THE assembly is over. The courtyard studio lives!
One afternoon not long ago, Michael Kelly and I gathered what we had built over the last few months: five separate segments of the frame, ten panels of cladding and eight shutters for saloon-style swinging doors.
Michael had cleared a space inside his shop. He decided to display the little building there, for passers-by to see (and perhaps, order one of their own).
We began to assemble the pieces, inching the frames into contact with one another. Accurate measurements are particularly important for a modular building like ours. One length awry and a whole panel might not fit.
Hence, the carpenter’s maxim: ‘measure twice, cut once’. Michael stated his variation on the accepted wisdom while we slotted the panels together, as certain as jigsaw pieces. “Measure and re-measure, and check and re-check, over and over again,” he said.
And indeed he had. As we laid out each panel, he had measured, scribbled numbers on his hand, returned to the frame, then measured again and again; back and forth like a cook between pantry and pot.
I’ve just read a book by the American writer Michael Pollan, called A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams. It is his story of building a small, wooden hut on his property in Connecticut. While he learns to build, training his “radically” unhandy hands, Pollan ponders the nature of shelter and the history of architecture.
Although the hut appeared small and simple, the architect’s design was deeply considered and intricate. Pollan’s project took two-and-a-half years of Sundays to realise.
He built the frame from Douglas Fir, commonly known here as Oregon – the same timber we used for our studio. On the day they raised the roof’s ridge pole, Pollan recalled feeling abashed when he first saw the fir timbers he’d ordered; being, as they were, milled from hundred-year-old trees.
In the early years of the American colony, carpenters would mark the topping out of the frame by nailing a bough of a conifer to the highest beam of the structure. Pollan enacted the tradition, and speculated on its role in celebrating the new dwelling and the achievement of the workers, and also recognising the trees cut down for it.
“People have traditionally turned to ritual to help them frame, acknowledge and ultimately even find joy in just such a paradox of being human – the fact that so much of what we desire for our happiness and need for our survival comes at a heavy cost. We kill to eat, cut down trees to build our homes, we exploit other people and the earth.”
It seems to me that Pollan’s “heavy cost” of being human rises or falls according to the choices we make as individuals, and those of our societies as a whole. But he’s right: there is always a cost.
One of the rewards of working in the physical world could be a heightened appreciation of its materials, a better understanding of the composition of the things we use. The makers among us must be more aware of the stuff of life, and perhaps, too, the damaged goods discarded along the way.
We did not nail an evergreen bough to our studio. It is made from timber carefully reclaimed from demolition sites. Several decades sheltered us from the full force of the paradox.
For our ritual, we stood side-by-side, arms crossed, leaning back ever so slightly, and murmured the studio’s praise. “It’s one thing to have an idea, but another to put it into practice,” Michael said.