☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Tectonical Shape of Wood (2011)

The Building Culture Erasmus Intensive Program revolves around making things, using real materials and real tools to make something at a real scale. Not downscaled models, but big things. Things intended to be big enough in order to make weight, dimensions and constructing real physical issues to be dealt with and not just virtual ones. It is about things you really have to construct in a particular place, starting from scratch. The matter is available from the start, as are the tools, the place and the people. Everything else has to be figured out in order to make it happen. Figuring out is not just having a good idea or a concept and consequently drawing it on paper or in the computer, as we are used to do and exercise all the time in our design studios. Making it happen means going through all the steps that are needed to really construct something. It is about the process of fabricating, assembling and shaping a thing. It involves conceiving and drawing of course, but also planning, organizing, anticipating, deliberating, convincing and making. It is about being persistent, clever and working hard to physically create something. It is about getting your hands dirty and going into the action of making. It is about being an architect, a carpenter and a constructor at once and thus about trying to lift the created and century old boundaries between conception and construction. In short, it is not devoid of ambition.

Using Matter

The matter used to construct differs every year. After 3 years of heavy weights, the emphasis shifted to something lighter. Wood was an evident material to start with. The term w_o_o_d_ _covers an extensive array of possible materials. Different species stand for as many different types of wood with related variations and deviations in structure, color, weight, density, hardness and other properties. Besides, every tree is different because it grows in another place. Depending on its position in the trunk, the direction of the cut, the moisture content, the presence of knots and so forth, every piece that comes out of it – beam or plank – is different from the others to some extent. A substantial part of the carpenters knowledge and craft resides in evaluating and dealing with these divergent inherent properties and subsequent behavior of the living material that massive wood is.

But technology provided us with engineer wood as well. This is not a naturally grown, but a created and constructed material. The variations and unpredictability of the natural material are taken out of it through recombination and reassembly. Every piece that is produced is supposed to be identical to the others. It’s properties and performance must be predictable and controllable. The variations in type lie primarily in the kinds of recombination and the properties that are a result of them. During the workshop we used two types of engineered wood, i.e. plywood and chipboard. Although sharing the same planar geometry, both are substantially unalike. The chipboard is stiff and brittle whereas the plywood is bendable and tenacious.

The plywood’s layered order and structural directions are legible in the laminated sequence of wood-veneer. The chipboard looks like a compacted mess of wood-flakes and glue, forced and compressed into a flat and rectangular geometry.  A limited choice in materials combined with the requirement to make things of a very different nature inevitably necessitates an inquiry into what possibilities the materials have to offer. Which of both materials fits the goal best? How can we enhance its properties? How do we attach one piece to the other? How do we cut it? How do we go from plane to line and to a spatial artifact? How do we form? How can we be precise? How do we go from the dimension of the material to the bigger dimension of the construction? How does the material react under the actions of hands and tools? How does the material react when loaded? These and many other questions about making things needed many different answers.

Of a Process

The workshop activities were split up into two chapters. The first was hands on, repetitive and generic whereas the second was site-specific and project-oriented. Chapter one of the workshop was subdivided into two parallel trajectories – very different in method and nature – that both consisted of a series of half-day exercises. No exercise was repeated twice, forcing everyone to share what he or she had learned with the others, in order to be able to move on and create common knowledge for the group as a whole.

Trajectory one started from a master/apprentice approach with two carpenters skilled in traditional woodworking. They transferred a part of their elaborate knowledge about wood-connections and -assemblies by showing how ‘to do it right’. It is the traditional model used to learn a skill by the incessant practice of the right moves and sequences. A method to reach mastery by the repetition of the same acts over and over again, until perfection is reached. Starting from known techniques, the handling of the tools and the manipulation of the properties of wood were explored.

The second and parallel trajectory was less steered with regard to its pedagogical methodology. No preliminary technique was taught and the investigation started from a limited range of themes that had to be explored with an open register. The themes enveloped very specific techniques for making and assembling surfaces and forms, using textile techniques like weaving, folding, surface and volumetric patterning, etc. The process explicitly articulated the importance of coherence and consistency that is necessary to make more complex constructive systems made up of many parts. For both trajectories every exercise resulted in an object demonstrating a particular aspect of a method or a technique. At the end of the first chapter the garden had turned into a blossoming field of small constructions, effectively demonstrating the multiplicity of possible paths to follow.  During the second chapter of the workshop the action was partially delocalized from the wood workshop towards five building sites spread around the beautiful domain of the old monastery. Delocalizing introduced new but important challenges. Since fabrication had to be done in and around the workshop and the subsequent assembly on each site individually, logistics as well as coordination became issues of importance. The transportation back and forth of components and tools as well as the communication between team-partners working at a substantial distance from each other had a real influence on the process. Other aspects related to constructing on site increased the complexity a little more: the protection of the components and the site in order to prevent damage, the protection against the weather, the creation of safe and comfortable working conditions, etc. But delocalizing to a site also generated consequences of another nature. The designs became specific projects embedded in local conditions instead of specific responses to more generic questions of material and method.  By way of particular and project-based organizations of matter a project-specific reciprocity originated between the design, the place, the people who elaborated and constructed the project and all the other people that could look and experience things that are made in a beautiful and a clever way. Things in which thought and construction are seamlessly integrated.

The things we do not see

In the end, the process leads to the production of architectural artifacts and the acquisition of knowledge about materials and construction, in short, the development of personal and collective building culture. Architecture is a physical thing, something you can see, touch and experience in its material state. As a consequence, we can evaluate it as such and be astonished by the ingenuity and beauty of the construction, the cleverness of the connections and the details, the relationship of the construction with its partner, the site, how both together create a place, the adequate choice and articulation of the material, the developed craft in making, etc.

But as Peter Sørensen subtly and rightfully focused upon during the final review, a great deal of the learning process is invisible to the eye due to the very private of the personal experience: the experience of holding the material in the hand, feeling it’s roughness and weight, of holding the chisel, feeling the blow of the hammer and the resistance of the wood, hearing the sound of it cracking, the incessant noise of the saws going through the fibers of the wood, the sounds of people deliberating and sometimes screaming to exceed the noise of the workshop activities, the feel of the sawdust softening the hard concrete floor, the exchanges of opinions and feelings, the looks and touches, the witty remarks, the cooking, eating and dishwashing together, and many other things. It is not only the material things that will remain in the memory of everyone there. I realize now more than I did before I participated in the program, that an essential if not the most important thing to learn from the workshops is precisely this. When I went back the day after everybody left, all the projects were still standing in full ornate as they were the day before, but the site was devoid of the presence of all the people that created them, showing with accuracy that their history had started. Only traces of 12 days of frenetic action remained: piles of construction debris, a yellow rectangular mark in a green meadow where the kitchen used to stand, the stains of the dinners on the terrace’s blue stone, traces and memories that will get hidden in the folds of the history of the monastery and our own, just as the objects and the people will. It made me wonder about the fact that making architecture truly is a catalyst for the creation of more than the thing that is constructed.

by Thierry Berlemont
Sint-Lucas, School of Architecture, Belgium