Dis-ordinary architecture: A visionary course

Outside In artist Clarke Reynolds shares his experience of a pilot course at the Bartlett school of architecture London, the aim of it being to explore the idea that visually impaired people can become architects and designers.

Day 1. Arrived at the building which is situated in Euston London for a week long intense course pushing the boundaries of design with visually impaired people of all different backgrounds. One was a joiner, another a journalist, some creative writers, podcasters and artists all with the same goal to learn and have fun.

What I noticed about the interior itself was the striking Esher-esque staircase which, for a visually impaired person, played around with shapes and angles as the underside was lit and made it look like the staircase was eating itself not knowing which way was up or down.
We were split into two groups, one group was working with a blind architect from California called Chris Downey and my group the making group was working with a visually impaired product and furniture designer from Tasmania called Duncan Meerding. We discussed what the week would consist of breaking, it down into modules which consisted of; exploring materials, articulating our findings, visiting the British library and eventually designing and making a box of feelings on our experiences of materials and how we found the space in the British library.

Our first assignment of the course was to visit the Institute of Making. This place was an Aladdin’s cave of every material known to man, little jars filled up with fantastic items like a mad professor’s lab. Shelves and drawers filled to the brim of objects, blobs, shapes of materials in any way possible a collection that spanned 15 years and it was a privilege to spend a couple of hours exploring these materials. Our first task was being given a variety of materials in many shapes and forms these included a cow’s horn, a spoon made of horn, a paintbrush made with human hair and a variety of bells made in different materials from the lightest glass to the heavy steal. Then we played with tuning forks made from different materials, from the traditional metal to the unusual balsa wood, each had its own distinctive sound and frequency when hit correctly.

One of the most interesting things I learnt was different alloy spoons made food taste different for example a copper spoon would make the food taste sweeter and a silver spoon more bitter. We then touched cubes of material that looked very similar but had different density which was very confusing when you lifted an object with the slightest touch then the last one had to be picked up with both hands.

Our next task was to examine our own tray with a game called ‘snog, marry or avoid’ by touching, smelling and articulating our experience of what the material felt like similar to how a relationship works. Mine was copper, cork and a small jar which when smelt I instantly knew it as Vicks. The copper looked more like a quilt at first glance until I touched it and the cork had a surprise imbedded in the bark a selection of corks. I chose the copper to marry as it’s a very versatile and interesting material, the Vicks to snog and the cork to avoid as I’m not much of a drinker. Our final task was to choose any material and write about how it makes you feel, what it looks like and what its purpose is. I did this by poem form and using one descriptive word a very powerful statement about copper in which I would like to turn into a piece of art work in the future. Homework consisted of making a maquette for the upcoming box design and we found out we were going to use proper wood like maple, oak, rosewood – that was a surprise instead of the boring Mdf it means I could get a great finish using wax or stains for later in the project. My idea was to have an interactive box similar to a material study slides you would put under a microscope so the box becomes a collection that can be built up with time like an old Victorian who goes on the grand tour bringing back trinkets of materials in a collection box.

Day two. Our day started and finished at the British library, as it was my first time there. My impression was I’m going to a very old building and to my surprise I was presented with a very modern building situated next to the gothic style St Pancreas station.
Both buildings had that reddish, orange, hue one in Morden brick the other in old masonry I don’t know if the architect had this in mind when designing the building that it married old with new.
The task of the day was first have a mini tour around the building a brief history then meet Richard who would discuss the materials within the library used.
We were handed a scale model of the building and were told that the designer had in mind a ship shape for the main part of the building like a luxury liner. This followed also in the materials used inside and on the exterior with nods to nautical design.


My favourite was the handrails as we entered the building for the first time, the feel of the material was not what you expect from a railing – it was ribbed as if it was pulled rope which connected to brass fittings and we later found out that the brass is not polished as the natural patination of the material becomes a part of the building as the visitors rub away at the rails on the doors and up the stairs. Every detail of the buildings fixtures and fittings were of the highest spec making it durable for the millions of visitors that walked and touched the building.
My favourite thing about the library was it was like an iceberg, the majority of the building is underground in seven floors of secured basement. When you’re in the plaza you’re actually standing on the building and the only evidence there is are over a hundred plaques that are smoke vents in case of a fire, because there’s sensitive materials stored away you can’t have your typical man holes so these plaques indicate a section of the floors so that the fireman can smash their way through the plaque to release the smoke.

When I hit my cane over the square you can hear the difference in volume compared to the solid pavement design next to it. Inside the building was a building in itself which held thousands of old books with their spines facing outward, a work of art which was the centre structure of the library. It reminded me of brown cladding on the sides of modern buildings. Our final task of the day was similar to the material challenge yesterday which was to write about a space you found in the library how it made you feel what can you see or sense.

I was partnered with Fay a print maker as we were both artists we were drawn to the top floor and found the map room which was the quietest place in the library. We weren’t allowed inside but there was a room where the elevators dropped you off and what inspired me was the love of maps and being close to very old manuscripts. The room did house the biggest atlas in the world, a 17th century gift for Charles the 2nd, and I based my writing on how as an explorer who would of used that piece of history – I wish I had more sight to see the detail in the leather work and bindings.

