Material Explorations in the South Downs National Park
BBM’s Ian McKay has teamed-up with Heatherwick Studio’s Phil Hall-Patch to direct a particularly experimental agenda with the undergraduate architecture students of Brighton University. 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.
“…man has from age to age translated the manuscript of the earth into the terms of his own thought and use…To realise the differences between place and place; to observe the varieties in expression of the genius loci by noting the correspondences between the raw material below and the finished structure above the ground”
Massingham, H.J., Cotswold Country, 1937. P.3
Reacting against the increasingly digital oriented realms of architectural design, students are encouraged to engage and experiment directly with the materials themselves. Using the autumn term as a chance to ‘play’ with a chosen resource, each student was asked to become fully conversant with the properties and techniques of working and detailing their material. Then they were asked to speculate on new and surprising ways in which these otherwise traditional building materials could create new architectonic form and language. At the same time, in ‘pertaining to place’ we hope such architectural discoveries derive an intrinsic relevance and integrity with the landscapes from which they were hewn.
The range of materials included:
- Caen stone
- Clay tiles
The outcomes included discoveries about the translucency of flint and veneers of wood, finding the structural rules of cracks in drying clay, and combining chalk with wax. Others studied the cleaving lines of slate, looking at Lewes through the various textures of glass found in the town, studying the quality of light transmitted through the cut edges of glass, sewing flint into fabric forms and combining wood with its own bi-products such as resin and pitch. Grasses and reed were studied for their weaving properties, fired earth tiles were derived from a fibonacci inspired module, iron plate for its ability to form hinging panels and someone even found a salvaged source of Caen stone from a railway viaduct.
Purposely maximising the amount of experimental time, the culmination of the Autumn term was a quick design study for a very simple building, a camera obscura. To make things more interesting we restricted the students to work pretty much solely in their single material (unless of course they had a jolly good reason to combine it with something else).
The Spring Term used the same site as the camera obscura, a site immediately opposite a new cinema built between the railway station and the gateway climb up to the centre of the Lewes. The students were set to work immediately on a brief for a new photographic archive and cultural facility for a live Client: Edward Reeves Photography of Lewes, established in 1858, and thought to be the oldest continuously working photographic studio anywhere in the world.
The truly remarkable aspect of Reeves is that it has an unbroken photographic archive (with detailed subject matter ledgers) dating back virtually to the beginnings of photography in the mid-Nineteenth Century and mostly composed of many tens of thousands of glass plate negatives. It is a collection of truly international significance. The archive was to form the centre piece of the design project, posing questions about its purpose, its symbolic meaning as a metaphor for memory as well as its functional requirements.
We then asked the students to come up with a ‘big idea’, a starting concept which would exploit the material qualities of the place and find links to the realms of photography and community memory. With a rich built context and pronounced topography, it was also important for the students to engage with the wider site and void designing a building in isolation.
University of Brighton
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