The experience of making things enriches my approach to design, says Biba Dow
As much as I can, I make things with my hands. Every day, I make bread. With free time, I make clothes. I find it absorbing and it reminds me of something important: making things anticipates use and the user; it connects you to time and place.
Making things brings you up close to the character of different materials. When I make clothes I often think of the similarities with designing bits of buildings – the joining of things, the way materials have different qualities. Sometimes I set up my Adana letterpress and print things, enjoying the qualities of pressed paper and ink, however imperfect. Last weekend, I made a pinhole camera and was absorbed by the slow and unpredictable character of the long exposure photographs. The casts of movement and shadow caught in the images become potent, fragments of the ‘dark room’ of the camera obscura, in contrast to the daily exchange of mobile phone photos with friends on the other side of the world, which takes just seconds.
I find worn things very moving – a step softened by passing feet, a darned cloth, a metal handrail polished by hands”
Things carry not just the character of the maker but the user too. I find worn things very moving – a step softened by passing feet, a darned cloth, a metal handrail polished by hands. They remind me that in spite of the enormous varieties of human experience, we are the same, connected through material and habits and places across time. I especially enjoy rustic and vernacular buildings because their making and use is often legible in the marks of tooling and repair.
Memory associated with things and places is scrutinised in Seamus Heaney’s poetry. In ‘Squarings xli’ (1991), he writes: “The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last. Waist deep in cow-parsley, / I re-enter the swim, riding or quelling / The very currents memory is composed of, / Everything accumulated ever / As I took squarings from the tops of bridges / Or the banks of self at evening.” Our memories of place are our ‘banks of self’.
Elsewhere in ‘Squarings’, Heaney recalls his childhood memory of a house. The poem is full of the physical intensity of childhood experiences, “encountering the ancient dampish feel/ Of a clay floor”. It is a floor compressed with time: the ‘ground of being’. He emerges, rising from the house and laden with memories “hand and foot, in the scale of things”.
Detailing buildings for someone else to make, reading shop drawings, specifying finishes, all anticipate work on site which will become their own markers of time and place”
Making things with our hands is a marker of our existence. Working in an architectural office, it is the work of other people’s hands that make our buildings. Detailing buildings for someone else to make, reading shop drawings, specifying finishes, all anticipate work on site which will become their own markers of time and place. In this context, drawing becomes the medium by which we make and explore.
My favourite architectural drawings are by Le Corbusier – beautiful and expressive drawings recording buildings he visited on his travels, a vital link to his own work. At La Certosa outside Florence, his drawings record the space of each cell, with its desk and its courtyard describing the world of the sequestered monk. These sketches come vividly to mind standing in his own cells at La Tourette, observing the diurnal space in which to sleep and work, the simple balcony. The modest scale of the cells at La Tourette, sifted through the rigour of his Modulor system of proportion, brings a new humility which is understood against the grandeur of the communal spaces.
Throughout Le Corbusier’s work, the presence of the Modulor and the precepts of his iconographic ‘Poem of the Right Angle’ make visible and tangible what he found meaningful, bringing a physical and philosophical encounter. Quite literally, they put his work in our hands.