School Building

Adam Sharr and James Longfield
Newcastle University

'The work is the work' - Richard Serra

Text by Adam Sharr:

There are famous examples of architecture schools where the ethos of the school has worked closely with the building that the school occupies, where the building has somehow been a testing ground for the curriculum. The most famous examples are, perhaps, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, Walter Gropius’ building for the Bauhaus in Weimar, Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago and Josep Lluís Sert’s Gund Hall at Harvard. But these buildings were imagined somehow as complete representations of curricula that were also understood as complete. Now, in a changed world, they stand as historical artifacts as much as living places of work. There are other architecture schools where their buildings remain a work-in-progress, where architectural ideas are tested, changed and adapted over time. The Architectural Association’s Hooke Park campus springs to mind, or Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, both of which are in a constant state of experimental building and rebuilding.

In Newcastle, our listed building at the heart of a dense city centre campus allows us neither the space of Hooke Park nor the free reign over our spaces that is available to Virginia Tech. But a lively group of ‘linked research’ projects undertaken by seven MArch students has sought to re-imagine the building in creative ways to further its creative culture. The proposals emerged from a participation exercise organised by the group – complete with tasks, games and ‘Corb specs’ for everyone – to gather ideas and opinions from students and staff. Each of the projects are small in themselves but their cumulative impact is much greater than the sum of their parts.

In her project, Cassie Burgess-Rose promoted a tactile appreciation of architecture, adorning the doors of the Architecture Building. She conducted a thorough survey of the building’s doors, preparing a phenomenological door schedule. Noting marks and observing people’s use of the doors, she added pads (in leather, PVC, suede, for example) where they’re barged-open with shoulders and bums, push plates where they’re kicked open and door knockers made from pencils. Students and visitors will be surprised and amused by these details, she hopes, promoting a heightened awareness of how buildings and people touch. Rachel Bennett recognized that the school lacks a material library. Cajoling and persuading material suppliers to send samples, she constructed a series of typical details for display near the studios which students can to refer to. Rachel herself practiced a series of trades to construct these details including bricklaying and joinery, her learning process serving as a powerful example to others. It is, she hopes, the beginning of a continuing development of a material library. Alice Gunter developed her project in Old Library Lane between the rear of the Architecture and Building Science buildings, a backland space whose legitimate uses are supplemented by others, many of which are out-of-sight and – theoretically at least – forbidden by the University. She conducted a meticulous analysis of the marks and traces left behind in order to discern how the space is really used and appropriated. Proposing an entrepreneurial kind of practice growing out of the place and its uses, she devised a series of recycled interventions to enhance them, including a ‘guerilla garden’ planted in old car tyres, tables for smokers and for late-night conversations, and furniture for spraying paint and glue. The school’s ‘multi-purpose’ crit and coffee space, known as ‘Crit 1’, was addressed by Laura Harrison. She noticed that its sliding-folding screens provide only a few of the configurations that the inhabitants want. Out of these observations, she designed and built two mobile cabinets that double as seats and pin-up boards – also containing a collection of architectural journals donated to the school by Roger Stonehouse – which can be deployed to subdivide the space in different ways. Imogen Lees began with a series of material experiments, testing the possibilities offered by ‘papercrete’; a mix of paper and cement. Observing the amount of scrap paper generated by school’s ArchPrint plotter suite, she sought to promote its reuse in making a new material. A series of artefacts constructed around the school – a seat, a light-fitting, pin-up boards – are supplemented with QR-codes. Read by digital devices, these provide links to movies and tutorials which describe how to make models and a variety of other things in papercrete, offering step-by-step guides for others to follow. Jane Usher is a critic of contemporary architectural education. She argues that too much emphasis is placed on design and not enough emphasis on the practical knowledge needed to be an architect in practice. Interested in different learning styles, she recognised that many architects are visual learners and proposed that the school building could help teach the UK Building Regulations. She installed a series of vinyl signs on floors and walls outlining key maximum and minimum dimensions, highlighting instances where the building meets and does not meet Regulation standards, in order to teach those standards. Myles Walker proposed a solution to two problems which might at first appear separate: how students store their belongings in studio; and how students learn workshop skills in first year. He designed a storage box whose construction would involve a variety of joints and materials. And he prepared an instruction book which would introduce students to various tools, methods and workshop practices through the making of their storage box. These exercises, he proposed, should be given to first year students in their first few weeks of architectural education to develop their knowledge and skills.

These projects, together, propose a view of architecture as design research: a creative synthesis born out of methodical investigations of live problems. Cumulatively, the group’s projects help to integrate the student’s values into the building itself, seeing it as a live experiment in architecture and architectural education.

Students: Rachel Bennett, Cassie Burgess-Rose, Alice Gunter, Laura Harrison, Imogen Lees, Jane Usher, Miles Walker.