»Intelligence starts with improvisation.«

Yona Friedman

Blog Interview

Fights of the Round Table

Interview with Phineas Harper and Maria Smith of Turncoats

  • Phineas Harper and Maria Smith, organisers of the Turncoats debates in London. 1 / 4  Phineas Harper and Maria Smith, organisers of the Turncoats debates in London.
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London’s grey, cold nights at the start of 2016 have been enlivened by a series of spiky architectural debates involving ritualistic drinking, wax seals and stand-up comedians. Turncoats, as the series is called, is not your usual architectural panel discussion. Critic and educator Shumi Bose met up with Turncoats curators Phineas Harper and Maria Smith for uncube to find out why they think it’s so important to play the clown in order to get the point.

We can start at the beginning: how was Turncoats born as an idea?

Maria Smith: A few years ago there was a programme at the London Metropolitan University run by Robert Mull and Kieran Long called Rip It Up and Start Again (2011). Part of the premise was to look at the format and content of architectural discourse and do something that was reactionary to that. I was involved in one of the panel discussions for that programme. Then, about a year ago, Robert asked us to think about something similar…

Phineas Harper: From my point of view, I was coming to it completely fresh. I hadn’t seen Rip It Up, I wasn’t in London at the time. But we’ve all been to hundreds of these architectural debates and panel discussions; you have probably spoken at loads of them. They’re sort of dull. Considering the extremely innovative people in the room, it’s remarkable how familiar and staid the format and structures are.

Let’s speak a bit about your background, as an architect, Maria, and Phin, as a journalist.  You must have different frustrations about the way in which architecture is discussed.

Maria: Well from an audience point of view, it always seems like the panellists in a discussion are talking to each other and assuming a certain level of understanding. It can feel like you’re standing on the outside and witnessing, it’s always very polite. When it comes to being on the panel, the reason you’re there is not usually as part of your job or because you’re getting paid or anything like that; you’re there because you want to explore your own ideas and  progress the way that you think about a subject. But within that polite format, you can’t really do that; there are things you shouldn’t say, and you’re invited because something is expected from you. You’re invited because you’re a woman, or because you’ve done something pink – or something like that.

Phineas: Before I was a journalist, I was involved in politically engaged youth work and also “real party politics”, so I’m always interested in how people think in public. That doesn’t really happen in architecture and I am continually frustrated by how little rigorous critique enters architectural journalism. I understand it; people don’t want to piss off their clients or friends, but it means there is this cosy revolving door between architecture and writing. Which is lovely and collegiate in some sense, but makes for quite a tepid form of arguing. So how can you create something where people feel free to have a go at something without the fear that it will get back to their boss or client? You have to create this “off the record” environment in which people feel more free than they otherwise normally would.

Maria: The other thing that’s annoying in panel discussions is that there is usually a theme which is very broad, meaning that you never get to the point of anything and you don’t often hear something you hadn’t thought before. We wanted to phrase our events around specific questions and provocations.

Do you think you would have done this anyway, even if you hadn’t secured the support of institutions like the CASS? I guess what I’m really asking is to whom are you trying to speak through your events?

Phineas: Well it would have been harder, in terms of finding venues and money and things.

Maria: I guess we are speaking to the kind of audience who normally go to these things, to be honest, offering an alternative form of discussion or experience. If it’s a completely new audience there’s nothing to cater for. But we did want to invite speakers who you wouldn’t necessarily see, or see together.

Tell me more about your thinking behind the format of Turncoats events, because they really are something different.

Maria: Well, first of all it’s important to note that Phin and I are very comfortable making fools of ourselves. So we wanted to create this off the record atmosphere where anything goes; that was fundamental. So you need to prime people – simple things like having a drink before, and not just afterwards. There’s also a warm-up act, like a fluffer, along with the theatrics of having people stand up and speak into a microphone on stage, rather than sitting down. All of this is to get people to feel like this is a different sort of event, for the sake of encouraging them to behave differently.

Which move did you come up with first, which is the most distinctive?

Phineas: The first thing that happens at the Turncoats events is that someone takes your phone, turns it off and places it in a black envelope that is sealed with a wax stamp. And then you’re told to go and mingle in a room full of people. It’s incredibly disarming – “ah, my phone”, you think, “my lifeline!” So I think that’s quite a dramatic move – right from the moment you cross the threshold – in terms of challenging someone’s expectations.

Maria: For me, the notion of the “shot in the dark” is quite powerful; the first speaker takes a rhetorical shot in the dark, and so we had the idea that we must literally all have a shot (of vodka) with the lights turned off. I think that preparing yourself to really say something quite extreme, against the backdrop of this playful, ceremonial atmosphere is quite a powerful idea.

It’s quite brave given that so many people thrive off tweeting and commenting and sounding off about events that are going on.
Maria: Yeah, we want people to be in the room. The audience participation part of our events is quite important and we would rather people take part, than just be tweeting away. We’re anti-clickbait!

Phineas: The success of a conference or event seems to be measured not in how much thinking happens, but in terms of how much noise there is! For me, I’d rather one person thought about something in a really new way, rather than millions of people seeing some half-arsed tweet or a pithy quote.

