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Craft Connecting Architecture

Oliver Lowenstein’s freewheeling review of a series of talks at the Craft Connecting Architecture conference from Fourth Door. Piers Taylor was one of the keynote speakers.


Last November’s Craft Connecting Architecture Architecture Connecting Craft conference at London’s Building Centre sought to explore craft and architecture’s meeting spaces. Bringing together designers, architects, crafts-people and the maker world, the day focused on crafts people working on architectural and landscape related projects, and architects engaging with craft practice. Radical in how the conference drew the different disciplines together, we look at how effective it was, and what worked and what didn’t. So how effective was it?

It was only some way into the day’s last presentation that the word ‘materiality’ turned up, the speaker drawing on one of those tried and trusted workhorse terms – nomenclature – that professions use. Lights light up and alarm bells ring, it’s an architect talking. And indeed it was.

The one-day conference, Craft Connecting Architecture – Architecture Connecting Craftheld in London’s Building Centre at the end of November, had, up to that point steered circuitously clear of such archi-speak orthodoxy. Co-organised by the two University of the Creative Arts Farnham campus centre’s, the Crafts Study Centre and the International Textiles Research Centre, the eight speakers were a decidedly idiosyncratic mix. Designer makers who didn’t make, crafts-people who did, and two keynote speakers, both of whose off-centre work contribute to the redefinition of what ‘architectural’ can mean and encompass.

Those two speakers, the Dutch textile and landscape garden designer Petra Blaisse, and the one-time semi-mainstream and gadfly to the profession currently, Piers Taylor, gave what were easily the most inspiring and thought provoking talks of the day. Blaisse, whose Amsterdam based Inside Out design studio has built a formidable reputation since working with Dutch architecture’s erstwhile enfant terrible Rem Koolhaas and his OMA outfit, showed two OMA co-projects: Casa Da Musica Concert Hallin Porto, Portugal and the Doha Water Recipe Garden. Inside Out designed and made the curtains for the concert hall – one of which drops a full 22 metre’s – a vivid example of how curtains are a signature speciality of Blaisse’s. As she talked the small, eighty-person audience through the fishnet knotted weave of the white and black curtain, Blaisse demonstrated the singular way in which textile crafts, as much as textile design, and its lightness, can interplay with the heavy solidity of a concrete auditorium.

It was not exactly a complete surprise that the head of UCA’S International Textile’s Centre, professor Lesley Millar, had invited Blaisse to the conference. Millar has long been an energetic supporter of Japanese textile and fabric art – which occupies a similar in-between space between formal artistic practice, and ambient interior architecture. This in-between quality is also underlined by Blaisse’s other main love, gardening, fusing design elements with landscape. The collaborations with OMA have again been particularly fruitful here, for instance the 2016 Water Recipe Garden sitting in the parched Doha cityscape. She also showed a number of smaller, appealingly light hearted and playful pieces: an umbrella-like installation piece – described as a personal mobile garment made of a translucent silver material, and the technologically clever sliding curtains that surreally slid around the Dutch Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale. Blaisse emphasised the technical dimension of these projects; curtains and other façade’s used to filter light or buffer sound, or their climate and circulatory design functions, as much as their jaw dropping decorative appeal. Seeing architectural related work from a non-architectural perspective was particularly refreshing. And all through, the language that Blaisse uses to describe her work seemed alien and distant from the ways architecture is usually articulated; curtains ‘emancipated’ from building, confusing interior spaces merging with the external world outside of buildings, or creating, shown in another example, a landscape with a meandering, rather than straight, path, form hardly following function. Or, as Blaisse described it, a ‘lyrical’ path. Had I ever, I began to wonder, heard an architect talking about a building as being lyrical?

