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Poetic processes

Making Buildings At the New Art Gallery, Walsall, until 25 March; the Crafts Council Gallery, London, from 12 April-17 June; and then at Middlesbrough, Leigh and Aberystwyth

I asked Peter Jenkinson, director of the New Art Gallery, if one was allowed to touch the exhibits in Making Buildings. I was puzzled that he seemed unsure of the answer. This is a very tactile exhibition, a delight to both the eye and the hand. It needs touching.

Although the exhibition is organised by the Crafts Council, and the curator, Greg Votolato, describes it as being about craft in modern architectural design, its central theme is, to me, materiality. Many, though not all, of the objects do indeed embody skilled craftsmanship, sometimes very inventively. But Making Buildings impresses by demonstrating the wonderfully sensual nature of diverse materials when employed tectonically - oak, glass, bamboo, mud, straw, brick, steel and softwood.

The show reminds one of the reverence for materials and careful, explicit construction of such architects as Kahn and Berlage.

In three of Caruso St John's lofty, clerestorey-lit, top-floor rooms, big pieces of construction stand around casually on the floor, like elements and equipment on a building site. Others hang from the roof. The effect is enhanced by sounds of hammering and sawing from the video installation documenting a real building site. The resulting sensation is a heady combination of the down-toearth, dirty, practical nature of building, and a sense that the process of laying a block on a bed of mortar, or nailing ply to a wooden frame, can achieve an almost sacred quality.

Much has been written recently debunking the Modernist myth of the machinemade building, and Making Buildings is a welcome demonstration of ways in which architects are happily embracing crafted materials, and collaborating creatively with builders, engineers and craftspersons. The Arts and Crafts movement is not finished; it just looks different from how it did 100 years ago.

Sarah Wigglesworth shows two pieces of facade from her house in London: small sandbags, stacked in stretcher bond, as a noise-resistant wall, and a quilted, plasticfaced fabric, riveted to a timber frame.

Both are very provocative surfaces - soft yet architectonic.

The green agenda features strongly. The famously hands-on Ted Cullinan shows the doubly-curved green oak structure for the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, in a model made by Buro Happold. It's like an inverted wooden basket - a highly sensuous form, but rigorously rational in its structure.

Also in green oak is designer-carpenter Jim Partridge's beautiful footbridge.

The destruction of the division between designing and making, that old Arts and Crafts ideal, is a central theme of the exhibition. A subdivision of this is the rethinking of building construction to blur the distinction between designer and user. This is illustrated by the documentation of the Hedgehog Self Build Cooperative in Brighton, working with the Walter Segal Self Build Trust. Construction is simplified and quite utilitarian, but somehow achieves a poetic resonance through the direct involvement of its future occupants.

There is a catholic range of styles. John Pawson contributes a series of photographs of his transformation of a Victorian house into a Pawson interior which, if I didn't know better, I would take to be a sly joke in this context. Construction is used to conceal construction until, finally, there is almost nothing to photograph - just entirely featureless surfaces.

There are more exhibits than I can mention here, covering a large range of intentions and technologies, documented at full-size, in maquettes, photographs, drawings and video. I recommend that you see this very accessible exhibition, if not in Walsall then at a future destination. Outside, visible through one of Caruso St John's picture windows, construction goes on - steel frames, cranes, mud and portakabins. Making Buildings demonstrates how material processes, if considered thoughtfully, can achieve the status of poetry.

Joe Holyoak is reader at Birmingham School of Architecture and partner in Axis Design Collective

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