Aberrant Architecture: play for today


Humour has become something of a signature for the work of David Chambers and Kevin Haley, collectively known as Aberrant Architecture. And while finding the fun in the projects they work on, from interactive installations to studies of the British pub, the duo approaches them through historical research and storytelling.


BP

 

Words: Cate St Hill
Portrait: Ivan Jones

Being true to its name, Aberrant Architecture is part of a new generation of fun-loving young practices that are eschewing traditional methods of architectural practice in favour of multidisciplinary studios, with a focus on the more playful side of research and participation. David Chambers and Kevin Haley, who make up Aberrant, aren't interested in vanity projects or radical ideas about the future, but rather in forming a critical debate about how we live, work and play in the world today. The mischievous twosome frames this debate with a heavy dose of storytelling, a dash of history and a smattering of fun and games to create thought-provoking and interactive projects and installations.

Kevin Haley (left) and David Chambers (right) with stools made of chicken-feed storage bins, part of Roaming Market (2013). Photo Credit: Ivan Jones.
Kevin Haley (left) and David Chambers (right) with stools made of chicken-feed storage bins, part of Roaming Market (2013). Photo Credit: Ivan Jones

It makes light-hearted relief from all the talk of struggling young practices and the growing gulf between the smallest and largest offices in the profession. In a world of 'starchitects' and battles for the tallest skyscraper, Aberrant is doing its own thing, and it is doing it very well.

Lunchbook mobile canteen, designed for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale, provides a meal-time network for flexible worker. Photo Credit: Aberrant architecture
Lunchbook mobile canteen, designed for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale, provides a meal-time network for flexible worker. Photo Credit: Aberrant architecture

Chambers and Haley first hit it off while studying at London's Royal College of Art and made the decision to set up a practice together while sitting atop Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama Port Terminal, on a university trip to Tokyo. Whereas Chambers' background is in architecture, having gone to Bath University, Haley studied interior architecture at Ravensbourne College in London before working at Foster + Partners and Softroom Architects. Chambers is the more reflective of the two, while Haley is pragmatic and straight to the point. 'There's a nice contrast in the way we approach projects from a slightly different perspective,' says Chambers. 'But having both studied at the RCA, we were also interested in projects with a social agenda, responding to people's needs, wants and desires.'

The Social Playground, a giant interactive landscape built in collaboration with local community groups in Liverpool. Photo Credit: Fact Liverpool
The Social Playground, a giant interactive landscape built in collaboration with local community groups in Liverpool. Photo Credit: Fact Liverpool

The name Aberrant Architecture came out of a need for the newborn practice to gain maximum exposure, and ultimately work in a highly competitive industry. It is no coincidence that the two letters of its name are right at the beginning of the alphabet, ensuring it would be at the top of any list or directory. It is a strategy that the duo say has so far worked in their favour. Haley comments: 'The name was strategic but at the same time it does begin to encompass what I think this collaboration is about. The combination of two backgrounds means that we're interested in a different type of practice, one that looks at things from a series of scales, from furniture design up to visions hopefully, one day, of an entire city.'

The Social Playground, a giant interactive landscape built in collaboration with local community groups in Liverpool. Photo Credit: Fact Liverpool
The Social Playground, a giant interactive landscape built in collaboration with local community groups in Liverpool. Photo Credit: Fact Liverpool

Aberrant started life in Haley's flat in east London during evenings and weekends away from full-time jobs, but the real launch pad came with the duo winning the Victoria and Albert Museum's inaugural architecture residency held in conjunction with the RIBA in 2010. The V&A in effect became their first real studio and saw them mining the extensive museum and RIBA collections to try and identify the best historical precedents for more flexible modes of living and working. 'We had a shared interest, coming out of our student projects at the RCA, about contemporary lifestyles,' says Haley. 'We were interested in ideas such as home working, and felt that the changes in the ways we are living weren't really being addressed at the time.'

