Emmett Scanlon is an architect focused on the social purpose of architecture. His installation Nine Lives in the TANK at Design Museum, London, is part of New Horizon_architecture from Ireland, launching today at London Festival of Architecture. His practice includes the design of buildings, academic research, architectural education, policy development and architectural curation and criticism. Telling the story of nine spaces created by emerging Irish architects, Nine Lives is an installation of photography, drawings, interviews and objects.

We spoke to him to learn more about his curation of the work of nine architecture practices, his views on architecture in contemporary Ireland and the dynamic between design and use. The starting point for Nine Lives arose out of Emmett's current research into how the Irish design, occupy and use space, in particular the spaces of the home. 

I am interested in the social life of architecture, and Ireland is curious because we have resisted trends emerging in other European countries to develop new forms of architectural practice to make architecture a more social and democratic practice. My proposition is that in Ireland there is a very sophisticated and quite complex relationship between our family and community lives and our built world. I don’t really accept the idea that the Irish are property-hungry and greedy but instead propose that the we are a country that is changing, maturing and finding new ways to nurture social and community life and we express this through how we use and appropriate space, and in particular our homes.

However we don’t look at how what we build is actually used, we talk only about the production or commercial value of property. At the heart of Nine Lives is my desire to present the occupation and use of these fantastic architectural designs as an equally creative act, one in which contemporary family and community life are emerging and can be found. 

Tying into the theme of London Festival of Architecture, all of the projects in Nine Lives are presented as infinite works in progress, and documentations of a new space in the home – the work-room.

I am showing two moments from their past, but they all have a future, they will change over time, so architecture itself is presented here as a never ending work in progress. When I was choosing the specific rooms to show in Nine Lives, I tried to find rooms that were rooms for work. Many more people work at home now, formally or informally, building specific work studios or temporarily turning a bedroom or playroom into an office or art space for example. The outdoor classroom in Nine Lives is a growing, working garden, another kind of work-room. 

Presenting the work of several different practices in Nine Lives, Emmett wanted to show how rooms change over the course of their inhabitation – something that is out of the control of the architects who have designed them. It also gave him an opportunity to gather and show the work of the best Irish architectural and documentary photographers, with 23 different practices and people represented.

In order to present the overall thesis of Nine Lives I returned to each project with a photographer who had never visited before. We met and talked with those using these rooms and listened to their stories. We made photographs and we hoped to develop a view or further our understanding and knowledge of how the rooms have been used or occupied since the architectural design phase was completed. We didn’t tidy up, or wait for the sun, or arrange the fruit bowl. In the Tank, I have placed these new photographs beside a photograph that was taken when the architectural design was deemed complete and the project released to the architectural media. There is one exception to this – the outdoor classroom, which was complete in April, so for that a drawing of an imagined future was made. It is important to say that Nine Lives is not about judgment or an assessment on what is good and bad design – it merely sets out to state the obvious really in that, whether architects like it or not, rooms adapt and change over time and our engaged observation of this process in parallel with studying the design, might reveal something about who we are and the value of the designed spatial world to society. We can learn from this I think.

I think all I really care about right now is the dynamic between design and use, production and consumption and how for architecture, I think all of us architects need to consider these two things more consciously as the core constituents of our work. I don’t believe architecture stops when the architect completes their commission because I think that view denies the element of time and that is just impossible to avoid. Nine Lives reflects my current interest in the nature and form of architecture in contemporary society and in learning to read our built spatial biographies.

To be part of London Festival of Architecture has been fantastic, a genuine honour, and a significant personal catalyst to be asked to curate Nine Lives at the Design Museum. It has allowed me to consolidate many strands of thinking that have been threading my practice in the last year or so, offering me an opportunity to draw conclusions and move on to the next stages of my thinking. I have also been able to work with other architects, to spend time with and learn from those incredible people who commissioned these architects, with designers, our best Irish photographers, the curators and the team at ID2015.

Nine Lives is on show at the Design Museum Tank, Shad Thames, London, SE1 2YD, from June 1st until 28th with a curators talk on the 7th and 14th at 2pm.



Words by Alex Calder.

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