The two crafts-people who followed, suffered from having to present their ideas in the afterglow of Blaisse’s opening blast. Christopher Tipping and Richard Kindersley, each operating in contrasting craft contexts, explored their work interestingly if undynamically. Tipping moved from an early craft background – ceramics, into a career as a designer maker; working principally in public, generally, urban contexts, mainly on regeneration and civic projects. The care and concern evident in street furniture and signage for a series of initiatives in Southampton, spoke to the craftsperson in Tipping, even as he acknowledged that ideally, what he wished for and what craft depends on, is time: something not usually available when working on public and municipality commissions. Kindersley, a letter, type and font engraver, came closest to the traditional image of the twentieth century craftsman. He showed a number of works where lettering and other forms of engraving were part of larger architectural, or building works. Threaded through his talk, was an ongoing plea regarding the disappearance of the quiet timeless qualities associated with the hand made, compared to the world of the fast moving 21st century social media universe. The sincerity, and genuine heartfelt conviction that Kindersley was voicing was clear, and I felt for Kindersley, watching his life work, vocation and craft at the cusp of disappearing, must be difficult. But his lament is familiar, and has been around a long time, stretching right back to the Arts & Crafts era. As he sketched the situation it also became apparent that he didn’t, beyond an emotional appeal to what loss means  – with so many heritage crafts being on the edge of extinction – have answers regarding their survival, revival and resurgence. One thought, too late now, but possible for future consideration, is that the organisers might have found a fresh-faced craft-person, part of the current maker generation who have embraced various at risk crafts; an exchange between youth and age could have been thought provoking.

The story was similar in the afternoon, when Philip Koomen, the furniture designer, and Linda Brassington, standing in for Jo Macullum who was ill, gave considered, if emotionally flat, talks.

Koomen discussed a series of furniture commissions for particular buildings, most recently the Herzog DeMeuron University of Oxford Blatnavik School of Government, along with less recent private commissions. The furniture was beautifully turned out, but the sense that Koomen had much to say about the work was missing, other than that he’d designed it, and his small team had then faithfully made the designs. Any sense that these were the outcome of some kind of search for answers to larger questions – of meaning, of context, of the future of craft – that had spurred him on through the years, was absent. That crafts can demonstrate technical skills can feel not enough at times. That it shies away from critical reflexivity hinders its sense of vitality and intensity; that – as has been observed in another context, jazz – craft could be more important than your life.

As in the morning sessions, Both Koomen and Brassington spoke in the slipstream of that afternoon’s keynote – given by the one-time mainstream architect, Piers Taylor. Taylor, who had arrived during lunch and speaking a mile a minute spent much of his talk pacing the floor like a man consumed; trying to uncover the place where a certain hidden secret he was intent on unravelling, was leading him. The questions he asked – essentially of himself – though bringing the audience along for the ride, did this time come across as potentially almost life and death. Or, at least, when there were answers to the questions, it almost sounded like they’d maintain his sense of mental health. Taylor’s reputation precedes him. Having walked away from a partnership in a small but successful commercial practice, Mitchell Taylor Workshop, after a life changing visit in 2013 to his architectural mentor, the Australian cult figure, Glenn Murcutt, when given a chance, Taylor has denigrated the mainstream ever since. This talk was no exception. His antipathy and alienation from his one time architectural world couldn’t be clearer as he attacked a meaty sampling of the professions shibboleths. Yet, his obsession suggests a man who, despite an exotic architectural afterlife and re-invention as the one man Invisible Studio, hasn’t completely reconciled himself to his past. Taylor’s recent adventures in embodied experiential making – at the AA’s Hooke Park, at his self built home in some deep forest wilds some place out in Bath’s back country, and with the ongoing Studio in the Woodsdesign & make workshops – do look as if, spiritually, they have nurtured him, and kept him going over the last few years. Various points, the issue of control – pervasive in architecture – and its disconnect from the conditions of making, from the everyday in landscape, and from the vast majority of everyday people, was passionately made, if never really escaping the irritating trope that architects have of putting themselves at the centre of the story. From a social and developmental psychological and broader science perspective, an obvious next step is to ask why so many architects seem habitually to do it?

Whether the majority of Craft Connecting Architecture’saudience took on these aspects of Taylor’s talk wasn’t clear. To the irritation of some of the organisers, Taylor disappeared immediately after his talk was over, with the result that there was no follow up. Something, actually, quite characteristic of the architectural profession, and suggesting Taylor’s limited interest in engaging with this primarily non-architectural audience. Would the craft people present, both speakers and audience members, have connected with Taylor’s craft inflected architectural related issues, or were they too far removed from its concerns? While Tipping praised artisans, and Koomen the team who translate his designs into realised furniture, neither they, nor the other crafts speakers broached the wider community and its connection or otherwise with their work; beyond some amused words on the great general public’s assertions about the waste of tax payer’s money such civic projects entail. As with so many of these types of events, the potential for more informal exploration within a discussion, loses out to keeping to the days schedule, and readying the next speaker to step up to the lectern.

