Tuesday 25 June 2013

Wild Hut 21

Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh
Wild Shelter Building Day - 16th June 2013


“This summer we are welcoming back internationally acclaimed artist Alec Finlay, who is working with the Bothy Project Architect to make a new bothy, Bothan Shuibhne, on a Scottish island. To celebrate this, Jupiter Artland and Alec have invited architect Kevin Langan to build a wild shelter, one of 100 he is making. Kevin's design is inspired by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Temple of Apollo; the shelter will be constructed from fallen wood and natural materials. Please come and watch Kevin work and have a chat.”

Earlier this year I received a call at work to collaborate with internationally acclaimed Scottish Artist Alec Finlay (son of the late Sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay). I jumped at the chance to push the huts project in this new direction and after a few emails over many months found myself gathering wood late at night in the surreal landscape of Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh.

“Jupiter Artland: Works by many of today's leading artists, sculptors and land artists have been commissioned and then constructed in situ. The relationship of each artwork with its specific topographical location is a crucial feature of the artland, that is, art within the landscape. Jupiter Artland has charitable status and is committed to providing an educational resource for schools in the region.”

I was once again hut building with my good friends Arran Brown and Richard Paterson. We gathered wood until dark then slept out under a wooden canopy in the park’s education garden. I provided Arran with some welcome ear plugs as Richards snoring was like clockwork in both rhythm and predictability. Alec Finlay had selected a great site for the hut-build close to his father’s Temple of Apollo deep in the woods.

The hut design made reference to the temple’s structure and would be ironically situated in the Artland’s dumping ground. The wild huts project had always been a peripheral experiment in exploring forgotten spaces and so this nettle strewn corner, slightly off the trail seemed perfect. That night the park was alive with wildlife. Squirrels raced through the treetops and small roe deer stood frozen in the woods like statues (it wouldn't surprise me if they were actual sculptures).  

The Build:
By 10am the following morning we had gathered enough dead-wood for the build and decided to make a start on the structural frame (as the whole build would take a full day to complete). No sooner had we started arranging the first few wobbly timbers upright when the park opened its visitor gates and we attracted a crowd of intrigued onlookers. I was hoping to complete the frame fairly quickly as the build always looks fragile and embarrassingly unstable through the early stages. Over time - thousands of thin binds can form a more unified structure, but at the start it’s a bit like building a shed with shoe laces.

Alec arrived with his team who have been working towards building an artist resident bothy on the Isle of Eigg. The biting midges also arrived in force and so everyone painted themselves in liquid repellent as if war-paint, ready for the forthcoming invertebrate micro-battle.(‘Smidge’ insect repellent seemed to work ok for around 1.5 hours until most of it had ran off with my sweat). Alec lit a fire (with permission from the head gardener!) which really helped keep the midges to a minimum.

The first sleeping platform was cross-braced with a second platform below. Alec cleverly noted that the structure had transformed from a –minus sign into a +plus sign. That signified a lift in spirits and we progressed with the wall panels and roof. It was a very ambitious build and I knew we would be tight for time.

Bobby from ‘The Bothy Project’ lent a hand with the build as it progressed late into the afternoon. After the first sandwich panel was fitted in place the park was closed and it's woods descended into quiet once again. We joined Alec’s studio manager Luke for a quick pie at the local pub and returned to complete the build in darkness. We had a few panels still to construct (and I had a full day of work in Glasgow 40 miles away the following morning), so we were keen to complete the structure and get some sleep.

Roughing it:
By midnight, Luke had returned home to Edinburgh on the last bus (after bravely rescuing a baby lamb with its head stuck through a fence en-route), and we had completed the last of the wall panels. Arran agreed to sleep on the top bunk, Richard on the lower and myself on the soft ground below. It wasn’t until I wriggled into my sleeping bag that I realised the precariousness of the situation.

If anything collapsed (as it often did with rotten wood) I would be badly crushed below tones of broken timber and heavy bodies. I smiled at the impending risk, popped my ear plugs back in and drifted off to sleep in what was a warm and comfortable shelter. Without a single creak or crack through the night – we woke around 8am and headed back through the sculpture park for home.

A nice chap Gavin came to video the hut build for Jupiter Artland and noticed a large badger that morning not far from the hut. It never fails to impress me that large wild mammals can still live freely so close to human habitation. I’m just glad it didn’t choose to investigate our particular hut dwelling that night as badger wrestling is not a strong part of my skill-set.

