Summer School with the Prince’s Foundation
It was through the confidence of Willowbank and the generosity of an anonymous donor, that I had the opportunity to spend three inspiring weeks with the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building Summer School, in the United Kingdom. Twenty-One days comprised of invaluable instruction, creative discussion, and twenty-one tea spills.
The Prince’s Foundation for Community Building was founded by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales in 1998. The idea, however, catalyzed over a decade earlier around the curation of the 1987 BBC documentary “HRH Prince of Wales: A Vision of Britain.” The film, captured the Prince’s take on the Modern British Architecture of that time*. Today, the Foundation for Community Building serves as both a network and resource for sustainable building efforts on a national and global scale. Recognized in their mission, is the inherent truth that the built environment directly correlates to quality of life for its inhabitants.
The Summer School takes a broad but informed look at the western world’s relationship to classical architecture and global traditions in building craft. Through the settings of London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Dumfries House, the narratives which exist within the built environment are explored.
The educational environment, that is therein fostered, is a platform which allows for discussion among passionate minds who diversely specialize in areas of architecture, craft, and design.
This platform, allowed for a more clear relationship to be realized between my architectural background from the University of Virginia and the diverse traditional craft skills and heritage ideologies, that I have gained from Willowbank.
I was especially struck, though, with appreciation for my Willowbank education. The head-in-hands curriculum seemed to provide the most stable bridge into pace with my summer course-mates. Not only as an active participant, but as a leader. Perspectives on heritage and cultural landscape gained from Willowbank, were well received by course-mates as an alternative lens.
The program was split between three segments: foundational study of geometry and sketch, followed by a hands on craft, and concluding with a design charrette.
WEEK 1: Foundational Study of Geometry and Sketch
Sketching, with instructor Lucien Steil challenged my learned comforts of mediums and perspective.
After many iterations of cityscapes, column details, and live models, we became charcoal enthusiasts and proficient in describing eachother’s personalities in terms of the classic orders. Lucien lectured us on topics such as the “ZEN” of sketching, or sketching as non-action. Relaying to us how the absorptive meditative state of personal expression and self-insight is something that can be taught. Lucien stated, that sketching and art, do not “encompass virtuosity and talent, but commitment and dedication.”
Geometry was explored under the instruction of Jonathan Horning and Jon Allen.
Jonathan Horning, author of Simple Shelters: Tents, Tipis, Domes and Other Ancient Homes, opened up the world of platonic solids and of geodesy, the science of measuring the world. Through the use of thin wood sticks and impact glue, we were able to experiment with the 3D forms that 2D patterns would take.
Jon Allen, author of Drawing Geometry and Making Geometry: Exploring Three Dimensional Forms, instructed the program on elements of sacred geometry, along with arches and window tracery.
Week 2: Craft Week
Pargetting, as described by instructor Johanna Welsh, a third generation pargetter, is “the layman’s renaissance plaster.” The free-hand wall covering has been used in the United Kingdom since Saxon times. It was King Henry IIX, who brought word of the craft back from travels to France and Italy. The practice however, originates from a lime based plaster used by sculptors in Jordan, circa 7,200BC. The practice spread geographically and was popularized due to the basic human need to ornament. Often the art is associated with Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean movements. Predominantly, it is incised work or relief work. Molds, are made and used in situ, or more frequently as benchwork before application. Tools known to the craft are most often constructed from once common household items, such as bucket handles or nails. One such tool, constructed from the base of a brush and horse shoe nails, produces a herringbone pattern when dragged. “Scrim”, is a mesh fabric used to bridge gaps, avoid cracking, and to help with the running of beads when using a jig. Other materials used included silica and latex mixes, for capturing existing molds that need replication. For our purposes we were supplied with a with a surface of riven lath, and then applied in three coats; a scratch, float, and top coat.
Thatching, with instructors Alan Jones and Dafydd Driver, of Pembroke Thatch and Carpentry Services, focused on tradition and sustainability. Materials for thatching include water reed or ‘long” straw wheat, a tapping tool, spares, steel bonds, and wood bonds.
