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Touching the Ground Lightly

 

 Piers Head And Shoulders
Piers Taylor is an architect and academic, familiar to many as co presenter of programmes such as the BBC's The World's Most Extraordinary Homes.
He established Invisible Studio as an alternative model of architectural practice; has   pioneered a number of educational programmes including the Studio in the Woods and helped found the Design and Make masters programme at the Architectural Association's Hooke Park Campus.
Invisible Studio’s own studio was constructed entirely by ‘unskilled’ labour and exclusively used timber grown on site in its construction.  It has recently completed two buildings for Westonbirt, the UK’s National Arboretum which incorporated training programmes for volunteers and students, and used the largest single length timbers in the UK in their construction, which were also grown on site. 

In July, award winning architect, university teacher and TV presenter Piers Taylor will be showing winners of the RFS Excellence in Forestry Awards around two unique buildings he has designed using timber at the National Arboretum at Westonbirt.

For many years, Piers had felt an outsider in an architectural world where metropolitan arts crowded out the rural. In Part One of a two-part blog he looks at the early influences which eventually led to an about turn in his own teaching and in a desire to inspire innovative uses of home grown timber in architecture.

“It is summer, and I am surrounded by the woodland within which I live and work. It is heavy after the rain and the trees, plants and sheer visceral actuality of the stuff around me - and its seasonal abundance - remind me that woodland is our natural state in the UK, and that everything here reverts to woodland if left alone. This makes it hard to remember that globally, we are living through the greatest rate of social change in the history of human kind, where, at an unprecedented rate, we are becoming urbanized, abandoning the countryside for the city, seemingly unconcerned with the bucolic.

Young Influences
A childhood spent in a small woodland still resonates

 

Such is the dominance in the arts of the metropolitan, that for an early part of my working life, I felt a kind of guilt that my own work was so focused around the rural – and questioned even the validity of making work that was concerned with matters that did not address the overriding architectural concern of our age: how to live sustainably in dense, urban environments. As an architect, I often find myself on the fringes as a reluctant agent of cultivation.

Although for periods of my life I have lived in the city, growing up, landscape and nature were woven in to the fabric of my life, inseparable from the day to day – and this intrinsic and fundamental relationship with the natural world stemmed from my upbringing. As children, we grew up with a small woodland on my parents’ land, and in our mid teens, my brother and I would spend much of our time thinning the woodland, felling trees and splitting wood. In our later teens, my parents bought a remote Welsh house two miles from the nearest road and with no electricity, where we spent most weekends and much of our holidays. 

My father would always know instinctively and precisely how the daylight patterns of sunrise and sunset differed from the day before and the day after. He’d be the first to spot the subtle changes in colour in winter as, way before there were any buds, branches would become slightly pinker in preparation for spring.

My father was (is still, at 88) always an obsessive naturalist. He had grown up as part of a generation that made an exodus to the countryside during WW2, and as part of a family with a single working mother and four children, they ran semi wild in the Cumbrian landscape to which they had escaped. As a teenager, he’d think nothing of cycling the full length of the country bird watching, sleeping under hedges as he went. This desire to explore meant that he became part of the British Antarctic Survey Expedition in the 1950s (immortalized in W Ellery Anderson’s 1957 book ‘Expedition South’), where, dressed in tweeds, he spent three years sledging with a pack of huskies, surveying glaciers and designing the first optimized dogs diet.

Landscape, nature, the countryside – all of this, as a wider family, was part of who we were – but I’d never really made the connection with architecture until my first week of University, in Sydney. The first lecture in the first was by an architect – Glenn Murcutt – who gave me a road map for most things I’ve done in the 25 years since then.

Murcutt talked of geomorphology, geology, hydrology, topography, flora fauna, and the imperatives of understanding weather patterns and climate as intrinsic to architecture. He talked of how farmers and rural dwellers knew characteristically how to orientate a building to keep the rain out, and how to maximise ventilation to moderate climate. He demonstrated how to use scarce resources effectively. He talked of the fragility of landscape and how to build without disturbing a site. And, he showed me how you could define an architecture by examining a place – critically, an architecture that was distinct from place, but was utterly defined by it.

Fast-forward ten years or so, and, back in the UK, I was practicing in the south west of the UK and teaching architecture at the Universities of Bath and Cambridge. What was becoming apparent to me was  - in architecture - the divisive split between ‘thinking’ and ‘making’. What I hadn’t understood at the time was how timber – or trees - would help me bridge the gap with my own practice and teaching work.

 

Cabin On Stilts Invisible Studio
  Touching the Ground Lightly!  

 In 2002 I’d bought a 200-year-old tiny stone castellated building in the middle of a woodland (traditionally called Moonshine Wood) on valley-side 5 miles from Bath that was inaccessible except on foot via a 500 metre path.  I’d fallen in love with the site when my wife was in hospital having our second child, and was gripped by a primaeval need to be in that woodland. The old building was habitable (just) and came with about half an acre of land.

Immediately, woodland became a way of life for us - it completely surrounded us and the rhythms of the woodland became, to a degree our own rhythms. What we were so graphically exposed to was the way that woods work. Woodland ceased to become an abstract entity, and instead we saw them as – as Richard Mabey described in Beechcomings, as “symbiotic networks of carpenters, beetles, deer, land-thieves, lichens, pollards and toadstools” and, critically for us, our home.

A love affair with timber itself began when we built a new house on the site, next to the old stone folly. The house was conceived of as a structure that – using Murcutt’s own phrase - touched the ground lightly. It was raised off the ground, leaving the highly shrinkable clay and the water table around the house undisturbed.

The house in Moonshine Wood was designed to maximize early morning and winter sunshine, and took its form from an analysis of wind and weather patterns in the valley. Having lived on the site for two years helped enormously. One of my teachers, Richard Leplastrier, described how he get to know a place, prior to designing: “For many buildings I have camped on site, many days and nights, with a drawing board. It is the best way to feel a place out. The form of the terrain, its effect on climate, the path of animals and the sun. Where do you put your campfire?” Using Leplastier’s analogy, we felt ready to know where to put our campfire.

The house had to be designed to be carried in components along the woodland track and so inevitably using timber made sense, as it is so ready a material that allows – encourages, even – on-site improvisation. Curiously, though, I’d had little experience of working with timber. It was a material that the architectural world had become suspicious of – given its relative unpredictability and its refusal to act submissively.

Building my house, and using timber, gave me a glimpse of the extraordinary richness of the material world, and how more than anything, I was missing out on a world of visceral and sensual feedback – not just from the material itself, but also from the sheer potential and excitement that was exposed once ‘making ‘ and the collaborative conversation with all involved in making - was expanded to encompass designing – and the real time uncertainties were brought centre stage in stead of being banished. Looking back now, the evolution of my way of thinking about making stemmed from this period of building my own house, and how It opened my eyes to a sense of what the process of construction and material exploration could offer.

What followed was an about turn in my method of teaching, and the same year that I built the house a group of us started something we called ‘Studio in the Woods’.”

In July, Piers will reveal how the birth of Studio in the Woods  and establishing Invisible Studio led him to the recent delivery of two stunning buildings that form The Tree Management Centre at the National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire