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Bricolage: The Chisenhale Works

Part 1 Project 2010
Alice Colverd
University of Cambridge, UK
Bricolage is best known as the French word which incorporates several terms for making things through improvisation; DIY, tinkering, repair or making do and getting by. It is often associated with scarcity and amateurism and as such it has an awkward relationship to ‘high’ architecture and contemporary consumer led production. However bricolage is also about the freedom afforded by constraints. Indeed imagination and invention are born of bricolage where the limitation set by the context is the channel to new modes of thinking. Perhaps bricolage is as much about a way of making things, as it is a general attitude.

The Chisenhale Works is currently inhabited by three arts organisations, existing as a result of a collective self-build endeavour in the 1980s. Artists formed crocodile lines up the stairs passing breeze blocks to one another, appropriating the industrial scaled space within their limited means.

Today a fractured community stages the context for this project, whereby the fragmentation of the artistic community in parts of the building has emerged from the extreme rationality and brutal efficiency through which its physical organisation arose. In other areas, the quality of spaces which has resulted contributes to a thriving, experimental situation, whereby their spit and sawdust nature establishes an atmosphere in which it is ok to make mistakes.

Drawing from these existing conditions, the proposal aims to celebrate the extraordinary fluid metabolism of appropriation and change, and seeks to provide the means to support the ongoing process of bricolage, promoting a culture of invention, that repairs rather than replaces. The resulting architecture is responsive, social but above creates a network of new surprising public spaces which tunnel through the building finding light and views as they erupt through the external envelope.

A new studio complex forms the intervention on the disused site, whereby the provision of a new infrastructural framework establishes the necessary conditions for the informal growth of a series of self-built studios within the voids it creates. The project seeks to investigate the nature of the contemporary vernacular, and how it can be used in order to transcend DIY to free the user as the creator of his/her own environment.

Alice Colverd

The user, the site, the architect are inextricably joined in the re-use of the derelict factory neighbouring the Chisenhale Gallery, East London. The site is a former veneer factory in a residential neighbourhood in Bow, east London. It currently houses three existing arts organisations besides and above the derelict production hall. The project expands the private world of the existing artist studios into a new matrix for making and displaying art. The cavernous interior of the former factory and the back yard beside the Hertford-Union canal are the armature for a provisional combination of public spaces, communal facilities and private studios to be extended and adjusted by the users.

The architect has proposed a range of unfinished spaces offering many potential ways to inhabit the building using standard domestically scale building elements readily available from the local builders merchant and reclamation. Combining the self-build traditions of Segal and Aravena with the artist’s instinct for bricolage, the project offers a range of provisional spaces, which, depending on scale, proportion, and daylight can be used as studios, workshops, cafes and galleries to be completed by the user. Only public spaces providing utilitarian services and circulation are permanent and are celebrated as a civic act. Belfast sinks and exposed plumbing becomes the fountain in the town square – both useful and social.

The urban metaphor continues in deep cuts in the section describing a three dimensional public topography whose boundaries are constantly being re-configured by the users. The gestures and actions of the artist/user are recorded in the architecture redirecting former uses as traces in an ongoing conversation with the city beyond. Domestically scaled bricolage becomes performance stitching together the contingency of contemporary art practice and the natural behaviour of the city. Its transformation appears unfinished but these spaces, part industrial ruin, part builders’ yard vernacular become an alchemical celebration of the mutable world.

Short-term improvisations are amplified into longer-term strategies, speculating over years, generations and perhaps even longer. This work displays a rare commitment to making beautiful things from the world that surrounds us, a world full of signs where all things can be matched by an idea where re-use and change generate a critical and original architecture.


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