AA Membership's Bobby Jewell interviews architect Gaurav Sharma and the Institute of Making's Zoe Laughlin
28 January 2014 Malet Place, London   Last term, the AA Membership department organised three Members’ visits to sites and developments within a 10 minute walking radius of Bedford Square. The “10r series” featured a trip to the new LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Centre led by Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, a walkthrough of the NLA’s Great Estates Exhibition at the Building Centre by Peter Murray, and a tour of the Institute of Making, a new cross-disciplinary research club and materials library in University College London’s engineering department dedicated to the made world.   I spoke to AA Member and architect of the Institute of Making, Gaurav Sharma (GS) and co-founder/director of the Institute of Making, Zoe Laughlin (ZL) about the challenges of fitting this new development into UCL’s busy campus, the importance of social inclusion and of course, making.   How did the idea of the Institute of Making (IoM) come about and when did you two start working together? ZL: The idea for the Institute of Making evolved out of our work building a materials library, and our passion for the relationship between materials and processes. Our dream was to have our materials library in a space that also contained a workshop where materials could be encountered in many different ways. As an extremely interdisciplinary group, we wanted to make a space that felt full of potential, really celebrating the material world and that which could be made. When we started the Institute of Making we were based at King’s College London but moved the project to UCL in 2011/12 in order to realise our vision of a workshop space combined with a materials library and research institute. GS: Zoe and I started working together in January 2012, as part of a project team, which was tasked to create the new home of the Institute of Making at UCL. As client and end-user, Zoe set out the aspirational and functional brief of the project. My role was that of lead designer and project architect. Over the years, Zoe has been working at the intersection of the science, art, craft and design of materials. This has a strong resonance with the practice of architecture and design, so it was very exciting to work together.   How well do you feel the IoM sits within the site of the UCL campus and within UCL University as a whole? GS: The Institute of Making sits on the ground floor of the Malet Place Engineering Building (MPEB), along one of the busiest pedestrian routes in the UCL Bloomsbury campus. The MPEB is also one of the hubs of the department of Engineering at UCL. The idea was to bring ‘Making’ into the heart of the campus and therefore this prominent site was allocated to the IoM. The existing connections were further reinforced by internally linking the Institute of Making to the MPEB and by establishing new visual and physical connections with the abutting pedestrian streets.
The front of IoM is occupied by the Materials Library but then transforms seamlessly into the multipurpose workshop at the back, what were the challenges of combining the two spaces? GS: The Materials Library is designed to be part interactive library and part public attraction. Its displays are available for visitors and students to see, touch, smell and even, in some cases hear and taste. In fact, some of the material stock is available for making projects and activities in the Make Space. The Materials Library and the workshop space also establish a relationship between materials and the tools and processes of ‘making’. Conceptually, the two zones complement each other quite well. The space which the IoM occupies was originally an uninhabitable delivery and services bay. Therefore the main challenge was in relation to several servicing, engineering and fire safety requirements associated with the existing space, which we had to work with. For example, there was an existing 10 tonne platform lift and gantry crane which has been adapted and retained.   How important is the social aspect of the IoM? ZL: Incredibly important. We encourage an open, collaborative working practice where interdisciplinarity is second nature. We also curate a programme of events, masterclasses and workshops where group work and the sharing of experiences is key.
GS: The IoM has been designed so that it is not only visible to the world outside but also inviting, accessible and inclusive. For example, the front façade can be completely opened during special events and public days to bring the ‘making’ activities to the street outside. The heart of the Institute of Making is designed as a multi-functional space which is used for group work, master classes, guest speakers, presentations, demonstrations, and so on. The workshop area brings together equipment, expertise and perspectives of making from a wide range of disciplines. The diverse range of tools and machinery and their adjacency within a compact layout provides opportunities for random interactions, which are key for collaborative and inter-disciplinary work. It’s a space where it would be totally normal for someone experimenting with ceramics in the kiln to be looking over the shoulder of someone melting chocolate on the cooker.   The IoM seems to be going from strength to strength, how do you expect it will grow in 2014? ZL: We anticipate greater membership numbers as the interest of UCL staff and students grows. Our target for year one was 1,000 members and after just 9 months we have 2,233, so I can only see things growing more in 2014. We hope to get some more staff to help with this demand and will continue to run an impressive range of events and masterclasses for both members and the general public. We have plans to build a pop-up venue extension to the side of our external façade and will incorporate some more storage in this external space.   For more information: AA Membership's highlight building visit this spring is Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat Villa, Brno, April 4-6 2014 AA Membership Events AA Membership is now on Twitter, follow them @AAMembership The Institute of Making   Image credit: Byron Blakeley