Thursday, 2 February 2012

Interview 31

Alastair Parvin and Adam Towle (along with Jim Wiberley) met whilst students at the University of Sheffield School of Architecture. Here they talk about embracing the spirit of DIY and pushing the boundaries of architectural writing and the digital realm through their fanzine Makeshift.

Please tell us a little something about yourself, your background and how you got into fanzines in the first place.

Both of us come from an architectural background, but I think we both share a strong sense of dissatisfaction and impatience with architecture's unwillingness to really look beyond its very limited role of .. simply put.. producing buildings for people with money, or rather speculative financial assets for those wanting to make money. We think it's really just a sad accident of history that design ever came to be seen as just the cultural interpretation of 3D objects, shapes and aesthetics. More and more, people are realising that there's much more to design than that. Architecture faces an interesting paradox now: on one hand the traditional market for architecture has shrunk, so there's under-employment and over-work, rising student fees and seemingly a diminishing need for 'A'rchitects. Yet simultaneously anyone who follows current affairs knows that there's never been a bigger need for applied design thinking in the broader sense: given the challenges of climate-change, resource scarcity, population growth and the opportunities presented by a raft of new technologies and ideas, which could be incredibly socially disruptive if we know what to do with them.

Bruce Mau put it very nicely when he said his stated aim was to be less interested in the world of design and more interested in the design of the world.

What prompted you to start Makeshift? What is it about the fanzine format/approach/attitude that you found so appealing? In what ways do you think you are subverting this and why? Do you feel the digital aspect adds or distracts from what a fanzine should be?

It was two things. Firstly, it's something very simple. We wanted to be able to publish writing and projects in a way that couldn't be classified as being the portfolio website of a company or a student trying to sell you their work or get a job. We didn't want jobs from Makeshift, we wanted to publish ideas. There are plenty of great examples of that in architecture, the most obvious being Archigram. Secondly, it was a response to the realisation that Architecture's slowness to move forward from a built-object-centric worldview was partially wrapped up with its journalism: how it moves ideas around. If you only have publishing by paid professionals who are tied into the existing industry, they'll tend to reinforce the reputation of successful designers producing expensive wacky shapes (an old guard who are often described, rather confusingly, as the avant-garde). You get a kind of positive-feedback where the more established you are, the more column inches you command; and as a result you're never going to get new thinking which really questions where design might be going and what it could be doing differently. We're not against Industry journalism - but it has historically been very bad at looking into the future; because that's not what it's designed to do. There's a healthy appetite for the new, but not often for the different. Fanzines are fantastic, because they're usually interested in change, they're written for the love of it, and they're often unencumbered by any loyalty to the status quo.

Another function of professional journalism vs amateur journalism is that once running, a professional magazine has deadlines to meet and column inches to fill. What we love about blogs and fanzines is that they don't have this, they just write when they have something to say, and something that they really care about. The flipside of that is their unreliability: usually the people who write them also have other jobs, so the contributions can be quite sporadic. So since our whole idea was to publish as people who are 'still interested in the design of the world between 5pm and 9am', we realised Makeshift had to be able to deal with that. So sometimes it is very slow, sometimes quite fast, and that's ok.

With regards to the digital aspect, there's a bit of a contradiction. The beauty of the traditional fanzine was that it could generate accidental readership, it could be left on a bus, or used to wrap mugs in when you move house. You can't do that with digital. We were hugely inspired by Go Sheffield! ( which for us summed up everything that a fanzine could and should be - deeply intelligent, funny, independent and purposeful. But at the same time, digital is also what makes the whole thing possible; it creates a sufficient distribution scope to capture a community of interest. So with Makeshift we had the ambition of having the best of both worlds. Interpreting the idea of home-publishing very literally, Jim wrote this fantastic piece of code, which samples the latest 10 pieces of content, compiles them into a pdf which you can then spew out of your A4 printer and leave on a bus. The nice thing about that is that in theory, if content is changing fast enough, or sufficiently few people are printing them, your edition could be completely unique. It's somewhere between a blog and a fanzine.

Who are your readers and what, if any, impact do you feel Makeshift has had on the architecture/journalism scene?

Actually we're not sure, I think it's quite sporadic. I know there are quite a lot of architecture students who read it. Quite often I meet students who will talk about specific pieces they've read in it. I think it's particular items or pieces which grab people, and I've been asked a few times to write articles in the mainstream media or give lectures off the back of them, but I don't honestly know what, if any, impact Makeshift has made on architecture or architectural journalism, I suspect it has made some small impact somewhere but I wouldn't presume to suggest it has been in any way significant. It's really just a small bunch of friends talking about what we think is important and publishing proposals. At the same time, it's not a fixed group of people, it's completely open, so anyone who is producing and writing about interesting stuff is invited to submit content.

What role has your fanzine played in your chosen practices?

What's interesting is the ambiguity between design publication and design practice: on a couple of occasions people have asked me "is Makeshift a design practice? Can I hire you guys?" I think it has primarily served to overcome, or negotiate the ambiguity of our situations now, or at least give us an ability to publish work and ideas. We are not formed into a specific practice, but neither have we been straightforwardly employed full-time by mainstream practices for a long time, we've been doing lots of part-time work, forming partnerships. I think that's probably true for quite a few design graduates our age, it's a much less structured existence, so it creates a long-lasting platform for ideas which doesn't discriminate about where they're from. Makeshift is also open to others in the practices we work in - hopefully there'll be some interesting pieces coming soon from some of those friends.

What are your aspirations for Makeshift?

One of our heroes, Cedric Price, used to quote Robert Louis Stevenson: "It is better to travel hopefully than arrive". In that sense the liberating thing about any kind of fanzine is it doesn't necessarily have to have a stated end-goal in order to be purposeful. Perhaps that's a slightly lazy position to take though, because it makes it impossible to fail. What we definitely don't want to do is 'go pro' as writers or publishers, we want to be professional designers who also think and write. Obviously we'd like to increase the number of people writing and reading for Makeshift, but more importantly I think we'd like Makeshift to be successful as a touch point for a generation of designers who want to think far more openly about what kind of problems design might be applied to, and how it might operate differently in this century. On a more everyday level, a straightforward aspiration for Makeshift might simply be to increase its speed slightly.