In May 2019, the first summer pavilion was built on the terrace of Elisava’s third floor.
I met you last Monday at the briefing session, where you presented a very ambitious proposal for a 5 day workshop with 40 students from two different Elisava Masters: Graphic Design and Ephemeral Architecture and Temporary Spaces . How did this all come to life?
To me it all started with a phone call from Elisava. I was told they were organising a workshop with a completely new approach, something they had never tried before. Anthony Burrill’s participation was confirmed, and they wanted to know if I’d like to get involved too. The starting point was: five days, 40 students from two different masters, a space (the terrace was suggested), a certain budget and total freedom to create whatever we liked. It seemed very promising, but Anthony and I had never met so we skyped, to get to know each other…
And to see if we were compatible.
Exactly! The truth is, we got along straight away! We both mentioned Enzo Mari in our conversation, and we started thinking of working with wood, a material that would be easy for the students to work with (cut, saw, screw, etc.)
And we also liked the idea of modularity and working with repetition.
“Simplicity” and “Repetition”, these two words popped out quite often from the very beginning, concepts that we agreed applied perfectly to both architecture and graphic design. Another idea we were attracted to was the blend of both disciplines: we wanted to organically fuse the students, without really caring about their educational background.
From my side, and as Eugeni said, the first time we spoke over Skype we clicked almost instantly. The more we talked the clearer it became the kind of solution we could reach together, if this briefing had been commissioned to us. However, we stopped the conversation before reaching any conclusion: it was important to leave things open, to involve the students from the very beginning and to give them space to question.
How did the students react?
After the briefing session, we all went to a room with an empty black board. Our role was to provoke them a little bit: “ So we are 42 people in this room, we have 3km of wooden sticks (some students had helped us carry them in the morning), we have five days, and a terrace. What do we do?
This was a key moment. When we asked what can 80 hands do, they were thinking about complex shapes, about building something very different. We spent a lot of time explaining them that that wasn’t the goal of this workshop. It wasn’t about designing with ego. We had to think of something we could build TOGETHER. So here is where we insisted on the idea of simplicity and repetition: sometimes it’s much more powerful to think of a system, a structure, an open way of doing things, instead of closed and final shapes.
Did they understand what you were trying to say?
When I look today at what we’ve done with the terrace, I love the fact that many of the things we talked about on that first day are not at all present — the original idea has developed, changed and grown according to the circumstances. The concept is there, but the outcome is different. This is to me the most important learning from this workshop: you can dictate how things should be, but you are not the only element in the equation, there are many other aspects that influence the design, such as the weather conditions, the time, the size of the space…
I think the other learning is also the idea of using restriction — working within limits, within a system (simplicity and repetition in our case) — as a way to be creative. We could say that we were just building a grid, however this grid can be very liberating, you can engage with it in very interesting ways.
There’s definitely an Enzo Mari vibe in this project.
You also mentioned at the briefing session the importance of being patient and to keep the commitment and enthusiasm until the very end. Eugeni, you showed us the playhouse project you did with your kids, who kept asking you “Is it done yet?”, even though it took you two weeks to finish building it. I understand that sometimes, along the process, there are moments of frustration for not seeing the outcome right away. Did you find it hard to manage this with the students?
Actually there are two things to say about the process.
The first thing is that on the first day, when we had everything set to start building the structure, we said to the students: “Ok guys, take the handsaw, the drills and get started!”. You had to see the look on their faces… They were looking at the tools as if they had never seen one! So I started asking: “Who has ever cut a piece of wood?”. From the 40 students, none had ever used a handsaw. “…and who has ever drilled a screw?”. Nobody again. At this point we thought that maybe we had been too ambitious. But then the students totally surprised us. I mean, they were an absolute disaster in the first two/three hours, but little by little they started to get it, they became more and more coordinated, and yesterday, after 4 days, it was fantastic to see them! It seemed like a choreography: a few were going up the stairs, others were lifting the truss bars, others were taking measurements… There was this moment that Anthony and I were just sitting under the structure, watching this perfectly coordinated choreography, running by itself, with everyone knowing precisely where to be, what to do… it was just great! It made us really proud.
