WORKSHOP: “Not What, But How”Interview
In conversation with Clementine Blakemore, co-founder of WORKSHOP, about their current exhibition in the Front Member's Room
11 December 2013
Front Members' Room, Architectural Association
WORKSHOP architecture is a design and make studio that lives temporarily with the communities they are working with to help them create new spaces to inhabit while learning through building with local materials and technologies. They currently have an exhibition of the projects they have done to date on show in the Front Members' Room at the AA, alongside an inhabitable shelf that facilitates interaction between visitors to the space. Here, Clementine Blakemore, who founded WORKSHOP architecture along with Alexander Furunes and Ivar Tutturen in 2012, explains the meaning behind the title of the exhibition, what it meant to reflect on their experiences through this type of format and what's next for the studio.
How did you choose the title "Not What, But How"?
The Norwegian professor, Hans Skotte, often quotes the jazz song "T'aint What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It)" to convey the importance to being aware of your actions, as much as your outcomes, when working in this type of practice. "Not What, But How" has become somewhat of a motto for us and a phrase that we feel captures our approach to design and building.
The way in which buildings come about – the stories about who commissioned them, funded them, built them – is often a bit of a mystery. The collaborative nature of the design process is also rarely articulated, with projects being credited to an individual person, or a single architecture practice without an acknowledgement of all the other people and organisations who have contributed. We wanted to convey as honestly as possible the complex, and often messy, way in which our projects have come about. The aim of the exhibition was to focus on the process and the people involved, rather than simply on the product.
How did the context and audience at the AA change the format of the exhibition from the Building Community exhibition you did previously at the British Council in Delhi?
We have approached both exhibitions as live events, through which to engage with people and generate a discussion around the project. The exhibition in Delhi took place in February just before we started Project Hariharpur, and as such offered an opportunity to test materials and design ideas before moving to the village. We held an AA Visiting School during the two weeks prior to the opening, and worked with the participants to design and build a 1:1 mock-up in the British Council gallery space. Members of the public were invited to join us, and by the end we had a team of collaborators including a Tibetan monk, and two Delhi businessmen rolling up their robes / sleeves to help with construction!
Although a lot of the material from the first exhibition, as well as new artefacts gathered during Project Hariharpur, were shipped to London, it didn't make sense to replicate the same setup. On this occasion we wanted to test ideas about flexible spaces which could be applicable to future projects. The idea of a 'thick wall', that is both structural and inhabitable, has been an interest of ours for a while so we decided to develop this through physical testing. We developed this concept into a design which would help to divide the Front Members' Room into two smaller spaces, and frame views towards the images and artefacts on display. The form of the structure navigates the period features in the room, specifically the listed ceiling and chandelier, which hopefully are both out of reach!
What materials did you use to construct the exhibition and how long did it take?
We wanted the structure to demonstrate a design philosophy, rather than be an exact mock-up of what might be built. As such, the decision to build with salvaged timber was about a frugal and resourceful approach to materials – not because it will be available on site. We designed the wall with two different timber members, structural studs for the columns and planks for the shelves, before realising we could use planks for the whole thing. There was a simplicity and elegance in this that was very appealing. The material was provided at a reduced rate by the architectural salvage company Lassco, and was sourced from a Victorian cotton mill outside of London.
The downside of using a reclaimed material is that you often have to do a lot of preparation before it's ready for construction. But the hours spent in Ching's Yard scrubbing the boards clean with wire brushes paid off in the end, when we saw the final structure in the context of gallery space. The individuality of the planks – the way in which the hard knots have become almost polished over time, and the streaks of oil from the cotton spinning machines – speak beautifully of the history embedded in them.
The structure was built over six days by the three of us, and a fantastic team of volunteers – students from the AA and other institutions, as well as practising architects from a number of different countries who were eager to do some physical work. It was a great opportunity for us to collaborate with old colleagues, new friends, and discuss the work through the process of making.
What was it like to reflect on your year-long experience of living, working and building in India through the exhibition?
Although the circumstances were very different, and far less intense, the exhibition offered an opportunity for us to improve the way we go about things – in terms of scheduling, communication, and reaching design decisions.
Having spent so long away, it's very stimulating to now be in such a critically rigorous environment. In particular, the events organised in conjunction with the exhibition have generated interesting discussions and complex questions which will no doubt shape the way we approach future projects.
What's next for WORKSHOP architecture?
The plan had been to return to Tacloban in 2014, to build phase two of the Study Center. On the day we started building the exhibition, typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines causing terrible devastation. Luckily the people who run Streetlight, our partner organisation in Tacloban, survived and were able to save many of the children they work with – but the building was completely destroyed. We are currently raising money for the rebuilding costs, but the situation is obviously still very unstable. As yet it is still unclear how or when we should be involved, and it will take a number of months to develop a plan of action in conjunction with our partner organisation Streetlight.
There is one other potential project in collaboration with a charity based in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in Northern India. This project would be focused on the restoration of traditional homes in conjunction with the organisation's home stay and livelihoods program. For now we are still involved at the periphery of Project Hariharpur, which is still under construction and in need of additional funds for completion.
All three of us are juggling WORKSHOP with full time studying and working so finding a more sustainable way to run the practice is a crucial next step. We need to find ways to fund not just our projects, but also our lives. For each hour spent on design and construction, there are two more hours that have to be dedicated to fundraising, accounting, communicating and general admin, and it's hard to accommodate this without the infrastructure of a fully fledged office. We're also interested in testing this type of practice closer to home, and potentially in collaboration with a wider group or people. Stay tuned!
For more information:
WORKSHOP architecture lecture listing
WORKSHOP architecture website
An article by WORKSHOP: Building with Rural Communities