Arkwright Ruby

09/01/23 21:43

We're about to start investigating a high profile building with a failing roof, which I daren't name, even for the best of reasons. It's a piece of "iconic" architecture by a Big Name, and already I notice a touch of schadenfreude from people who always suspected that the Big Name didn't have the architectural firepower to detail junctions and penetrations or the nous to handle the weathering of complex surfaces.

So it proved, and a few years after completion the envelope appears to be staining badly, and leaking through rooflights and perhaps other joints and vertices too. It has an unusual form, but pure “form-making” is the preserve of second year students and paper architects; fabric design takes longer to understand and the further into practice I go, the more I realise I’ve still got to learn.

Part of the issue is that the building with the failing roof is a one-off in every sense. It’s an experimental prototype, probably the only building of that ilk the practice has designed, using systems and techniques they won't use again. It’s a Mark 1 building, when the client really needed a Mark 10 version with the detailing refined and all the problems ironed out.

So I come back to something I've written about here before, perhaps to the point of repeating myself.  An architect who doesn't master materials and detailing can never really be a fully-formed architect. If you don't know which material or system is appropriate for the form you’re drawing, all is lost.  You’re just like a would-be musician who hasn't progressed to read music, so plays everything by ear.

Until he reached his late 30's, my father was a commercial grower: firstly in a market garden producing flowers, fruit and vegetables for the wholesale market, then later in commercial landscaping where he was involved with nursery work and planting schemes.  As an aside, Dad’s career evolution showed me there’s hope for late developers: another example was Howlin Wolf, who was 42 years old when he signed to Chess Records.

The final project my father worked on before he shifted industries was the landscaping of the Scottish Amicable site at Craigforth on the edge of Stirling. Craigforth is about to be razed for redevelopment and I have conflicted feelings every time I drive down the A9: the trees and shrubs around the buildings are some of the last living links with my Dad, and that's particularly poignant at this time of year.

Hard landscaping was important at Craigforth and other projects he worked on in Dundee and Glenisla, but my father’s main raw materials were plants.  Three years ago when I sorted through things after he died, I found some old seed packets which he had set aside.  Not the A6-sized consumer packets with luridly colourful photos which contain around 20 seeds, but miniature brown paper envelopes, each little bigger than an old-fashioned railway ticket, but with four or five gross of seeds in each.

One packet was marked “Arkwright Ruby”. I had to look that up, and discovered it was an F1 hybrid Viola. An old-fashioned cousin of the pansy and the violet plant, it flowered for six months at a time, producing profuse, coppery-maroon petals. Dad had a connection to Carter’s Seeds of Raynes Park in London, but this particular packet came from Thomson & Morgan of Ipswich.

My father also had dozens of monographs dedicated to plants and plant families, and he kept a note of varieties, yields, successes and failures.  Seed packets along with diaries, leaflets, flyers and bulletins from the Ministry. By recording how well every crop did each year, he built up a record which became more detailed as the years passed. Each market garden, croft and farm has its own unique microclimate and soil, slightly different to those around it.  For that reason, textbooks can only be so helpful and beyond that point, empirical information is vital.

I don't think it's too stupid to suggest that architects should be this close to their raw materials, too.

How many architects can say they walked the context before designing a building, observing how well similar materials used on similar aspects have lasted?  Paddy Hislop at TRADA is a really helpful source of advice on timber cladding; for other materials you have to develop relationships with experienced suppliers.  That's how I learned about plywood, from one of the original directors of Rembrand Timber, who entered the industry just after the war when factories which made de Havilland’s timber aircraft were re-tooled for furniture and construction.

So before I even considered a form-making exercise, I’d make sure I really understood which systems were appropriate to achieve it – and after I’d built one, I’d monitor it in order to learn how to improve it the next time around.

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