« Making mud bricks and being a stakeholder in a shared project might transform people’s lives. »
Interview with Matt Robinson, Architecture
Cornwall, South West England, October 30, 2013
Matt Robinson is happy to share with us his latest architecture project that is about to be built : the Dor Kemmyn Interfaith Center, a sacred space that will welcome and celebrate all different faiths in Cornwall. The building is an ambitious design, expressing geometry via a visible timber structure. Its construction will include the participation of people, with the making of earthern bricks. During our chat, Matt describes not only the design, but also the process of building – balancing time, techniques and materials. The site will be open to participants in April-September 2014 and April-October 2015 for making bricks out of earth.
Matt, can you tell us a little bit about the building?
The building has been priced at about 1.2 million pounds, that’s about 1.5 million euros, I suppose. I don’t think that is expensive, really. Part of the fund raising project is to get people to make bricks. Unburnt earth blocks.
How do we make the bricks ?
The bricks are made in a polytunnel. You get a digger to mix the earth with chopped up straw and small stones.
Making mud bricks, it’s a bit like making bread.
It’s a bit like making bread, really : You scoop out a small amount of the stuff with a garden fork and you roll it out like you’re rolling out dough. Then you use a wooden form work [like a wooden mould shaped like a small drawer]. You need to almost butter it with slippery clay, so that the mixture doesn’t stick to the mould and comes out easily. So you roll the
mixture out, so it forms one big lump, and throw it in the mould – then you push it into the four corners of the mould, and I usually smooth out the top layer. We then put those on a board. There will probably be 200mm wide boards.
Going around the ellipse at the top of the building, the bricks are going to be laid in a herringbone fashion at a 45-degree angle. If you look at the Dome in Florence, there’s a special way of building curves. It is done in a herringbone pattern. The Dome was built without formwork and that was at the time the biggest dome that has ever been built. Anyway, I just like the idea of doing it in a herringbone pattern. These bricks will be 20cm X 20cm X 8.5cm. So they are actually square, not rectangular, because you want to place them in a circular shape. If they are too thin, they break easily, but they can’t be too big either, since they would be too big to handle then.
You cannot throw a bit of mud in [the mould] and then throw another bit of mud in. You have to roll it all at once into one big lump. Then you throw it in, and leave it to dry on the board for a week.
Finally, you lift them upright and stack them in a herringbone fashion, in the polytunnel, because we don’t get much sun in Cornwall. It just takes time.
Two years to make bricks. Two years to raise funds.
How long does it take for the bricks to dry?
It depends on how warm it is and how much wind there is. But it’s not really about how long it takes for the bricks to dry, it’s more about pacing the operation. Making bricks is the first thing that we need to get done. In high summer, there will be two sessions of brick making a week and then we will move them. Sometimes we’ll miss a day and that will be fine. I will come once a week for half a day to make some bricks – Other than that, I will be busy with my other architecture work. It’s not about being too ambitious or being in a hurry. It will be done when it’s done and I’ve got lots of other things to get on with.
How are you planning to organize the participants who will make the bricks?
We will have to get experts. Probably two professionals in earth building. They will supervise the participants.
The earthern mixture will be made by machine, right?
Yes, the mixture will be made with a digger.
Finding the right balance of clay, sand and stones.
The earth will be extracted directly from the site?
Yes. I think it is important to use the clay we find on site. It might be that the clay is not suitable where the building is going to be built. We would then need to dig a specific hole [in the same field] to find the clay. In which case, the new hole will be filled in by soil. It’s about finding the right balance of clay, sand and stones. Bricks are much more forgiving than cob since you can have much higher clay content.
In cob, when the clay content is too high, the wall cracks, and it shrinks more unevenly. With bricks, the shrinking has already taken place. The mortar used between the bricks is just clay mortar, but the walls harden instantly.
You can not ‘put’ it together. You have to ‘mesh’ it together.
