The work of Studio 15
Previous Studio 15 Blog
Ian teamed-up with Heatherwick Studio’s Phil Hall-Patch to direct a particularly experimental agenda with the undergraduate architecture students of Brighton University. Following a successful degree show in June Studio 15 have now released their own book. An edited version can be found below.
“Students of Studio 15 at Brighton University’s School of Architecture & Design engage in a deep exploration of materiality, in the search for poetic architectural expressions that link materials with place. This book celebrates their work and explores the pedagogic context.”
Completing its second year at the Architecture School at the University of Brighton, Studio 15 has continued to explore the relationship between materials and place. The South Downs National Park and specifically the county town of Lewes forms the geographic focus of its study. Here is a particularly rich and varied coming together of cultural heritage and architectural forms and expressions derived in part from an extraordinary confluence of hinterlands including downland chalk, Wealden clay, stone and woodland as well as traditionally imported materials such as Caen stone and slate. For further details on the studio read our previous blog here.
Preface – Oliver Lowenstein
Within many architecture departments in the developed world the current zeitgeist fascination for all things material can be found expressed across individual student projects; unit modules; and whole school design & make, live project workshops. What was once the province of architectural outriders, from Alabama’s Rural Studio to Helsinki’s Wood Studio at the beginning of the noughties, has moved – as far as the academy is concerned – into the mainstream in the decade since the economic crash of 2008, rewriting architecture’s core script.
The School of Architecture & Design at the University of Brighton is no exception, with its architectural department regularly using its geographic co-ordinates within the South Downs as a starting point for a diverse spectrum of place- and materials-related student projects. Studio 15, co-led by Ian McKay and Phillip Hall-Patch, is both a recent and one of the most intensive of these investigations into materials: a materiality grounded in place, as this record of the module’s results – and indeed, its project title, Making Place – testifies.
The choice of focussing on Lewes, the small market and county town of East Sussex, eight miles east of Brighton, has introduced a very particular materials palette to the students. A town-wide repository of the vernacular tradition, the protean haptic encounters Lewes provides, brings home the Finnish theorist Juhani Pallasmaa’s conviction that older, non- and pre-industrialised materials can act as counterweights to the experience of the chromatic, uniform surfaces that increasingly dominate building products and production. Flint, mathematical tiles, timber, chalk and local brick traditions are all found across the town’s distinctive urban grain and morphology, all the while containing stories regarding these materials’ sources, provenance and origin.
Such in-the-body experience of Lewes’ sedimented layers of building isn’t merely an introduction to the vernacular, nor the archaeology of place, but to history and time. They are bridges between the temporal otherness of non-modern materiality and our temporal abode, the early twenty-first century. All the examples of the student work drawn together within this book document these encounters, be they with flint, rammed chalk, glass or reclaimed slate. The publication implicitly suggests a next step of integrating live building alongside this formative research. In the meantime, the students’ exposure to history and, indeed, the old, in weathered, worn and time-encrusted materials, will have nurtured and broadened their experience of architectural and building culture.
This book is a celebration of the work of Studio 15 at the University of Brighton, School of Architecture and Design. It seeks to convey the thesis that emerged out of the process of conversations with students over a two-year period: conversations that attempted to work through assumptions and preconceptions to arrive at new understandings of the material world around us.
Dialogue, in many forms, lies at the heart of this work, whether this be through the process of making or – through making – to an engagement with the environment, landscape and ultimately with the making of place.
In the chapter ‘Making’, we explore both the underpinnings of our theoretical position as well as showcasing the student work, whilst in ‘Making Place’, we speculate as to the relevance and impact of this on architecture, the built environment and larger questions of sustainability.
“Isn’t everyone designing with sustainability in mind these days?” a colleague asked before introducing our Studio to an assembly of expectant undergraduate students. He had a point, yet something niggled in the asking. Was it that “sustainability” has become an empty buzzword, the definition of which is as diverse as the definers? Or perhaps the implication that we might be complicit in educating another generation of architects paying lip-service to the urgent needs and precarious situation of humanity?
As a pairing of tutors we were curious to see how our divergent interests and experiences might coalesce in leading a studio: one a classically trained Architect with a profound belief in the importance of sustainable design; and the other, coming from a non-traditional, contemporary arts and materials-led background.