So you’re anti-clickbait, but all your events have been completely sold out, which is fantastic – you’re obviously doing something that people want! How do you pick your subjects?

Phineas: It’s the stuff that would be hard to talk about in the normal format, where you’re afraid of offending someone.  Gender is one of those subjects, class is another. Ornament, again is sort of a taboo subject in architecture, and people struggle to open up about these themes. We deliberately went for subjects that demanded a different format.

Maria: We weren’t worried about things that people have talked about a lot already. Approaching these topics in a new way was part of our challenge to ourselves. It would have been a cop-out in some ways, to do something completely new; it almost needed to be something that makes you groan something like: “not another discussion about women in architecture!”

One thing I quite enjoyed and was equally disarmed by, is that you ask for people to be insincere, to flip sides, and to say things that they don’t mean.

Phineas: Yes, this one is tricky. It’s part of the idea that you’re trying to help people to speak freely. If everyone is saying what they think, then one can hold those people to account later. If there’s a bit of distance between the argument and the arguer, it becomes a bit of a game. So even if some people are saying what they think, the important thing is the range of arguments. I think it’s critical that some of the Turncoats panels are playing a game, because it enables everyone to say what they think more freely.

Maria: It also resolves some of the authorship problem, and it’s related to the no tweeting/no recording policy. It doesn’t matter who has said what. What matters is that something has been discussed.

Doesn’t it bother you that there is no record of these events, that there are all these great conversations take place and there is no way of documenting them or anything?

Maria: No. Everybody in the room at the time has been changed forever!

Phineas: There’s an obsession with filming everything because it’s so easy; the idea that if you film something you have somehow captured it forever. But if you look at how many people actually listen back to recordings and lectures on YouTube, it’s actually pretty low. The events are recorded in that we have sketch artists, who pull out quotes and turn them into pieces of art, which we do share on the website. It’s annoying that people email every day asking if I have recorded them, but no!

Maria: Fundamentally you cannot have this kind of event if it is recorded. It’s not a question of recording them or not, it’s whether you want to do this sort of event or not.

How interested is Turncoats in the architectural practice or even in the building of buildings? It seems to me that you just want people to be a bit more discursive.

Maria: I think it’s about considering a wider breadth of possibilities and the interactions between our silo’d little world and politics and economics. A lot of the debates have been quite emotional at times.

Phineas: In the first one, people opened up in quite a personal way about their expectations when they were in architecture school and how this has affected their personal relationships and sex lives and… it was funny but under the surface, there was a real layer of emotion and regret about ambitions unmet and hardships. I don’t think you’d get that at a normal architecture event, the idea of someone getting emotional on stage is quite challenging.

Can we tease out a few more moments, for uncube readers who can’t make it to your events? What were the moments when you thought, “yes, this has worked”?

Maria: One of the features of the format is that towards the end of the debate everyone switches sides and gives the argument against the one that they had formerly made. Some people have been incredible at suddenly, and so convincingly, giving the opposite point of view – it’s quite extraordinary. It’s given a lot of people license to play the clown and that’s really fun to watch.
Phineas: Someone texted me the other day from another debate and said “God this is dull, I never realised how dull this is”. So, and this sounds ludicrously pompous, if we could encourage others to push their own events and be more creative, then that could be an interesting legacy of something as flash-in-the-pan as this series.

Finally, do you have longer-term plans for the Turncoats series?  Clearly there’s an appetite for it…

Maria: It’s important that it doesn’t have to be us that run them all. Turncoats can live on in a much broader sense beyond the sphere of a few architectural people in London.

Phineas: Yes, there are a bunch of people all over the world who have caught wind of our events, and who have been in touch to try and organise similar events where they are. We’ve heard from people in Vancouver, Toronto, Lima, Sydney, somewhere in Serbia. People have been getting in touch saying these look great, that the attitude and energy is great. That’s quite interesting. I think we’re going to try and publish a guide or a manifesto to share both the format and how we managed to produce these events. The format is the key; there’s a level of curation of speakers and marketing and so on. We’re talking to architects, so it was important to bring them to exciting venues where people want to be. But the essential thing is the idea of taking your audience on a journey, and in doing so changing the possibilities of what can happen in that world.

That seems a wondrous place to stop. Thank you very much.

 – Shumi Bose is a teacher, researcher, writer, and part of the curatorial team for the British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale.


Phineas Harper is a designer, editor and critic. He is Deputy Director of the think tank The Architecture Foundation and former Deputy Editor of the Architectural Review. He lives in a narrowboat on London's waterways. phinharper.com

Maria Smith founded the adventurous architecture and engineering practice Interrobang. She is also a columnist for the RIBA Journal, co-founder of th architecture practice Studio Weave and an orchestral violinist. interrobang.london

For a blow-by-blow account of the first Turncoats debate of 2016 – featuring vaudeville, vodka and Donald Trump – head to Ellie Duffy’s review for uncube: “A Baroque Bucket of Bollocks”



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