NEW VERNACULARS: Kingcombe AA Visiting SchoolInterview
An interview with the Director of the Kingcombe AA Visiting School, Clementine Blakemore.
30 April 2018
Architectural Association, London
AA Conversations interviewed Clementine Blakemore, Director of the Kingcombe AA Visiting School and discussed her approach and plans for the visiting school in the coming year. AAVS Kingcombe works with Kingcombe Wildlife Centre, located a few miles from Hooke Park, the AA’s rural campus in West Dorset.
The Kingcombe Visiting School invites participants to collaborate on a live project a few miles away from the AA’s rural campus at Hooke Park; could you tell us a bit about the site?
Kingcombe is a 180 hectare nature reserve, owned and managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, which has maintained its extraordinarily rich and diverse ecosystem by continuing to farm the land traditionally, without the use of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and other modern agricultural practices. We were introduced to it by Common Ground, a local arts and environmental charity, who is collaborating with us as part of their research project into contemporary forms of vernacular architecture.
Our site is located at the eastern edge of the reserve, on the banks of the river Hooke, downstream from Hooke Park. The boardwalk we’re building links the river to the Kingcombe Centre, a cluster of former barns and farm buildings, which have been converted to host visitors and educational events. On the one hand it’s very much connected to the centre, acting as an extension of the café and providing a space for groups of children to gather during ecology trips. On the other hand, it feels quite distinct; a secluded space to be alone, or begin an exploration into the Wildflower Meadows to the East. It was this sense of being on a threshold – between the ‘cultivated’ space of the centre, and the ‘untamed’ space of the landscape beyond – that we wanted to evoke.
Looking towards the river from the first phase of the new boardwalk
How and why have you phased the project?
The decision to phase the project was partly a practical one, as it enabled us to fulfil the brief within the time constraints established by the Visiting School: two short workshops (14 days last year, and just 9 this year) to fabricate and assemble the structure. The happy consequence of this is that the knowledge that was acquired through the first workshop can be applied to the next, and the gap between the two phases offers time and space for reflection.
One of last year’s participants assembling a frame in the yard at Hooke Park
For Phase One, we decided to begin at the end – focusing on the boardwalk’s point of conclusion at the riverbank. By creating a gathering space, along with a short stretch of boardwalk leading from the Wildlife Garden, we were able to provide a self-contained area that can be used before the rest of the boardwalk is completed.
A detail of the boardwalk structure
Rather than building a fully covered space requiring substantial foundations, we wanted to ‘tread lightly’ on the immediate environment and create a permeable structure more akin to a traditional arbour or pergola. As a series of five tilted portal frames with integrated seating, the structural design was in part shaped by the fabrication process – allowing small groups of workshop participants to work on multiple frames at one time. Oriented to frame views across the open fields, and away from the neighbouring properties on the other side of the river, the resulting pavilion allows visitors to sit high above the long grasses of the meadow and look down towards the meander of the river.
What are the plans for this year?
Phase Two will see the completion of the boardwalk all the way to the top of the field, linking it to the café and play area. There needs to be some kind of stock-proof fence along the eastern edge of the boardwalk, but we also want to encourage moments of pause and points of access into the wildflower meadow – and so are looking at ways of integrating seating and steps along its length.
Preparing to raise the frame on site at Kingcombe (Photo: Valerie Bennett)
Given all the timber needs to be felled and milled in advance, this element of the project will have been resolved before the workshop so that we can jump straight into making. There will, however, also be a self-contained student-led design project developed during the workshop. Whilst last year’s cohort worked with the graphic designer Eva Kellenberger to develop signage for the new boardwalk, this year’s group will be collaborating with the local furniture-maker Alice Blogg to design mobile ‘play pods’ which will enable children to explore and interact with the environment around the boardwalk. Finally, we’ll be using landscaping and planting to soften the existing structure and encourage a rich ecosystem around it.
Why do you think it’s important to teach architecture students how to make as well as how to design?
The idea of teaching through sensory engagement and interaction with the world, rather than books, is a pedagogical philosophy that can be traced back to the 18th Century and Rousseau’s Treatise on Education (1762). Hooke Park’s philosophy of ‘learning through making’ can be more directly linked to pioneering schools of architecture founded in the 20th Century such as Taliesen West and Rural Studio, which take students away from their drawing boards and onto building sites.
What each of these programmes offer is the opportunity to experience the translation of drawings into built form, via the contingencies of site, client, weather, and all the other unpredictable aspects of construction! Whilst perhaps only a few of those trained in this way might go on to set up design/build practices, and actually combine the usually distinct roles of architect and contractor, the collaborative and uncertain process of hands-on building is fantastic complement to the individually-driven and theoretical work that dominates architectural education.
I would argue a balance between these two modes of learning makes more confident designers – able to both understand materials and processes of construction, and challenge them through experimentation and innovation. The lead tutor on the workshop, Alex Thomas from Timber Workshop, is both a qualified architect and trained carpenter, and so embodies the two ways of thinking perfectly!
Laying the joists for the platform area (Photo: Valerie Bennett)
To what extent is this educational approach related to a broader resurgence of interest in craft, heritage and the hand made?
We’re certainly in the middle of what might be understood not so much as a reaction against the digital and globalised world, but a search for antidotes to it. Whilst the rapid production and consumption of imagery proliferates in the design industry, so too does the desire for tactility, a curiosity about how things have been made, a search for ‘authenticity’. Sensitivity to place, and understanding ways in which the local context might inform design, is part of this.
Hooke Park’s commitment to timber technology is an obvious outcome of its location in the middle of a forest – but the project at Kingcombe is the first to be built beyond the campus at Hooke, and as such is an exciting step towards community engagement. By working in the public realm, for a client that isn’t the AA, we’re taking the first steps towards combining the radical spirit embodied in the existing work at Hooke and applying this to the wider context of West Dorset, to create what might be termed a New Vernacular.
For more information:
New Vernaculars Visiting School Brief