Sunday, 23 May 2010

Blog On

Having cut its teeth at blogger Occasionally Architectural has a new home at please come along and visit me there. All content has been moved across and new posts are in the pipeline.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Dry Stone Walling - Somerset

On a clear and mild day towards the end of last year I started a dry stone walling course in the Mendip hills in Somerset. From the shadow of Wells’ famous cathedral a steep road climbs the edge of a wooded combe to a small pastoral farm. It’s here that a group of volunteers are guided through the process of re-building a wall. I was late. A brief introduction and I was put to work.

The existing wall, how old no-one there can be sure, sags down on its broad base, visualising years of service. Throughout its existence this wall has been maintained by simply adding to the top. The wall has to be completely removed; deconstructed and laid out in a size-orientated fashion ready for immediate reassembly. Allsorts of treasures are uncovered including numerous perfectly preserved rabbit skulls. By the time the foundations are uncovered it has become clear to me what a backbreaking labour-intensive task this is and, not for the last time, I’m glad to be doing it as a modern day casual volunteer. In the 19th century I could expect to be making a shilling a yard if I was a decent enough waller, I suspect at my pace I would be unemployable.

I chat with fellow volunteers; quite a cross section; farmers, a landscape gardener, retirees, members, me. Unexpectedly varying levels of enthusiasm too, one fellow appears to have been signed up by “the wife”. We reach ground zero and several A-frames are set up along the course of the wall with parallel lines running between as a guide to height and width. We work the whole section of the wall to this the line before it is moved up. I expect proficient wallers probably do this by eye.

The Foundations go down, interlocking at the centre, two stones covering the width of the base. Naturally at this widest, lowest point the biggest stones are used and the aim is to create a base for the next layer, so the stones have to be surely planted, no rocking and a nice sharp outside edge, if anything sloping towards the centre of the wall. Some of thee foundation stones are huge and if you dismantled correctly they should be nearest the wall, at this weight one doesn’t want to be playing around with them too much. Much of this Limestone will have been quarried from the rich supply to be found locally but in many cases the stones have been dragged from the field to make it more suitable for ploughing.

Any air pockets are pre-emptively filled with hearting. All the little stones and fragments up to about fist size are used as ‘hearting’ to ensure the wall is a tightly packed, solid structure. As we build higher, the volume made up of hearting becomes more substantial. This part of the process, previously unbeknownst to me, is absolutely crucial to the integrity of the finished wall. Despite this importance it seems to be perceived as the least glamorous job of the operation (every process has one). People are keen to get on with the main puzzle, the recognisable face of a dry stone wall and the hearting is often left for the more conscientious among us to fill in.

Resolves are tested from the off on the second day as, we make our way across a wet field, the mist only revealing the looming, incomplete task at the last minute. Unlike me, rain arrives early and sets in for the day. As we gain height and reduce our cache of building materials the mental challenge becomes more prevalent. The ongoing puzzle continues, essentially; finding a stone that will bridge the gap to the previous layer (ala typical running-bond brick wall), nestle right into position without any rocking and create as flat a surface to build from as possible. But more than that, at this stage frustration is never far away, with fewer and fewer stones available I continually find myself trying the same stone in the same position. At this point it seems to have become impossible to judge whether or not a stone will be appropriate without actually trying it in every conceivable orientation.

Lunchtime and the rain continues unabated. There are only a few yards of wall left incomplete and the group is given the opportunity to abandon ship. Over half of our contingent leaves, some reluctantly, others not so. I decide to press on. Somehow I feel as though the weather sweeping over this particular Mendip hill adds to the authenticity of the experience.

It is unsurprising that to see the completed wall is rather satisfying, however, when the last stone was laid and we stood back I was quite taken back by the sense of pride and achievement. No doubt this was partly due to the physical and mental input but I think it was also partly attributable to the iconic, if understated, nature of the subject in our British consciousness. Having been part of the building crew it’s hard to believe just how solid this structure is and not a single hammer or chisel left the back of the land rover throughout the course of the weekend. This particular method of walling is one for the purist, the stones are used unaltered and no pinning on the outside faces is permitted. Rising out of the earth, the wall modestly stops at the top, task complete. No flourish of vertical coping stones here.

