MArch Unit 13: Architecture is the Thing with Feathers. Ifi Liangi & Daniel Wilkinson

Jichen Fan, Unit 13, 2021

This year, Unit 13 is going to look at the handmade and the artist-architect. We’re going to consider how, as architects, we might have a more intimate relationship with the constructing and occupying of the buildings we design, instead of handing over our drawings for somebody else to put together. This will involve us thinking from our own bodies outwards, with our appendages being the main tool for putting our architectural bits and bobs into place – we’ll still use drawings, but we’ll think about what they mean differently, with the line between designing and building, and assembling and occupation, becoming blurred.

We’ll look at designers who have worked in a related manner, such as Gunther Domenig, who thought his Steinhaus was impossible to complete due to his love of construction; Henry Chapman Mercer, who made a majestically weird concrete castle with the help of his pet horse Lucy, as an exhibition device; Justo Gallego Martinez, who at 95 continues to build a one-man cathedral from whatever comes to hand; Richard Greaves, who improvised an entire village from architectural salvage without a single nail; Kurt Schwitters’ constantly fluxing work in Hanover and Cumbria; Clarence Schmidt’s 30 year labour of love, ‘The Miracle on the Mountain’; Simon Rodia, who spent three decades playing with rebar for his Watts Towers; Edward James, who oversaw a team of 100 workers for 40 years to create Las Pozas, his version of Eden in Mexico. We’ll try to summon the spirit of Ferdinand Cheval, a postman, who after tripping on an ‘interesting stone’ spent the rest of his life collecting, carving and stacking rocks to make the Palais Idéal. While writing about the project in his diaries, he said ‘you start wondering, if you have not been carried away into a fantastic dream with boundaries beyond the scope of the imagination’. Around such examples, we’ll look at how lengthy and idiosyncratic processes of building can be autobiographical, by capturing the psyche of the builder-designer as a kind of architectural diary.

First year students will be given the choice of two sites in East Finchley, in either Cherry Tree Wood or on The Bishops Avenue. Often referred to as the Los Angeles of London, these places sum up the peculiar banality of the neighbourhood. Two thousand years ago, the wood was used as a ceramics factory by the Romans. In more recent centuries it became London’s toilet, as the dumping ground for the excrement that filled the inner city’s cesspits on a daily basis. Also known as Billionaires’ Row, The Bishop’s Avenue has its own story to tell. Once an area for rampant dirty pigs, it is now the home of the financial elite, from royals to celebrities. Amongst the world’s super rich, it is better known than Buckingham Palace. Between the two is McDonald’s Hamburger University, which is more difficult to get in to than Oxford and Cambridge, and where students graduate with a degree in ‘Hamburgerology’. We’ll spend the first weeks researching and mapping the area, before choosing sites for the rest of the year.

Our field trip will be a democratic affair. We’re going to ask each student to propose a destination in the UK before we put it to the vote. Our suggestion is for a weekend at Alton Towers, but you might be able to do better than this, and are more than welcome to overrule us.

Unit 13 is interested in developing projects that work between the scale of the building and the community. East Finchley will become our playground, and we’re not particularly interested in being appropriate to the area, or its history of NIMBYism. As far as the locals are concerned, our buildings will be uninvited and possibly bad mannered. They might be frail, monstrous, noisy or rude. Ultimately, they will be stories captured in brick and the other stuff of architecture, such as ceramics and textiles. These buildings will be more than the sum of their parts, as explorations of the magical capacity of construction. We don’t just want to create buildings that function, we want designs that linger in the minds of those who encounter them.