All this led me to wonder how curious these crafts-people were about the labyrinth of ‘meaning’ questions, which Taylor had strode into. Was it Taylor and Blaisse’s intensity of interest which drove them, emotionally as much as intellectually, and which distinguished each from the other speakers? Did it have something to do with the difference in disciplines; these were both architect related practitioners after all? Or was it something to do with a relation to risk and keeping to the safe territory of technical skill and competence?

If the last speaker, architect Roz Barr, might have cast light on these points, it didn’t happen. Instead Barr gave an orthodox architectural talk about a series of her projects, completed either while working at the respected Eric Parry Architects, or with her own studio, illustrating the overlap with craftsmanship at various turns. It was in this context that the significance of materials surfaced, and the moment the current ubiquitous architectural term, ‘materiality’ was deployed. Portland stone, cast iron, cross-laminated timber, and copper facades were all referenced. And while there was much to admire, this was again a conventional talk, neither following Taylor into the thicket of issues where his singular path has led him, nor the individuality ‘in between spaces’ out of which Blaisse has created such an idiosyncratic career. The path was straight, with neither meander, nor flow, or so it seemed. Once again there was the sense of an invisible boundary in the presentation, to do with risk and exposure, that wasn’t to be crossed; the emotionally cool word ‘materiality’ the appropriate descriptive to be reached for, rather than the poetic ardour and presence uncovered in the single word, ‘lyrical.’


Oliver Lowenstein


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Architectural Review: Invisible Studio

 Invisible Studio are profiled in the March edition of the Architectural Review. Full article HERE

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Trailer: Dezeen

Trailer is in Dezeen: Read piece HERE

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AJ Small Projects 2018

We’re really pleased to have been shortlisted for the AJ Small Projects Award 2018 – having won the award previously for Moonshine, and having also been shortlisted for the award in other years for Starfall Farm, Caretaker’s House and Longdrop.

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Why Architects Matter

Great to see an image of our Gridshell project, designed and constructed with 1st year students on the cover of Flora Samuel’s new book which is available to purchase HERE.

Below is a review of this book by Piers Taylor for the RIBA Journal.

Architects are very good at presuming their worth is evident to everyone, and yet, as Flora Samuel demonstrates, not only do many non-architects not even know what architects do, but we are also very bad at presenting the case for why we are useful – let alone essential. For much of the construction industry we’ve become dispensable and marginalized to the point of becoming little more than mere self-aggrandizing stylists for a few trophy buildings. Not only are we thought of as petulant dandies who add cost and complexity, we are also considered unaffordable. The only things we care about are finishing a building, photographing it before the client screws it up, and getting it published so that we can bask in the glow from our peers. Is it any wonder we’ve become semi irrelevant to the general public, to developers, to governments and to the construction teams that we used to lead? In many ways it is tragic that a book called ‘Why Architects Matter’ had to be conceived and written at all. It isn’t possible to imagine, say, that a book titled ‘Why Doctors Matter’ would have had to be written, or even ‘Why Carpenters Matter’. We know we need them and the arguments for their existences are obvious.

In some ways, an alternative title for this book might have been called (with apologies to Will Hutton) ‘The State We’re In’ – or certainly the first part of the book, which deals with our plight. If public opinion is any measure, it’s a sorry state that we are in, and one where architect bashing is pretty much a national sport. While we’ve always been a profession in crisis, we’re now in a, new, special kind of crisis of our own making. Samuel sets out that for the most part, we are responsible for our own downfall, being not only incapable of demonstrating why our skills and knowledge are essential but also being unclear about what our skills and knowledge are. The problem, in many ways, is that we are fixated on the wrong things: time and again, when asked to justify our existence, we call upon aesthetic codes.

Yet, as Samuel shows, most people – including the other highly skilled professionals within our teams – do not share the same aesthetic values, or even understand our language, which Samuel describes as ‘unintelligible’ to most of them. Instead of hearing this and attempting to reconcile the gulf between us and others who commission architects or work with us in design teams, we retreat further into our autonomous worlds. We seek solace in other architects and within the architectural media which we still feel reflect our values. But for the most part these values are propped up by phony ethics, false morality, and vacuous self-righteous rhetoric. Tragically, we care far more about what our peers think of us than non-architects, making us – as Jeremy Till says ‘increasingly irrelevant and ultimately irresponsible.’

