ET IN ARCADIA EGO
In the middle of the English countryside, there is a peculiar farm, where architecture in its various forms is at centre stage. Recently, a sauna by Tuomas Toivonen has also been incorporated into the routine of the farm.
I had been here before. Boarding the train at Waterloo Station was always done running. During the one-and-a-half-hour westbound train ride, the landscape changes from flat London suburbs to broad rolling hills. On one of them, although not quite visible from the train, the ancient tectonics of Stonehenge mark the landscape. Sometime after Salisbury, the hills start getting smaller, the valleys steeper. The roads that meander along the valleys are at times framed by high hedges, at times by trees bending above the roads, turning them into green, vaulted cloisters. Here, in Somerset, along one of these roads, on the slope of one of the many small valleys, now stands a new sauna.
Part of Shatwell Farm, it joins an extraordinary constellation of architectural projects – a farmer’s cottage turned weekend house by Charlotte Skene Catling, a shipping container turned library by Cedric Price, and an obelisk conceived by Peter Smithson, standing in the middle of the meadow, framed by the monumental porticoes of two sheds designed by Stephen Taylor. One of them houses cows and the other furniture, at least the last time I checked, but you can never be sure. The parking lot is marked by three large, yellow concrete columns by Álvaro Siza. Another building within a building, under construction for years but nearing completion, is a kind of hanging gardens by Andrew Clancy and Colm Moore, originally imagined as a private residence but re-thought during the process as a storage, education and multipurpose space inside an old standard shed structure.
Part of the beauty of the place is undoubtedly related to this type of open-endedness. You never know what might happen in between visits. The farm is in constant flux, like an experiment, constantly adjusting, unafraid of false starts, retracing steps or changing plans, open to whimsical ideas, constantly searching. At the heart of it all, hidden behind yet another old, venerable wall of a ruined shed, is the archive and office designed by Hugh Strange. Here, inside the warm wooden envelope of CLT elements that make up the whole structure, is kept a great and wonderful collection of architectural drawings, as the curator of which I once had the privilege of working with.
This remarkable collection of some thousands of architectural drawings from the Renaissance to our days, together with the whole farmyard, are the creation of collector Niall Hobhouse. The archive and the operations around it – entitled Drawing Matter – are the heart of the farmyard. The ambition of the project is to explore drawing as a medium that makes architecture. Its many activities comprise a website, print publications, educational initiatives, summer schools, academic collaborations and, at least when I was still working there, exhibitions. Questioning the boundaries of drawing as a practice, the project extends beyond: there are also models, of course, the obelisk, the columns, fragments, stored for times to come, to be looked at, shown, perhaps even used. A large piece of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate facade designed by the Smithsons is tucked away next to the carcass of a pavilion that once stood as a temporary monument to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, conceived for Bloomsbury Square by Alexander Brodsky and myself.
And, of course, there are all the buildings, all joint in constant movement. Visitors come and go. Hundreds of students visit every year with their tutors, some spend here a week for a summer school; researchers, curators and other odd visitors spend longer or shorter times as guests on the premises. Work with the collection and the actual drawings is the key to this place, where looking becomes a labour but also a dance, with a rhythm attached to it.
With the collections of drawings, objects, fragments, buildings, and the many routines that revolve around them as part of the regular life of the farmyard – cataloguing, conservation, photographing, hosting and entertaining guests, but also feeding the cows – the whole place acts as a kind of experimental farm for cultivating architecture, where open inquiry takes many forms from building to drawing, from keeping to showing. Here, the routines of life and study are closely related to those of the inquiry, just as drawing is related to building. I literally lived with the drawings when I was working on an exhibition, and my senior colleague, Nicholas, slept upstairs. The two aspects of the wider project – drawings and buildings – support each other, complementing or revealing the nature and short-comings of one another. It is here, where one can see architecture as it happens as a poetic process, in drawings and on the grounds, the two sometimes unexpectedly coming together. One morning I remember waking up to the sound of diggers only to see my colleague Manuel running around the grounds with a blue spray can in his hands and a digger on his tail. He was literally drawing on the gravel as he went, marking the future contours of the landscape directly on the spot. The sauna, too, was conceived by looking and by visiting. First, from Somerset to Helsinki, then the other way around. During the first visit in the country, we spent the night looking at drawings, as usual. In the morning, Tuomas and Niall walked along the hill and marked the corner of the sauna. A site plan was never made.
Over the next visit, a year later, we once again had to run to catch the train. As the car turned into the yard a couple of hours later, a new wooden chimney greeted us on the slope of the hill. Hours later, it was pushing smoke to the sky, and in two days’ time the first steam was poured, in the presence of some two dozen invited guests, as per usual. The sauna is now the first sight to anyone who arrives, doubling as a tower marking the place, forming another high vertical on the site, a balancing act to the Smithson obelisk some fifty meters down in the valley.
The sauna fits the site well, in many ways. In the farmyard where drawings meet cows and labour meets dance, the sauna follows suit by constituting a space in which the ordinary meets the sublime and body meets spirit. Its shape and logic are classical and modern at the same time – the roof simply follows the logic of its function, while the form also joins a tradition of classical architecture returning to basic solids. Hundreds of drawings for both types of structures can be found in the neighbouring archive. This sauna, as the farmyard surrounding it, is an unconventional exploration of the boundaries of its format, an experimental sauna for an experimental farm. It pushes the accustomed definitions, based on research and understanding, but ultimately trusting intuition more than calculation.
Now, a year later, the owner tells me that the sauna has also become part of the routine of the farm. Every Wednesday afternoon, he leaves the archive to heat it. Alive with the rest of the operation, it also reminds us that architecture is ultimately about something more than drawings or buildings. It is perhaps, above all, about the life that it conditions. ↙
Curator and historian of art and architecture, working on his PhD at ETH Zurich. He worked as the curator of Drawing Matter in 2014–2016. His latest exhibition was Planetarium: Oleg Kudryashov and Peter Märkli presented by Alexander Brodsky (gta Exhibitions, 2019). He is a co-organizer of New Academy in Helsinki.