Laying the foundations of the ‘Humane Architecture’ programme at the University of Plymouth

I am attaching another section of the piece I wrote about Henryk Skolimowski’s influence on my work.  In this section I am describing the early days of the ‘Humane Architecture’ programme that I created at the University of Plymouth, School of Architecture.  The photographs are of Henryk and his wife Juanita on one of the occasions they visited the school, and some of the student work that was done on the programme.  The ideas developed in the ‘Humane Architecture’ programme went on to influence the philosophy of my architectural practice.

“………………….In the programme I defined ‘Humane Architecture’ as …. “architecture that displays a reverence for life and the environment.”  Those of you familiar with Henryk Skolimowski’s work will recognise immediately that I had borrowed the word ‘reverence’ from his writing.  I loved the way that he had made this transfer of language across disciplines thereby bringing spiritual values into the secular world without talking about spiritual issues per se.  Henryk’s way of describing the world as a ‘sanctuary’, similarly flavours the discussion; moving it out of a purely scientific ecology into a more spiritually responsible position.  In structuring the new programme Henryk’s work was to feature highly.  Somehow I had managed to incorporate a module entitled ‘Architecture and Self-Awareness’, into the programme and yet another called ‘Eco-philosophy,’ the latter directly designed to address Henryk’s philosophical works.  It proved a popular module and underpinned the work in other parts of the course, the ideas about ‘eco-philosophy’ and ‘participatory mind’ were challenging yet accessible to the students.  We read his books together, ran seminars and wrote lengthy essays about them.  The students were quick to appreciate the ideas and started to learn how to make connections between the philosophical ideas and architecture.  His words gave us a way of making distinctions between humane and inhumane buildings.  The manner by which Henryk had expressed his thoughts presented us with a way to articulate our views about architecture.  Many seeds were planted at this time and many students took an extended responsibility back into the world with them when they left the school.

Henryk with Juanita in Student Review  Henryk with Juanita and Mike Westly on Bodmin

The design studio that ran in parallel with the theoretical modules encouraged the students to apply the humane principles to their own design work; we called it the ‘Zen Studio’.  The ‘Humane Architecture’ programme placed strong emphasis on the tactile and experiential dimensions of architecture which contrasted with the conceptual approach that the old architecture maintained.  Henryk’s philosophy was making the same distinction, condemning the objective and detached view of the world in favour of a committed engagement with it.  Strange as it may seem, the old architecture that to a large extent is still the dominant architecture of today, is more concerned with the idea of the building than with the experience of the building.  For these architects, buildings are seen as pure form uncompromised by the context or even the environment.  The drawings used to represent this sort of architecture will generally speak of those values.  For example they will often be drawn from above in a bird’s eye perspective.  Such drawings detach the building from its experienced context as seen from street level and they will usually be rendered with ethereal finishes that do not define the materials.  People will not normally be displayed on the drawings and few furnishings that indicate use will be shown.  Within this old architecture the face of a building will be seen as a conceptual surface, as such it is its qualities as a concept that are important rather than the materials from which it is made.  As a concept, a surface is there to make a division in absolute space, in its most pure form it extends to infinity and has no need of depth or texture.  For these reasons glass, the immaterial material is often the chosen material for a surface or if it must be opaque, it will be detailed without reveals, overhangs, drips or junctions so that its conceptual reality is not disturbed.  Of course the omission of these construction details leads to the failure of the surface.  There is no such thing as a pure surface, no material can deliver it, all materials must show their age which is why so much of the old architecture ages so badly and after a few years looks like the aged Hollywood star a few months after plastic surgery. 

In contrast with the conceptual approach of the old architecture the application of ‘Humane Architecture’ principles generated projects that celebrated both the formal and conceptual clarity of a design and the building’s materiality.  We encouraged students to make parts of their buildings in the workshop; we even ran projects in which the students made pieces of furniture; very small architecture.   Such projects were purposely chosen to put attention onto the materials and the making of the artefact.  In these projects the students were quick to pick up on Henryk’s concept of frugality to save money within their meagre budgets and would build their tables out of drift wood or recycled found materials.  The projects were so experiential and tactile that by the end of a day in the workshops the students would be physically tired.  I quietly used to take delight in their exhaustion because it pointed so clearly to the fact that they were using their bodies as well as their minds to create their architecture; a feature so different to the one-sided conceptual approach adopted in many schools of architecture.  Such small scale architecture became a characteristic of our work.  The smallness presented an opportunity for the highest attention to be applied to the work.  ‘Care’, became one of the watch words of the ‘Zen Studio’.  By applying care to every act, raised our level of awareness of the work we were doing and such a raising of awareness lifted our own levels of consciousness and seemed to be a way of introducing the spiritual back into architecture. 

Student Furniture Project  Student Water colour of Beasdale School Lib

The students thrived in this environment when they were given the opportunity in Henryk’s words to engage in a ‘Quest for Quality’.  They loved the opportunity to get close to their task and in the process made some really beautiful pieces of work.  Other projects were run with similar intentions, we had the students make measured drawings of some of the best Arts and Crafts buildings that we have in Britain.  These drawings had to be drawn with the utmost care, each student taking just one part of the building.  The drawings were then rendered in watercolour.  We introduced this request because it slowed down the drawing process and contrasted greatly with the instant drawings that at other times they were making on computers.  The students were shown how to stretch watercolour paper on a board and then over a number of days or weeks shown how to build up layers of colour in the painting.  The process again had the effect of introducing care and physicality into the work but also allowed time to be folded into the painting.  This was such an effective technique that it generated some very beautiful pieces of work. 

The shorthand distinctions that I have been making here between the conceptual and the experiential which loosely paralleled Henryk’s contrast between objective detachment and a committed engagement with life can be taken much deeper.  ……………..”

Marcus Toop, John Pace, Mike Westly and others on Bodmin  Henryk and Group from above on Bodmin

Part of the student group on Bodmin Moor: Marcus Toop, John Pace, with Henryk and Juanita Skolimowski, Flora Samuel, Mike Westley and Frank Lyons

 Silent Lion

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