Much of the reason that we’re so unhappy (our career satisfaction is at an all time low) and so loathed is that we are simply not good at explaining why what we do matters – and of course this is hindered by not being sure about what we do in the first place. In addition, Samuel argues that our self image is delusional and still propped up by our identification with the unreconstructed, totalitarian, swashbuckling alpha male heroic role models, personified by Howard Roark, our beloved Modernists – Corb, Mies – and other globe-trotting neo-liberal greats – Foster, Rogers, Koolhaus – who battle tirelessly on our behalf against the unwashed, unthinking, non believers. Poor us. Overworked, underpaid, undervalued and unappreciated. If only everyone else could be more like us, with our natty black outfits and our flowery shirt/suit jacket uniforms, our Bromptons, our perfectly aligned sock drawers, our appreciation of shadow gaps, concrete and our love of the ‘rational’.

There is salvation, however, and much of the book shows the path to redemption if we’re prepared to be a little more self reflective as a body, and stop trying to convert the naysayers. Samuel suggests that to be a ‘profession’ is to profess custody of a body of knowledge, and in making the case for architects, begins by reminding us what it is we know. She then goes on to make the case for what we might do with that knowledge. She argues that while architects are ‘socio-spatial problem solvers, integrators of complex bodies of information and masters in space-craft’ and work within knowledge-based organisations, ‘knowledge’ is not a word many architects feel very comfortable with as a way of describing the essence of our professional discipline.

Samuel suggests that we need to strategically re-frame our knowledge and skills for the twenty first century. At the moment, one of our main problems is that we identify with the ‘wrong’ body of knowledge, which is a ‘pantheon edifice of instruction, moral code, do’s and don’t’s, through which architecture as an academy is established’. Salvation, Samuel writes, is ours – but only if we are prepared to destroy the mythology of the architect as a ‘visionary’ and focus on more normative forms of research and knowledge generation and concentrate on how to make architecture appropriate to its environment.

At its heart, this is an evidence–based approach to design, which represents something of a sea change for architects, who are instinct-led generalists. Traditionally, architects aren’t effective researchers, and this needs to change. A researcher herself, Samuel’s key argument is that design research is the most effective way to improve – and share – our knowledge. First, however, we need more research to discover how to do architectural research better. Rather than being a tautological mobius strip where we disappear (even further) up our own backsides, this is a process of ‘systematic and original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding and de-risk innovation’, which is then widely disseminated. In the UK, we usually consider ’research’ to have a technical focus, but Samuel demonstrates that the European understanding encompasses artistic, scientific, social and business issues. This makes sense, as the built environment is an interdisciplinary problem, and Samuel makes the case for sociologists, economists, geographers, city planners and architects to retreat from our individual conceptual worlds and create more interdisciplinary connections.

Next, in addition to working more collaboratively, we need to restore links between academia and practice in order for practice to understand – and be part of – a research culture. Never have they been more disconnected, writes Samuel, for now there is something of a cultural chasm between the two. The best method of research – for practitioners – is within practice, and there is significant funding available for practice-based research available – although this is European funding, so may well, sadly, disappear. Many architects are sceptical about the need to carry out research to provide evidence for their worth which they feel to be ‘common sense’, but as Samuel shows, architects’ views of what forms ‘common sense’ differs greatly from others. Research can help us state ‘what we know’ much more effectively, and critically, help in stating our ‘value’.

Samuel reminds us architects that we generate far more value than we capture. She describes how architects work in a knowledge-based service sector, creating boundary objects in the form of models, drawings, reports, events, experience that facilitate organizational learning and the transfer of knowledge. If we can evidence our value in a manner that the world understands, writes Samuel, our value – and issues around protection of title – become non-issues. Ultimately, if a large procedural part of what we do may become robotized or hived off by apps or other professionals looking for a slice of the construction cherry pie, we are potentially saved by our ability to empathize.

My hunch is that many architects will have to work at this, but if we become more empathetic, this leaves us free to update our ideals and ethics and, via research in practice and stronger links between practice and academia, reshape our knowledge and problem-solving skills to think about future expert-systems and the development of the built environment in the long term. What that may seem a tall order, Samuel’s fundamental point to architects is that we have no choice, except to shape up, reformulate or die out. Meanwhile, eager to plan for the future, I’m off to change my business card from mere ‘architect’ to ‘socio-spatial problem solver and master in space-craft’.

© Piers Taylor 2018

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