The second thing, about the “being patient” issue, it’s true that this was something that concerned us. The first part of the process implied building the trusses, which is a very repetitive activity and it was going to take us about two days to finish them all. The fact that the students weren’t going to see the space come to life immediately, just piled up trusses instead, could make them feel that nothing was happening. We decided to ask them to lift the first three trusses quite early on in the process, and by doing so they could easily imagine how the rest would be, what it would become.
But to be honest, the dreadful moment of despair never actually happened. They were working non-stop, the spirits were high and they were very well organised, so I think it went well the whole time.
It seems that you’ve been able to create an amazing atmosphere.
It was amazing to see the journey everybody went on in such a short time. This project was about unlocking potential. You don’t usually get that many things done in five days, do you?
This was all very challenging: we were provoking the students, we were asking them questions and putting them out of their comfort zone. With every saw, every screw, you could see this connection being built; you could see their confidence grow and the group becoming one. Everyone was working together for this common goal.
Totally! I actually had a flash quite often during the workshop: the work they were doing is quite similar to what you see in rural communities. The Amish, to put an example, build their houses all together, everyone does their part, but the whole house is built by the group.
Anthony started looking for something on his phone.
I don’t usually tweet, I’m more of an instagram kind of person, but I did this tweet “People together make things happen”. And I think that was the spirit really. I got quite emotional…
This tweet actually links me to your work, Anthony. You work with words, meaning and context, usually with a quite positive message. What graphic intervention did you prepare with the students?
I guess the graphic design students, when they heard they were going to do a workshop with me, they probably thought we were going to make some sort of statement posters, very graphic and typographic, but that was not at all what I had in mind. This workshop was more about the intention behind the work, and less about the personal outcome. It was about the design philosophy, and I honestly think it went really deep. “What is design?”, “What does design mean?”, “Where does it come from?, “How does it relate to production and the physicality of making things?”. In other words, it was about achieving something with your own hands rather than, you know… interacting with your phone.
I understand that you both wanted to focus on a “learning by doing” philosophy and, through the process of “doing”, also thinking and having a creative perspective over tangible issues.
Yes: make mistakes, learn from them and keep going.
Can you give me some technical insight? I must admit that I am also quite ignorant when it comes to building things, and I guess probably most people reading this interview might be too.
There’s plenty of work left to do upstairs! You can still learn and help us out!
Everybody is laughing.
Let’s see, where to begin…
Firstly, we gave the students a raw material in two formats: a 3km long wooden stick, cut in 4,5m pieces; and 80 wooden panels, about 2×1 m each. Lesson number one was: the material dictates how we treat it. If we had had another material, the result would have been totally different.
Secondly, when we “listen to the material”, we must also “listen to ourselves”. This means that we have to take into consideration our skills (our strengths and faults); and our context (the time we have, the space we are working on, etc.). So when we started thinking about how to put things together, the exercise was always to ask ourselves: “What is the easiest way to deal with this material, with minimum effort?”. For instance, we could have thought of making very elaborate joints, but it would have taken us a lot of time to do them, time that we didn’t really have… That’s why Enzo Mari’s work was so relevant to us from the beginning: his designs are really clever and can be done by whoever, no need to ask a carpenter to do it!
Enzo Mari’s book “Autoprotgetazzione” revolutionised the design world in the 1970’s by questioning the capitalist paradigm of mass production/mass consumption. His thought-provoking DIY alternative quested for a democratisation of design and embraced the idea of “design without ego”, based on simplicity, functionality and honesty.
The lack of technique shouldn’t prevent us from doing things, but isn’t today really hard to convince a student that things don’t come out perfect at first try? I guess the perfect world of instagram has made us very result oriented and less engaged with the different stages of a project.
