Lighting out Cluster's back country

W&D gridshell
W&D gridshell (Katherine Rose)

Only connect - By weaving together a set of invisible connections, the Cluster exhibition draws two supersize Sussex gridshells into the basketmakers' smaller scales, alongside land artists sculpting the Downlands and engineers re-versioning Sweet Chestnut into renewable materials

This summer marks a decade since the opening of two contemporary timber buildings; the Weald & Downland Open Air museum (W&DOAM) gridshell and the Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre ribbed gridshell (FWEC)), at their respective edges of East and West Sussex. Over these last ten years both buildings have been influential in different if complementary ways. The Weald & Downland Downland is a building which defies conventional architectural categories, formed from a lattice weave of criss-crossing lathes extending up to a hundred metres in length, the whole evoking more than its parts, and embodying in its structure past, present and future. The light-weight timber structure, which involved computer based engineering modelling alongside the physical, tacit skills of carpentry, is both wall and roof in one. The result of this hi-tech and hands-on hybrid is the W&DOAM’s diamond like latticed grid slotting into position to provide an ultra strong structural skeleton for holding the building’s body in place. Used for rural and historical building workshops, the gridshell embodies those skills of the past, while offering a vision of what possible rural futures could yet hold. And for those looking for architectural examples of the marriage between hi-tech and hands-on the W&DOAM building is hard to improve on.

Flimwell gridshell
Flimwell gridshell (FCB Studios)
Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre’s inaugural building is less known compared to its West Sussex sibling, although its influence since 2002 has been no less significant. The building emerged out of a realisation that the traditional uses of coppiced sweet chestnut in agriculture and the Kent Hop yards across the South East were disappearing. Prolific across the Weald and into Kent, new uses for chestnut as a building material were intensively researched and tested. From this research, techniques were developed so that small pieces of chestnut could be glued or “finger-jointed” together to form longer and larger pieces of engineered wood. The materials were then liberally applied to the design of the first, phase one, Flimwell building, a large office and meetings centre, designed by architects FeildenCleggBradley. In the years since the research was undertaken the Woodland Centre has gone from strength to strength, growing as a regional centre for wood expertise in today’s South Eastern building culture, as well as other sustainable uses. The low-grade chestnut material pioneered at the Woodland Centre has been turned into various types of building materials, and it is this engineered chestnut ,  which forms the material backdrop to the Cluster exhibition. At Flimwell’s wooded site a decade later, there are also several new buildings completed, which explore further the potential of local species as a construction material.

The two buildings also anticipated a new wave of early twenty-first century British timber architecture, which was just beginning to emerge at the turn of the century. The W&DOAM gridshell is a luminous early exemplar, while the Flimwell phase one building is at the heart of this Sussex-wide development of local wood for use in the building sector. Each was born out of the same experimental period in timber’s return as a credible contemporary building material, each provides bridges between the past and future, and each highlights the possibilities of the rural, of local cultures, and their on-the-doorstep, locally sourced materials. For many it comes as something of a surprise that the South-East (Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Hampshire) is the third most wooded region in Britain - with 15% wood cover - after Scotland and Wales. With such an umbilical connection to the rural the presence of the two gridshells evoke the past as much as they do the future. There is a reminder just how extensive the great forests carpeting Southern England once were, before so much of these woodlands had fallen and been exhausted, by a mixture of iron smelting and ongoing building of naval fleets up to the mid 19th century and the Industrial revolution. Alongside such appeals to the past, both buildings also provide a strong sense of the future. With resource wars and climate change requiring much more rigorous, in effect, zero energy buildings, each provide paradigmatic exemplars in how used as a genuinely renewable material greater use of timber in construction is one of the most effective pathways towards drawing down energy and carbon footprints which continues to be critical in today’s building culture.

Flimwell Gridshell under construction
Flimwell Gridshell under construction (David Saunders)
Flimwell Gridshell under construction

