A Conversation With Jack Self
"I want to do cool stuff. The overarching narrative of my career so far has mainly been asking people permission to do stuff, then being told that I can’t do it, and then finding ways to do it."
Toshiki Niimi (TN): You talk about economics with a fairly strict and hard numeric approach, but you are also involved in ventures like 032C and more cultural ways of approaching economics. Could talk a bit about the relationship of the two?
Jack Self (JS): We have an idea now that society always moves forward—that there’s always a question of progress, and that every generation is better than the one that preceded it—but in Western civilization this hasn’t always been the case. In Ancient Greece and even until the medieval period they didn’t have a concept of progress, so they didn’t think things changed. There were only really two states of rule in the city: one was when the city was ruled by its citizens. This was a period of politics, or polis, which is the word for Greek city-state. And then there was another period of tyranny, or oikos. You may have heard discussions of oikos as being the root of economics, and of oikos being the Greek word forhouse, but it’s not really the word for the house, or even household management. Oikos actually means clan or extended family, probably more in the sense of an extended household structure, similar to feudal Japan. So the oikos period of economics was when private interests, or a small group of oligarchs, ruled the city. For the Greeks you either had politics, or you had economics; you didn’t have both simultaneously. And at the moment where they changed from one system to another, you got a period of civil war. Their word for civil war was stasis, things staying in a moment of flux, in a way.
The way that I approach politics and economics is very much as two distinct spheres. I look at them as being a process by which the interests of the people attempt to rule and a process by which a small group of people attempt to rule everyone else, respectively. On a cultural level that is how I think about economics, as being really how we see this power struggle between these two different types of groups.
But then of course, economics in contemporary society has many other meanings as well, and one of those applies to the game of money, circulation, and value exchange. And for those things, you can’t really do a lot. If you’re talking about how to make a building, those types of economic structures are really hard to change or influence, but often you can approach them in an indirect way, by thinking about them in terms of who has control of the money, and therefore where the power lies, and for whom they are executing those works—whether it’s for the good of a large group of people, or whether it’s for specific interests.
Tiffany Xu (TX): It seems that this way of thinking in terms of financial systems is separate from what we do here in architecture school. Prior to architecture school, I worked in the financial sector. I find that the skills, methods and frameworks of thinking in the financial sector do not necessarily overlap with the skills and ways of thinking in architecture. As architects, do you think our responsibilities include understanding financial models and their relationship to our built environment? Do you see learning about financial models as an extension of the current scope of what we must know? Or, do you think there is a trade-off with learning this and our conventional skillset?
JS: I flip-flop quite a lot on this, internally, because you’re absolutely right. The more differing models of design I understand, the more I begin to understand design as a very broad concept. I think that there is a common design methodology that cuts across different a lot of these different spheres, and that has to do with the essence of how to think creatively around problems.
Since the concept of architecture was invented maybe 450 years ago—there’s a controversial one for you [laughter]—you basically see that the architect has expanded their sphere of control. It began with Brunelleschi not giving the complete models for his dome to the builders in advance, and from that period onwards, the architect has continued trying to get more control.
Let me summarize and flip this around in another way: architects are now today thinking about materiality, engineering, sustainability, structures, historical concerns, cultural concerns, planning policies, legislation. But within all of these factors that we think about in terms of design, we draw a very hard line when it comes to being involved in the conditions of the finance, and that involves the way that projects are ordered and structured. I would like to see architects take more control over that. Personally, I’m trying to, because I want to do cool stuff, and the overarching narrative of my career so far has mainly been asking people permission to do stuff, then being told that I can’t do it, and then finding ways to do it, because I don’t care.
This will give you a really good example of the type of building work that I’m trying to do, which involves the world of finance. After having spent five years researching the London property markets and its existing conditions, and having a general moral or ethical ambition to build very low-rent or very low-cost housing in London, the conclusion has been the following: a typology of building which is small and very compact and can be built multiple times using the same floor plans and the same structure. It is a form of co-housing, but by that what I mean is that there are shared amenities within the building. The construction process, construction technologies, and materials cut about twenty-five percent of the cost of the building out. The cost of the land is also very low, because they’re pieces of land that are not wanted or used by other developers. These are pieces of land where a train rounds a corner, or you get a triangular piece of land that no one wants to build on because it’s too small, but that’s ideal for me. We did a study of all of the land and the bits of terrain left over in London and identified about a thousand sites that would be ideal for the model that we want to build. Then we went to the mayor of London’s office and have been negotiating with them. Now we’re at the point where they would support us from the side of planning and even contribute state money towards making this venture possible. In the end, you reduce the cost, and finally this will be a serviced apartment model where, hopefully, the individual who lives there will be paying between sixty-five and seventy-five percent of the market rate.
