Contextual form - a journey from here to there

Alun Jones, ‘Contextual form - a journey from here to there’, in: Architecture Foundation exhibition catalogue (London, UK: February 2001)

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Contextual form- a journey from here to there

Architecture Foundation

On our first site visit to Sudbourne, the village in Suffolk where the Marshall House would be, we passed a rectilinear haystack, about the size of a two storey house, sitting comfortably towards the corner of a large tree-lined field. The field was more or less flat, ploughed, and anticipating winter. The presence of the haystack seemed to bring the space of the field into being in such a way that the field, delineated by the leafless trees, felt like a room. The haystack had a formal presence which made the place feel grounded and somehow complete. The placement of the haystack near to, but not in, the corner was both unconscious and poetic. We stopped the car to stand for a while looking at the haystack, the field, the trees and the sky, sensing the significance of what were witnessing.

When we arrived in Sudbourne we found a strange village, with no shop, pub, post office or usual signs of life.  The buildings that were already there had a mute presence and contributed little to a collective sense of place. At the centre of the village lay the cross-roads that accounted for the location of the settlement, the south-east quadrant of which was the site. Two vernacular timber clad barns sat in the adjacent field which they shared with a pond and a donkey. The site was a field of shoulder-high grass surrounded on two sides by a disheveled but voluminous hedge interrupted by a pair of ancient oak trees, and a diagonal view to a far-off forest.

We were struck by the relationship that the elements of indigenous human action had with the landscape and the potential for the landscape to become almost interior-like through its relationship with constructed form. The haystack had made us aware of the need for the house to be a quiet building, whose form would add to the directness of the place and not fight with it for recognition. The view to the forest, across unspoiled meadow framed by hedges and solitary trees, suggested an orientation for the house and began to imply a spatial organisation for the accommodation. 

The relationship between context, programme and idea is where our architecture begins.  When we start a project we always begin with what is already there. We observe it and record it, spend time to understand it, be with it, and situate ourselves with respect to it; then we begin to think about what it is that we are being asked to do.

Interestingly the etymology of context isto weave. This defines our position precisely as what we are doing is looking, closely, at the warp and the weft of the place in which we are working, and then searching for an appropriate response to be woven back into what exists. The context we are describing is a deeper idea than the physicality of the place and its immediate surroundings; it is about the situatedness of the place and addresses issues of society, politics, environment, function,  materials, construction, and precedent. It is about a phenomenology of place.

The idea of operating within a deeper understanding of context however, does not demand the use of traditional form or involve being reactionary; though we would argue that the recovery of form through an understanding of the vernacular and of history is a more concrete basis for architectural form than believing that you can constantly invent, or re-invent form. What it does require is the will to look beneath the surface, and the courage or sensitivity to work with what you uncover. We would argue that it negates the possibility to applya priorisolutions to  the situation and opens up a field of opportunity for creativity.

As a position it necessitated, in the case of the Marshall House, spending time with the vernacular, looking at the buildings of the area, and building up a concrete understanding of the methods and means of construction applied locally. The vernacular, we would argue, is a way of doing and not a style; understanding this is vital if you are to  avoid the problem of image that besets our planning system. The vernacular seems to us to have a  generosity and sensibility that is so often not present in contemporary architecture; there is an extraordinary ease with which the it can deal with serendipity and more basic ideas of accommodation that appeal to us. Vernacular building also has a phenomenal legibility, derived through a limited but appropriate material palette, that reveals the basic experiential relationship between material and space.

We are aware that in this context nostalgia is dangerous. But similarly, we recognise a directness within the vernacular which is both appealing and enduring. It is precisely these qualities that we believe make it a legitimate field of interest and a concrete starting point for the design of the Marshall House.  This position is not new, nor would we claim it to be; the work of some of our contemporaries and the  photography of the Bechers, for example, is neither nostalgic nor romantic and operates in the everyday world of the vernacular.

 

In the case of the Berry Street project the context was the complete opposite; the creation of a speculative gallery space for a developer in an existing building in Clerkenwell. Apart form the obvious visual differences of the location, this project was very different as one felt the latent force of commerce present within the context. The strategy we adopted for this project was one of ‘constructive removal’; where the majority of the project was concerned with the removal of elements, materials and  surfaces from the space in order to reveal the essential qualities of the existing building. This is then recovered from its state of dilapidation and the context woven into with simple bald elements that are phenomenally powerful through their difference. In this case these elements are the shopfront, the ramp and the stair.

The way of working we are describing takes context as its starting point and recognises its potential as a conceptual position. It is a way of working that finds a means by which one can dig through the layers of cultural sedimentation to reveal a suitable strata on which to found work. It is about revealing what is already there and amplifying it, and adding to this in a way which is appropriate to the deeper dimensions of here and there.

Alun Jones        

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