My contribution to the walls of Somerset is complete, I’m keen to do more but want to experience other regions. With some seventy thousand miles* of wall still available and only nine percent* of that reportedly stock-proof, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

* These figures are taken from England in Particular - Sue Clifford and Angela King (2006)

Friday, 30 April 2010

Reading Ruskin

I’m currently reading John Ruskin’s ‘The Stones of Venice’. Naturally, I skipped straight to the famous essay, ‘The Nature of Gothic’. I’m sure I will write a more conclusive post on the essay but until then something worth considering: Ruskin observes that Architecture is not received by the public with the same excitement of, say, a new piece of literature or a new painting from a renowned artist. There are two points that can be immediately drawn from this view. Firstly, the image of architecture received and enjoyed with the same intensity of these other arts. I think this is a very pertinent objective for architects, after all, architecture is arguably a larger part of our lives than any other art form, at least it plays a more constant role. The second point, which I see as crucial, is that the measure here is the response of the general public. That huge majority which is all too often over looked in architectural design. It’s the old problem of architecture occupying a position equivalent to an in-joke, a private exhibition unlocked only to those who have had the education to appreciate it. I’m not suggesting some kind of x-factor for architecture, simply that the views of the ‘layman’, as it were, are valid. Pleasing the public should be part of the goal, and where possible why not include them in the design process.

Interesting that these two contemporary issues should raise their heads in a mid-nineteenth century essay, possibly a reflection of the antiquated status of parts of our approach.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Parlez-vous Français

Mid-April and I find myself grounded in a remote area of the beautiful French countryside. As much as I am enjoying my disconnected status (it’s amazing how quickly one can cultivate technophobia under the right conditions), I felt I ought to make at least one entry while I’m away.

So, a brief, topical (to me) observation of the French language; I’ve always found that the lingo one encounters in France is very recognisable as the one most of us studied to some degree at school, which cannot be said for many languages read from a text book (or listened to on those strange cassette recordings of somebody supposedly going about their day) in an English classroom. French could be described as a very ‘pure’ language. The French are very proud and indeed protective of their language, as with much of their heritage. To many this attitude may seem to have resulted in a rather ‘small’ language. Initial observations of this are that it is easy to pick-up, usable, familiar. Further inquiries reveal the subtleties, with a language consisting of fewer words the emphasis on expression is far greater, and the latter is probably a key attribute to French’s reputation of beauty. This use of expression (for want of a better word) over vocabulary is demonstrated in many corners of the world. The famous single word utterance of many Native American languages, for which James Fenimore Cooper uses the literation ‘Hugh’, is used in varying applications, all differences being conveyed in the tone. In English we have such a rich language, built up over the centuries by integrating many others. Gaelic, Latin, Germanic and of course French, must be the big four. But I wonder if such a broad vocabulary could have led us to being slightly bland in our expression.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Art of Den

Building Dens is one of my fondest and most integral childhood memories. The vision that most prominently springs to mind is one of a roof constructed from harvested sweetcorn stalks beneath the late summer cover of a Crab Apple tree. The fruit of which is a fantastic source of ammunition to repel any way-fairing little sisters. I was never one for free standing dens in exposed locations, I always favoured building off of something more permanent, a shed or a fence. The previously mentioned den was in my favourite spot, against the back of a shed on the edge of the garden with the opposing side open to the wheat field, a source of both cover and an escape route. This location aided in one of the key requirements of even the most basic den, to act as a wind-break. There is nothing like moving into protection from a chilly wind, except possibly the feeling created by separating oneself from the rain by the smallest margin. Dens do this to varying degrees, a sheet of tin or plastic may provide complete resistance with minimum thickness whilst capturing that wonderful sound of rain abruptly reaching its destination. A more organic solution, no matter how well built up, will almost always drip, which in its way also adds to the joy in that tiny degree of separation between shelter and the elements.