Notions and forms of dialogue became intrinsic and permeated through the Studio in many ways: from the easy and complementary rapport that quickly developed between the tutors, to the more theorised terms of “dialogue” and “conversation”, along with Tim Ingold’s further developed notion of a “correspondence” between material and maker.
Making became a foundational activity in the Studio. Students were invited to engage with a material of their choice, to become experts in that material, to understand it’s full life cycle from formation to extraction, processing, fabrication and installation to current trends in recycling and upcycling – material, in short, in a constant state of flow and becoming.
A separate exercise and period of ‘play’ followed – play not as an aimless and meaningless activity, but rather following Huizinga, a serious and structured enterprise.2 By combining close observation with tactics of contemporary arts practice, students began to make surprising discoveries and speculate on extraordinary possibilities.
“Make:See:Place” provided a framework of progressively developed briefs to support this exploration within an architectural context. Students were invited to consider how – following and furthering their research – their chosen material could be used to construct first a wall, then how that wall might turn a corner, meet the ground, transition to a roof and form openings or thresholds. Materials were to be pushed to their limit before introducing any secondary material, creativity becoming a necessity of constraint and avoiding the paralysis of limitless possibilities.
The first semester concluded with proposals for a camera obscura: a structure with, at minimum, the technical requirement for a single light-tight space. This was to engage with a particular and complex topography, our focus for the year of a gateway site adjacent to the train station of the Sussex County Town of Lewes.
Photography as a way of seeing and reflecting had become a central thread and design tool: here the design of a camera to view the surrounding townscape with the making of 1:20 models/ prototypes (a pin-hole camera as an analogue to a camera obscura), and the use of photography throughout both to document the student’s research, and through which to re-present, re-interpret and re-imagine their constructions.
In the following semester, photographic concerns continued with a brief for a new photographic facility, archive and cultural centre for Lewes, with a live client in the form of Tom Reeves of Edward Reeves Photographer, likely the longest continually trading photographic studio in the world, with an unbroken archive dating back to 1858: a body of work of international and historic significance. Working with an archive of delicate photographic artefacts brought the added complexity of meaning and time to the concerns of the Studio.
Through this sequence of briefs our intention began to crystallise: where the opening brief for the year, ‘The Place of Lewes’, brought an awareness for students of the links between the material and the connection to the landscape and hinterland from which it was made, final proposals were for buildings that engaged in a complex dialogue with their site – after Lefaivre & Tzonis, a form of “critical regionalism” began to emerge.3
This developed from what Caroline O’Donnell refers to as the “generative relationship between architecture and site”4; not only had the students engaged in a “correspondence” with their materials, but this exchange had led to speculations of an architecture in meaningful dialogue with site and context: a critical regionalism in no way historicist in outlook, but responding to the widest visible and invisible, physical, cultural and environmental forces.
We started with place, then making, but ended with the making of place.
Each material has its own message and, to the creative artist, its own song. – Frank Lloyd Wright
An eternal struggle exists between the mind and the body, or between abstract thought and corporeal reality – the stuff of life and the world around us.
In the western tradition, this dissociation between mind and body runs deep, and can be traced back to Plato who espoused the existence of higher pure forms above and beyond the visible and contingent world. Plato elevated the world of reason and abstract thought, whilst the physical world was relegated and debased.
In contemporary art, and by way of an antidote to this, there is something quite mesmerising and profound in the archaeological material excavations of Guiseppe Penone (b.1947-). As a founding member of the Italian ‘Arte Povera’ group, he has always been interested in working with the material world around him, and especially with nature’s offerings.
By way of example, Anatomia (2011) appears from a distance to be a monumental slab of marble yet to be worked, but on closer inspection one realises that Penone has surgically carved the marble following the lines of trace metals, allowing these veins to become three-dimensional reliefs released from the surrounding matter.
Or take his ongoing investigation working with trees such as Repeating the Forest (1980- 2014) where Penone displays an exquisite craftsmanship and attention to his material: not releasing a predetermined form from the wood (as Michelangelo did when he exclaimed “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”5), but working with the material, surgically cutting away individual layers of growth year by year to reveal the sapling within the body of the mature tree trunk.
