To what extent do our perceptions about individual disciplines shape what those disciplines produce?

Read Sam Jacob, from the May 2014 issue

By Sam Jacob

Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough, The Les Dawson Show. Photo: ITV/REX. Courtesy ITV Archive

I’m in the middle of a pitch – the awful inspection parade that designers undergo to get a job. But this time it’s different. I’m working with an artist [name redacted due to contractual reasons]. I’ve always argued that working across the seemingly arbitrary boundaries of creative disciplines is exciting, inspiring and, it has to be said, challenging. Perhaps that’s because ‘disciplines’ are like a costume department that outfits us such that our roles and responsibilities in the grand narrative are clearly defined. These tell us where the limits are and how we as practitioners should act.

Of course, there are many exceptions – a whole host of creative types who rage against the limits of their particular ways. Think of the antiart of Dada, for example, or of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects (1964). But often their rage – because it’s directed at the heart of a particular discipline – is entirely consumed by its own world.

Collaboration can offer the opportunity for a cross-cultural chat across the garden fence or at the kitchen table

A collaboration is not (necessarily) instigated to pull down the walls between one world and another. But it is different from working alone. And in the manner of British comedian Les Dawson’s gossiping housewives, it can offer the opportunity for a cross-cultural chat across the garden fence or at the kitchen table. It’s in this that surprising, exciting and depressing things come to light. Some of the things that in your own world are completely natural suddenly seem, when reflected back at you, entirely arbitrary.

When we’re told that we need everything costed and rectified by a structural engineer, I just nod. But my companion’s eyebrows rise and his eyes roll at the thought that it’s us, for a tiny fee, expected to resolve all this pragmatic detail. To see your own discipline filtered through another is like shining light through a prism. The everyday foundation of your own practice is split into a spectrum of previously invisible components.

A conversation is one thing. But the real boundaries of a discipline come down with force when its rules and regulations – insurance policies, health-and-safety procedures and professional liabilities – are put in front of you, demanding a signature. It’s among these legal clauses defining roles and responsibilities that you’ll find what they really think you’re there for. These are nonnegotiable – not a conversation, but a demand.

We go down to the site to meet the client, and are told everything we can’t do and everything we have to. The look on [artist’s name redacted] is quite something. ‘It’s like you’re a plumber!’ he says. And it’s true in a way. As an architect the client assumes that you’re there to provide him with a service, to give him a solution to his or her problem. Even, as in this case, when his or her ‘problem’ is to make something interesting with very little functionality.

Working across disciplinary boundaries inevitably challenges the preconceptions of the parties involved – whether these preconceptions are thrust upon us or are internal ones we think tell us who we are.

Artists, on the other hand, he explains, have their path strewn with laurels, are cajoled and pampered into a commission rather than threatened with legal and contractual issues at the first turn. The artist is there to do his or her thing, and these days the client is there to help bring that into the world.

Do we choose our disciplines, or do our disciplines shape us? Is it the x number of years of academic indoctrination and cultural assimilation that shape our relationship to making work? Or is it our inherent tendencies that draw us towards different centres of gravity? Or are we simply forced to comply with the terms of engagement set out before us? Working across disciplinary boundaries inevitably challenges the preconceptions of the parties involved – whether these preconceptions are thrust upon us or are internal ones we think tell us who we are. Even having the rules of the game set out in starker contrast only demonstrates that our work isn’t natural or normal but a potlatch of conventions.

And what of the idea of creativity itself? Far before a project comes into view, long before a brief is written, the ambition and reach of a project are already limited by the way a discipline frames the world. Possibilities are ruled in and out, included or excluded by default based on custom and tradition. Perhaps the only way to open up these possibilities is for all of us – in our assumed roles as architects, designers, artists or whatever – to lean over the fences between our respective patches and start talking to one another.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.