Flimwell Gridshell under construction

The two buildings complement each other. In the architectural world the Weald & Downland gridshell is well loved and has become its designers, Edward Cullinan Architects best-known building. Even if not a genuine weave – the overlaid lattice is bolted together by ‘connector nodes’ – the illusion conjured up remains
Mannheim Multihalle
Mannheim Multihalle
(Oliver Lowenstein)
atmospherically potent and evocative. This may be partially why the building often appears to strike a chord with many of the general public when coming upon it while visiting the museum. Yet the building, only the second gridshell built, (the first was by the visionary German engineer, Frei Otto, and was completed in Mannheim in 1975, when literally hundreds of lath breakages made it seemingly certain that there would be no second attempt, until computer modelling changed the rules of the game) also is part of a host of criss-crossing and inter-connected strands. Flimwell also is genealogically linked to Otto. The key influence on the Flimwell centre research into using low-grade locally sourced wood was the ground-breaking late 80’s/early 90’s Hooke Park furniture school. It was at Hooke Park where its founder, furniture-maker John Makepeace, first conceived and realised a set of buildings constructed out of material from the immediate woodland surroundings. The first of these, the main furniture workshop, has turned out to be Frei Otto’s only British project. Two further buildings were completed before Hooke Park closed for lack of funding; there is another connection here as each were also designed by Cullinans. The timber path out from the Hooke Park woods, leads directly, if along different ways, to the Weald & Downland and Flimwell gridshell buildings.

Hooke Park - Furniture building External
Hooke Park - Furniture building External
(Architecture Association)
Hooke Park - Furniture building
Hooke Park - Furniture building
Internal (Architecture Association)
Lois Walpole piece
Lois Walpole (Lois Walpole)
Alongside these woody developments, if one casts an eye across certain areas of art practice in the years leading up to the turn of millennium, there are striking – or at the least, interesting - parallel imaginative absorptions by contemporary ecological and land artists in light weight, wood-based structures. Curiously this seems particularly evident in Sussex. Also, through the nineties another turn, this time in the world of basketry shifted gear, towards exploring the aesthetic possibilities of, and how, basketry techniques could lend themselves to exploring sculptural form. 12.7 Begun in the eighties by the Lois Walpole, a fine art dimension to basketry was well developed by the turn of the century. The scale was palpably different, nonetheless the resonances between this strand of ‘art-basketry’ with aspects of the land artists seemed credible, while also feeding the ongoing undercurrent of interest in the past and rural vernacular, encompassing the crafts of basketry and timber frame carpentry and older timber construction traditions.


Lizzie Farey piece
Lizzie Farey (Lizzie Farey)
Thoreau says, "give me a wildness no civilisation can endure." That's clearly not difficult to find. It is harder to imagine a civilization that wildness can endure, yet this is just what we must try to do. Wildness is not just the "preservation of the world," it is the world.  (Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p 169, North Point 1990).

Both the work of these artists and basket-makers are separate if not completely discreet parallel lines to the gridshells. Ten years on and they are symbolically embodied, represented and woven – even – together, in basket-maker, Anne Marie O’Sullivan’s current venture into artistic terrain, here in her solo exhibition, Cluster, where the links and threads between local woody materials, light weight structures, and that of scale; - the smallness of the basket in comparison with the size of the gridshell - emanate from the exhibition. As her first solo art exhibition, O’ Sullivan, who has been making willow baskets for ten years, and is using the opportunity of a larger scale investigation that working in Fabrica has enabled, shows how basketry can be such a starting point for exploring sculptural form. In this, however, she is hardly the first to become deeply immersed in basketry and one can see in the path of her basketry a contemporary version of the earlier generation of - mainly female - basket-makers, who, in the aftermath of Lois Walpole’s eighties revolution, have branched out from initial traditional basket-making into the terrain of sculptural form and art object; practitioners such as Mary Butcher, Lizzie Farey, and Molly Rathbone. For O’Sullivan, although she has exhibited in group exhibitions, and produced sculptural pieces from her living willow work, Cluster is providing the possibility to explore the sculptural dimension of basketry at a much larger scale, while setting a precedent by using a material, which hasn’t previously been applied with the basket-makers skills in mind. By embracing the large-scale, Cluster’s forms – despite its interior gallery setting - imply connections to aspects of the land art tradition as well as basketry’s exploration of its own potential for sculptural forms.

Chris Drury - Vortex
Chris Drury - Vortex
Ueuno Masao - Rose picture
Ueuno Masao - Rose picture (Sandy Heslop, SCVA)
Within the basket-making community, some makers readily acknowledge how their woven forms can be viewed as a part of a spectrum, extending across and into the land art community and terrain. There is indeed an overlay here – both basketry and land art draw creative breath from land, landscape and the natural world. To focus on artists identifiably associated with land art, one can immediately cite the likes of Chris Drury, Patrick Dougherty and Ueno Masao, as representative and relatively well-known practitioners. Chris Drury’s woven vortices forms, the first completed in his home-town, Lewes, in 1995 and developed further over the next decade, including in exhibition format, Holding Light within Fabrica’s walls in 2000, are large scale, light weight woven structures. Drury has also explored the basketry traditions of the Pomo Native American tribes in the South West of the USA. Red Earth, the Brighton based land-focused performance artists are also art-practitioners, a significant part who’s work has been in Sussex, integrate lightly woven structures into their performance pieces. These might not be technically basket weaves, but again there is the same overlap with woven form, lightweight sculptural structures, using locally grown natural materials. Projects range from Outcrop, Geograph (, to their recent 2011 Downland performance walk, CHALK.

