There's this whole zone of architectural thinking which places high value on the unselfconscious consequences of architecturally untutored people going about the business of constructing or adorning the places where they live or play. There was that stuff in Levi Strauss about the bricoleur and the engineer. And there was that Rudofsky vernacular picture book, Architecture without Architects, and that French postman and his palace of stones and shells which got a lot of coverage in the 1960s in Architectural Design and the Watts Towers at the same time.
All that stuff ultimately goes back to old Abbe Laugier in the middle of the eighteenth century when in his Essay on Architecture he argued that architecture originated from the primitive reactive logic of early man going about the important business of devising himself a simple but effective shelter. 'Such is the step of simple nature,' he wrote in 1754, 'it is to the imitation of her proceedings to which art owes its birth. The little rustic cabin I have just described is the model upon which all the magnificence of architecture has been imagined. It is in coming near in the execution of the simplicity of this first model that we avoid all essential defects, that we lay hold on true perfection.'
An extension of all this is the notion of the intrinsic virtue of using materials as found. Laugier's primitive man in the forests of the dawn of civilisation used whatever was to hand to produce the prototype of the Doric temple: in his case tree trunks, branches and foliage. Rudofsky's Mediterranean Rim peasants used the local materials - stone, clay, a bit of timber. Levi Strauss's bricoleur - and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp - used the left-overs of twentieth-century industrial civilisation, Herb Green often used what looks like the cast offs from junk and lumber yards. And in the case of Eames in the Case Study house at Pacific Palisades andthe Smithsons' ground-breaking Hunstanton school, and for that matter Charles Moore much later at the Santa Barbara faculty club, it is the deployment, with varying degrees of knowingness, of standard items selected from building-product manufacturers' catalogues. Not surprisingly there's a well rooted tradition of admiring architects who are skilled at making do, with using everyday mass-produced and preferably cheap elements and bricolaging them into new and exciting sets of spaces.
So was there this quite elaborate architectural notion folded up in the back of Jonathan Ellis-Miller's head a couple of years ago when he was walking around New York's East River? The answer had to be yes because he took a photograph or two when he came across New York's equivalent of allotments where people had put up quite sculptural things like wind machines and structures and all kinds of useful and semi-functioning and utterly useless things devised, more accurately cobbled together, from found objects. As ensembles, he recalls 'they had a power and enjoyment all of their own.'
Later when Hugh Pearman asked him to cheer up his back extension with a tiny £15,000 budget, the memory of those East River bricoleurs (and that heavy baggage of recent found history) came to mind and the resulting structure is a mix of off-the-peg open-web truss, yacht mast, double-wall polycarbonate greenhouse sheeting plus standard Planar glazing and some big-sheet glazing which is not as expensive as you think. Naturally these disparate, almost ad hoc materials were put together with a hint of disorderliness and of course panache. But those allotment structures were still there as a kind of visual reference at the back of his mind. Says Ellis-Miller: 'Interestingly, there turned out to be a real allotment over the back fence.'