I’ve always been a hands on person, so after seeing photos of a friends experience building small projects at Hello Wood Summer School last year, I knew what I wanted to do with my summer ’16. Unable to pick one single course, (for fear of missing out!), my holiday from architecture, rapidly turned into what one can only call a construction holiday abroad; thankfully this time my indecision really paid off! I attended two different courses, rooted in different cultures and climates with different approaches, however they complemented each other well and made for an interesting comparison.
Based in the beautiful Hungarian countryside near Lake Balaton, Hello Wood design studio have been running international architecture programs for a number of years. Constructed primarily from local timber, their projects all have a community focus. This year was the second of a three-year program called Project Village, which focussed for the first time on the concept of settlement.
15 groups of artists, architects and designers from across the world submitted their proposals, each addressing a core aspect of settlement. They ranged from bath houses to migrant housing, to a cathedral. My group responded with the idea of fire/hearth as a gathering point for the community.
The basic structure and concept had been proposed by the workshop leaders, kindly leaving us the tasks of master planning the village, design details and minor questions like how the massive structure would stay up. Our ‘fire nest’ took the form of a large lattice grid, interrupted in places by insertions of benches, steps, worktops and storage. Fresh, ambitious and naïve, I was keen to avoid screws and design an elegant connection. However, half an hour of wrestling with dowel quickly saw an end to that and the functionality of a screw was suddenly very elegant!
Having focussed on moveable, temporary structures in past years, the main challenge this year was the foundations. Initially aiming to pile timber sections into the ground, a broken drill piece and baked Hungarian ground quickly defeated us. Unfortunately we had to resort to resting them on the surface instead, relying on self-weight for stability. We used the ancient Japanese Shou Sugi Ban technique of charring wood for the foundation pieces – an incredibly hot but rewarding process! It protects the timber, prolonging its life and also giving it a beautiful blackened finish, making our whole structure appear to float.
We had a great team and once we were in the rhythm of it, the structure went up surprisingly quickly. I think I can still identify a perfect 400 x 400 grid from across a field, and with some gentle persuasion and brute strength it all came together in time for the opening party on the Friday. The whole week was a full on, a great fun process – the strapline ‘building by day, partying by night suiting’ it very well! I’ve made some friends and memories I hope will stay with me for a long time.
After a day and a half ‘recuperating’ in Budapest, I set off to Césis, a small town a couple of hours from Riga in the Latvian National Park for take 2!
The vibe was quite different here, with a smaller group of students and a bit more relaxed. I was full of lessons learned from Hungary and it was lovely to get straight into some design.
We were introduced to a project by Mailītis AIIM which aspires to incrementally revive the old brewery site in Césis, using the idea of scaffolding as a transient and temporary intervention, providing the framework for further development.
A huge and diverse site, it was a lot to tackle in two weeks. Our tutors encouraged us to start by exploring and acquainting ourselves with the site, imagining buildings, boundaries and ground surface as one continuous landform; working a lot in section to decide where it was best to build our intervention. After toying with a few locations we were all attracted to the old chimney – the slope of the land around it, its relationship to the park and buildings around it and its role as a beacon to the site.
Using quick models, sketches, discussion and 1:1 tests, we developed ideas about architecture as an event, as a host and as a beacon for change through various iterations, ending up in the inevitable when 14 excitable students and three even more excitable tutors are set free with unlimited timber and no building regs…
… So we made a 15m long walkway with a table at one end, a lookout cantilevering over the wall at the other end and a moving ‘lantern’ with timber batten lampshade carriage which runs on the handrails, illuminating the event of the walkway – the rationalised option. (One afternoon we really did spend trying out 1 to 1 scale prototypes of various ‘lantern fringes’, concluding that a wet dog rope effect was neither long lasting nor a pleasant shelter from the elements!)
Dismissing critique of it being ‘unmanageably big and complex’, we conceded by making it 1m shorter and continued as planned. Particularly satisfying was the frame for the moveable lantern feature overhead. It was great to do a bit of carpentry and felt quite impressive once we put it together (with only slight adjustments!) The wood was all sourced in local Latvian forests and sanded down to a beautiful finish – a standard we accidentally set before producing the pile of 287 20mm x 20mm timber battens to sand…
I’m still not quite sure how it got built in only four days. Typical architecture students, we were still covered in sawdust, lifting over a tonne of timber with swinging battens on and off rails trying to fine tune the wheels only an hour before the opening ceremony, but we somehow made it and it was promptly christened with champagne.
It truly was a couple of the best experiences I’ve had and taught me a lot very quickly! It’s such a fun and sociable way to get insight into the complexities of true 1:1 building and taught me a lot about the building process and also how I personally approach design.