26th Jun 2019 — Becky Shaw: artist-in-residence reflections

Becky Shaw: artist-in-residence reflections

This month has presented a number of moments to reflect on what I’ve been doing and to move towards something more resolved.


Following the monthly SWA soup club I did a rough summary of my journey so far to staff. I reviewed how I have been looking at online representations of warmth and flow, the rich conversations I have had with different staff, the redevelopment of Stock Orchard Street, exploring thermal imaging, my interest in windows and their representation, and trying to put my body into drawings and buildings by drawing onto my hands. I was aware that this is was an open and unsettled topography- a speculative ‘mess’ or ‘soup’ without clear borders or distinctions between bodies of work or potential forms.  Its hard to do this, as, while speculation is generative, it also must, by its nature, contain dead ends and dead wood, and sometimes the closer you get to the stuff that seems pointless, exposing or stupid (the stuff you might stop yourself from doing) the more interesting it might get.

I talked about the powerpoints I’m making. These bring together a whole body of images that map an erratic movement through the files and building at SWA:

  • Real buildings represented through drawn lines
  • Images representing the surface of drawings of red tape, furry and kind of mineral
  • Sticky-looking red felt pen drawings on hand trying to enter material and buildings- the headline, ‘Terrifying hand-mouth eats building from the inside’ (thanks to Emma Bolland).
  • Real digitally photographed hands resting on a screen that contains an image of a drawing, taken by holding phone in mouth.
  • Irritating ‘hand cursor’ photographed close-up, looking like a blurry no-entry sign.
  • Real photographed windows in real computer screen, photographed and viewed on a more real screen with real hands moving the mouse.
  • Gothic-looking heavy samples of window frames with queasy, claustrophobic interior villi designed to keep one heat-transmitting surface away from another.
  • Photographs of glowing medium format, early 2000’s images being held up to the light
  • Photocopies of glowing medium format early 2000’s images being moved by hands with chipped pastel-coloured nail varnish.
  • A digital image of a medium format of the garden at SOS, with a weird flare of light in the garden, like a super-hero has just disappeared into a different dimension.
  • A thermal imaging video clip of a finger frantically trying to keep a circle drawing alive as the warmth transfers into the table and disappears
  • A drawing of thermal imaging made in felt-tip on hands, that has become a cheerful rainbow. Why are rainbows and thermal imaging so retro?
  • Digital drawings of windows looked at so close up that an AutoCAD blue line becomes corny Klein blue with a chink of light where one gesture doesn’t touch the other.
Becky's ongoing image library

I’m using these images, and more, as the material for PowerPoints, imaging a sequence for every one of the twelve workstations in the SWA office. This construct allows me to play with the transitions of ppt- the fragmenting windows, the fade and, much to my childish amusement, the sound effects of breaking glass and an explosion. I’m reminded of Graham Greene’s incredible short story, The Destructors (brought to my attention by Gavin Wade who used it to curate Sheffield 08). Set in post-war patriarchal Britain, a group of teenagers literally carve out the house of a grumpy war veteran, without detection. They make it an unstable cave. The coal van is unknowingly employed to pull the last critical corner down, reducing the whole house to rubble. The end is ambiguous; a strange alignment of emotion between boys and man.


Eleanor talks about the different timescales of architect’s office life- I imagine this to mean the huge intense push when pulling a bid together, the repetitious and critically important laying out of details, writing schedules, as well as the times of gathering together resources, spending time with a client, and the reflective site visit. However there is also the timescale of architecture as a discipline, and also the hard to articulate currents of values, taste and politics that shape the ‘structures of feeling’ of the decades we work in.

As we talk I confess that I find the space between the architect’s plans and the imagined physical space almost impossible to mentally fill. Even when rotating digital 3D models the constructed shape doesn’t automatically become an experiencable sensory place in my head. I am curious how architectural education and practice trains this, and not prepared to accept that this might be an ‘innate’ trait in an architect (just like the boring misconception that artists are ‘born’ and not ‘taught’). Toby spoke about the determination needed to hold onto the image of the beautiful view you know will be produced by a particular window placement, as you negotiate competing complex environmental, regulatory, financial and construction factors.

From this, Sarah talked about the often unacknowledged desire that drives architects- I imagine this is the desire to bring something to life and experience it, and the communication of this desire into other’s lives. Sarah draws my attention to an incredible essay by Clare Cardinal-Pett in the book and exhibition ‘Desiring Practices’. Cardinal-Pett explores a set of full size- (life-size) detailing drawings found in the vault of the Owatonna Bank building designed by Louis Sullivan. The drawings are by his draftsman George Grant Elmslie and contain a materiality and a kind of sensual engagement suggesting that Elmslie had a greater degree of authoriship of the making of the details than might be expected. Cardinal-Pett talks about detailing as the, ‘the joint, that is the fertile detail, is the place where both the construction and the construing of architecture take place’.


She imagines another history of architecture focused on the manner of working and a challenge to the privileging of product over production. She describes:

‘These full-size drawings are not pictures but demonstrations of how drawing becomes building; no polite dialogue but an erotic ménage a trois. These prints seek the hands of the drawing’s illicit accomplices, the builder and the builder’s tools. Exaggerated to the point of hallucination, these details do not simply delineate the building, they embody its fabrication.’


Methods of detailing are understood not as a gendered practice (she explored how historically detailing may be associated with women) but a ‘gendering practice’ where methods of detailing call attention to the architect’s lived body. The discussion of the ‘life-size’ detailing makes me understand my own desire to fill the gap between drawing and building, building and building process, and invites me to consider the scale of my images.

Becky's ongoing image library

It was fascinating to take part in the SWA 25 ‘Practice Shared’ Open Day. The participants were not an audience that I was familiar with, so the things that moved and captured them was unpredictable (to me anyway). As I was mainly upstairs, my favourite moment was hearing Toby talk about Re-Imagining Pentonville four different times. The audience focused on the lovely, quirky wooden model, with tiny beads as trees, pastel grass and luminous slices of plastic for walls, as Toby talked. He talked about what it means for architects to do speculative, self-propelled projects and the vital need for planning and government agencies to think about the social capital of a site for a community, not just its value as real estate.

I showed some slides and some old catalogues, and spent time in meandering rich and funny conversations afterwards. I met an open-minded and questioning Canadian interior designer, I talked cost and quality of rental homes in Madrid and London with Spanish architects, I had serious dress envy in response to some stylish visitors, I had a conversation about the processes and languages that might be needed for art and architecture to influence policy and I met some of the families of SWA staff, giggled with others and felt really part of the practice.


From now on, I’m moving into a more ‘production’ focus as I develop works for/of/with an audience.