I arrived late that morning for work and sat at my desk slightly dazed and once again stinking of earth. I received some images of school groups who were writing about the hut structure and was led to believe that the Jupiter head gardener also slept in the hut with his kid that night. It is great to see the fruits of our labour being appreciated by kids rather than being just torn down by them!

Alec Finlay:

"on the font of the wood
IHF’s sun temple’s
dedicated to
that wild red youth,
Apollo-Saint-Just, incarnate
forging a revolution
from the whole
framed in the round
by the cupola
that highlights azure
in the changeless
ever-changing sky"


'Little Sparks' with the Wild Hut at Jupiter Artland - 25.06.13

Click image  to view interactive 360 tour (by http://www.360pix.xo.uk)

Monday 27 May 2013

Wild Hut 20

Avon Water, Hamilton

A good friend Gordon Anderson was keen to experience another wild hut building challenge. We parked the car at Chatelherault Country Park just outside Gordon’s home town of Hamilton and followed a woodland trail which shadowed the River Avon far below. These ancient woodlands were one of the great assets of the royal hunting estate of Cadzow, which came into the possession of the progenitors of the Hamilton family in the early 14th century.

We passed some huge gnarled trees which looked like a herd of calcified elephants, and is thought to be the oldest living oak woodland in Scotland. Dendrochronology (scientific tree-ring analysis) has ascribed them to the 1460s (550 years old-ish).

Soon after, we passed another interesting feature - a carved old log which read; “As soon as you take one thing by itself you find it hitched to everything else in the universe”. It was intriguing to find some John Muir paraphrasing deep in these ancient woods. Muir expanded on this point with another less elegant but more descriptive quote; "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” I’m fairly sure we humans will hang ourselves with these cords long before we understand their critical value.

The Build:
We came to a sharp bend as the path steered away from some steep falling ground. As we left the path in search of a suitable build site, I noticed the cool forest had a thick carpet of wild garlic and tumbled trees. Gordon suggested that our hut concept echoed the form of an old ‘look-out hide’ which was perfectly fitting for this royal hunting estate location. This poetic observation helped to connect the project with the rich history of the woods.

As the area is predominantly characterised by a dramatic steep-sided gorge, I thought it would also be fitting to create a structure that dove-tailed with the topography. We decided to create a sleeping platform which could be suspended above this steep gorge by projecting out from the hillside. We scooped up a plentiful supply of fallen deadwood and bound the primary structure with biodegradable garden twine.
Gordon found working with the twine a minor struggle so I got to work on 4 large sandwich panels as he arranged the sleeping platform. The panels were heavy and difficult to place at high level. As I climbed on the structure in order to arrange a roofing panel I smashed through one half of the sleeping platform. After I patched it up Gordon suggested that at least he now knew which side he was sleeping on!
We had a deadline for 6:30pm as the Champions League football final was being played that evening and we had ambitions to watch it. We completed the last roofing panel together and hauled it onto the frame. Other than some patching-up, the build was complete by 6:45pm and we headed back along the twisting path for a mixed Kebab and a night of European football action.
Roughing it:
At around 10pm we hopped back into the car with a football sized kebab wedged in our stomachs, remarking on how lucky it was that the hut was well ventilated.

We parked the car in a nearby housing estate and walked swiftly past groups of arguing youths. Our packs were laden with camping gear and we tried not to draw any unwanted attention to ourselves. We crossed the formal lawn at Chatelherault Estate and noticed a fox silently stalking some rabbits in the darkness.
Back at the hut-site we spent an extra hour building a small sandwich panel each which completed the roof covering. A large lemon-yellow moon shone through the dark woods as we climbed precariously onto the elevated platform and wriggled into our sleeping bags. The sound of the river rushing far below was often broken by the sound of distant cars screeching through the nearby country lanes. Similarly, Gordon’s snoring was often interrupted by the sound of screeching foxes in the fields beyond the forest edge. I’m not altogether sure which was better.
We woke to a typical Scottish breakfast of mince pie, washed down with some luminous orange Irn-Bru (which incidentally has a warning on the can suggesting it may cause ‘behavioural changes in children’?!) It was indeed the breakfast of champions.

After a loud cracking noise I turned to see Gordon snapping through his bed slats. He pulled his arse back through the branches and re-distributed his weight more evenly.  
It turns out it is very difficult to control your laughter when someone is dangling precariously in their sleeping bag over a steep embankment.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Wild Hut 19

Dawsholm Park, Glasgow

Some weeks previously I had arranged to collaborate with a Glasgow-based design consultancy called Giraffe Architecture. Raymond from Giraffe shares my passion for sustainable design and is also quite partial to an outdoor-adventure on occasion which was more than handy. After various emails we had decided to build something that would really test our design skills and explore a more ‘engineered’ solution. So in order to push ourselves we decided to build a mathematically complex geodesic dome…from wobbly twigs.