David Pye refers to this approach as “the workmanship of risk”6; in distinction to the predetermined output of mechanised production, the maker here is engaged in a continual exercise of “judgement, dexterity and care”7, the quality of the end result being continually at risk from a momentary lapse in concentration or judgement when working with the material.
Pye outlines a definition of quality to identify good from bad workmanship, but resorts once more to a platonic ideal: the quality of workmanship being judged against the designer’s intention (Michelangelo’s predetermined angel). But Penone has no such preconception of outcome, only an idea as a vector for exploration. Quality here resides in the close reading and observation Penone brings to his chosen materials; the quality of his observation, attention and, above all, presence.8
The critical interface here is the body – the active and feeling extension of the corporeal body to its limits – or what Juhani Pallasmaa describes, giving one example, as “the thinking hand”9. The hand is a uniquely expressive and articulated extension, with an extraordinary range of sensitivity. As a way of discovering the properties and characteristics of materials, and in consort with the whole embodied being, it cannot be surpassed.
This combination of sensitivity and presence allows the material to speak, to engage in a dialogue or, as Tim Ingold describes it, a “correspondence” with materials10: “To practice this method is not to describe the world, or to represent it, but to open up our perception to what is going on there so that we, in turn, can respond to it”.11
For Studio 15 the intention was to avoid globalising attitudes, whether the reduction or synthesis of material – Heidegger’s belief in the supposedly unchanging essence of the phenomenal world – nor the negation of the material or tectonic form (speaking of dematerialised stone in Gothic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright referred to it as a “negative material with neither limitations respected nor stone nature reinterpreted”12). Here, the material would be afforded the opportunity to speak (perhaps if only to whisper) its own possible and imminent becomings.
Wright continued to declare that: “Every new material means a new form, a new use if used according to its nature”.13 But this speaks to the fallacy of the modernist project of forward- moving technological invention which has only increased exponentially in the last half-century: the innovation of new materials before full consideration and attention has been given to what already exists around us. In fact, material is in a continual state of flux and transformation and is thus pregnant with possibilities.
With this approach, theory no longer precedes practice; the idea suggests itself through a dialogue and correspondence with the material: an embodied and engaged process.
In engaging with such a dialogue, the students of Studio 15 developed an extraordinary range of observations and speculations, bringing close observation and experimental play to bear in exploring and discovering unexpected characteristics and properties of the material world around them.
The following summaries explore this work by material type: from readily available materials local to Lewes, such as field-flint, wood, chalk, stone, thatch and salvaged brick, to more recent recycled and reclaimed materials imported into the town, such as slate, steel and glass.
Concrete and time-bound, heterogeneous and particular, our feeling for place… is grounded in our bodily experience of the world. It is therefore inescapably material. – Richard Weston
Against the inexorable march towards industrialised techniques of construction and globalised supply chains, the premise of Studio 15 concerned itself with the experiential matters of architecture which have a close correspondence with the material hinterland, capturing a tectonic authenticity through making and in so doing imparting an understanding and celebration of the special qualities of place.
Through this line of inquiry a further concern developed in exploring the ephemeral ideas of the phenomenology of place. By understanding context through its landscape or townscape it was hoped the student would acquire a particular design compass. In this way they could take a particular local material and speculate on the experiential aspects it might have with light, shadow, texture, translucency, pliability or even material fracturing. New rules and working techniques could be found to determine a surprising new way of handling a material which may otherwise suffer from the banality and copying of overfamiliar vernacular traditions.
The Studio’s arena of study is on the School of Architecture’s doorstep – the South Downs National Park (SDNP). Variously we have focused on a raw landscape location or an urban setting with Birling Gap in the Seven Sisters Country Park providing the former and the county town of Lewes the latter. For the rural/landscape context the use of locally occurring materials on a building is obvious and immediately invokes a sense of pertaining to place. Avoiding the obvious is a watch point as that can lead to the banal. In the urban context there is a continuity of tradition and perhaps a taken-for-granted aspect in constructional techniques to grapple with. In Lewes there is a sense that the extraordinary qualities of materials like flint and mathematical tiles are a little overlooked with the always-been-there nature of its ancient buildings. To counter obvious and generic options, the students were encouraged to approach the materials with fresh eyes and gain knowledge and even material working skills in interrogating and speculating towards results that might delight and surprise.