Day three. This was the day we took all the inspiration from the previous two days learning about materials and how they affect spaces and made my box of feelings. As I created the maquette for the box, and had a clear vision of the design, it was now time to put it into practice at the Bartlett school workshop.

We had our own room from which we had workstation each, five designers in a room everyone had a unique point of view – for me we were not there as visually impaired people but as designers and crafts people. We had induction on the large bandsaw as this was going to be the main machine from which we will cut our wood out with. As it was a new way of the technicians teaching visually impaired people they had to think of health and safety so with the help of Duncan they created a jig from which we could handle our box panels using a wood plane to get the 45 degree angle.

The biggest joy was actually using real wood not mdf for a change I chose a dark walnut as I wanted that rich opulent feeling of a Victorian expensive box from which I will put my own twist on. Duncan also introduced us to tools and jigs that help him measure accurately without rulers, these involved a clicking rod that you can feel the millimetres and also these steps which allowed you too space out wood from a saw to be accurate. The craziest one was a talking tape measure which was very new to me and when I measured my wood and put the implement down it carried on talking to me as if it was an assistant.

The day consisted of me choosing my wood, creating a jig for the holes, and for a good four hours it was plaining the 45 degree needed to construct the sides of the box. Eight sides needed to be done which I did complete by end of day ready for drilling the holes in the walls tomorrow. What I learnt today was how supportive the staff were towards people with visual impairment but for me by the end of the day they saw beyond our disability and treated us like designers we are. Which is what this course is about inclusion.

Day four – The last full day of making and I had a list of jobs to do, so I was hoping I would get it done in time and the box be what I envisioned. First job was to drill the holes in the side, this is the most important part of the project as it’s what makes my box work – on two levels – first of all it’s the portals of the exhibits that slide in between the outer and inner box and secondly it’s how I describe to people how I see the world threw dots so the box is part of my artistic practice.

Once this was completed I made sure they were all the right size then glued and clamped them into position. Whilst I was doing this student helper Rachel, from the Mackintosh school of architecture, made me inner box out of ash, this serves two purpose of the box it holds the samples of materials and is a wall so that the materials slide between the two.

The centre box also represents the centre column in the British library that houses the old books. While they were drying it was time to work on the top and bottom using the centre box as a column the lid would be like stopper lining up with the centre of the box as well as the bottom which is lined with the green leather from the British library. Once this was constructed and the boxes dry I used a mechanical disc sander to give both boxes a smooth finish. The inner box made out of ash was lightly stained before glued to base then the outer box was put into position. The lids overhung to give an architectural look about the box and the top was inlaid with a brass motif of my initials. I had one test material – the floor tiles found in the study room in the British library – and hoped I had enough time to make some more for the exhibition the following day.

Day five – The final day, business end of the make, I got down early to finish sanding the lid and bottom getting ready for the linseed oil. Also I wanted some extra tiles for my grand tour box highlights from the workshop so I had a piece of copper which tied into my visit of the institute of making, a green piece of plastic this echoed the green leather from the British library and the final piece was perforated metal similar in design to my holes on my box.

All four materials went well inside my box just as I had envisioned it – a diary of materials each one holding a memory. Once this is done and wiped downed I applied a layer of oil to give it a more antique look, I will be adding to this over the next month to give it more of an aged feeling. Then I took off the masking tape to reveal the brass plaque of my initials. The next stage was to be evaluated by guest architects and Chris the blind architect from California. So I placed out my final box maquette jigs and the paper work I had done during the week then, as they came to me, I spoke about my idea of the grand tour why I chose the materials and how I wanted people to interact with the box. It went well and the feedback was positive and had a suggestion from Chris of how he feels things with the lower part of his finger not his tip so I will keep that in mind for future projects. After the evaluation it was time to talk about the week informally and I said I that the week was more enjoyable and satisfying then my entire term at uni this was because I was with my peers learning from them as well as inspiring them. Here are the photos of their boxes, Daniel, Poppy, Faye and Vinell created.

Daniel was inspired by the soft and hard surfaces so he played around with shape like aero design with a view finder. Faye bought back a piece of drift wood from Canada and hollowed it out to create a vessel she then made a small box in which she will make small prints based on her week. Poppy made a small square that is weighty as inside is a metal frame filled with bits of spoon and slides with shapes etched on from what she saw at the British library and Vinell was inspired by her chaos poem of her space in the library so her box was octagon with inverted lid in which she put a hole with a light to play with shadows with lattice over the top. These people were amazing we were a great group that bounced around ideas with the workshop leaders as well as Duncan.

2 Comments about this

  1. Fae

    A brilliant overview of our wonderful week at the Bartlett School of Architecture.
    It was a pleasure spending the week with such creative people. I look forward to seeing what everyone does in the future

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  2. Alan Penn

    Thanks. A really comprehensive account. Any advice on things to do or not do to improve the course would be appreciated

    Reply moderated

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