LACEY GREEN VISITING SCHOOL: Design, Making & PlaceInterview

An interview with Clementine Blakemore, Lacey Green Visiting School Director

28 March – 11 April 2015
Buckinghamshire, UK

 

After co-directing three Visiting Schools in India between 2012-13, what made you decide to run this programme in the UK? 

The two projects I completed in India with WORKSHOP architecture, and the associated Visiting Schools we directed, were based on the principle of exchange – between local people, ourselves, and the group of international participants who joined us. Rather than adopt a typical architectural process, we tried to use the building site as a platform through which to transfer knowledge, skills, experience and culture. The construction phase wasn’t only about getting the building built, but also about using the collaborative act of making to enable interaction, engagement and learning. Although perhaps easier to achieve in the informal and unstructured environment of India, I realised that it’s a process which is equally compelling in a western context – and was keen to test the model closer to home.

 

Returning to the UK after a year abroad, I began to see British building traditions and craftsmanship in a different way, and wanted to approach them with them with the same curiosity we had developed in India.  From a practical point of view, I was also aware that much of the capacity we had accumulated over the course of each project, in terms of local knowledge and relationships, was lost when we moved on after the buildings were completed. Setting up a longer-term Visiting School in the UK, and developing projects incrementally over a number of years, is a way to address this; the practical wisdom and know-how that’s intuitively acquired through the building process can be passed on from project to project, and deepen over time.

 

The Visiting School will be based for two years at Grymsdyke Farm, and then at Hooke Park. What are the similarities between the two institutions, and how does the Visiting School relate to their agendas?

Grymsdyke Farm is a fabrication and research studio in Buckinghamshire, affiliated with the Royal College of Art through its director Guan Lee, who teaches Architecture Design Studio 6 at the RCA. Hooke Park is the AA’s campus in Dorset – a managed forest and workshop facility which can be used by any unit in the school, and is also where the Design+Make masters program is based. Located in rural environments, but in association and dialogue with London schools, both are concerned with the role of making in design education in the context of a specific place. The material research at Grymsdyke Farm is particularly focused on clay, locally sourced from the Thames valley, while Hooke Park’s AA projects have placed an emphasis on timber construction, using wood felled from their own forest.

 

One of the aims of the Visiting School is to bring these two areas of material research together, and share the expertise being developed in both sites. This year for example, the structural timber for the music pavilion is coming from Hooke Park, whilst the clay roof tiles will be prototyped at Grymsdyke Farm, and produced in partnership in with a local brickworks. The other ambition is to open the institutions up to the wider community. The work at Grymsdyke Farm over the past ten years has predominantly been additions and interventions to the property and surrounding land; at Hooke Park the built projects have been part of the completion of the infrastructure needed for the AA (additional student accommodation, workshop space etc). The Visiting School offers an opportunity to test, on a small-scale, engagement with local clients and briefs beyond the institutions themselves – an approach more closely aligned with the Rural Studio model.

 

How does the two-week Visiting School tie into the longer-term research project that you’re running? 

As in India, where the Visiting Schools were an opportunity to take part in longer-term projects for a two-week period, participants in this Visiting School will be joining Project Lacey Green. This is a research project investigating the relationship between design, making and place that I began last year as my final masters thesis at the RCA, and will continue to develop over the next four years. It aims to explore modes of production that engage with both traditional craftsmanship and digital technology, through a ‘live’ (built) project developed collaboratively with the local community. This year our client is St John’s Primary School, a small state school located opposite the farm which has limited financial resources and is in need of additional space – particularly for musical education.

 

Lacey Green village, Buckinghamshire

Lacey Green village, Buckinghamshire

The new structure is located on the school site, and will be built incrementally in two phases; the first phase will involve the completion of the main structure and roof, and will be used as a pavilion. The second phase will entail the enclosure of the space as an interior classroom. There has been no fundraising as such – all the services, materials and expertise required are being provided in-kind or pro-bono. Building on the existing capacity within the school,  parents with specific skills (from acoustic engineering to textile design) are contributing to the design of the space. In this way, the outcome of the project will both a new piece of infrastructure for the school, and also an expression of the skills and resources embedded within the community.

LACEY GREEN VISITING SCHOOL: Design, Making & Place

The Visiting School offers a chance to broaden this collaborative approach to a group of international participants from many different backgrounds. The structural design of the pavilion will be resolved and signed-off by the time the Visiting School starts, which will allow us to jump straight into fabrication and construction of the timber frame during the first week. The second week will involve the design and production of a number of prototype clay roof tiles, allowing us to experiment with digital mould-making techniques and firing processes.

 

The Visiting School includes trips to local manufactures and fabricators; where will you be visiting and why?

