Thursday, 19 December 2013

DipArch - 111113 - CAT - the visit

"this still and private place,"
"something of a jungle, scattered with ruinous buildings from which birch trees grew in profusion."
(Gerard Morgan-Grenville on Llwyngwern before CAT)

Small is beautiful. Here it is exquisite. At the Centre for Alternative Technology, the case for appropriate building methods is made phenomenologically: when on a crisp and early dappled dawn, the late autumn’s mellow fruitfulness hangs moist in the valley, one emerges from the wood-fired snug of an eco-lodge to a curious collection of exemplary improvisations, adaptations loosely fitted but perfectly suited to their place, each standing as living pictures of an other way to conduct our building on earth.

Between the 8th and the 11th November, the UK-based group of Diploma Unit 6 students shared the six hour overland journey to the renowned but remote enclave of experimental architecture and technological demonstration. As a field-trip, CAT near Machynlleth in Wales, by its affordability of access and by the understated and unexotic brand of its location, represents exactly the wealth of possibilities available at the neglected frontier of architecture for the unpublished 99%.

The current global climate of rapid change and scarce resource affects every locality and it needs for a radically unprejudicial reappraisal of the notion of the ordinary and its neglect in many localities. Resource scarcity demands architects give themselves to the ernest uncovering of the hidden and extra-ordinary, natural and human, physical and cultural energies latent in that environment into which they are thrown. In this transformative view of the world, even the entirely ordinary motorway expedition is rendered as an adventure or a pilgrimage, an extension of the destination where intentional but unknown, creative but cooperative enterprise And at the journey’s end, the red and yellow hues of the valley enveloped a frenzy of activity. Our brief was to take the earlier London exercises of mining the site at different scales by survey, and translate these to a mining of the site at different scales by production: a learning by doing and by so doing, making real the latent potential of the waste we found on site.

"..we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins"
(Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald p19)

The history of CAT is the history of many exploited natural landscapes, sites where the ground itself is commodified for the one dimensional extraction of a briefly lucrative resource before the shifting tide of profitability renders the enterprise, the equipment and related infrastructure obsolete. Such was the case at the Llwyngwern Slate Quarry, which dates from at least 1835, and maintained production under various proprietors during the 19th century. However, the efficient disposal of waste rock began to become a problem and production volume dwindled, work ceased in 1941 and the final sale, closure and the scrapping of machinery took place The quiet site was gradually colonised by birch trees, until this landscape of a spent resource and the detritus that proceeded from its exploitation found a valuation as an entirely different resource to serve an imaginative end, in the vision of Gerard Morgan-Grenville in 1973. The site thus became a mine for an alternative economy. CAT was founded as "a project to show the nature of the problem and show ways of going forward.". Such a project begins with an attitude to the site, which values place and material differently.

In four small groups, we set about to undertake a large scale modelling exercise, cooperatively. Each group was concerned with a single building element, each a single piece that corresponded roughly with a major programmatic concern from the group members’ London proposal. Thus we variously developed four elements: a monolith, an arched window wall, a frame and a roof structure. Each Working in a single material crucially distills the design focus, forcing the emergence of only the forms which come most readily to the properties of that material. Bricks behave in their own unique way, with their own unique strengths, limits and inexhaustible poetic potential. Thus, standing alone, the material is freed to display its innate qualities without the ambiguity of intra-material subjugation or pretence that complex and compound material structures risk. However, the challenge was not only to draw to an excellence the individual piece in its respective woodiness or stony-ness, as if fetishied and willfully puristic, but rather, to do so in a way whereby the components interact interdependently, mutually, cooperatively, even conversationally with one another. The excellence arrives when the elements speak to one another, bear up and bear upon one another and sing together as more than the sum of their parts: working thus so cooperatively that when considered together, this community of objects can be considered as a single actor set upon the stage of a larger scale: the neighbourhood or landscape or larger organism. Thus, in playing this game with materials, setting one scale of construction in the context of another, one is caught up in recursive communities of cooperating elements made out of cooperating elements made out of cooperating elements. It is a fluency in this vocabulary of scales which is the primary language of architecture, and the poetic basis for sustainable living.

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