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Teetering on the brink

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Student Robert Park on an inspirational UEL workshop with artist Richard Wilson

As a student of architecture, it is useful to grab some insight into the cultural environment in which we will soon be launching ourselves. The history and politics of development is complex and obtuse.

As such I was looking forward to a conference called The Production of Place, held by the MA Architecture, Sustainability & Design department at the University of East London at the end of December.

Keynote speakers included the bestselling author Iain Sinclair, Chris Pyke from the US Green Building Council, the Chilean architect Alberto Moletto and Tony Fretton. Topics were influenced by three given themes: ‘Global knowledge via local place’; ‘Making and Doing’; and ‘Insecurity in and of places’.

The production of place can often seem like a fierce and muddy battleground

The production of place can often seem like a fierce and muddy battleground in which the architect can only hope to play a positive role. As this influence is often hard to obtain it is prudent to spend quality time discussing why, where and how the act of design can make an impact, so that we are ready when the time comes.

In between the vigorous debates, a number of students at UEL, myself included, took part in a series of four-day ‘live research’ workshops. Alberto Moletto and Catalina Pollak engaged students in the task of using handmade technology to create surprising acoustic interactions in public places. Alan Chandler’s workshops resulted in a series of hard concrete sculptural casts of soft comfortable places.

I took part in a workshop led by the artist Richard Wilson, with Raphael Lee. A day was spent on site at the Woolwich river crossing. We collected as much raw data as we could – sketches, photographs, imprints of surface and edge. We presented these individual explorations back at the studio, but our conversations meandered.

The floor was covered with teetering towers and tunnels hastily fastened with tape

Richard suggested we stop talking and warm-up by making some basic forms using the stacking chairs that we were sitting on. By the end of the day we were still building. The floor was covered with teetering towers and tunnels hastily fastened with tape.

By the following day, we had forgotten the details of our personal site investigations and had become focused on an emerging collaborative task – to use the chairs to create a large sculpture in the space that would reference the foot tunnel at Woolwich.

Every chair from the Architecture department was gathered up. Groups of 17 were laid horizontally in circles, and fastened with cable ties. The circles were lifted vertically and fastened together generously. As the chairs creaked and groaned we cleared studio detritus out of the way to gain an unencumbered escape route, but the structure held.

We were happy with the end result: it filled the space very well. Most importantly, we learnt some lessons that touched on the central themes of the conference. The piece of work that we produced together was as much to do with the place we were working in as the place we had visited.

It was the insecurity in the form that gave the final piece a lot of its presence in the studio

Through making and doing, rather than personal expression, we found a solution that encouraged us to work well together. And it was the insecurity in the form, its potential for collapse, that gave the final piece a lot of its presence in the studio. It was a great end to the term, and the sculpture was still standing in January when we returned to campus.

  • Robert Park is a third year architectural student

The Production of Place was organised by Roland Karthaus, Adam Chandler & Juliet Sakyi-Ansah, and the exhibition was organised by Michelle Price – for further information, please visit www.tpop2012.co.uk

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