Friday, 20 November 2009

Kevin Duffy's Garden Centre, Wigan, UK

Kevin Duffy has spent the last thirty-one years building his own Tudor Village and experimenting with historical vernacular-style buildings at his garden centre near Wigan, England. Kevin is now sixty-two years old and states that the work simply evolved from his love of building, but unlike the conventional need for shelter or function his works are all follies.

Their only purpose is to satisfy a need in Kevin to build, to create something that he enjoys looking at. The works also enable Kevin to ponder the past and to think about the people that once lived in buildings similar to the versions he creates.
Kevin left school at the age of fifteen and like lots of people at that time in Lancashire, went to work in the cotton mills. He worked fifty-six hours per week and had over an hours walk to work and back each day. After a period of economic decline, the northern mills began to close and Kevin was forced to make his living through musical performance, playing with his wife Pat, across the county in pubs and clubs.

During the daytime he continued to develop his interest in growing plants and vegetables and took over an allotment. He purchased a house adjacent to the allotment field and began clearing the scrubland and neglected allotments, which took around six years of daily labour. During this time he began selling plants and cuttings to passers by and his reputation as a quality plant supplier grew. Almost by accident he had transformed the allotment into a business and spent everyday tending to his nurseries. He eventually sold the house and built a bungalow on the site where he now lives and manages the nursery along with his son, Carl. His move onto the site also enabled him to spend extended periods of time working on his structures and to live within his bygone fantasy.

He has very strict rules with respect to his building methods and may only use found or donated objects. He sometimes decides to swop one object for another, more preferable one, and will even use something that is ‘new’ providing it is donated and not specifically bought for the task. His calls this system, ‘the standard’ and it has resulted in some extraordinary uses of materials independent of their original function.
Most of the work is routed in Kevin’s interpretations of classic English vernacular styles. He is particularly fond of the Lake District in the north of England and also enjoys the Stately homes of Yorkshire. It is from these places, that he occasionally visits, that he draws most of his inspiration. However through his own private study of books and pamphlets [some of which are brought by visitors to the site] Kevin has widened his sources to as far a field as Egypt and South America.
He studies the principles behind the styles and has spent considerable time, for example, perfecting ‘gothic’ arches. He told me that the ‘Roman’ arch is easy to construct as a dustbin on its side can be used as a former, whereas the gothic arch needs special consideration.
The work is for the most part a façade-based installation. Very few of the structures have an interior, they are built more like stage sets along a continuous wall that stretches 460ft. The facades are constructed using reclaimed interior doors. A mesh is then fixed to the doors, which, enables the final layer of sand-cement render to be applied. Using this method Kevin has been able to construct his Tudor village and Tea Shop. He sells sand and cement at the garden centre which keeps him in regular supply. In addition to the facades there are other more three-dimensional works, such as a castle and tower structure. Kevin thinks about the perspectives and axis that are created by his installations. He explained to me how he thinks of the foreground, middle and distance views, being careful to place structures at key moments to create a scene and carefully composed arrangement. As a result, the visitor is gently led through the site, in a similar way to the Renaissance gardens and their follies.
He has developed a small chapel, with an alter constructed from old railway sleepers and kitchen cabinets. The chapel is well received by visitors who light candles and donate to the collection tin that Kevin then gives to various charities. It is certainly a spiritual place and one is startled when leaving the church to realise that this place is within a working garden centre. However, in contrast to the commercial, ‘force grown’ and expensive world of horticulture, this place is only a ‘garden centre’ by name, even by default. It has really transcended that world being a convenient backdrop to the project as well as helping with the bills.
The Tudor Village is laid out as if part of a village square and the collection of around ten houses, clock towers and statues create a realistic setting. The scale of the work is slightly smaller than life size. Most of the buildings in the village have their own clock, located on the front façade and many have bells. Kevin collects these objects and for a period in the 1960’s even received payment in the form of Grand Father clocks for work he did for an antique dealer. Many of these clocks are still in Kevin’s home whilst the damaged and unwanted versions are reused in his constructions.

A variety of objects and building components are salvaged from demolished buildings and Kevin has managed to obtain capstones from Wigan polio hospital, bollards from Liverpool’s docks through to the peculiar, such as a donkeys grave stone. To store these objects he has a built a museum and an antique shop. Nothing is for sale, but along with the tearooms and Tudor village, they invoke a distant, perhaps fantasy view of England.
Kevin also departs from this picturesque village scene with his small niche devoted to the ancient Egyptians and a larger scene that he has labeled, ‘Aztec’. The Aztec section is a small enclosure for a family of ducks to live in. It consists of a series of large painted concrete scrolls embellished with additional ornamentation and rendering. He has also created a monument to his wife, who passed away twelve years ago. Within this discrete memorial he has set a small angel and it serves as a moving tribute to Pat, whom Kevin clearly misses.

Whilst I was at the site, Kevin was working on the latest addition; a small villa located within a very tight corner of the site. Kevin enjoys surprising visitors and at various points there are mannequin heads and figures to shock the visitors. Within the villa he is planning on positioning a figure. He can only work on the project sporadically throughout the day as he gets called away to serve in the garden centre, however despite this distraction he is preparing the ground for a ‘Victorian London’ section, due for completion within six months. It is fascinating to see this garden develop and to listen to its creator explain the significance of particular aspects and features. These explanations clearly add meaning to the site and Kevin enjoys retelling these tales, using the garden both as a diary and as a tribute to medieval and Romantic styles.

