Between furniture & infrastructure: expanding disciplinarity by Tom Holbrook

* Click on the red time-stamp to go directly to each segment in the video

00:12 The Chair (Martyn Hook) introduces the examination and examiners: Kester Rattenbury, Michael McGarry and Murray Fraser.

02:53 Tom Holbrook commences with acknowledgements and thanks to various people.

04:08 The presentation proper begins with personal history (Practice narrative)

13:36 The process of the research (Structuring, practice methods)

14:20 Describes the elements that make up the exhibit (Structuring)

17:40 Introduces the area in which he works (East Anglia) and some of his projects (Practice narrative)

24:50 The architect as ‘Local Hero’ (Practice methods, practice narrative)

26:21 Tenacity – maintaining involvement over time (Practice methods)

28:40 The ‘narration’ of a project (Practice methods)

30:00 Long-term commitment as ‘husbandry’ & 3 types of knowledge: tacit, connoisseurship of place, 'hands on' skills.

34:18 An interest in infrastructure / monocultures (Methodology)

41:44 Control, risk and flexibility ‘Architecture should design the rug, but not the picnic’ (Methodology)

45:15 Conclusion (Contributing)

49:00 Applause and a call for questions.

49:19 Murray Fraser (MF) Q. Are the terms landscape, geography and infrastructure interchangeable?

54:20 MF: Q. Water appears to be an element linking the projects. Is this because of an interest in ecology?

56:10 Kester Rattenbury (KR) Congratulations on performance followed by a question about how the exhibit and performance might have been different if the venue had been a Rogers building? And whether TH, and his practice, is limited by the cultural context on which he draws so heavily.

01:01:47 Michael McGarry (MM) (within a long context) What is your definition of success?

01:07:47 MM: Q. Is it caution that prevents you from becoming your own client?

01:10:03 MM: A comment about the Exchange building and the ‘controlled’ interior.

01:14:47 MF: Q. What does the idea of bricolage drive in your practice? Is it a conceptual strategy or more?

01:18:38 MF: Q. If you were doing larger-scale parks etc would you look to include/work with other architects?

01:21:17 KR: About books; “You say you’d like to ‘open new discourses around spatial practices’. What do you mean?”.

01:26:33 KR: About scale. The importance of maintaining details and delights in the projects.

01:30:00 MF: Q. In what ways has the PhD process changed your practice?

01:32:39 MF: Q.What effect has your PhD journey had on your partners and the Practice? Role? Interests? Etc.

01:33:44 KR: Q. A question about the relationship of form and strategy.

01:38:00 KR: Q. Are you too polite for your own tastes?

01:40:50 MF comments that there is possibly a disconnect between whether the dissertation describes the whole practice or a more personal take on the work. And there is not much said about furniture.

01:42:40 MM comments that Tom should encourage the ‘impresario’ in himself and his practice.

01:43:35 KR concurs with above comment and encourages Tom to incorporate more ‘performance’.

01:44:14 Back to the Chair to wrap up. Applause.

View the complete dissertation


The challenges presented to society by rapid urbanisation and climate change directly call for the broad synthetic spatial knowledge that lies in the province of architecture and urban design. Curiously, in the face of such challenges, the discipline of architecture seems to have entered a period of self-imposed myopia. In recent years, architecture has lost ground in many of those areas that once lay within the disciplinary realm. The societal value ascribed to the spatial imagination is diminishing, and with it the value of operating as a generalist. The familiar rise of international multidisciplinary firms illustrate a shift towards regarding planning and urban design as a problem-solving activity. The multidisciplinary model privileges the instrumental knowledge of engineering, and the managerial routines of traditional planning and project management. The model depends not on synthesising different sorts of knowledge from within the discipline, but rather the consensually mute operation of diverse specialists contributing to the demands of a particular project without overarching synthetic authorship.

Furthermore, the closed system thinking of specialists maps very easily to the emergent tasks of late capitalist environments: the establishment of privatised and invisible infrastructures and controlled, risk-managed versions of the city, with many claims made upon it. If the model of multidisciplinary consultancy is a consequence of increasing corporate power, the weakening of the social contract matches the fragility of the concept of a vital civil society, the health of which would be indicated by participatory infrastructures and negotiative, agonic public space. From these observations the thesis argues for a generalist spatial design practice, supported by evidence of a particular and distinctive way of working. Holbrook’s work from the last two decades provide illustration of how the architectural imagination can engage positively with highly complex situations, and establish a bridge between the scales of strategy, planning and infrastructure and the concrete experience of the resulting environment. Case studies are drawn primarily from the work of Holbrook’s practice 5th Studio, working in East Anglia, England – one of the densest concentrations of overlaid infrastructure, historic and natural conservation anywhere. 5th Studio has always regarded its approach as prospective and propositional and the research has validated and formalised its spatially entrepreneurial mode of inventing projects. The thesis concludes with an interview with the critic Ellis Woodman and a transcribed discussion with Shelley MacNamara of Grafton Architects.


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