their current interests include abandoned spaces, urban infrastructures, high streets, narrative, ritual, spectacle, collectivity and play.

London Calling: You’ve worked with some great venues and institutions – National Theatre, British Museum, V&A etc – can you tell us more about the kinds of projects you’ve organised in these spaces?

Nicola Read: I love working within interesting spaces in the city, public or private, inside and out, and have an interest in how people interact within these spaces. What’s interesting and important to me is how their particular qualities or character are tied up with memories or narratives they hold, whether that's the formal pocket of Covent Garden - stitched into the dense fabric city, or the derelict void of an abandoned petrol station forecourt.

LC: And is one of your interests in the different ways people act in those spaces?

NR: Yes, I am intrigued as to how our learnt behaviour conditions us to conduct ourselves in a particular way in these spaces - whether it's an old petrol station or a prestigious gallery - and how we can sometimes subvert that behaviour by creating alternative spatial situations or ‘spectacles’.

For example, for ‘Playgrounds’ a Friday late at the V&A we devised and fabricated ‘Pass the Impossibly Large Parcel’ a ridiculously oversized version of the conventional tea-party game which was played in the domed entrance foyer of the museum.

LC: What did your Impossibly Large Parcel have inside?

It was a 2.5m tall and 2m wide ‘egg’, constructed of 11 paper layers each filled with handmade paper surprises including mustaches and gold-tipped party hats.

LC: So it was like the normal game, where the music stops...

...and the next layer is torn off- yes, exactly. We had the ‘parcel force’, a pair of actors commissioned to protect the parcel between layers, to marshall the crowds and - protect the parcel at stages! Hundreds of players dropped in and out of the game during the evening.

It culminated in the tearing apart of a white, illuminated paper ball which released a shower of goose feathers and 500 yellow origami cranes onto the mosaic. It felt delightfully surreal, and slightly provocative, to propose and play-out this degree of physical activity, fun and frivolity within such an established institution – traditionally famed for its stone sculpture and antiquities collection rather than a place for having fun, all within arms reach of the Medieval and Renaissance gallery.

LC: And that then went to the Southbank Centre?

We replayed a version of ‘Pass the Impossibly Large Parcel’ outside at the National Theatre as part of Hide and Seek's ‘Sandpit’ at the ‘Watch this Space’ festival, this time accompanied by a one-man-band rather than a DJ.

One of my favourite aspects of the playing of the parcel is the way in which people interact with others they don't know and naturally enter into the playful spirit of the game by re-appropriating the wrapping paper into hats and other adornments, much like a child a Christmas preferring the box to the newly acquired toy!  It was great to watch the papery chaos unfold against the backdrop of the Southbank and the Thames, and the demographic of the players was different with many more children than we had expected, and over 60’s.

LC: Tell me about the piece at the British Museum, for the Friday Late associated with their Book of the Dead exhibition

NR: We were invited to reinterpret the Ancient Egyptian board game Senet at a life-size scale. Senet, believed to be the world’s oldest board game, literally translates as ‘game of passing’ and is an allegorical representation of the afterlife. Our cardboard constructions created an inhabitable re-imagining of the game with gates, amulets and a field of reeds which grew larger as the evening played out. Each player became a playing piece in the game, adorned with cylindrical cardboard hats of varying proportions and guided by a comical in house god equipped with knucklebone playing dice.

LC: And what about the party at the disused petrol station, the one in Clerkenwell later used for the Cineroluem?

NR: Yes. Alongside these more formal commissions we also work on projects in found, or inbetween, spaces celebrating their oddity or narratives. So as part of the London Festival of Architecture 2010 we – the 815 Agency together with Crystal Bennes of SALON - created ‘Filling Station’, a feast for 100 people in a disused petrol station in Clerkenwell, which we won permission to use after several months of persuasion. There we constructed a banquet table out of 420 polystyrene fish boxes filled with food supplied by local eateries.

LC: What's the link between feasting and an old petrol station in Clerkenwell?

NR: Ha, yes besides from midnight pasty runs...Well, the idea of the feast was informed by the area's long-standing relationship with food, from the sixteenth-century feasts of the Order of St John to modern day associations with Smithfield Market. Everyone paid a tenner and the food was great.
Bompas and Parr supplied a spectacular ether-laced Techron Trifle Chapel Down Wines provided the drinks, with oysters and stout from Hix Oyster and Chop House  and bread from St John.