Having in the past made various shelters that were either too narrow or too short, I was worried that this more precise geometric puzzle would be impossible to achieve on a cold, dark evening with some rickety branches. It didn’t help that some of the worst snow storms this year had hit Glasgow on the very day of the build. It doesn’t surprise me.

Travelling through the west end of Glasgow we arrived at the gates of Dawsholm Waste Transfer and Recycling Facility (or ‘the dump’ for short) in the early evening. The recycling plant has a surreal high-rise metal shed on the fringe of a small woodland park. This hilltop forest offers great views south over Glasgow’s west-end but is fairly exposed to the bitter east-wind and blustery snow showers which now fell.

The Build:
We gathered some sticks and walked along the long approach path leading to the woods. Dog-walkers were out in force utilising what was left of the diminishing daylight. From a distance we may have looked like park rangers clearing up the fallen branches from the path. This was hopeful at best. It was more likely they noticed the serious conviction written across our faces suggesting that we were working towards something bigger, more epic, but ultimately less useful than path-clearing. We walked past with our heads down, avoiding awkward questions and eye contact.

Tall trees had been knocked down by the wind in an elemental game of woodland dominos. Tipped trunks were precariously resting against adjacent trees, interlocked at high level. Many trees lay motionless on the forest floor, revealing a tiny pond below their upturned roods. We stashed our rucksacks deep in the branches of a fallen conifer tree and proceeded to find yet more sticks.

Eventually, we had gathered enough sticks for the main pentagonal components and decided to take a quick break for a cold dinner. Ray lifted his sandwich to find a mouse had nibbled a hole in the corner of the packet. Slightly concerned I hung our main food bag from a branch but was ultimately pleased to find these tiny creatures harbouring in the security of this fallen forest giant.

We got back to work arranging the pentagons which would form the basis for the hut. We required 5 large identical pentagons for this build. The pentagons were made from an inner and outer frame, inside which we trapped some fir branches from the adjacent fallen tree. They took around 45 mins each to assemble and we had the feeling that this adventure might be a late one.

I nipped back over to the food bag when a little golden mouse (possibly a wood or harvest mouse) sprung out the bag and disappeared along the branches. I almost jumped out of my freezing skin and was of the opinion I could probably outrun Raymond if the mouse decided to attack. It was actually great to see a little woodland creature so close-up, right in the heart of the city. They are also slightly cuter than the usual fat rats I encounter on the pavements outside shops.

A fox danced through the woods like a drugged gypsy, darting in various directions as the snowfall became more concentrated. It didn’t stay for long and headed towards the recycling centre for supper, or indeed to recycle. We completed the 5 pentagon sandwiches and had them arranged upright by midnight. It was freezing cold so we could never stop for very long without our fingers becoming increasingly numb.

A couple of hours later we had arranged the roof and tiled it with the conifer branches from the adjacent deadwood tree. The hut looked surprisingly like a geodesic dome. I was surprised at how neat and structurally capable the form became. The rigid dome flexed and compressed to hold each of its components in place. The snowfall now seemed fairly heavy and I was sure that the hut would soon resemble an igloo rather than a finely panelised dome.

Roughing it:
We passed our gear through the small triangular door and rolled out our sleeping mats. Things weren’t much warmer in our sleeping bags as temperatures on the hill plummeted to around -7. Not ideal, although I learnt a good trick that by placing my hands deep into my pockets I was able to sleep without shivering. I wrapped a scarf around my face as tiny flakes of snow drifted through similarly tiny gaps in the structure. The hut became a great wind-break and we were more than pleased with this minor sheltering victory.

We chatted until late and fell asleep to the sounds of agitated trees moaning in the wind with old limbs creaking. A dog barking right outside the hut signalled morning and was a great natural alarm (reminiscent of clockwork, much like their toilet habits). We packed quickly as the morning air was much colder than the previous night, partnered by a fierce wind.

We skipped breakfast and made our way through the arterial maze of forest trails until we aligned once again with the main dump access road. The snow was still falling heavily and after a short commute I was back home and beginning to warm up slightly.

I decided to eat the croissant I had bought for our breakfast, but on further inspection the bag was chewed open and the croissant was hollowed out by that stealthy little mouse earlier. It’s lucky the rodent had retired as it may have well found itself on the menu after munching our breakfast!