If these are examples of natural architecture local to Sussex and Brighton, international ones are also straight-forward to uncover. One graphic example is the work of American artist, Patrick Dougherty. Originally a carpenter, Dougherty has returned again and again, over a thirty-year period of using a broad woody material palette, to willow for dressing buildings and structures with temporary and ephemeral woven forms. At times the results give the impression that the elements have quilted the buildings and structures with patina’s of dustbowl spindrift, blown in by the winds. Dougherty has actually carefully crafted these illusions and among the repertoire of skills for accomplishing these sizeable land installations are basket-weaving techniques. Indeed Dougherty’s first, and so far only, work in Britain, Big Willow in 2006, outside Inverness in Northern Scotland, was the culmination of a year long Big Willow events, organised by and highlighting the Scottish Basket-makers Circle.

Patrick Dougherty - Big Willow
Patrick Dougherty - Big Willow (Open Source)
A third practitioner at home with the large-scale is Uneo Masao, the Japanese sculptor. A recent work in this country,The Eye is a Roseinstallation, was commissioned as part of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Sainsbury Centre’s 2011Basketry: Making Human Natureexhibition and research project. This large-scale work, taking up the entire breadth of the Centre’s hi-tech hanger building, is another glimpse at the crossovers between the craft of basketry and the ecological strain within the contemporary art world’s practice. 

O’ Sullivan’s own desire in Cluster to ‘scale-up’ and make larger pieces speaks to these older artists work. She is doing so, however, with a material which, mediated by industrial processes, is a new departure from the assumed norm of pure ‘natural’ materials of those crossing-over basketry into woven sculpture. This use adds another multi-disciplinary layer to Cluster, extending into engineering and materials science. As such the exhibition reflects contemporary artistic practices’ fascination with the cross-disciplinary, of how artists like working with any number of associated disciplines. Such boundary breaking is a present day norm –one not so outlandish point of reference to Cluster’s works could be Thomas Heatherwick’s hi-tech, basket-like facade at Guys Hospital,
Cluster by O' Sullivan
Cluster/O' Sullivan
(Annemarie O' Sullivan)
London Bridge – and one which begs questions of whether these artificial boundaries between definitional terminology such as ‘artist’, ‘designer’, crafts-person or ‘architect’, are adequate, and not in need of a new descriptive, though as yet unexpressed, language. The media routinely find it difficult to decide on how to place Heatherwick, particularly since he never trained as an architect. Still, while the design’s establishment’s current golden boy’s hi-tech approach can be accommodated within the dominant architectural mode of late Modernism, repeatedly, the different ingredients of Cluster, from the buildings to artists, to craft practice and basketry, can be
Heatherwick Guys Hospital Basket facade
Heatherwick Guys Hospital Basket facade
apprehended as at odds with the core Modernist impulse. The primitivism, the absorption in the land, the pre-modern mindsets, and the return to the rural, running through the exhibitions interwoven connections, speaks to wider spread desires, ones which reject current forms of Modernity and Modernism; replaced by a utopian and romantic search for other kinds of futures, embracing, rather than extinguishing, the wild.

By drawing on aspects of both the Sussex gridshells, - form and material; by employing her skills as a basket-maker while working in an art setting, O’ Sullivan has made her first steps along the path towards the fuzzy, indefinite space of mixed-media. There remain the intriguing questions of whether what is expressed in the two gridshells, and anticipated and running parallel to various local Sussex artists and crafts-people, is more than incidental, meme-like outcomes from a late twentieth century micro-cultural zeitgeist moment, which is touched on (and side-stepped) by the exhibition’s title. Or whether it is just one part of a much larger wave of creative activity, which has remade basketry, informed aspects of land art, and found expression in architecture. Or, even, both! While not answering these questions the organic sensibility of these vessels and sphere’s symbolically draw together the different strands and threads which have emerged over the last fifteen or so years within Sussex, formed and framed into a single gestural weave.