☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Skin and Bones (2012)

In architectural education today, ‘project work’ is a traditional and well-established way of teaching. Project work consists of one or more tasks in which students make proposals for a family home, school, factory or other building through drawings, models, photos and texts. This way of teaching often mimics how praxis works outside the studio. Characteristic of project work in teaching architecture is that the supervisor does not really teach about formal meaning and values, because the main task is to create an environment for teaching that relates to real life outside the studio. The tutor often aims to meet each student where he or she is, in an attempt to clarify the steps to be taken. In this process and with this help, the student is encouraged to formulate questions and answers. One example of this is the story of how, over 2000 years ago, Socrates taught a young slave boy geometry and mathematics just by asking him questions.


The architectural praxis of today has a character that is mainly representative. This means that it is based on developing representations of architecture. These representations are the most recognized way of containing the project, until the day it is built. Only when a person enters the real house is it possible to experience the room, the light, the materials, the use and the atmosphere.


As soon as architecture is experienced it is no longer representative, but present. When teaching involves building at scale 1:1, the understanding of the creation of architecture changes on several levels. The creative process then changes its tools from computer and pencil to hammer and saw. The questions, the challenges and the solutions then become different.

Erasmus IP – Structures in Building Culture 2: Skin and Bones

A practical building workshop as a teaching method for architectural education is probably the oldest method. Today this method has acquired renewed importance in many schools of architecture. This might be due to the use of digital tools that, in spite of all the advantages they bring, suffer from the lack of scale. Different schools exist within this workshop method. One is based on starting the creative process by developing the project in drawings followed by constructing part of it at scale 1:1. Such a process has several parallels with the common building praxis of today. Another method stresses the creativity and development of ideas that emerge from the practical building process. In such a situation, tools of representation are accorded less importance.

Since 2005 the Erasmus IP workshops among Europeans countries have focused on the properties, the applications and the aesthetics of building materials, as a source for developing architecture. This form of tectonic thinking draws inspiration from the theories of German architect Gottfried Semper (1803 – 1879). Semper tried to find a universal meaning of architecture, something archaic. One of his theses was that architectural design has to grow from deeper human sources. For this reason, he studied crafts like weaving, knitting, staking and knotting, because he thought these were naturally born skills, similar to dancing and singing. He is also known for the Bekleidungstheorie and for the four elements of architecture: the hearth, the roof, the enclosure and the mound.

Gdansk, August 2012

The framework for the workshop in Gdansk was clear. The Cyganek site, wickers ready to use, a skilled wicker craftsman, 36 students from all over Europe and 9 teachers. There were no programs for building projects, but rather many programs in the wickers to be found. The days of building with wickers became a process in which different knowledge, skills, cultures and experiences came into play with craftsmanship. A process, sometimes with a pause and questions like: ‘Why are we doing it like this? How can this be done? What does the wicker want to be? Such reflection is important because it brings the act of building into a relation with the original idea of the working team. There were no drawings to hold the vision or guide the actions. Ideas were not represented on paper but in each participant’s mind.

When you saw and touched the wicker something happened to you. It affected you and made you see it in a certain way. The material acquired a voice. The smell of it, different when wet or dry. The stubborn resistance when you try to break it. The smoothness when you twist it. The willingness to be integrated into a construction. The hands become marked, a nail turns blue, the body aches, and you tire after a working day.

Everybody brought home knowledge and skills from Gdansk. It was a sensual experience that cannot be captured in an architectural drawing. On the site in Gdansk there was no representation, just presence.

by Finn Hakonsen
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art, Trondheim