☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Skin and Bones (2012)

pliable twigs, typically of willow, plaited or woven to make items such as furniture and baskets. Comes from Middle English and origins from Swedish viker ‘willow’; related to vika ‘to bend.’ – Apple lexicon

Wicker is a ‘natural’ material that refuses straight geometries and lends itself naturally to weaving, which is a textile technique. In an illustration about the origins of dwelling, Viollet-le-Duc draws a primitive hut built of trees still rooted in the ground, bending them together and weaving them with cut twigs. This early hut is closer to a roof than to a real building and stands on the threshold between the natural and the built. Another well-known reference for the use of wicker is the Mongolian yurt, a nomadic hut that is much more a piece of equipment or luggage than a firm dwelling. It consists of a wicker skeleton and a covering of rugs, mats or textiles. The ‘clothes’ close the space and stabilize the structure. Wicker structures tend to remain pure wireframe structures, but they receive textile qualities when woven more and more. Although it is not possible to cover an interior entirely, the structure draws the outlines of a room. The denser it is woven and the closer the structure evolves, the more it loses its primary skeletal clarity and tends to behave as a curved surface. In other words: wicker is a fine material without strength, unless it is bent and connected. Working with wicker inevitably reveals the intrinsic resistance of the material.

The Material as an Instrument

The process of building is comparable with the process of making music. If we relate the materials that we used in the two STRUCTURE workshops with musical instruments, the connection between music and material becomes obvious. Depending on how an instrument is made, its specific tone evolves in a distinctive direction, which we might call the ‘colour of sound’. Here lies a close similarity to the character of building materials. Depending on its qualities and properties, we can use a material in different ways and achieve different bodies of structure and space. It is difficult to play rock’n’roll with a violin since it is simply not built for such a percussive kind of music. Conversely, a violin facilitates long and endlessly sustaining sounds that are impossible to play with an acoustic guitar. It is only with the invention of the electric guitar, and especially with the help of electronic devices, that sustained sound became possible and emerged as a major ingredient in most guitar solos. Chords are another trait of the guitar that are essential in creating a rhythmic song. If you compare this way of playing music with the building process, you can find similarities between a guitar and the material plywood. When bent under pressure and heat, plywood can take most shapes and uses, which we can perceive in particular in modern plywood chairs. Like a guitar which is able to play a chord as a single instrument, plywood furniture does not require another material to keep a shape and no additional structural support from any other material. The guitar and plywood are both able to stand for themselves; they both do not need another music instrument or material to generate an acoustic body or form. With a violin you are not able to play harmonies, but instead, if playing with an ensemble or even an orchestra, the voice of the violin becomes multiplied and part of a bigger body of sound. This is comparable to the quality of wicker, where each fine twig becomes part of a structure. If a violin in an orchestra is part of the acoustic pattern, the whole wicker structure can only become stable when the single wickers are connected to one another in a certain mode, rhythm and density.

Towards a Material Path

Richard Sennett describes the role of practising and rehearsing when playing a musical instrument and wishing to reach a master’s level in his book The Craftsman in depth. Without doubt, it is essential to use your hand and to touch the strings of a violin or a guitar for several hours a day if you are aiming to play your instrument in a professional and creative way. When we try to transpose this immensely close relation of a musician with his instrument to our field of designing architecture, we immediately feel the huge gap that exists between a student of architecture, willing to learn his profession in depth, and his instrument — the real, physical and present material that is the ingredient of the final product, a piece of architecture. To bridge this gap, we have two possibilities: either the student starts his education with an apprenticeship in a manual profession as a bricklayer, a carpenter or a metal worker. It is not without reason that two of our teachers participating since the beginning in our IP series, Finn Hakonsen and Peter Sørensen, both started their career in this way and have both been successful in passing on their knowledge in all the workshops they participated in or organized. The other and more practical way to tighten the relation of our students, the future architects, to their instrument, the material, is to interweave the material experiences firmly into the curriculum of our schools of architecture. We understand our Intensive Programs as ‘material lab’ where a maximum number of teachers and students get in touch with the ‘material virus’. Multiplying these material experiences, they spread this knowledge all over Europe into the various universities. In that way, we try to root and anchor the material approach into the DNA of our architectural schools on multiple levels, to create a material path that leads students through their whole education.

Genius Loci

Working with wicker in our ‘Structures in Building Culture II: Skin and Bones’ resulted in sculptural objects that relate to the surroundings in a very close way. We had the opportunity to locate our project in an idyllic ensemble consisting of an old brick church, a well-kept farmhouse — a heritage building that was removed from its original position and rebuilt again on the site in the last few years — and an overgrown garden adjacent to a dike of the old channel system of the drained area. Bushes and dominant trees enclosed the area tightly. Clearing the overgrown area around the house became a parallel project, which depended on care and patience. It resulted in a wonderful garden that forms a background for the four objects in wicker. Although crafted with a natural material that is hardly processed, the sculptures behave like self-confident beings, resting in the shadow of a huge tree or clinging to the rough wall of a former basement. They become driving forces for the atmosphere of the place and it nearly feels like each one is giving a specific sound to the place like a curious musical instrument.

by Urs Meister and Carmen Rist
University of Liechtenstein, Institute of Architecture and Planning, Vaduz