The whole thing could fall apart, but you get the developers interested by presenting with a viability study that I could not have done except because I have a background in project finance. When I go and speak with them, I’m able to present it in the language that developers understand and feel comfortable with.
There’s also are moral, technical, and legal dimensions to it. If you live in a local borough—a local authority or council area—you go on a list for social housing, and eventually if an apartment becomes available you might qualify for it based on need. Being tied to a waiting list in one borough is a completely archaic vision of how to get access to social housing. In the company that I intend to start, we will probably voluntarily take people that are on the local authorities list. We don’t have to—we could just pull entirely from the private market—but then that leads into the moral question which is, if you’re taking people from the private market, how do you choose who is most in need? This subject of moral priority is a really difficult one to answer, and we have long discussions in the office about it. Ultimately, I don’t have the clear answer for you on that. It’s very complex, whether you take the state-established means testing as your basis, or whether you try to develop your own internal logic for that. You need philosophers on hand for that type of thing, I think.
TN: You mentioned the language of developers, and you briefly mentioned a background in project finance. I’m interested in how an architect could actually engage these realms of influence. Maybe you could also discuss your own personal background as to how you got into this work?
JS: The way it works in the UK is you graduate from university, you do a minimum of twenty-four months experience, which has to be signed off by a registered architect. Then you do either a six-month or twelve-month “Part Three” course relating to planning policies. They’re not related to structures or site preparation. They’re things like corporate structure, file management, how to write a contract, contract law generally, indemnity, insurance, liability, risk management, procurement, contract structures, team structures—basically everything to do around architecture. As part of that, you often touch on questions of project finance, particularly as it relates to how the architect manages their budget internally.
When I did my Part Three and became a registered architect, I learned a huge amount about this. One of my projects was a kind of consequence of that, in which I realized that an appendix to the Royal Institute of British Architect’s contract is a design project. You can design a contract as an appendix, which changes the entire role of the architect inside the project. And that for me was a valid form of architectural design. But that comes far too late in the university education. It’s only after you’ve done at least five years of school, at least one year out, and then another two years of experience at the end of that. It’s the better part of a decade, normally, before you understand what corporate structure you should adopt. With my students this year, we’re already talking about procurement and project finances as a design field.
In 2011 I dropped out of architecture school for a year. Actually, I couldn’t afford to pay my fees so I got kicked out. I had to work to earn enough money to go back to school. I thought that would be an extremely crushing intellectual defeat, because I couldn’t work as an architect—that doesn’t pay well enough to pay for school fees. I was doing all sorts of other work. In the evenings I did a one-year accelerated M. Phil in macroeconomics. My dissertation was on the morality of neo-liberal economic theory, which is more interesting than it sounds. Also, spoiler alert, it’s not very moral. [laughter]
So that’s my background. And because of that, when I returned to the AA I realized that I wanted to be involved in the world of finance because one of my pressing issues was that I had no money and I needed to find a way to get money. As a student at the AA, it was ambiguous as to whether I was doing a masters or a Ph.D. or whether I was teaching at the AA, even though I was an undergraduate student. I left that very vague as to what my actual role in the school was. I contacted PricewaterhouseCoopers, Halifax, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Deloitte, a bunch of different financial consultants. I was very specific about which ones I contacted and why, which ones I wanted to provide general consultancy advice, and which ones I wanted to provide specific knowledge of certain types of financial products, mainly mortgages. Mortgages and bonds—those were the two markets I was interested in. You know, it’s like anything: if you want to learn how to draw, you look at a lot of drawings, then you ask someone who can draw really well how they do it, and then you improve. I was interested in finance, so I applied myself to it, and I learned it that way.
Sheila Mednick (SM): I am interested inthe more financial side of commercial development. I realize that it requires a pretty high tolerance of risk. In thinking about how architects in the United States specifically can adapt, one thing that’s interesting is that, in terms of business operations, we don’t necessarily have a history collectively of really challenging the status quo and putting ourselves in places of vulnerability. That seems like a big hurdle towards getting into development and finance.
JS: Risk management is key. I mean understanding a philosophy of risk management, if I understood you correctly.
SM: Right. I wonder how much the stereotypes about personality traits within different professions are true, and if architects can adopt a proclivity for risk management, or if it’s particularly challenging to do so?
JS: I would say two things about that.
