Studio in 'Isle of Wight' Woods

26 July 2010

This year’s Studio in the Woods upheld its yearly outdoor tradition of enacting intellectual debate with chainsaws.

Over a scorching long weekend, the architectural utopia of Studio in the Woods existed fleetingly and safely at one remove from reality in the hills and valleys of the Isle of Wight. Organised this year for the first time by the new Isle of Wight Architecture Centre (IOWAC), the event continues the format started by Bath based Mitchell Taylor Workshop in 2006. A family farm of several hundred acres provided the setting, a strip of land meandering up through a sheltered valley flanked by ancient woodland to wide grassy uplands of rolling hills with panoramic views over most of the island.

All the refinements of latter-day festivals supported the efforts of some 70 students and tutors organised into five teams. Working up through the valley section, two barns were used for lectures, presentations and (surprisingly fine) dining. A “loo-city” of prefabricated shower and compost WC towers designed by Matthew Dalziel and Neil Evensen provided “glamping” class facilities. The busy mobile saw-mill converted island-grown Corsican pine trunks into construction materials and a thick carpet of sawdust.

This exemplifies the ambition of IOWAC to encourage a stronger local culture of architecture using the resources at hand as an alternative to importing materials from the mainland. The timber was sourced by Natural Enterprise, an organisation set up to foster productive links between environmental and economic initiatives on the island.

It was impressive to see how much can be achieved in two days with no bureaucracy. As such collaborations suggest, this was far from being just a bunch of hippies waving chainsaws in the woods, the event proved to be a concentrated learning experience in debating and evolving ideas and of collectively hammering together the results. It was impressive to see how much can be achieved in little more than two days by teams of a dozen people with no bureaucracy or paperwork involved – apart from the obligatory health and safety lecture.

Two evenings of lectures broadened the frame of reference beyond the folksy and included a presentation by AA tutor Shin Egashira, who made compelling use of film to describe his constructions.

According to effusive visiting critic and speaker Ted Cullinan, projects were graded on the “testosterone scale” of tonnage of wood shifted. Piers Taylor and Meredith Bowles scored highly with their enclosed box truss cantilevering impressively from a supporting tree to lift visitors into the space below the forest canopy. Newcomers Studio Weave erected a hill-top fire beacon on the axis of the valley that perfectly smoked all those who helped to build it.

The landscape held all of these projects, apart from the tree-house, within sight of each other in the same way as the fantasy rural idyll of 18th century landscape garden Stourhead. Familiar themes of environmental and land-art informed Toby Lewis’s finely detailed land pier, built as a measure of the landscape and an individual’s perception of it. Erect Architecture exploited the material character of thinly sliced green timber with a hill-side construction curled up like a giant wood shaving. The team, headed up by Gianni Botsford and Kate Darby, used mirrors to reflect spots of light on a nearby chalk escarpment at specific times of the day, the perfect alibi for some dynamic and elegant form-making.

A one-day children’s workshop was held in parallel to investigate the mythical origins of architecture, fairy houses and woodland dens. At this point it was time to return to the city and resist the urge to move in permanently to become a rambling picturesque hermit.

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