A key aim of the project is to engage with manufacturing processes, and create links between academia and industry. It’s an exchange which works for both parties; students gain valuable knowledge about materials, tools and the ways things are made, whilst manufacturers are able to engage with fresh ideas, and an experimental approach which can lead to innovation.

 

Lacey Green is located  in the Chiltern Hills around High Wycombe, a town which was at the centre of the British furniture-making industry in the 19th Century. One of the largest and most famous companies, Ercol, is still operating locally and in fact relocated a few years ago to Princes Risborough – just a few miles from Grymsdyke Farm. Although the company now sources its timber from Europe and America, and has additional factories abroad, many of their products are made in Buckinghamshire. Visiting the factory is a chance to understand how new digital manufacturing process such as CNC milling co-exists with hand-tools that haven’t changed in centuries.

 

One of the other interesting manufacturers we’ll be visiting – a little further away in Chesham – is H G Matthews brickworks. Now being run by the third generation of the same family, H G Matthews is an example of how a traditional business has adapted to accommodate current demands and future needs. Running the only remaining wood-fired kiln in the UK enables the company to produce traditional brick glaze found in the local vernacular architecture, and hand-pressing the clay in wooden moulds leads to a distinctive finish not found in mass-produced bricks. Alongside these processes, the company is developing less energy-intensive building modules such as unfired cob blocks. They’re also interested in reviving lost skills such as clay-tile production, which is what we’ll be prototyping at the farm and discussing with the current director Jim Matthews at the end of the Visiting School – with the view to one of the designs being put into production at the brickworks.

 

Finally, we’ll be visiting two metal fabricators located in Lacey Green itself: Gommes forge and M H Hall sheet steel company, which will be manufacturing some elements of the pavilion.

 

Felled timber logs at Hooke Park

Felled timber logs at Hooke Park

You have a number of guests joining you over the course of the workshop to give lectures and seminars; who have you invited and why?

One of the greatest strengths of the RCA is its interdisciplinary culture, and the cross-fertilisation between different schools and departments; a defining feature of the AA is its public programme and the culture of lively debate; whilst an important part of life Grymsdyke Farm and Hooke Park is the food and the habit of sharing meals together! Touching on each of these characteristics, the format of the seminar series during the Visiting School will be presentation from a non-architectural practitioner, followed by a group discussion over lunch or dinner.

The first guests are Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami from Studio Swine (Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers). Graduates of the RCA’s Design Products program, Alex and Asusa will present their beautiful, process-driven work which addresses pertinent social and environmental issues. We’ll then be joined by Martin Self, a engineer who formerly worked for Arup and Zaha Hadid who is the current Director of Hooke Park; he’ll be talking about the history of Hooke Park and presenting recent work from the Design+Make program. Steve Webb, a founding partner of Webb Yates who has been working on the music pavilion for St. John’s since December will talk us through the design of the timber structure, as well as present some of his other work. Finally the British sculptor and educator Richard Wentworth will discuss his work – much of which has focused on the poetics of informal, everyday assemblage.

 

 

What do you think are the most valuable things about participating in the Visiting School ?

The primary motivation behind my own decision to work in this hands-on way was to have a more direct engagement with materials, tools, landscapes and people – in other words, all the contingencies which shape buildings. Rather than beginning with a design and trying to achieve it in spite of these constraints, I wanted to develop a set of experiences which would allow them to inform the design process from the start. One of the values of this methodology is developing the right balance between being in control of the process, and allowing the process to shape the output; between asserting your will on a material, and understanding a material well enough to be able to manipulate it.

 

This negotiation is equally important in terms of relationships with people. Collaboration is crucial to the production of buildings, and yet is something many of us rarely experience in architecture school. Learning how to listen, adapt and accommodate – and equally how to define your own position and assert it – is crucial to making something as a group.

 

Finally, the process teaches you the ability to be flexible in the face of unanticipated developments – of which you can be sure there will be many! – and able to embrace them as a part of the project.

 

The deadline for applications to the Lacey Green Visiting School is 14th March, click here to apply.

 

Project partners:

Grymsdyke Farm
Hooke Park
Webb Yates Engineers
Arbtech
Blanchford Building Supplies
Helpful Hirings
AET Transport
Keith Bullock
H G Matthews
Andrew Goddard Associates
St. John’s School Community

 

Sample tiles and moulds from HG Matthews brickworks

Sample tiles and moulds from HG Matthews brickworks

For more information:

Clementine will be presenting the project at the next Sustain RCA talk on 25 March

WORKSHOP on AA Conversations – Building Rural Communities

WORKSHOP on AA Conversations – Not What, But How

 

Main image: Experimental casting moulds at Grymsdyke Farm