The first is that there’s a weird paradox in contemporary society. Quite a lot of the built environment is driven by high-risk operation, but on the whole we live in an economy which is increasingly managing and minimizing that risk, and in fact even eliminating risk. Just look at how many scars kids have these days. They don’t have scars, because they’re not exposed to risk. That’s a very banal example, but risk, generally, is being minimized. I would say that the crash in 2008 was not really caused by ultra high-risk operations, but it was caused by the fact that when the mortgage market collapsed—a collapse is also not really the right term for it—you get a credit crunch because people are so risk-averse that they’re not prepared to engage in interbank lending. Too much risk aversion is actually what causes the markets to crash.
It is the case that capitalism, generally, is driven by what I believe in America you call “big dick energy,” and I think it has historically been driven by that. I have no admiration for this toxic vision of masculinity which seems to drive that idea of capitalism. I think we can move beyond that. And I think we can take a more reasoned approach to it as well. The benefit of queer theory is that now people even five years younger than me no longer feel the need to be part of that macho stereotype, and therefore no longer feel the need to be driven towards social prestige in the same way. When you stop to think about how that might work out in the financial sector and in development, it doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily taking fewer risks, but that we have our eyes open, in a way, as we approach these types of things.
I myself have been very guilty of taking extremely high risks, but that’s also because I didn’t have very much. It’s not something that I naturally want to do; I don’t enjoy it. For example, I kept writing these articles that kept getting turned down for publication, and I realized that I wanted to change or promote certain types of ideas in architecture that were not allowed, so I wanted to start my own publication. I also didn’t want to take advertising, because that’s a whole pain in itself, so I started a magazine called the Real Review. There was a Kickstarter that raised £23,000; it was more luck, really, than business management, that allowed me to hit that marker. If it hadn’t worked out, the whole thing would’ve failed. Then I thought about what the risk of that was. From my side, there was no other way: I have no capital, I have no access to capital, so there was no other way for me to do that. I’m really glad that in the last eight months I have been able to massively de-risk a lot of my operations. Basically what I’m saying is, I don’t think it’s an intrinsic personality quality, I think it has to do with—or it should have to do with—acting as rationally and as impersonally as possible in analyzing your own situation and trying to work out what the possibilities are.
Francis Aguillard (FA): The notion of risk is something that I’m increasingly skeptical of as a societal narrative that supports a justification of capitalism. Mazzucato, as you said, points out that we collectively, as a society, have invested in all the riskiest technologies. There’s a way in which trades that look super risky are more entrenched, because we’re not used to the scale of investments that are hedged and insured in such a way that even if someone screws up they probably took less of a risk with a hundred million pounds than you did with £23,000.
FA: So I’m wondering: how much of risk is something that we fabricate as a narrative that’s necessary to support capitalism?
JS: I think it absolutely is. The reason I’m interested in long-term finance is because very long-term finance has close to zero risk associated with it. The longer your financial model, the less risk is involved. I’m also very interested in what I call the “capitalist event horizon.” In this instance the logic of the event horizon is that a day trader thinks in a 24-hour period and most bond markets tend to work on somewhere between one week and three months at the moment. You have some types of institutional investors—sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, people like this—who might go up to maybe twenty-five years as the limit of where they think the future is. So if you can design a financial product which makes possible a building, for example, on say a fifty- or hundred-year time span, it exists outside this sphere. Basically, you look for the limit at which risk is being managed as a financial event horizon, and you try to create a new future that’s beyond that. The reason that you can potentially work in that sphere is because a) buildings can last a very long time, and b) no one will know that you’re creating a kind of utopian future because they won’t be able to see it because it’s too far beyond their own projections. Therefore, if you can lob a project into that future, by the time they realize what it is you’ve done, it’s too late. I mean, this is part of my logic.
Jack Murphy (JM): I wanted to ask about your commitment to multimedia work. The Real Foundation recently published a book, Mies in London, and you publish the Real Review in print rather than online. I’m curious about your dedication to that format and its value, particularly in the sense that you’re offering a speculative view of the future. Does grounding the ambition in something “old” like print disguise itself or allow new ideas to be slipped in under the mat? Are there other intentions behind it?
JS: If the question is basically “Why pursue old-school media?” then I think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Houses with their brick walls and brick bays. He uses a Roman modular brick, which is very narrow. His horizontal mortar courses are very thick and the vertical ones are very short in order to give the appearance of the building kind of coming out of the ground, right? Bricks are bricks; you can do them a million different ways, but if you have intentionality behind why you’re making design decisions, then questions about how to detail become very clear.
