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OSA REVIEW: Sarah Wigglesworth, OxArch Resilience Lecture

Sara Wigglesworth has long been acknowledged as an influential figure in British architecture. This semester she was a guest lecturer in the OxArch’s Resilience series and revealed the main guiding principles behind the award-winning work of her practice.

Stock Orchard Street

Credit: Sarah WIgglesworth Architects

Sarah Wigglesworth’s lecture was the first in the Resilience series from a female-led architectural firm – an observation that was brought up during the question session after the lecture, along with the wider disparity between the number of leading firms run by men and those run by women. Wigglesworth commented that it was ‘obvious’ that her female nature, as well as her political views, have influenced her architecture. And indeed, the substance of the lecture was very different to those we had seen before in the series.

Wigglesworth started out by referencing the seven aspects that feed into her projects - sustainability, identity, the everyday, collaboration, occupants, landscape, and innovation. As she began moving through projects that displayed each of these aspects, it struck me that all of them involved people. With every projects, I could sense an overwhelming concern for the people related to the design.


“The seven aspects that feed into Sarah Wigglesworth's projects: sustainability,

identity, the everyday, collaboration, occupants, landscape, and innovation.”


In regards to the first aspect, sustainability, Wigglesworth explained that she views it as a way to generate new ways of life. This was demonstrated in the Scotswood Housing project, which was designed as a replacement for terraced housing. Various iterations of terraced houses with associated mews housing provided adaptability to different periods of life - and therefore resilience to the changes of time. By providing houses that do not need rapid replacement, embodied carbon in the built environment over time is reduced; which is a passive and effective way to mitigate climate change.


“Wigglesworth explained that she views [sustainability] as a way to generate

new ways of life.”


Wigglesworth followed that by speaking about identity in terms of understanding. The occupants that she designed for in her Sandal Magna Primary School were a unique community, comprised largely of Pakistani immigrants and their children. She spoke with great sensitivity of the mothers who can barely speak English and are not allowed to leave their homes alone, other than to visit the school. As part of the design, she was asked to include a space for them to receive help and support at the school, which became a key aspect of the design.

Wigglesworth also demonstrated a great level of understanding of the small children for whom the scheme was designed. Their lives in terraced houses with front and back streets created a morphology for the school that the children would feel comfortable in.

Sandal Magna Primary School

Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

One of the designs that Wigglesworth is most famous for is Stock Orchard Street, her home, and her related drawing of a chaotic dining table. The dining table was important to her in terms of how architecture could facilitate the joys of the everyday. Her table became a shared space between home and work, where she ate and where she met with clients. It became the focus of the building, the join between the two aspects of her life, and she designed Stock Orchard Street to encapsulate the pieces of life that emerged from that focus.

Increasing disorder on a dining table from The Everyday and Architecture (Wigglesworth, S.)

Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till via Edible Geography

Collaboration was a very interesting topic. During this section of the lecture, Wigglesworth spoke about how to convey ideas to clients who could not read architectural drawings. An appropriate approach to this was the creation of collages filled with emotional depth – which then gave them a base for discussion. This led to the design of the Siobhan Davies Dance Studios, which the client was so pleased with that she choreographed a dance to celebrate the completion of the building.

Occupants were of the highest importance during the Dwell project for the elderly. Wigglesworth spoke of a long period of community engagement, visiting existing retirement homes and critiquing them with the help of people at the stage of their lives where they will soon need to move into a similar institution. Questions were asked such as ‘What would you take with you from home?’ that began a conversation which could lead to a design.

Shell Cove

Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Even in terms of landscape, the lives of the occupants seemed to show through. With Shell Cove’s over 55s housing project, Wigglesworth mentioned the concept of buildings as boulders rising from the cliffs as part of the landscape. Along that the theme of the elderly’s needs still came through - with accessible, flexible housing designed to keep people in their homes for as long as possible.

So far, the emphasis of the lecture had been on a very sensitive, thoughtful approach to design, but in the innovation section Wigglesworth showed that this approach did not need to be quiet or subdued. Returning to Stock Orchard House, she showed us how, through designing a new cladding systems, she pushed the boundary of what architecture could be.

New types of cladding at Stock Orchard Street

Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

I was thoroughly inspired by Sarah Wigglesworth’s lecture. She brought to us the idea that architecture that is carefully designed with people in mind, in a perhaps feminine way, can also be revolutionary. That, I think, is an important message to remember.

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