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Around & About Stock Orchard Street

In her book, Sarah Wigglesworth tells the story of the self-build of her home, while also critiquing a certain type of architectural publishing, writes Isabel Allen

Around & About Stock Orchard Street, edited by Sarah Wigglesworth, Routledge, May 2011, 252pp, £29.99

Around & About Stock Orchard Street is a book about conversation. It is nominally about a building, Stock Orchard Street, or, as it is more popularly known, Straw Bale House. But the building itself was talked into existence. There was the mutual aiding and abetting that is a prerequisite of getting any joint initiative off the ground. But, in this case, the talking stage went on and on.

In her introduction the building’s architect (and the book’s editor), Sarah Wigglesworth, asserts that ‘design is a conversation’ and in this case it is, quite literally, true. Faced with the challenge of designing their own office and home, Wigglesworth and her partner, Jeremy Till, sat down to discuss options, possibilities, ideas. And they never really stopped. So much talking was done that, by the time pen was finally put to paper, every last detail had been discussed, determined >>
and pretty much designed. The building emerged fully formed.

How fitting, then, that the book-of-the-building is so very discursive in style. Conceived as a collection of different perspectives, it gives voice to a cast of characters – architects, contractors, engineers, academics – whose lives have been touched by Stock Orchard Street in very different ways.

What emerges is not so much a portrait of a house, as an essay on collaboration, a testament to the reality that even the most personal of architectural projects rely on collective endeavour and that buildings, like people, are influenced – and judged – by a wide range of preoccupations, perspectives and tastes.

This is the mirror opposite of the conventional architectural monograph: the desire to formalise and control the official story – and assessment – of a particular building or practice. The publication seems to invite, rather than close, discussion.

Wigglesworth and Till are rare among architects in their approach to criticism and debate. Their willingness to engage with their critics is perhaps best illustrated by the chapter ‘Innovative but daft’, which reproduces a critical article published in Building for a Future magazine, followed by Wigglesworth and Till’s robust riposte. (The nub of the argument can be briefly encapsulated as: ‘But straw-bale constructions should be straightforward and cheap’ and the counter-claim ‘it’s got to get a whole lot more interesting if it’s ever going to catch on’.)

In her introduction to the book, Wigglesworth goes so far as to pre-empt criticism with her cheery prediction that ‘this publication may well be considered “weak”, disjointed, lacking coherence, without a conclusion’. While it is anything but weak, it does indeed lack a conclusion, being, as it is, a collection of viewpoints, observations and thoughts. Wigglesworth states that she hesitates to call the building finished, viewing it as an ongoing project with a life of its own. And the same can be said of the book that it has spawned. As with all the best conversations, it is offered up as entertainment and enlightenment – but also as a provocation to contemplation and response.

In the spirit in which the book is offered, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t weigh in with my own two pen’orth. For my part, I’d say that asking Charles Jencks to write the foreword was a mistake. Kicking off with such an eminent grandee suggests a reverence for stature entirely at odds with the ethos of intellectual pluralism. While Jencks is as fluent as ever, his foreword – which invokes historical giants from Brunelleschi to Bramante to Frank Lloyd Wright – gives the entirely erroneous impression that the book that follows is going to be both self-aggrandising and pompous.

There’s a place for Jencks’ florid verbosity. But this isn’t it. Wigglesworth and Till are gifted raconteurs, but they subscribe to the view that the most interesting ideas are best expressed in the most commonplace terms. (And, thankfully, the other contributors to the book seem pretty much on board.)

It’s a relief when Wigglesworth takes over the narrative, deftly detailing the inception and delivery of both house and book in effortless, crystal clear prose. What makes her contributions to the book so compelling is her ability to flit between polemicist and theoretician to architect, client – and resident. Hence she rounds off an account of the desire to create a garden with ‘a detectable geometry’ with the observation that, ‘The first year we had no slugs and the potatoes were prolific’.

Such is her gift for storytelling, it is easy to imagine that Around & About Stock Orchard Street would have been just as good a read had she written it all herself. But the decision to give to others the page-space to air their views makes it something rather more significant: a critique of a publishing culture that allows architects, or their chosen scribes, to be both judge and jury of their own work.

Isabel Allen is a former editor of The Architects’ Journal

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