I don’t really believe that medium is the message. The message is independent and courses through various media with different amounts of ease. I used to use Twitter a lot because when I was starting out it was a democratic sphere which allowed me to be in contact with all sorts of people that I couldn’t be in contact with otherwise. I used to run a blog for a number of years in the mid-2000s at a time when the blogosphere was a sort of refuge for independent and highly specialized forms of publishing. There were blogs about science fiction or there were blogs about military art infrastructure disguised as urban streetscape.
I use certain forms of social media strategically. We use animation a lot as a way of communicating because it allows you to present a very fixed narrative of how you control your work. Ultimately I started my own magazine in order to have control over the types of subjects that I wanted to discuss, where I didn’t think there was another outlet for that.
Specifically with print media, I think there are at least three really important reasons for doing it.
The first is that print media, because of its complexity and its cost, carries an authority that digital media doesn’t have. If you see something’s been printed in a book, you know that it’s expensive: they have an editor and a publisher, they send it to the printers, they have the budget for it—it’s like a big deal. It carries that legacy of authority with it.
The second thing is that I am a copyright cowboy: I literally just do whatever I want. I like that kind of freedom in printing. People assume that you’ve cleared copyright when you print a magazine; they assume that you’ve done due diligence. I’m creating a space that the blogosphere and zines used to occupy previously, which dates back to something like the Whole Earth catalogue, and the idea of DIY, copyleft, and not having proprietary knowledge.
This in a way ties into the third reason why I’m interested in print, which is that we published an article in the Real Review that was an interview featuring Stoya, who is a very well-known professional porn star, adult entertainment actor, and a vocal feminist. I wanted her to interview Anna Bell Peaks, who is one of the most famous cam models in the U.S. I wanted them to interview each other about the changing nature of the business, not about the industry. I’m not interested in creating a titillating article; I’m interested in the fundamental and the core nature of this transition, with this one structured business model changing to this decentralized and highly vulnerable one. Stoya said she would do it, even though she’s stopped writing, and I asked why, and she said “No comments section.”
That made me think: In print media, there are no analytics, no click tracking, no feedback loop. It means that the proposition of the content—the editorial proposition—is extremely pure. I have no feedback from the audience whatsoever regarding what they like or don’t like. I can’t guess that because someone didn’t like the article with Stoya they won’t buy the next issue. This condition has grown important in an era in which almost everything we do online is tracked and the content that we’re served exists almost entirely in a feedback loop with the other previous bits of content that we’ve read.
Pauline Chen (PC): I think it is interesting how you use time to develop some of your projects. For architects today, what can they do with their time? How can they better spend their time? It seems to me that sometimes they don’t cherish their time as much as they should.
JS: When I was studying to become a registered architect, I remember my professor asking us, “What do architects sell?” People responded: “Buildings! Ideas!” He said, “No we don’t sell buildings and ideas. We sell time.” All professionals sell time. Whether you are a lawyer or a doctor or an architect, this category of professionals are characterized by their hourly rate. Architects have not worked out how to effectively manage the selling of their time. I think how we use our time is key to the profession.
We used to have a model of work which involved standard working days. In the industrial era, you would go to work and clock in at eight or nine in the morning and clock out at five or six PM. That was it. When you were in the factory, you gave up your body completely to the process of the production line and you have no choice of what you could do. But outside of work, you could have hobbies, you could be part of an association. I think noncommercial pursuits such as joining a workers association or having different types of past times are very enriching. But I would be very surprised if any of you have hobbies. I noticed that hobbies have basically dropped off a cliff in the last five to ten years, because the concept of free time or spare time has been pretty much eliminated.
Now if you imagine a working day and all the free time that is around us, basically what has happened is that our working day has been torn up. The metaphor that I have used before is time confetti. You tear up all of the work you do and you just actualize it throughout the day. In a sense you are always working but you are also never really fully working. Certainly you go through periods of quite intense concentration, but then even when you are not working, you are still working for someone else using Instagram or working on the emails. There are actually endless models of communication which require all of your whole time. The only way I can think of to resist that as an architect is to be very dogmatic about the way you use time.
I am an advocate of a designated time block for work. It’s very hard because it requires a lot of self-discipline. Personally I normally work between eight am to one pm; that is when I get my actual work done. If you can have five good hours each day, the rest of the day could be consumed by emails and bullshit communication. If you can get that block down, then you can liberate the rest of your time to not be stressed about the work. Whereas if you are constantly breaking and working throughout the day, every time you are not working, you are anxious about the fact that you should be working.
This text is edited from conversations that took place at Rice University in Houston on October 22 & 23, 2018.
Thumbnail image of Broch 'N' Talk courtesy Rice Architecture.