2021-22: Prototypes for an Afterlife

Tutors: Farlie Reynolds and Greg Storrar

“Better a crutch than a lost limb”

– John Ruskin

As we rally to redress the climate crisis and rethink the very fundamentals of the way we live our lives, our collective gaze slowly shifts towards different visions of the world to come. Constructs of an afterlife have meant many things to many people; consider King Tut’s Sarcophagus, Marguerite Humeau’s Echoes, or David Eagleman’s Sum. Today we look beyond immaterial concepts of identity and consciousness, our material bodies and the objects we choose to take with us, recognising the importance of what we leave behind. Take the inanimate artefacts we swaddle ourselves with daily – our devices, clothes, combine harvesters and homes – what of their Afterlife?

Oh when it all, it all falls down

Every ten minutes a building in the UK is demolished. Our architectures are mortal; eternal sufferers of the relentless laws of gravity, destructive weather, disobedient tenants, and the metronomic wrecking ball of the architectural press. Wiping the slate clean can be an aggressive act of social, cultural and material erasure. But to retain in some capacity – to lease new life – requires embrace and interface with awkward or inconvenient fragments and memories.

The adaptation of existing buildings can influence architecture far beyond the humble practice of renovation and repair; take Chipperfield’s Neues Museum, Matta-Clarke’s Conical Intersect, Heatherwick’s MOCAA, or Fehn’s Hedmark Museum. Despite these exemplars, we continue to demolish in widespread acts of reckless abandon, and in spite of the now widely recognised environmental benefits and creative opportunities of adaptive reuse.

This year Unit 8 will explore the opportunities, idiosyncrasies and curiosities inherent in the working and re-working of that which has had a previous life. Whether it be an infrastructure, landscape, building, or artefact, we will experiment with new materials, processes and technologies to conjure surprising architectures of reinvention.

Project 1: The Flimwell Prototypes

Any radical act of retention, resurrection or reincarnation requires prototyping. While a model might test how something looks, a prototype tests how it works (or, more commonly) – how it fails. Physical and digital prototypes bridge the state of limbo between the assumed and the discovered, between the drawn and the made. Oscillating between the rough-cut and the finessed, a prototype provokes greater understanding of the intrinsic qualities of materials and the tools required to work with them. 

In the first term we will develop our own prototypes, speculating upon how and why materials might adopt new uses and meaning in subsequent lives. These will be sited in Flimwell Park, a woodland workshop and creative laboratory in the High Weald. The project will be structured around research visits and short-term residencies here, continuing the unit’s collaboration with the park that began in 2019. We will have access to the site’s workshops, assembly spaces, accommodation, and the vast woodland landscape that surrounds it all.

In the rugged landscapes of Flimwell’s ancient woodlands and waterways we will deploy our prototypes. Each will be an exquisitely crafted physical or digital construction that teases new form or performance from a pre-existing protagonist — object, map, photograph, memory, landscape. With eyes in our fingertips, we will let the (mis)behaviour of materials and tools guide the creative process of reinvention: timber’s grain, steel’s ferocity, film’s frame rate, the toolpath’s glitch, a computer vision’s blindspot… And when our reincarnations have been enacted, each afterlife will be recorded meticulously through drawing, photography and film.

We will learn from the prototyping of others, like Thwaites’ Toaster Project, a painstaking DIY attempt to build a simple household appliance, beginning with the extraction of iron ore; Van Bakel’s Tarim Machine, a vehicle powered by day-night temperature change that will reach its destination in 30 million years; and Burry’s architectural interpolation of the Sagrada Familia using original scale mock-ups (image below). We too will treat our prototypes as a process rather than a product, a model for organising ideas in multiple ways, without fear of failure. Finding opportunity in alternative materialities and materialisations, we will embrace first principles, bring together the digital and the analogue, see-saw between intuition and precision, misuse technologies, and prototype over and over again.

Fieldtrip: From Head to Toe

On our field trip we will navigate the lesser trodden routes through England north to south, from the industrial heartlands of The Peak District to the agricultural landscapes of Somerset, identifying the sites of our building projects along the way. On our journey we will visit prehistoric gorges, quarries, mines, mills, forges, workshops and laboratories, educating ourselves in both traditional and cutting-edge materials and crafts. We will tour David Mellor’s metalsmiths, Frei Otto’s Prototype House and Workshop, Peter and Margaret Aldington’s Turn End, and many unique vernaculars in between. We will conclude with Shatwell Farm, where we will immerse ourselves in the Drawing Matter archive and works by Cedric Price and Alison & Peter Smithson.

Unit Methodology

Interested in material, structural, and spatial experimentation at a range of scales, Unit 8 champions innovative architectural strategies that boldly address the environmental challenges of our time. Welcoming the brave and the curious, we nurture a testing-led methodology in a safe space in which you are not expected to play safe. The use of digital and/or physical fabrication techniques underpin our working methods, though no previous experience is necessary.

We foster a shared learning environment where design autonomy and collaboration are encouraged in equal measure. Our experienced technical and digital tutors Steve Johnson and Tom Budd will once again be supporting us, alongside environmental design specialist Seb Lomas. Together we focus on developing the tools and skills required to generate, communicate and construct architecture in practice. Weekly design tutorials are supported by classes in visual communication, digital drafting, rendering, photography, film-making, fabrication, simulation and portfolio curation. Talks, studio visits and hands-on workshops with scientists, foresters, ecologists, architects, artists, makers and past students will also take place throughout the year.

Communicated clearly and seductively, our work equips us for both the student portfolio and for practice beyond the walls of the school. These working methods will enable us to move fluidly between the analogue and the digital, the technical and the psychological, the remote and the real, to develop a well-judged selective sharpness in these blurry times.


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