When the boundaries of the park were drawn up, there was much debate about what landscapes and conurbations it should include. The result is, in many ways, surprising as it extends far beyond the realms of the chalk hills that run between Winchester in the west and Eastbourne in the east. Particularly in its western regions, the Park extends way off the chalk strata into illuvial soils and sandstones. There is a corresponding change of vegetation as alkaline modulates to acid. And yet, even in pre-industrial times building materials of the area were not restricted to these zones. The poor quality soils of the Weald for instance lying to the north of the Eastern Downs traditionally supported woodland industries and the forging of iron ore. In Lewes, which had an export industry in iron and lime-based materials, there was even a tradition of working with Caen stone or Welsh slate as it was brought in on ocean-going sailing vessels on their return legs using the stone as ballast. So, within these trading hinterlands the region was built with a remarkably diverse range of materials.
The SDNP is in fact still formulating what the ‘special qualities’ of the Park are in relation to its landscape, its material resource, its architectural manifestations and indeed how contemporary development should respond. There was a conscious idea within the Studio that the various investigations can serve as a test bed of what contemporary architecture could be within the Park. In this way, we hoped to find new ways to work with traditionally available local materials and capture a more holistic attitude towards what some architectural writers have coined a ‘critical regionalism’. As Kenneth Frampton asks in his essays on the subject, can we be guided by a “return to sources”, where the spirit of place might be captured in the conceptual ideas of the architecture?14
Frampton and other architectural theoreticians identify critical regionalism in architectures, which imbues local cultural significance and meaning through abstracted conceptual ideas whilst adopting universal technological advancement, namely modern constructional techniques. The Studio’s stance however departs from this thesis in that imported materials of the globalised supply chain, in most cases, sever an extensive experiential link to place, but if retained, can through recycling and upcycling become imbued with a sense of place over time.
A disturbing effect of the overuse of the universal technology being systematically applied to construction is that we tend to see the same plastic, aluminium, glass and composite products being available from one global region to another, thus eroding cultural traditions and significance. Though the stylistic look of the buildings developed by the CIAM architects of the International Style may have moved on, it would appear it is the globalised supply chain that has matured into a permanent movement.
Then there is the question of what is considered as local materials. It was Samuel Mockbee of Rural Studios, working with architecture students in Alabama in the 1990s, who made others aware that much of the materials we can build with are now already around us as the constituent parts of other buildings and the things we otherwise throw away. The hinterland therefore need not be limited to raw materials. The oil-based rush through what some describe as the anthropocene has generated an architecture of consumption and single-use strategies. An altogether more responsible language of design is needed to anticipate the ideals of the circular economy. This too was a theme of discourse running through the Studio.
Journeys into making-led innovations in architecture in today’s design offices are rare and problematic. Our clients are more risk averse and they generally want less variation of performance in the fabric and finishes of their buildings. In practice, it is increasingly about the architect choosing the product systems rather than the raw materials to achieve a certain look, followed by information management to manage the build. With building information modelling (BIM), highly processed and copyrighted product systems will ever more dominate the supply chain offering. In turn, a corresponding dumbing-down of the building trades will continue. There will be less knowledge handed down in how to work and handle minimally processed materials. Craft-based construction, in turn, will continue to disappear with only the conservation industry keeping alive the skills and knowledge traditions.
Modern processes and innovations in construction no doubt bring many advantages particularly around cost, speed and safety. We are asking the question though of what architecture is losing en-route. Our contact as designers with the materials we design with is tenuous and remote. Rarely do we get the haptic experience of actually working with materials and gaining that all- important feedback loop of what certain naturally occurring resources can do. There is something experientially rewarding about an architecture drawn out of making-led learning where the presence of a commercial contractor’s palette of universally available products is beautifully absent. The result draws out the elemental qualities of the materials, which brings haptic and visual delight and instils a wonderful aura of authenticity. Where local sourcing of materials is used, we are able to invoke a pertaining to place and imbue the architecture with relevance and belonging.