Studio in the Woods 2019
Turning onto the road into the forest I was filled with a palpable sense of excitement. Moments later I crossed a cattle grid and found myself on a rough gravel track heading deep into ancient woodland. This was the start of an adventure into the unknown. But of course, this wasn't anything like Jon Snow crossing the wall. This was Studio in the Woods; an annual get-together of architects, students, engineers, artists, makers, and many more, for a full weekend of designing and making in the woods. And, the ‘unknown’ in this case was where the fruits of our labour and creativity would take us.
I went to SITW to break free from the constraints of everyday practice, and challenge - defy, even - its conventions. It was an opportunity to relish a collaborative process that had no premeditated outcome; a process of testing ideas, trying new techniques and building something that continually evolves over several days. This is the complete antithesis of conventional practice where the process of building and the process of designing are divorced; where the ‘final design’ is 'sacrosanct' and any kind of continuing evolution - according to conventional wisdom at least - leads to expensive contractors claims.
All I had predetermined before this weekend, was that the outcome of the process wasn't important - something I thought I would struggle with given my tendency to obsess over creating 'the perfect design’ - and, for me at least, there was to be a total ban on drawing.
For these few days, failure was ok. No, failure was good, actually.
This year there were five groups each with their own themes. We had a group attempting to build an elevated room, another capturing the movement of the earth around the sun, and one attempting to create an intervention to enhance the landscape. Another group wanted to build a structure that exploited the tension-resisting properties of a ‘catspaw’ connection, and a group investigating the value of material traditionally thought of as waste from the timber milling process.
As you might imagine, with such a diverse range of agendas, the outcomes were similarly diverse. They were all fantastic pieces. But what was more striking, and for me more important, was that each team had thoroughly embraced the process of experimentation and iterative design. There is an immediacy to this process and it fully embraces failure as a legitimate way to move forward. In that sense, it was completely alien to most of the people taking part, including me. And what this format did so brilliantly was to bring everyone to the same level. Students, architects, engineers, designers, even an economist; we were all able to simultaneously learn from, and teach one another. Any sense of hierarchy completely vanished when we crossed that cattle-grid.
And aside from that, the weekend was really defined by meeting lots of new faces, enjoying their company, exchanging skills and knowledge, and sharing some superb food.
Well, as I already said, SITW was about breaking free from the constraints of normal practice. As he opened up proceedings, Piers Taylor said it best, when he said how odd it is that architecture is the only creative process that stops designing when building starts. In some ways, SITW is an experiment about what practice could be like if the insecurities of the profession were completely taken away. For that reason, it was tremendously enriching and thought-provoking. I have been as guilty as anyone of conforming to the traditional form of practice. But it was the realisation of this, amongst other things, that spurred me on to found a new practice. I always wanted it to be progressive; to find lean models that would allow me to explore new avenues of creativity and to collaborate with a network of amazing people, rather than feel as though I needed to compete against them. That shared expression of value is how the profession can become stronger.
SITW has come at the start of an important journey and thankfully it has confirmed that I’m heading down the right path - or rather, I should stay off the path. The comfort that comes from walking a well-trodden path, even if it does come perilously close to a cliff-edge, is something I’m going to have to resist.
In terms of how this translates into everyday practice, well, I don’t know yet. But if SITW has taught me anything, it is not to fear the unknown, to celebrate the process, and not to get too hung up on having all the answers. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
You can find out more about the project I co-created at SITW 2019 here.
Photo credits: Zoë Berman, Eve Bembo