• Sunday , 24 September 2017

Edifices in Sand

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Yesterday I met the world’s youngest architect. Her portfolio to date has mostly consisted of residential builds. She limits her designing to the summer months, as the rest of her year is currently devoted to professional development that doesn’t come with CPD points.

It is true; her creations share a certain typology. A pyramidal shape with a wide structural base tapering to a pinnacle. A limited palette of materials: mostly sand but often wooden block or Lego. A minimal size with an ornate aesthetic. She is a Renaissance woman, easily accepting her role as designer, contractor, and builder. Her methods are architecture’s equivalent of farm to fork, her hand in every stage of her projects. Yesterday the latest reached completion.

Her motivation, it was clear, was the creation of a better world. In the burning heat of the Irish sun she had staked her claim over a suitable site. The choice was easy; she was very familiar with the area, having routinely visited it during the preceding summers. She knew its idiosyncrasies, the large boulder skulking like a mountain range to the north, the seaweed-forested tidal niches, and the complex southern sea.

The analysis was good. The topography was flat and easy, some would say boring. She preferred an even baseline, what with the new Part M access regulations. The climate was decidedly hot and arid, at least today. But there were no neighbours. She shrugged. Occasionally there was a community of buildings here, but really – who wanted the competition?

Her Lilliputian clients exist only in her imagination; princes and princesses with the kind of wealth only possible in make-believe. This gives her complete creative freedom. Her parti-pris had been a fitting tumulus for the dead crab of earlier. A monument to the people it had doubtlessly pinched, as well as a literal covering-up of its smell of decay.

Her construction drawings were scrawled in wet sand with driftwood. Here a rectangular plan and there a towering elevation. Planning permission was quickly granted with the flick of a magazine page and “Okay. Have fun, honey.” With these in place, the build could proceed immediately.

To begin, there was the trench. An infrastructural highway, prerequisite to the genesis of construction. It drew water from the major natural resource, the briny southern ocean. The trench led straight to a reservoir near the site which she had also constructed, for supply purposes. The trickle of water making its way closer at each wave splash was not enough.

I watched as construction vehicles negotiated the traffic. A leaky bucket in the hands of her three-year-old brother made its way up the beach between improvised football games, a rampaging Frisbee, and a dog digging the foundations of a McMansion. Barefoot and bare-headed, he did not meet the safety requirements. All workers need SPF 50, she declared in her role as Health and Safety Officer. He was immediately dispatched from site.

Meanwhile, she mixed sand and water in a bucket, a trial and error method. Beside her she slapped down small test fistfuls. One had easily puddled, failing even the simplest slump test. She added more sand. Her brother performed the necessary compressive tests by enthusiastically jumping up and down on top.

When she was satisfied she filled the bucket and evened the sand across its brim. She tramped down the sand with her feet like she was crushing grapes. In one smooth movement she turned the bucket over. A pause, and then she gently lifted the formwork. A tower emerged. She measured it against the bucket, observing the quick reversal of positive and negative space. More towers followed. She used her small fingers to carve out windows and doors, even a rudimentary staircase. She ignored the discrepancies in riser height.

After the structural sand was finessed, it was time for the second fix. She took limpet shells and shards of mussel shells and pressed them into the firm sand. Some she removed, leaving their imprints in the still-moist walls. Others became a part of the structure itself. These unconventional materials lend a certain naïve quality to her work, but it is these that she finds most readily available. Timber, for example, she finds herself at a loss to source locally. The expense and forethought necessary to import lollipop sticks were prohibitive, though the palisade wall would have benefitted greatly.

As the build progressed the sun sailed across the sky. It was almost finished, nearly as soon as it had begun. The compressed timeline lends a certain frantic air to her art of construction, although her understanding of her creations’ impermanence is keeping her ego in check.

Arbitrary deadlines are a scourge. Moving in before Christmas or before the baby is born are flexible deadlines. An absolute deadline like dinnertime is much more motivating. After all, it is likely that her work will be flooded and dissolved by tomorrow and she will be forced to begin again with tabula rasa.

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