FAT is a postmodernist issue: British pranksters get serious.

How do you get taken seriously as an architect if you’re seen as being a bit of a prankster? If the kind of buildings you design do not accord with the Establishment view of what a building should be? Particularly if your source references tend to be gleaned from popular culture rather than the usual highbrow variety? And especially if you give yourself a funny name? Such questions define the art-architecture collective known as FAT. FAT has promised much, down the years. Now, it is starting to deliver.

Of the three or four kinds of architecture that are officially sanctioned these days, all are broadly modernist. They vary from the ubiquitous Polite Modern – which is the latest incarnation of the original White Modern of the inter-war years, sometimes seen through a high-tech filter – to the licensed craziness of the visitor-attracting icon buildings with their blobs and swirls and zigzags. A small side-serving of traditionalism is tolerated though not actively encouraged. But the one thing that nobody in architecture’s ruling class dares contemplate – remembering the horrors of the 1980s – is the idea of a new generation of Post-modernism. This is FAT’s territory. The initials stand for Fashion, Architecture, and Taste.

If you buy stamps in the Netherlands today, you may well find a FAT building on it. The Dutch like FAT, mostly because they perceive them to be artists as much as architects. The building in question is something unknown in Britain: a “bicycle surveillance shelter”. These are guard-huts for bike parks. We could do with them in London, where 80,000 bikes a year are stolen. In The Hague, a public art agency had the good idea of getting artists, architects and designers in to reinvent these utilitarian structures. FAT obliged with about the smallest monumental building it is possible to imagine. Built in the seaside suburb of Scheveningen, on one side it is a small pyramid, on the other a battlemented castle. At its peak, like a mad chimney or lantern, is a model of a typical gabled Dutch house. At random intervals, this house hisses, flashes and smokes as if catching fire.

None of the three main members of FAT – Sean Griffiths, Charles Holland and Sam Jacob – have a clear-cut explanation as to why their hut is like this, though of course they have a name for it – a “Non-ument”. It had to be distinctive, they say, it had to be able to stand up to big, somewhat surreal neighbouring seaside attractions like giant plastic gorillas and neon parrots. “It tries to respond to that seaside architecture without replicating it,” as Jacob puts it. The first idea was to make it a hill, since the Netherlands has few of those. Then they thought about other man-made hills, such as the pyramidal war memorial at the site of the battle of Waterloo. Not far away in The Hague is a miniature model of the whole of the Netherlands, a country-scale model village. The house on top refers to that. It also turned out, by coincidence, that the war-crimes court trying Slobadan Milosevic was just nearby. That in a way justified the memorial aspect. So various strands, serious and populist, came together. It was built for something like £30,000, they forgot about it, and then they suddenly found that it had become enough of a national favourite to feature on a 69 cent stamp.

The three are gathered in their cluttered top-floor studio in a 1950s former light-industrial building near London’s Barbican. Their official address describes this as “Appletree Cottage”, and one wall is clad in rough clinker planks to provide that homely touch. In the past, FAT has played up such flipness and played down its obvious but more mainstream architectural talents, but today the message is different. They want to tell me that they are serious architects doing serious work.

Their first significant UK building, the Woodward Place terrace of affordable rented housing in Manchester’s New Islington urban village, is almost finished, complete with the kind of Dutch-gables-on-steroids façade treatment that has the functionalists choking on their herb tea. Of course the prospective tenants love it and, once FAT starts getting out the photos of their clients’ existing living rooms with crazy self-built fireplaces, half-timbering and nick-nacks, it becomes plain that the admiration is mutual. Rejecting the usual architectural solutions of tidiness and uniformity, they believe people should be encouraged to customise their homes.

This approach is taken to extremes with their competition-winning project to redesign a tower block in London’s East End to house a whole mix of different-sized households. Revisiting and subverting the old modernist idea of “streets in the sky”, the block becomes a matrix from which homes of various styles and sizes sprout quite literally: tenants will be able to choose from a selection of designs. It’s not just a surface image: they have worked out a way of re-engineering the block to make this possible. Also as usual, the design gloriously confronts the whole issue of taste – what’s good, what’s bad, what’s yours, what’s mine?

There are another couple of Dutch projects. One is a community park in a new town involving everything from a village hall for hobbyists to a pet cemetery. It’s now being built after two years of planning. The other is the almost-finished £3.5m makeover of the St. Lucas art school, which involves some clever space planning behind its new façade of pseudo-gothic tracery in moulded concrete. Over here, FAT is just starting to design a still-confidential new eco-village in the English countryside. The model rural settlements of yesteryear are, if all goes well, about to spawn a 21st century equivalent. There are other schemes in the pipeline but the point is well made: FAT – born in the recession of the early 1990s when there was no work to be had but plenty of fun – has now stopped arsing about and is getting the work in.

And how do they describe their style? This has them scrabbling around for competitive definitions. “Eclectic – architecture as a cultural act”, says Jacob. “Figurative”, offers Griffiths, noting that just about all other architecture is abstract. Holland produces: “Not constrained by notions of taste”.

Nobody once mentions post-modernism, I realise later. Probably because FAT is in the process of repositioning itself somewhat. The bottom line is that this is architecture that tells stories. “Our meaning is very direct,” concludes Griffiths. “We’re quite traditional in a way. Look at the architecture of the Natural History Museum. It’s got little animals all over it.”

Text © Hugh Pearman, images courtesy of FAT. First published in The Sunday Times, London, 15th January 2006, as “Your taste or mine?”

fat.co.uk – the celebrated “how to become a famous architect” section is entirely true.