The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
“Vision reveals what the touch already knows. We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision. Our eyes stroke distant surfaces, contours and edges, and the unconscious tactile sensation determines the agreeableness or unpleasantness of the experience.” - Juhani Pallasmaa- The Eyes of the Skin
“I touch you with my eyes / I watch you with my hands” - Octavio Paz - A Tree Within / Arbol Adentro
Craft could be defined according to the Oxford English Dictionary as an activity involving skill in making things by hand, the skills involved in carrying out one’s work. The idea of crafting architecture conjures an image of the hands, of materials, of an intimate connection to a building as a whole. Alternatively, the craft of architecture suggests a contradiction, an image from the past. The material spatial craft has been replaced by the virtual or imagined experience. The design of space diluted by distance from the architect to the material.
I’m standing in a space inhabited, yet perceived as unfinished. A room crafted with multiple hands. A reprise of the architect as master-builder in miniature, with the exception that nobody here would bestow either title upon themselves. Knowledge has been cultivated and skills have been honed as the building grew around them. It feels intimate, a space which has been designed and built by the same person. Standing in a room considered, completion barely allowed to be imagined, every detail carefully composed yet still on occasion clumsy or overly functional, the learning process proudly on display. She said “We spent our first night in here the other night, we thought it would be cold because the temperature’s dropped the last few days but it wasn’t cold at all. There were swallows flying in and out all evening.” He stands nearby, quietly appraising the site, but visibly pleased with the work which is almost finished.
The building nestles into the hillside. On approaching, perfect mature turf covers the roof, sloping down onto the gradient of the field, long grasses waving in the breeze. There is one opening in the rounded wall, marked on either side with a pair of shoulder height dry stone buttresses. The flat stones form immaculately tapered towers. Upon entering the floor is bare, sandy, but soft underfoot. There is no furniture. Straw bristles from the unplastered interior walls. There is still bark on some of the birch logs which form the reciprocal roof. The structure makes the beams appear floating over the threshold and into the centre of the room. Once the last beams have seasoned, the bark will be removed and the ceiling finished with plaster. For now it remains bark and boards, the swallows taking advantage of the openings between the stacked logs to build spirals of summer nests.
Outside, the walls are rough, unfinished. The straw can been seen through the first coat of lime plaster which has been pushed deep into the bales by hand. Today the second coat of plaster will be applied. We will be plastering rough, naturally accentuating the texture of the walls, yet smoothing out the irregularities of the straw bales underneath. The lime will carbonise, forming a water resistant layer on top of the straw bales. After carefully measuring quantities of lime and sand into buckets for mixing the dust floats through the air. It rises into my nostrils and settles there, giving everything a bitter alkaline tinge. Water, sand, perfect geometries of particles joining to form an irreversible chemical bond. The plaster is spread onto the wall using gloved hands. The gloves reach up to my shoulders, and enlarge my hands to cartoonish proportions. The texture of the wet plaster through the fabric of the glove begins to feel familiar. Later we return with wooden trowels, compacting the plaster to a smooth sheen. There is a rhythm which develops, spreading the wet plaster over the wall, smoothing the uneven surface. This action feels like a form of perfection, an achievement, the culmination of centuries of knowledge as well as the completion of a building.
Whom shall I hold responsible for the skilful arrangement of materials- I describe the walls, the floor, the tiles, the furniture. The layers of construction, a damp-proof course, insulation. You specify the lighting falling through that window at midday, onto the wall, fingerprints visible from the person who laid the stone. That shadow which creeps over the threshold as the days transition into winter. Skills of organisation, skills of juxtaposition. I place my hands into the walls and shape the stones, spread the plaster, polish the wood. The touch of the hands become refined over the years, the behaviour of materials becomes more and more familiar, intimate and predictable. The vision of space, the practice of architecture. The design reaches an equivalent level of delicacy to the craftsmanship of the materials, every corner refined over many hours to a form the perfect whole. Allowed to sink into the space, it permeates my being in the same way that the stone forms an integral part of the life of a stonemason, or carpenter into the forest.
I feel safe within these walls, satisfying a need for enclosure, shelter, yet enmeshed within the local ecosystem. The building breathes with me, adjusting humidity and temperature along with the weather. After spending a few days in this natural room, the thresholds become obscure, the boundaries between inside and outside, between natural and manmade blur.
The architect returns to the craft of architecture. I am inspired by the people who have taken the craft of building into their own hands. At the end of the day, we pack up the equipment and stand for a moment in the evening light, the plaster shining in the sun as water rises out of the drying lime. I leave determined to return.