The Social Playground, a giant interactive landscape built in collaboration with local community groups in Liverpool. Photo Credit: Fact Liverpool
The Social Playground, a giant interactive landscape built in collaboration with local community groups in Liverpool. Photo Credit: Fact Liverpool

During the residency they found a series of drawings of a Victorian pub in Lambeth called the Elephant & Castle. The now-demolished building had a variety of different public and private environments, where patrons could choose the one that best fitted their activity: quiet booths and a snug offered intimacy away from the big open bars packed with standing people, while other rooms provided a post office, bureau de change, job centre and a kitchen where you could cook your own food. 'This is one of the first examples of quite an interesting workplace -- what was interesting about it was that, if you think of a pub today, it is predominately a place for drinking, but this pub really ramped up the programme to support the local community,' said Haley at a talk on workplaces in February to coincide with a short residency and exhibition of Aberrant's work in Clerkenwell.

A model of the Elephant & Castle pub, which offered visitors a meeting place, job centre, post office, bureau de change and games room, all rolled into one. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy
A model of the Elephant & Castle pub, which offered visitors a meeting place, job centre, post office, bureau de change and games room, all rolled into one. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

At around the same time as the V&A residency, Aberrant set up a trade stand at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale to demonstrate the issues that often arise from home working. With its signature sense of humour, Aberrant sold fictional products and services that catered to the needs of China's expanding group of flexible workers -- for example, the LunchBook mobile canteen provided a meal-time network to mimic the sociability of eating at work, while the Commuter Computer had a set of bicycle pedals fitted beneath a homeworker's desk to replicate the health benefits of cycling to the office. Also on offer were elevator doors that could be installed in the doorway of a home to separate home and work by recreating a sense of arriving at/leaving the office, complete with elevator music and up to 60 floors of waiting time.

A model of the Elephant & Castle pub, which offered visitors a meeting place, job centre, post office, bureau de change and games room, all rolled into one. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy
A model of the Elephant & Castle pub, which offered visitors a meeting place, job centre, post office, bureau de change and games room, all rolled into one. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

These ideas about flexible working lifestyles, based on Chambers' and Haley's own observations of nomadic working in different spaces -- from Haley's flat to a cafe in Dalston and a two-week stint in Selfridges' shop window for the 2010 London Festival of Architecture -- were tested out at the El Paso bar in Old Street. Haley says: 'El Paso's problem before we became involved, and a problem that we experience in coffee shops, is that you can go and sit in a space which is essentially psychologically vacant -- no one's talking to anyone, they're all plugged into their headphones.'

A model of the Elephant & Castle pub, which offered visitors a meeting place, job centre, post office, bureau de change and games room, all rolled into one. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy
A model of the Elephant & Castle pub, which offered visitors a meeting place, job centre, post office, bureau de change and games room, all rolled into one. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

Aberrant transformed the bar into a diner and workspace with a variety of environments, from a private mezzanine level and library to an open-plan public space on the ground floor, and installed plug sockets, lockers and large tables to encourage working. The Gopher Hole -- a space set up in El Paso's basement to host events, critical debate and exhibitions -- was directly inspired by the Club Room in the Victorian pub, which acted as a community space for local group meetings, events and auctions.

El Paso bar in Old Street, London, transformed by Aberrant Architecture into a lively bar and workspace. Photo Credit: Lynton Pepper
El Paso bar in Old Street, London, transformed by Aberrant Architecture into a lively bar and workspace. Photo Credit: Lynton Pepper

Conversely, as a reaction against co-working environments -- which are becoming increasingly insular and technologydependant -- Aberrant's projects began to move away from the interior and into the public realm. Chambers and Haley are the type of architects who aren't interested in sitting in front of a computer -- they like to go out and get their hands dirty.

The Tiny Travelling Theatre toured sites in Clerkenwell for the Design Week 2012. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy
The Tiny Travelling Theatre toured sites in Clerkenwell for the Design Week 2012. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

A series of projects, starting with the Tiny Travelling Theatre for Clerkenwell Design Week in 2012, and then the Roaming Market in 2013, aimed to reconnect people in the street to create 'shared, intimate experiences'. Chambers reflects: 'Part of our interest in flexible working and lifestyles is not just what it means for interiors or for buildings, but what it means for the public realm -- if people use the city in more flexible ways, the streetscape becomes much more important.'