Dens are fantastic indicators of location and season. They are constructed out of what ever is at hand, and kids don’t have any pre-programmed preferences towards materials, a scrap of plastic bag, the current height of unsightlyness for the eco-driven fashion conscious, is happily incorporated into the waterproofing. Whether in a wood, field, scrap yard or urban wasteland, all materials are considered. In the winter the rural den becomes much more exposed and materials can be scarce. I often found the big lumps of earth churned up by the ploughs excellent in the construction of a dry stone wall style bunker.

A peculiar phenomenon among the tenants of dens (or ‘dennents’) is the quality to be found in objects that are left in the den, they go through a change, take on new traits. Like ancient explorers they forever step aside from the society they once belonged to. Often they never return, if they do they are weathered and aged, never the same again.

In some walks of life of course dens are a more serious business. Roaming shepherds are notable dennents. From the simple A-frame with roofing shingles of a French shepherd to more solid structures and everything in between, an eclectic mix of shelters can be found in rural areas all over the world charting the passage of shepherds seeking refuge. Some are left in place for the next time, some are taken along and re-erected tent-fashion while others are purely constructed for the current situation and abandoned.

A fine barrier between life and death, the fruits of a child’s imagination or a place of belonging in a faceless urban backdrop, the den is international and highly local, basic and sophisticated. Oh to be a child again and den once more.

Shepherd's A-frame shelter, France

Shepherd's Shelter, Rwanda

Shepherd's Shelter, Peru

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Djenné – Behind the Facade

Another talk on Djenne, this time by Charlotte Joy, an anthropologist at Cambridge, offering something quite different to the architectural perspective I have occupied so far. The many talks I have been to invariably open with an introduction on Mali, where it is etc, as one tends to to avoid any presumption of knowledge. Immediately the alternative intentions of this talk are established as I’m presented with the fact, among others, that Mali stands as the 175th poorest country in the world. Out of 193*. It’s the first time I have come across this basic fact and suddenly I feel blinkered. That’s not to say that the talk was one of doom and gloom just that this time the emphasis was on the people and how they benefit from restoration etc. You may well think, ‘of course it was, it was an anthropology talk!’. The reason that it was notable to me is that, these are the things that I think architecture can and should address. Perhaps we need to see more cross- disciplinary activity.

It’s a delicate situation when western architects/organisations decide to ’help’ less prosperous countries. We approach the scene with aspirations & priorities based on our own values.

UNESCO bestowed the whole of Djenne town with listed heritage status, protecting the wonderful architectural culture from potentially destructive development. Naturally the negative impact of this is the limiting factor. Locals are restricted in what they can do to their own homes because of our perceptions of beauty and established conceptions of importance. For instance, many inhabitants have taken to tiling the exteriors of their houses to protect the mud from the elements, tiles being much cheaper than repairs to the earth works (the work of masons is becoming, relatively, increasingly expensive due to their employment on the restoration projects and international interest in West African architecture), in some cases the tourist board have manage to prevent the use of tiles for obvious aesthetic reasons, but at what cost? It’s a bit of a dilemma. From an ethics point of view, should we even be involved at all? The idea of ‘world heritage’ is an interesting one, a building or site that procures status as a world heritage site becomes a kind of world property. Whilst I appreciate the ‘one-peopleness’ of this creation, and I do of course want to see the rich culture maintained, does this mean that the local people are in someway losing the site? Maybe not in a direct sense but we have to be careful that they are not losing some freedom in regards to development. Any kind of imposed inertia would be detrimental to the health and future of the town.

I am truly glad to see the conservation and restoration of such architectural wonders and the associated traditional techniques and knowledge. But at the same time I think it is crucial to be mindful of our approach and try to work from the inside out, from the perspective of local people, giving priority to their most pressing needs and making these projects work for them.

*These figures appear to be based on the value of produce and services of a given year compared to population. Several organisations compile these data sets the these particular figures (175/193) seem to be taken from the CIA World Factbook. Other lists, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, portray a similar account.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Earth Architecture Dot Org

This website is a great resource for information on 'earth architecture' in both traditional and contemporary applications: