Designing deeply in the woods

See photos of event here.

Looking back it was a courageous thing to do. Deciding to run our first design laboratory without a set of briefs to choose from did make it difficult to plan the event programme.

Caitlin Shepherd’s sketch for the Fungidome

What if the students want to build a roof, a swing, a tensile structure? Can we make that happen? On a limited budget, how can we enable an infinite number of design possibilities?

Without knowing who would be coming and what we would be designing, Tabitha and I plunged into the unknown, hopeful that our process of self determining ideas would be fruitful and perhaps even transcendent.

Aside from the fact that I arrived onsite 4 hours late and had to get participants to rig up the solar panel, move tools and set the banqueting table, we finally began talking together around the camp fire as the sky cleared and the sun warmed pink in the west.

Laurence told us he used to go down to his dad’s shed at the bottom of the garden to look at the wood being cut. He said he saw the grain of nature there and knew then that he wanted to work with it.

Jay likes to be on the tops of mountains and to see for miles and miles. As each person spoke he and she started to plant the seeds of ideas in the fertile imagination of the others.

I can’t give a blow by blow account of the course. It would serve no purpose. The people there knew what happened and what they shared. I can’t paint a picture of the experience of deeply living and working with a group of fantastic people.

I can tell you however that I was moved.

It was hard to make up for the lost time at the start, lost incidentally through trying to prepare for all eventual design outcomes. We had ratchet straps and stainless steel tensile cables, butyl rubber membrane for a possible turf roof and natural canvas to boot. We had candelabra for the dining table and a library of books as well as model making materials. It was all useful stuff.

But it did mean we had very little time to develop ideas.

There were those in the group who suggested shortcuts. That it would be enough to explore the material possibilities and those who suggested giving the students themes to explore, for example of a nest or a hideout to simplify the process. Tabby and I wanted people to experience their own poetic responses and so, as planned, we journeyed together through the site taking in the most beautiful views and imagining worlds of our creation, culminating in eating samphire down on the estuary, sketching wind blown flowers by the rocks.

It was this immersion in the landscape that fuelled a stream of ideas and concepts in a brief but urgent conversation between us all. I’ve personally banked several left by the wayside for future development.

As groups quickly and naturally formed around strong ideas we began to see the beauty of this open process.

I believe in the power of creative collaboration to be greater than the sum of the parts. And the outcome, when it works, is to feel the air quicken around you. Where an idea is spoken, re-iterated, re-spoken, evolved and given new life in a matter of minutes.

Sure, there is a pitfall to avoid where ideas are simply watered down and lose their potency. However, trying to act as a single intelligence rather than a group of divergent egos may be a good starting point.

The design lab was primarily about exploring material possibilities and spatial and functional intentions in as creative a way as possible.

Thanks go to our colleagues Adam Thorogood and Jony Easterby for inducting students in the use of green woodworking tools and taking them into the heart of the woodland to coppice and cleave hazel.

Perhaps I could have prepared less as the 300 acre site did offer an extraordinary variety of material to work with. One never knows though if that M16 threaded bar hadn’t made it to the lab whether Paddle could have made Plonk and whether Piddle could have made it at all?

I’m glad that logs and rods took off in the way it did to form the Fungidome. A brilliant building material to work with again I think.

The pieces are temporary, some more so than others. I love the fact that the flume installed to power Piddle Paddle Plonk will be there for quite some time as a legacy to the wonderful project we all enjoyed so much.

Mani, aged 5 walked out of the Skybowl on Sunday and said to his father “These places are familiar. We have been here already. But you don’t remember. It was before.”

It was a strangely enigmatic response. I feel that Mani (clearly a starchild) innately understood that these pieces were all born of their habitats. The skybowl embraces the sky with open arms in its clearing at the quietest end of site. Fungidome is born out of the roots of a dead oak tree growing fractally through the landscape. Paddle and friends is a site specific response to water and the simple playful desire to make music with it.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcomes and I have learnt so much. Not least of which is that designing deeply in the woods and sucking out all the marrow of life is transcendent.

Thank-you Thoreau for the imagery and thank-you John and Sarah for making Graig Wen such a beautiful and important part of so many peoples lives.

Jenny x

5 comments

  1. VERY IMPRESSIVE!!!

    marva on August 25, 2011 at 10:20 am
  2. Wish i had been there. Sounds amazing!

    sarah on August 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm
  3. what a write-up. and what a beginning for the pope-hall school of imagination, collaboration and realisation in the woods. love you lot.
    x

    Beth on August 26, 2011 at 11:30 am
  4. amazing website. and a beautiful concept. loved it.

    Divya on November 5, 2011 at 3:51 pm
  5. we would love to have you guys to South India sometime..

    Divya on November 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

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