LC: Continuing from that, I’m especially interested in the idea of the alternative village fete concept you’re involved with as part of the National Theatre's Watch This Space season of events. Other than being staged in a city rather than a village, what else about this might make it an ‘alternative’ event?

NR: If you consider the Village Fete to be a ‘type’ it’s one predicated on existing within a small community where everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s business. You know - Mrs Smith runs the cake stall where Mrs Jones’ Victoria Sponge always wins the best cake, year-in year-out, and Bob always drinks too much while manning the coconut shy, that sort of thing. The Alternative Village Fete, curated by Home Life Art, is in the crafted and homemade spirit of the prototypical Village fete but draws upon the rich community of London and its weird and wonderful eccentricities – and London patently isn’t a small community!

The 815agency’s contribution is ‘DenCity’, a City of Dens outside the National Theatre. Anyone can come down to the Southbank and join in building their own addition to the ‘city of dens’ which we are trying to construct over two days. We are creating a framework of plots, to mimic buildings or ‘pieces of city’, and collating a palette of materials based around ropes and fabrics. There will be architects and architecture students on hand to offer advice and to hopefully provoke some imaginative constructions.

LC: I see that 815 is at least in part inspired the work of Cedric Price, who sounds fascinating, and I see he was way ahead of the curve in suggesting a giant wheel for the Thames! How have his ideas informed the agency’s vision, and, assuming budget is no limit, and Boris is willing, what kind of grand plans would you love to see take shape in London?

NR: So, Cedric Price (1934-2003) was an architect who advocated that architecture must “enable people to think the unthinkable” and he really saw the role of the architect as that of asking the right questions rather than of simple administering designs for buildings on demand. He is remembered for the approach which asked not “What kind of building do you want?” but rather first asking, “do you really need a building”. My background is in architecture, and this approach is quite accepted within education yet strangely absent within the profession when considering how to approach a brief. Anyway, Price. Well, he was working with Joan Littlewood, who founded a theatre workshop in east London, and with her proposed building a ‘Fun Palace’, a laboratory of fun, for Stratford where there would be dance, music, drama and fireworks. He famously said of his ideas for the fun palace it was somewhere where you could “try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky” food for thought given last week’s events in London.

LC: And inspired by  Price, what would your grand plan be?

NR: I'm currently not in the business of making Grand Plans, rather small interventions. However, as an exercise it might be nice to resurrect Price’s ambition and finally have a fun-palace in Stratford to counteract the banality of the soon-to-be Westfield and other generic impositions blighting the near-future of the East end. I don’t reckon Boris would back it but personally I don’t view him, or the role of Mayor, as the singular custodian of London.

LC: What advice might you give a visitor to London who’s keen to see that city in a new way and avoid the tourist trails (or at least subtly subvert them)?

NR: Well, this summer if you want a taste of London I’d head to Peckham, buy a Patty on Rye Lane and then head up to the Bold Tendencies sculpture exhibition on top of the concrete car-park, run by the community and the Hannah Barry gallery next door. If you’re up for something more fancy you could have a drink in the Campari bar on-top, the best time to go is just before sunset on a clear day as the view of the London skyline form the top is beautiful.

LC: And finally, what are you working on next?

NR: The DenCity project is happening as part of the Alternative village fete in August, but its also going on tour to Lincolnshire and Brighton in October.
We’ve also, been working on a project called the 'Poetry Takeaway' designed for Show and Tell, which is currently on tour around Britain. It’s basically a twist on a burger van but it vends poems instead of burgers. Tom, from Show and Tell has named it the ‘world’s first mobile poetry emporium’, and he is filling it full of poets and pitching it up in cities and fields around Britian to serve bespoke poetry to the masses. It is at the Edinburgh fringe for the month of August.

In September we’re doing a project at the Tate Britain as a part of the Embrace the Place day, where we will be exploring the notion of the productive landscape through our miniature potato farm, come chip factory. We are also starting some longer based research projects about the way use and experience public and private spaces in London, and trying to secure a more permanent project space to run exploratory work from.

Interview by Tom Hunter, editor-in-chief for If you have a great story or event to share with us, you can contact us here

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