True. Yet, something you learn when you start building things with your own hands is that the technique develops itself naturally during the process. This is something that really interests me — you have the power to decide which path to take, but it’s the context that dictates HOW you take that path. I believe this is something very helpful for the students because, as you said, they may be extremely focused on the final result, but sometimes you have to focus more on the process in order to grow.
Objects, finished things, don’t just appear. There are manufacturing processes that dictate how objects look and feel. All the decisions you make during the process— what material do I use?, what implications does it hand?, is it going to be safe to use?, is it going to be sustainable?, — define the final result. To me, this is teaching design in its truest sense, in a very pure way.
You told me before that you took the students to Elisava’s workshop, some of them had never been there before.
Machines can be very helpful to convey ideas. In our case we went there to cut the wooden panels with CNC.
CNC machining is a manufacturing process in which a pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery. This technology allows us to make very precise cuts on a variety of materials such as aluminium, steel, plastic, wood, foam, among others.
One of our goals was to have some graphic design evidence within the Architecture. At first I thought about painting, or perhaps applying cut vinyl over the wooden panels, but the whole concept was about the material, so the idea of cutting throughthe panel and make the design integral to the object made a lot more sense to me. The design is in the material.
Can you disclose the idea you “manufactured”?
The students were given a stencil typeface (if you are cutting typography through a material you can only use a stencil typeface) and three shapes: a circle, a square and a triangle. They could use part of the letter forms, bits of repetition, whatever really. These very simple elements were their raw material, the physicality of their intervention, and they were free to make anything from it.
There was a discussion about what graphics would be relevant to this project. It made no sense to just put silly messages on, like “Live a happy life”, that kind of thing. Perhaps you would think that the restriction of working with very simple elements is quite boring, however, if you look at the final result, it’s not boring at all – It’s actually quite amazing!
Ultimately, the graphic design and architecture approaches were exactly the same.
This is why we got along so well. Our way of approaching architecture and design are very similar, and that’s why we call this a “fused” project. To be honest, during the whole week, we didn’t know who belonged to the graphic design master or the ephemeral architecture master. And we didn’t care, it didn’t matter: the way of thinking was the most important thing in this workshop, not the educational background of each student.
Now that you’ve been through this experience, and that this was your first time working together, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Except for the weather.
Yes, a student had entered the room and stayed, listening carefully to the whole conversation.
Actually, even that I wouldn’t have changed, you have to learn to be flexible. This is the way life works, you have to adapt to situations and improvise.
If we had planned it all down to the last detail, it could have broken our creative process.
How do you think the students will occupy this space over the next three months?
I hope they do it creatively. I think this is a great place to use as a terrace, a bar, a room, an open air cinema… But I would like them to surprise us. Actually, we could ask them to send us a picture every time they use it in a different way, and have a record of all the different creative ways to use it.
Yes! It’s an adaptable space. It just came to my mind the way it looked last Monday, it was a dingy place made of concrete and huge umbrellas.
Yes, I also remember the students faces looking at it, quite terrified.
Yes, it was awful, and we made it amazing!
The day before this interview I got a last minute invitation to a party on the terrace, where Anthony would be DJing some of his “finest tunes” (his words at the briefing session that definitely caught the students’ attention). The bad weather conditions casted for the last day of the workshop anticipated this long awaited party. And what a party! It was very impressive to see this unfinished wooden structure, covering 3/4 of the terrace area, with students, teachers, staff and curious outsiders dancing, drinking beer and laughing under it. A perfect picture of Barcelona’s warm and relaxed spirit.
On my way back home, I remembered Eugeni mentioning the importance of registering all steps of the building process — a record of the structure coming to life. Those images are proof to the existence of this ephemeral space. As for the ephemeral experience, I dare saying everyone took lifetime learnings, acquaintances and memories.