Studio in the woods

This is what happens when you invite 15 of the UK's leading architects in to the woods for the weekend with 70+ designers & makers and let them build whatever they want...

Introductory presentations

Day One
The weekend began with presentations from each of the 5 groups. The brief was very simple, no nails or screws allowed - after that, each group was free to build whatever they wanted. The groups were led by 15 of the UK's leading architects, and I was lucky enough to get a space in the group with Fergus Feilden (Feilden Fowles architects) and Akos Juhasz (Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios). 

Most of the other group leaders had a strong idea of what they wanted to build over the weekend, but Fergus and Akos wanted to let the team develop the design as part of the process. 

Getting to know the rest of the team

After some introductions, the plan was to go and explore the woods to find a site, so that we could start designing first thing the following morning. Unfortunately, on the way to the woods were the pre-dinner snacks... we didn't find a site on the first night.

The food was amazing all weekend, served in a makeshift canteen beneath Piers' studio. 


Don't wait until 11PM to set up your tent when you've never set it up before... accidental photo of the side of the tent taken when holding my phone in my mouth as a torch.

...also remember to bring an actual torch.

Day Two

The work site was a 20min walk through the woods from the campsite, the light coming through the trees made the walk pretty spectacular. First task was to find the site that we failed to find the previous night. After much deliberating, and a lot of walking through the woods, we all agreed that we wanted to do something with an amazingly gnarled old Oak tree. 

Our Oak

Our Oak

The Oak had a real presence within the forest. It sat in a clearing on the convergence of two tracks and was completely in contrast to the slender trunks of the surrounding trees. Whilst very imposing it was also very dead and as such had a fragility to it that we felt warranted protecting. 

As you would expect when designing with 15 other people, it took us a while to narrow down the pool of ideas until we were all happy with the idea of creating some kind of permeable screen around the Oak. The screen would contrast the Oak in as many ways as possible, it would be super-lightweight, bright , delicate, geometric and fine. 

We spent a long time deciding on the fixing method for the screen (without using any screws or nails) and decided upon cable ties which we would use as straps. 

The next step was to mill our wood. The wood used in all of the projects was sourced from the surrounding woodland, and was cut to any size we wanted by this tireless man and his Woodmizer. Unfortunately for him, we wanted a LOT of 30x30mm strips!

Day two was brought to a close with an inspiring talk from Níall McLaughlin who talked us through the design process on some of his past and present projects, comparing the way he worked at the start of his career to the way he works now. 

The walk back to the campsite through the woods was less spectacular...

Day Three

On our way to site in the morning, we noticed that a lot of the other groups had more 'built' than us.

We had a lot to do.

It was a long day. 

Temporary support structure partially up. Fine timber slats in the foreground, ready to be fixed to the 'ring beam'.

We didn't have enough ladders, so we built another one.

Temporary support structure complete in time for lunch.

Putting the new ladder to good use, tying the thin slats on to the ring beam with cable ties. Not the most stable ladder in the world...

Slowly getting there. It was surprisingly time consuming, considering how simple the construction method was. You can start to get an idea of how the bright timber cube would appear to glow amongst the surrounding woodland. 

We worked in to the night to get all of the slats up in time for the next day's crits. 

Day Four

The final day.

We had until 10am to make any final adjustments to our structures, at which time all of the participants were be joined by Ted Cullinan, Níall McLaughlin, Robert Mull and Peter Clegg to wonder through the woods and discuss all of the work. 

Up first were Piers Taylor and Meredith Bowles' group with their gridshell structure, the stability of which was tested by Peter Clegg & Niall McLaughlin as they clambered up the outside.

We were up next. We got really lucky with the lighting, and just as hoped, the sun came out at the right time and made the cube glow. I think everyone was happy with the outcome. The juxtaposition of the fine, light timbers against the massive dark bulk of the old Oak and the crisp man-made cube set against the woodland created an interesting relationship. The fact that it actually stayed upright once we removed the temporary supports was also a bonus, despite only being supported by 30x30mm sections of timber (most of which didn't even seem to be bearing any of the load!).  

We then wandered down to see what the group led by Barbara Kaucky & Susanne Tutsch (erect architecture) had built. They had found a pair of trees in the woods that had fallen in to each other, creating a nest of living and dead branches at the point where they met. Their structure was a walkway which facilitated a pathway along the axes of the fallen trees. Beautifully built out of a recurring tripod structure, their walkway took on the form of some great skeleton. 

Having safely navigated the walkway, we then moved down to the group led by Kate Darby & Gianni Botsford. They took on an approach that they call 'constructed analysis', in other words they wanted to build something that would enable them to measure a particular aspect of the place. In this case they were looking at daylight, and their structure represented a way of measuring the patch of daylight visible through the tree canopy above. 

The final group was led by Le Ivett (Baxendale), Je Ahn (Studio Weave) & Lynton Pepper (Architecture 00). They made an enormous geodesic dome, made furry by all of the cable ties, with a walkway which led to a tower. It was interesting to see the two approaches to working without screws or nails, the lightweight dome held together with cable ties set against the heavy tower, built with traditional timber joints. 

The video above was put together by Jim Stephenson who was with us all weekend, capturing the design and construction process. Its worth a watch. 

It was a great weekend. I came back feeling both exhausted and revitalised. It has given me an appreciation of how important it is to get away from the desk from time to time and actually build something.

Architecture projects are long. It can be frustrating that it takes such a long time for a project to go from ideas on pages and in heads, to something tangible. Compressing that timeline down and going from 'idea' to 'built' in just a few days was enormously rewarding. To do it with a group of equally enthusiastic and eager people made for an unforgettable experience.

Photos are a mixture of my own and those taken by Jim Stephenson
(the better photos are probably Jim's)