We are gathered on Stamford Wharf Pier just upstream of the OXO building in Southwark assembling our salt based object for the London Student Festival of Architecture. It is raining. In truth it is raining rather hard and has been for some time, the whole time actually, six hours so far, but we are almost finished. Lovers have already adopted the site. A last couple of photographs then Pauline, Migle, Arti, Toby, JJ and I wring out our hats and head for the pub.
It had appeared a modest enough project at the start, a look at the history of the OXO building, the evolution of the OXO cube – initially rather a salty item, interpolation of historic and contemporary data, a salt based workshop with children and the integration of their output into a form suited to the location and subject matter that could be constructed using limited funds and as yet unlearned construction skills.
Creating a 3d model of the object of our desires proved simple, reliable; a competition, a winner. It looked good from this direction, and this… about the right height, yes, let’s go with this one. Migle is pleased – her first work to be realised in a public space, great. Next the plywood is delivered – fifteen sheets – really so much? Heavy too, then translating the many faces of the model to plywood sheets, pencils, rulers, a huge improvised compass, pattern distribution for the economic use of the sheets, parts back to front – reality dawns.
The thing about sawing is that you have to give the saw a good firm push along the track, that strange sound and smell? The smoke? Yes, all quite normal, press on…… CLANG. The saw-bed drops to the ground, freshly cut, smoking lazily. How did that happen?
Permission 1 Macaulay C of E School kindly agree to let us in to make salt crystals and talk about salt and our project with their reception class. Thank you! Every parent needs to be asked if we can take and use photographs of the class in the project, they agree too. Mighty scrabbling to eat our crisps, taste our lemons and guess how much salt everybody eats in a year. They already know that salt is baaaaaaaad but can it be invisible? Energetic dissolving of salt, hiding it, making it dematerialise. Names on jars, beads on threads, threads on sticks, sticks in jars, salt solution added and thirty jars are away to a distant shelf for a month – will the salt come back? Permission 2 Southwark Development control kindly agree that planning permission is not required. Permission 3 Building Control, hi, can you help? And they can help, agreeing to allow us to install the object providing that we complete an application and pay their fee. They will meet us at the object the day after it is installed to advise if they require us to remove it. Permission 4 Coin Street Community Builders, who own the site, kindly agree to allow us to use it for a fee of £500 for a week. The site is in high demand for film making and advertising and the presence of such an object may effect other potential users. We imagine the object swirling out of the fog in a Dr Jekyll docudrama. However they also require the object to withstand 80mph winds, for us to have a completed safety plan, for the object to be inspected every day it is on the pier, to have contact numbers, for the University to have confirmed their public liability insurance arrangements and for us to have permission from the PLA. Permission 5 The Port of London Authority kindly agree that the object does not pose a threat to shipping providing it is too heavy for six ‘over the limit’ rugby players to tip it over the railing into the river (it will be too heavy, read on). Permission 6 The 80mph requirement is proving difficult. We are on to our second structural engineer. Who is great. However, forty sandbags will be required inside the object. A twelve page calculation proves that our object is safe.
Meanwhile the object is taking shape. Ordering 150 brackets over the internet proves a mistake – the holes are drilled by hand in some far away place, Ilford?, and every hole is in a different place on each bracket, in order for the parts to join neatly 600 holes have to be mapped to suit each individual bracket. Fortunately Arti is small enough to mark the holes from inside the object. Text and illustrations are transferred to the surface. Back to Macaulay school to have a look for crystals and, relief, they have grown into many huge and wonderful forms – success! Into the van with the object, this way up, no, this way? No – perhaps in two pieces…..three? Eventually it goes in and soon we are at the OXO wharf café having a quick coffee waiting for the insurance documents to be biked from the University to the site agent. It starts to rain. Four coffees and three hours later we have the go ahead. Chewing gum can hold wet nuts in a spanner.
The next day I meet Building Control on the pier, it is a beautiful sunny morning. Yes. This looks fine. Forty bags? Should be enough, seems quite stable. And, behold, a rather attractive certificate is produced. Building Control has their photo, yes just one officer, taken in front of the object – we approved this! – she is rather pleased. I call around, ‘stay in bed’, we are all rather pleased. Forty bags two days in a row would have been seventy five too many. A few visits later there is a Real Londoner fishing for eels from the pier. Raw chicken parts are laid out along the handrail. Other mysterious bait items and his lunch are keeping cool in the shadow of the object – which has attracted quite a few people down the pier. We discuss eel soup. He and Salt are friends.
Such a project is truly a lot of hard work. But this is partly because we don’t do these live projects often enough for the skills, procedures (and limits) to have become familiar and engrained. Schools must surely get ‘out there’ and demonstrate that our design ambitions have places in reality. That we need to see those places occupied. That we welcome such challenges knowing that in the end people, contact and interaction are returning, inexorably, to our thoughts.