The Tiny Travelling Theatre toured sites in Clerkenwell for the Design Week 2012. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy
The Tiny Travelling Theatre toured sites in Clerkenwell for the Design Week 2012. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

Clerkenwell Design Week approached Aberrant after seeing Social Playground, which invited visitors to race eggs down seven unique structures that represented and displayed work by Liverpool community groups. The brief for CDW was fairly loose -- the duo was asked to 'do something cool that would attract a lot of attention'. They delved head first into the history of Clerkenwell and discovered the story of Thomas Britten, a travelling coal salesman during the 17th century. On top of his transportable coal shed, Britten had a small theatre space, to host concerts and plays.

The top of the Tiny Travelling Theatre was made of painted coal scuttles. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

'We were fascinated by this story of a micro-theatre in Clerkenwell. We pitched to CDW that it would be interesting to bring back a micro-concert experience and reawaken the story of Britten for the 21st century,' says Chambers. 'We took cues from little snippets of the information that we could find about the original venue. There were no original drawings or anything, but there were brief descriptions about how you had to duck to enter, and that it had an organ inside.' Aberrant's bright red Tiny Travelling Theatre, towed by a VW Campervan, toured sites in Clerkenwell and invited an audience of up to six people at a time to enjoy a series of folk performances, curated by Aberrant.

The Roaming Market for Lower Marsh Market in Waterloo provides a market stall, stage for performances and covered seating area. Photo Credit: Ben Quinton
The Roaming Market for Lower Marsh Market in Waterloo provides a market stall, stage for performances and covered seating area. Photo Credit: Ben Quinton

Chambers and Haley talk of 'design layers' -- for them it's not just about how something looks; they like to have an interesting and meaningful story behind each project, and that is always their first port of call when starting one off. They are inquisitive by nature, questioning how people live, what people need and what that can teach us about the built environment. 'We like to do projects that can be appreciated as a nice piece of design on a superficial level, but also that have these layers, which mean you can interact with it and get more from it,' says Chambers.

Beyond the occasional lecture or a talk, it has become something of a challenge for Haley, to communicate how in-depth Aberrant's projects are. 'We're not forcing it on people,' he adds, 'but it's something we're getting better at.'

The blue upturned chicken-feed storage bins were inspired by tales of fortune-telling chickens in the area during the 17th century. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy
The blue upturned chicken-feed storage bins were inspired by tales of fortune-telling chickens in the area during the 17th century. Photo Credit: Simon Kennedy

Last year, Aberrant designed an equally playful and sociable installation, called the Roaming Market, for Lower Marsh Market in London's Waterloo. Again there was a huge volume of research and storytelling that went into the project, from 17th-century drawings of historic London markets to tales of fortune-telling chickens. The resulting cheerful blue mobile structure, still in use, unfolds to provide a multifunctional market stall, featuring covered seating with built-in chessboard and a stage on the roof for performances. It has been used by fortune tellers for a St George's Day celebration, acted as the world's smallest restaurant -- with a kitchen on the roof and 1:1 dining experience below -- as well as to advertise Lower Marsh to commuters at Waterloo Station. As with the Tiny Travelling Theatre, it was as much about the design of the structure as the event programme it would later host. 'It's essentially a mobile Fourth Plinth,' says Chambers. 'It's a platform for the market to express what it is about.'

At the moment the practice is renovating a school in Dalston -- a project that came out of research for the British Pavilion's exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale two years ago into an experimental school-building programme conceived by Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil in the Eighties. The project will be on site this summer and is expected to finish at the end of the year. Aberrant is also designing a permanent piece of public art in Swansea, part of a project to relink the city to its waterfront. As part of the commission, the duo is enjoying a six-month residency at the Mission Gallery in the city to research the collections of the Swansea Museum and the National Waterfront Museum, and to identify interesting stories from the city's social history. One such discovery is that Swansea was once a centre for copper production, with the copper coming from Chile. Undoubtedly, Chambers and Haley couldn't help but bring their own playful twist to the research -- they've just found out that the sailors used to invent games to pass the time on the voyages from Swansea to Santiago. 'We just want to have fun,' enthuses Haley.

So what would Aberrant's dream project be? For Haley it would be a film, which he feels takes a similar approach to its projects, but for Chambers there is no particular type of project or building, rather 'projects that allow us to try out our approach and our ideas... because we are more interested in the research, the narrative and the story'. And therein lies what ultimately sets them apart -- their ability to stop and think before trying to solve a problem purely with building.





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