Multistory 2023/24

Multistory is a long-standing tradition in the School of Architecture and Design. For this year’s Multistory we decided to refresh our approach. We used two themes to organise each of the semesters, allowing us to explore in-depth, and from different perspectives, urgent issues in architecture and design research and practice: ENERGY and MONEY.

Winter semester: ENERGY

Informed by the energy transition and the need for architecture and design industries to address their roles in the climate emergency, we invited speakers that could speak to ENERGY from a broad range of perspectives: from the renewable energy transition; energy consumption and the embodied energy of buildings and construction; to new technology aimed at developing, capturing or harness energy; strategic and infrastructural thinking focused on energy use and distribution; design products that address the energy crisis; histories and theories of architecture, design and energy; and new forms of energy-informed architectural and design expression and behaviours.

Architectural historian Barnabas Calder kicked us off in suitably energetic style in November. His energy-based history of architecture made the case for reading our built environment past and present through a fossil fuel lens, enabling us think about what an architectural future free from oil, coal and gas would look like. High winds also brought us into the 21st century with Barnabas’ talk: as he was unable to travel we shifted online, instigated Multistory’s adoption of a hybrid format which we continued to use for the rest of this year.

While Barnabas’ talk spanned multiple centuries and continents, architect and UCA lecturer Marianna Janowicz brought us closer to home with her talk on the politics of laundry. She shared her historical research on London’s now-extinct drying rooms, and using this as a starting point to rethink what such domestic spaces and labour could look like in a post-carbon future.

Two of our speakers, Jochen Eisenbrand and Oliver Carpenter, both focused on how to translate questions and ideas around energy in ways that can enact the behavioural change that both Barnabas and Marianna called for. Jochen, Chief Curator at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, presented the then-forthcoming (it opened in March 2024) exhibition Transform! Designing the Future while Oliver, Curator of Infrastructure & Built Environment at London’s Science Museum, talked us through Energy Revolution: The Adani Green Energy Gallery, which opened in April 2024, designed by Unknown Works. They both encouraged us to think about how exhibitions, exhibition design, and storytelling, can play a role in the green transition in architecture and design.

These two talks were bridged by examples of architects whose practice is all about alternative, low-carbon ways of practicing. First was Amin Taha of Groupwork, joined by architectural colleague and UCA tutor Alex Cotterill, who took us on a grand tour of the relationship between material technologies and architectural style, offering a re-reading of historical architectural styles and situating their work within a continuum of design that expresses material concerns. An analysis of the energy expended via various construction materials and processes was contrasted with the richness of a rediscovery of the architectural potential of stone. Ending the ENERGY season was Stijn Colon of Brussels-based architecture practice ROTOR with an intriguing talk exploring the architecture of re-use and reclamation via the extraordinary work of Belgian salvage expert Marcel Raymakers.

Individually the talks offered us a rich set of case studies of historical and contemporary practice to draw on. They also offered us ways of thinking about what happens when you foreground questions of ENERGY as the primary driver in your research or design practice. Thinking about ENERGY exposes the implications of the decisions we make, and the embeddedness of architecture and design within broader infrastructures and systems, including the political, cultural and economic. This made the next semester’s theme even more appropriate…

Spring semester: MONEY

The Spring 2024 Multistory series of talks was on the thorny topic of Money! Money doesn’t get talked about much at schools of architecture and design. It is in some respects the elephant in the room, the unspoken and dirty reality of what we do. The series aimed to talk not just about the cost of buildings, products or objects - although speakers addressed these too - but about how they are funded, who makes money out of them, how architects and designers get paid, how they run their offices, the economies of culture, art and design, the cost of higher education, the relationship of academia to practice, and the sticky question of value. We also addressed the design of money. This was literally, but also in the sense that the mechanisms through which money is made, moved, loaned, invested and conceptualised is ‘designed’ too. Money is both entirely artificial and absolutely real. As Marx said, money is a real abstraction.

Like last semester, the series has brought together a diverse range of speakers from across many disciplines: artists, designers, critics and theorists, architects, developers, and historians. The artist Tuur Var Balen, who works collaboratively with Revital Cohen, introduced the series through their that work opens up the processes of production and manufacture. Film producer Dan Edelstyn joined us online to talk about his work with the artist Hilary Powell on the formation of currency, the physical manifestation of money and the malign absurdity of high interest debt, through their films Bank Job (2021) and POWER. Tom Wilkinson speculated on a form of economy inspired by French surrealist writer Georges Bataille and his theories of waste, excess and non-productivity. He was followed by Professor Ben Campkin who spoke of the ‘perverted economies’ of marginal and queer spaces in relation to the hegemonic power of regeneration and commercial development.

Russell Curtis of architecture practice RCKa and Oliver Bulleid, director of the London Community Land Trust delivered a joint and overlapping talk looking at the current housing crisis and alternative models of finance, land use and tenureship in answering it. Russell showcased his own research into land use within the protected landscape of the Metropolitan Green Belt. Arguing that the Green Belt contains low quality landscapes that could be developed as well as large amounts of private land in the form of golf courses, Russell argued for a more nuanced approach to land preservation as well as a greater equality of space. Oliver described a number of Community Land Trust projects, setting out the extremely difficult process of intervening in an over-heated land market to provide more affordable and communal ways of living.

Cristina Monteiro, director of architecture practice DK-CM, focused on social value in her talk, describing approaches for embedding projects within communities in ways that benefit as many people as possible. Relating this to the process of developing both a brief within the economy of specific projects, Cristina also reflected on the role of the architect and their agency.

Our final speaker, Dr Elise Hodson of the RCA, took us on a journey through steel cutlery production to show us the global flows – geographic, economic, cultural - that define the materials that make up our everyday. The talk made us reflect on the origins and destinations of the materials that we deploy as practitioners and consumers and highlighted the opacity of this issue in our material and built environments.

Collectively the talks demonstrated the value of a sustained focus on a specific theme, enabling reflections from different approaches and disciplines on key subjects. Collectively they encouraged us to ask more questions around the systems and infrastructures that make architecture and design possible, raising issues of agency, activism and responsibility in different settings and at different scales.

Finally, Multistory 2023 – 24 introduced two new elements: we put together a student ‘steering group’ to help organise and manage the talks, introduce the speakers and direct the discussion afterwards. We also employed Ben Moore, a final-year visual communications student to develop our visual identity online and in print. Both innovations significantly enriched the series and showed the value of staff and student collaboration in the School. We are grateful to all the students and staff involved in making Multistory happen.

Charles Holland and Cat Rossi
May 2024