OSA REVIEW: Wright and Wright, OxArch Talk

Partner Stephen Smith delivers a meticulous lecture on meticulous architecture: driven by details, centred on context.

Magdalene College Library, Oxford (2016)

The reaction to this lecture probably divided its audience into two camps - those who appreciate joinery markups appearing in a presentation and those who prefer to skip over the blow-by-blow match analyses. Interpreting he theme of Emergence as the process by which “things become visible after being concealed”, Smith gave an in-depth commentary on the events of four projects that influenced their emergence beyond concept and alluring visualisations to built reality.

It's clear from the outset that Smith is a traditionalist when it comes to architectural practice; in an age where every business must have its innovative unique selling point, this approach is surprisingly refreshing. Starting with examples of student work from his studio at Cambridge University, he lauded the tactility of “non-computer generated” collages and models (clearly photoshopped, but in fairness, not rendered) and went on to attribute a successful competition bid for the Royal Academy of Engineering to an evocative handmade model. “It's worth doing them” he assured any Rhino-worshipers present. On home turf with an audience of drawing-literate architects, he talked through the clear, practical logic of Wright and Wright’s design for Magdalen College Library by waving a mouse cursor across a series of naked plans and sections. It was a gentle reminder that all built architecture transpires from simple black lines and grey hatch.

“For all the has been - Thanks. For all that will be, Yes!”

Smith clearly sees process as integral to design, favouring the construction phase as an opportunity to “relish and enjoy making the project”. The proportion of the talk dedicated to research, design and construction was probably reflective of the amount of time an architectural practice actually spends on each phase; unglamourous aspects such as ventilation, noise attenuation and stone quarrying were included in the discussion as each clearly had a significant impact on the design outcome. Whilst recounting the progress on the design for St John’s College Library, he also deviated from the practice portfolio to present the expressive sketches of two artists, Kirsty Brookes and Susanna Heron, who were commissioned to create installations for the new building. Here, there was a clear appreciation for the artists’ iterative design process and meticulous craftwork, with Heron fabricating a colour-coded mdf template for every block in a tall stone facade, pouring water over the wood to find nooks of sitting water and filing it away.

Smith’s definition of emergence rings true with experience in practice: whilst studio projects tend to have a “research phase” in which the context is understood and analysed with appropriate diagrams, real construction projects have a habit of throwing up spanners. During excavation for the library at Magdalen College, an old cemetery along with a hundred bodies was uncovered in a corner of the site, forcing the design to change to become more compact and efficient. This attitude of embracing the context, whatever its challenges, was neatly captured in his last photo - a quote from Dag Hammarskjöld, chosen by the headmaster of Newlands School, engraved on a plaque adorning the parapet walls of their new building to commermorate the topping out ceremony: “For all that has been - Thanks. For all that will be, Yes!”.

Overall, the lecture provided a detailed overview into the life as an architect in all its technical glory, and it's something that shouldn’t be concealed from emerging architecture students. From the writer’s own experience (that is, a mere two years), tech exercises become less of a chore when you can see your drawings being constructed in 1:1, where the line between clunky and refined becomes quite apparent and is sometimes millimeters apart.

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