The use of water read was explored through heather thatch, a material often aided with cobb for additional wind-proofing when applied in an area with extreme weather. However, heather itself, while not as water-proof as the “long” straw wheat, is strong due to the environmental conditions in which it grows.
The ‘long’ straw wheat is harvested and dried and flailed to produce grain. So, essentially, the straw used by Allen is a by-product of food production. During the course with Allen, we actually produced flour using mill stones.
This straw is also used to produce rope, for holding down opposite ends of the straw that is bent over the peak for a water deflecting ridge. Other options observed for capping the ridge of a thatched roof include weighted ridges, shingled ridges, flashed ridges, and green-roof ridges made of Gorse, a type of shrub.
The ‘tapping tool” is crucial, and used to set aggregation or a bevel, while spares, are essentially large wood bobby-pins.
Thatching is a gutter-less system, producing an overhang of anywhere from 45- 90 degrees at a 3 to 4 foot depth.
Additionally studied, was slating; done by hand, and applied nearly at random with diminished courses on wood lath.
Plaster — I wonder when, if ever, the excitement of running a mould fades.
For our purposes, we used a Mortar mix of about three parts sand to one part lime putty. The first coat, is a scratch coat. The application of which, can be referred to as “cricking up”, as it utilizes a wooden lath scratcher in diagonal movements to properly key-in. The second coat, employs the devil’s float, an ordinary float with nails jutting out from the ordinarily smooth bottom.
A profile for the mold is traced onto plywood known as the “muffle”, which is then cut out and screwed onto the Running Mould for running the cornice.
The plaster mixture was Sand + Lime, 25% gypsum, and 25% water.
Stone carving, with tutor, Jonny Anderson, began with a rough cut block of limestone. Then, over the course of the day, we dressed our stones and produced relief work, lettering, and engraving.
Week 3: Design Week
The Brief — Design a weather shelter for visitors to the estate, using traditional materials and construction.
The Client — The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust.
Stage 1 — Six groups proposed a design.
Stage 2 — Three groups were chosen to continue. The bottom three groups were consolidated into the surviving groups, to assist in the post-critique development.
Stage 3 — One winner was chosen.
During this week I had the privilege to work with two very talented groups.
Group 1: The Shelter
A single doric column, constructed of wood, mimics the repetition of lime trees, processing evenly, on either side of the proposed structure. Cobb walls, rendered in lime, take a square form at first encounter. However, upon entrance, the cobb composes a curved space. The timber framed roof, dressed with slate, is completed with a wood spire. This contrast of formal and organic, is one that The Shelter embraces, as it is the language of the setting. The proposed site, features rich layers of farming culture and a working community. All while in proximity to the Georgian-Palladian grandeur of the Dumfries House and its historic context.
This cultural setting is dually acknowledged through the proposed stained glass windows. The glass motifs exhibit scenes from the surrounding area, which will be potentially shrouded by familiar Scottish fogs, and the eventual growth of the presently young lime trees. Illustrated, are the gently sloping hills and meandering property lines of neighboring farms. Celebrated, is the relationship of a farmer to his or her animals.
Group 2: The Shell
The design of “The Shell”, was very grounded in the physical landscape. Appearing to rise from the ground from which it came, its dry stone walls wrap about a timber framed structure and adjacent tree in a combined effort to invite and shelter visitors. As the climbing wall tucks under the expanding overhang of the slate roof, the floor simultaneously sets off into a spiral of red and blonde stone. A pattern reflected in the spoke like system of timbers which comprise the roof.
The proposed stained glass windows feature the heraldic flowers of the United Kingdom; the shamrock of Northern Ireland, the Scottish thistle, England’s tutor rose, and the daffodil of Wales.
The experience I had with the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building Summer School, is one that will only continue to prove it’s impact.
I find myself now back at Willowbank, with drawing charcoal tucked into my pocket and an even greater appreciation for my seat in this classroom.