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

Becky Shaw: artist-in-residence reflections

Becky Shaw


I’m sitting in a warm mezzanine space, in one part of Stock Orchard Street, with a view of the house. There’s a ripple of conversation beneath me – I can decide to listen, or it is at the right distance to be able to choose not to hear.

In this space I have been given a generous frame for ‘practice’ amongst the daily work of SWA. I couldn’t have been given a more relevant situation and I’m quite stunned by the act of recognition that has taken place: a recognition of a shared interest in relationships, process, materials, awkwardness and complicatedness.

I’m not a regular studio inhabitant, partly through choice and partly through necessity. Thinking about the studio always unpicks interesting questions about time, space, purpose, value, how to practice, how to live and what ‘work’ is.I’ve been reading the fantastically rich book ‘Around and About’ about Stock Orchard Street; its design, construction, its position ten years on. The essays and images are helping me think about how to view the building and the practice and lives it holds, in this complicated present.  At the same time I’m looking at models, materials, listening to the flows of busyness below, being invited into planning meetings and having some incredible conversations with very generous architects. Alongside this, some other reading – about ‘becoming-imperceptible’ and ‘crystalline images’ via Deleuze and Elizabeth Grosz, all via a parallel research project about how children and school interact, but which has clear relationship with the principles and buildings of SWA.

I’m seeing first hand lots of (to those ‘inside’, very obvious) things about being an architect: that it is utterly collaborative and built on relationships and trust; that it is endlessly frustrating as local and national policy, politics, finance, fear, time affect what can get to construction and after; that the spaces for innovation and change are cramped and you have to be incredibly resilient and determined; and that it is all about the tiny detail, doing the handle right, the right floor surface, the right insulation tape, to deliver the large vision, in the vast scape of material and immaterial processes. Architects or/and architecture education must have to be hugely optimistic and disciplined to hold onto the value of what you grow without being crushed by the scale of the boulders rolling towards you.

Beginning new work in a new place is really tentative and kind of fragile. You have lots of big ideas but then there is the humbling realisation that you can’t just translate that into a form. Or rather I can’t – I have to be sifting and pulling to find a something that I can just work with, that is close enough to hand (thanks to Martin Heidgger and Jo Ray) to be able to engage with practically.

So, for now, I’m thinking about a set of things: the current re-appraisal of Stock Orchard House for its environmental and social sustainability. This involves fitting contemporary products and technologies to address heat loss and enable heat capture. At the same time, SOS is being considered for the way it enables the best possible life as Sarah and Jeremy age. In this context ‘warmth’ (again, probably very obviously) is a word that is thoroughly cultural- it holds the idea of technological ‘heat’ as well as social, aesthetic and emotional comfort. I’ve been dipping in and out of the house, watching the plumbers take in a new boiler, the old one get taken away. The plumbers laid all the components out on a cardboard sheet and drew the system that would connect up the copper joints. At the same time I’m fascinated about the representation of SOS and wonder, idly about how many images a web cache would include- the image as a ‘decomposed and multiplied object’ (Zukauskaite, 2013).

When possible the architects have given time to telling me about their jobs. I’m fascinated by what they decide to tell me. Hannah tells me about the design of a children’s centre, the need to design around existing furniture and to reconsider a vinyl floor as the rivets will trap glitter. I’m moved by these details and the value of these decisions. It’s a long way from the ‘flagship prize-winning edifice that communicates the architects vision’, but the imagination and care needed to listen and respond to the clients needs seems like an act of profound quality.

Ronan tells me about a small business centre being designed within a building-locked space and he describes in depth the negotiation of the light and views needed to respect other peoples’ windows. He shows me a drawing where the angle of sunlight into the other peoples’ windows is 24 degrees and planning requires 25 degrees – tiny diagrams of arcs, angles, light, height.

I dip through old files in the office. There are many old notebooks, full of drawings – heat lines, ectoplasmic wiggly lines coming from or into roofs, and countless files of listed processes, concrete poetry. I also scroll through the enormous digital files, fascinated by all the site photos, the lists, the letters, the consultations, negotiations, construction sites, snagging images, completed sites, revisits, RIBA stages.

Chris tells me about the part-build, part-redevelopment, part-maintenance of a nearby school. He brings a folder with the most lovely drawings spilling out of it in tissue paper, parquet floors, children running, a library. On one digital drawing 8 strange forms drawn in pencil hover over the ceiling- like they just came from another drawing and moved across- also like some kind of ectoplasmic pots. Chris also shows me the digital 3D rendering of the school with its services moving up and down across spaces.

Toby brings me gifts – a series of lists and photos of tiny faults/details that need to be corrected for the completion of a house for a young and elderly family to enjoy life in together. The photos are repetitive, similar angles, corridors, materials, edges, gaps – a sort of cubist construction.

I sit in on the planning of a new design for a bid and am riveted by the knowledge and good humour that this process involves. I’m made anxious by the problems of representation – how to adequately ‘sell’ this to a client while holding onto the principles, and without falling into ruts of standard representational tropes. Another planning meeting for a job that is happening and Eleanor, Rosie, Natalie negotiate gently about which parts of the job make most sense for each to lead, based on the types of experience each wants to develop.

So now I’m holding all these thoughts in play, and looking for forms, materials I can work with – I’m trying to push my thoughts along quickly but also aware that it needs time, and meandering. I worry that I don’t look busy enough – usual residency self-consciousness no doubt intensified by the high levels of busyness around me.

I’m speculating about how one work might travel through all these ‘nodes’ – the glitter in the rivet, the floating ectoplasmic pots, the chips and blobs of the snagging process. I remember some lovely drawings in red pen on tracing paper of electrical services, so I go and get a red pen and imagine being the highly precisely placed insulation tape in the plans of SOS. I try to stick my fingers in the plans and imagine my fingers being able to pull the lines from 2D into space like threads. When I zoom in close on the plans the red pen on paper looks like the texture of chipboard.