This article was originally published in Raw Vision Magazine, no. 62. Please support this magazine as it is world class, and has continuously produced some of the most seminal writing/photos for well over ten years now.

Kevin's latest work has shifted from architecture towards sculpture. He has developed several sculptures, depicting human forms and often relating to historical characters, such as Jane Austin's Mr. Darcey.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Authorship and modernity in Chandigarh: the Ghandi Bhavan and the Kiran Cinema designed by Pierre Jeanneret and Edwin Maxwell Fry - The Journal of Architecture

This blog will contain brief discussions from academic papers I've published elsewhere. The reason for this is to disseminate the work to a wider audience [hopefully!] and to create a forum for feedback/debate not normally possible with journal articles. It also creates a place to condense ideas into a couple of hundred words rather than the extended 6-8000 word format of the academic paper. The link below will take the reader to the full paper...

A brief synopsis

The main aim of the paper above is to discuss two buildings, with a view to understanding the developments of Modernism within Chandigarh, India. The first building is a cinema designed by Maxwell Fry, the second The Ghandi Bhavan, [a Ghandian Philosophy school] by Pierre Jeanneret.

The paper, after an extensive literature review, examines how Fry's work was instrumental in helping create the identity of Chandigarh's first 'Sector'. It did this not only through the physical presence of the cinema, but also through the films it showcased.

The style of the building invokes the 'art deco' / jazz moderne theatre that was already a familiar sight in India's metropolitan cities. The main facade faces onto a public square, taking the role of the church in the Italian piazza typology.

The Ghandi Bhavan, designed approximately ten years after the Kiran Cinema shows a very different approach to the established idea of Modernity shown in the cinema. The cinema was built in the very early stages of the cities development when materials were limited and the workforce was devoted to constructing residential units.

The Bhavan was built for the Panjab University, as the key building in its campus. Like two of Le Corbusier's buildings in Sector-1 it 'floats' on the reflection pool that surrounds it on all sides.

The building is used to house a library of Ghandian philosophy and contains a lecture theatre. However, this is really a building acting as a monument - the function is secondary. On plan it adopts a rotational symetrical pattern [perhaps invoking the Indian wheel], a contrary approach to the overt symetry of the Kiran Cinema facade. Another major difference is the use of white stone cladding - a complete departure from the exposed baton brut concrete deployed in the rest of Chandigarh. The Bhavan is also surrounded by buildings clad in red sandstone [again indicating additional wealth] possible invoking the setting of the Christi Tomb at Fatephur Sikri.

These additional materials create a link between Chandigarh and the Mughal architecture found throughout Northern India. Perhaps Jeanneret was attempting to create a visual historical link between the [pre-Imperial] Mughal dynasties and the post-colonial Independent Indian architecture. Chandigarh, of course, was not intended to have any references to India's past, or indeed any other historical references. It was to be distinctly Modern. By introducing these materials, Jeanneret was acknowledging the past, creating a historical context for the new Chandigarh buildings.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Trafford Centre

This blog begins as a weak response to Alan De Botton's book, 'The Architecture of Happiness'. I really enjoy De Bottons work, and the above title is no exception: however I want to expand on his work [and also on Eco's seminal work on Ugliness and Beauty in art] to discuss notions of Ugliness and the Sublime within architecture.
Are notions of ugliness simply a matter of taste?

Why can we gain so
much pleasure from decay, dis/mis-use, abandonment, banality, pastiche, etc. . . .all of which are usually viewed negatively

The works may not be intended to be anything but functional - yet as a by-product there is something attractive about them. In other cases they may be designed and considered by the designer/client/user to be beautiful/pleasant, and yet considered distinctly naff by others [i.e. design professionals, such as architects]. This is the case with the Trafford Centre, as shown in these photo's. The Trafford Centre is one of the largest shopping centres in Europe, located in Manchester, England. The interior is a neo-rococo style with ornate classical columns, friezes, murals and plastic privet hedges 'trimmed' into obelisk topiary. The experience of shopping here is not unpleasant. I enjoy the hoards of people, the noise, the commerce and fanaticism of dedicated shoppers on a grey, wet [typical] Manchester weekend. Clearly here, like all retail environments, the setting, design and space of the building are carefully considered - nothing is left to chance and teams of marketing analysts dedicate substantial research into retail space and the customer experience. The people behind the Trafford centre have chosen to adopt classical motifs as appropriate architecture - this is an interpretation on ecclesiastical scales with the Medicci's wealth. The large-scale murals of cherubs and angelic beings clinging to whispy clouds set against the bluest of skies is not something I've seen outside of European cathedrals.
It is not restrained minimalism.
It is flamboyant mannerism.
Is this shopping claiming to be a religious experience? Or is it about 'bling' culture, where this kind interior design is considered wealthy, exclusive and desirable?
Probably a bit of both.
It is banal retail space in 'fancy-dress'. The central 'street' creates illusion of pomp, extravagance and carnival masquerade, whilst borrowing from the Victorian arcade-American Mall.
Most architects would consider this to be completely terrible. Perhaps it is. People like it. Perhaps it is better than poor attempts at good design, the predictable, tedious shop fitting.
Another less interesting approach is the large shed with main door and signage stuck to the front - as discussed by Venturi in 'Learning from Las Vagas'.
My conclusion so far is that whilst for most visitors - the design goes largely un-noticed. For others, it is repulsive and they will avoid the space anyway. For a small few, it is an amusing setting, overly sickly, enjoyably distasteful and a place to spend money in John Lewis' and T.M Lewin.