We have an advocacy component. For example, we did a project with Fair Share Housing Center, and also with Poverty and Race Research Action Council, where we did some federal legislative advocacy around the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. Our students did some work in response to a guidance issued by the treasury department regarding LIHTC, and then also some legislative advocacy, drafting portions of a bi-partisan bill.
For me, the role of the unsolicited architect is to create the possibility for projects which might not have otherwise been created. The mechanism we have at the moment is the market. It's developers, people looking for opportunities within the built fabric that they can take advantage of. I mean that in a neutral way. Yet, what that means is that there is a huge incentive to produce things which will make money. There is less incentive to produce things which might have second order effects, like improved health or education, or reduce overheads for a local authority who might be spending an awful lot on social care or education. The unsolicited architect can work before the idea of a project is suggested, to create the possibility of that project.
The result of unsolicited architecture is what you might call more conventional architecture. But, the creation of those problems, and the identification of those opportunities, is a job that nobody is really doing at the moment.
When I first came across Ole Bouman’s idea of unsolicited architecture in Volume magazine, it was presented as an activist form of architecture, a kind of aggressive recapturing of ideas–being subversive and on the fringes, all of those cool things. Now, I see it much more in a conventional sense: that actually, it’s the kind of thing that your city council should be supporting, and that it can create opportunities for all kinds of practices.
In a way, it is a public interest practice. They are not making money from winning projects. As a private organization, you might operate in an unsolicited manner, but there is a sort of broader role for those projects to be revealed and then thrown into the private sector, and maybe they end up going to competition, or being tendered for, or that kind of thing.
We use design as an instrument and not an end result. Our visualization skills and architectural translations are a means of beginning and acquiring projects. The project is much more than that aesthetic performance. It is backed up by the group, the economics, the business model, and a willingness to cooperate. It is a high dose of information and intense coordination of these trajectories, but, we are still here, and we are actually getting stuff built.
The most recent thing in the office is the Indian Museum of Independence. In this case, there was no New York Times feature—no one asked us to do it.
The project is a provocation. It is a provocation not only to India, but to the United Kingdom, and all other past-colonial powers. We think it is the power of architecture to talk about these kind of tough social issues.
You know, we can cry in our milk about political people not caring about the things that we care about, or we can try to reframe what we are saying so that it is something that actually resonates with what they care about. That's what I try to do.
There are two ways to look at it: one is that these are interesting academic provocations that keep things interesting and architects relevant; the other is that it's a kind of bastardized version of competition work, where architects, without the involvement of clients who are absolutely necessary to make projects come together, are dispensing free work for the public good. I personally am very averse philosophically to unrestrained participation in competitions. I think it's a bad to use an architect—it devalues our work.
It's like Elon Musk and the Hyperloop—he threw that out there, and got a tremendous amount of conversation going. Of course he followed it up with millions of dollars of research, but at the beginning it was just a giant provocation. That's really okay, unless he can't put food on the table for his children because he's spending time provoking.
Ultimately, we’re trying to use the business as a way to give us the exploratory freedom that we desire rather than relying on competitions for it.
It's striking how you’ve found freedom in the pragmatic, rejecting competitions and finding exploration through clients as opposed to unpaid imagination.