The other advantage of using bricks is that there is quality control: when we move them [you can see if they break or not]. I’ve had volunteers building cob walls before. The quality difference between them was tremendous! There was a potter. He built fantastic walls. Then there were people who didn’t really want to be there and didn’t build well. The building wasn’t finished by volunteers. It never had a roof on it, so all the walls collapsed after several years. The only part that stayed standing up was the one part the potter had built. He was in his 70s, he was an old man, but he understood clay. He just understood the material.
My wife says that clay has a memory. Even with cob walls, you have to ‘mesh’ all the bits of clay/earth together. If you ‘put’ them together, they don’t actually bond.
Will you be testing the earth?
I could send samples to the University of Plymouth and get them to do soil samples of it. But I’m pretty confident I have enough experience.
I really like bricks. Building with bricks is one of my favourite ways of building. We’ll probably make some sausage roll [shaped bricks] as well, because they can be quite useful and they look very good. My wife’s studio looks like this. The structure is very rustic. I think it looks fantastic! So that kind of structure, that’s what you’ll see on the outside of the cloister of the Dor Kemmyn Interfaith Centre.
Taking the time to find interesting natural materials.
When you say it’s going to take two seasons, do you mean two summers?
Yes. Brick making will take two seasons. It means two summers, two years. Meanwhile we have to raise 1.2 million pounds, which is going to take a long time. And I have learnt from many building projects that if you want to get interesting natural materials, you have to find them first. The natural material that you find will influence the design. The design will have to be adjusted to accommodate those natural materials.
A building for many Truths
How did this project emerge?
Some people in Cornwall Faith Forum got together – leaders from lots of different churches and faiths, such as Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Hindus, Bahá’ís, Buddhists – they just wanted to start a conversation. The conversation carried on and they started exploring territory. « How do we take this further? »
I absolutely believe in talking to people. I believe there are many truths and there are many interpretations of many truths. There is no One Truth, only many interpretations.
I had a project of a building that looked like this. So I came along to a meeting just with the model and presented it. What those people had in common was worship and they wanted a sacred space to worship in. Basically, secular society doesn’t recognize that. What is interesting is that when they worship, they do it in different ways. So my job has been to listen to their dreams and actually give them an architectural form and they liked the form.
An oval building
The building is designed in an oval form, not a circle. Why is that?
Because ovals are always more complicated! Also, it’s a better shape.
The oval form is built out of two tight circles and two shallow circles. The radius of the shallow circles is three times the radius of the tight circles. Although the floor plan is quite simple, the building gets complicated with the pitched roof. On the Dor Kemmyn building, its resolved by introducing
a Lantern made from two overlapping circles, like a Venn Diagram in Mathematics. It turns out to be a holy shape as well – a vesica piscis – common to many religions. Do you know Chartres Cathedral in France? On the doorway, Christ is in a shape like this.
We have an architectural prize in Britain, called the Stirling Prize, and one of the last buildings selected was an oval Chapel! It got me quite worried. My neighbour came over and said to me « Oh, you don’t need to bother with your Chapel, it’s been done before ! » But the Dor Kemmyn building has some significant differences: it has a pitched roof, it has a structural geometry and you see the whole of the structural geometry and it has a lantern on top, in a vesica piscis form. This is what makes this building special. I’ve never seen a lantern this shape before.
What is going to happen next, once you have the bricks?
The next thing will be to clear the site, and once we have the bricks, I am hoping to get the reinforced concrete doorways made. Inside the building will be
storage cupboards and doors – because each faith needs to put its stuff somewhere.
Doorframes in concrete? To support the bricks?
Yes. The bricks will go on top of it.
There’s an American artist called Donald Judd. He built these massive concrete cubes in Arizona somewhere. This is a similar idea, but better than his!
So did you get this idea from looking at his work?
No, not really. I don’t really like his work. It’s all straight lines, there’re no curves in it.
The concrete frame idea comes from the will to simplify the construction process, and also, because the makers of those frames are locals and they are part of the interfaith community, there could be a chance that they donate the frames. If the frames are donated, it would encourage further donations and help raise funds.
Once the site is flattened, we will be able to arrange the concrete frames. There will be an enclosure, so that people can get a sense of the space. This will create more interaction with the public, and hopefully encourage donations. The idea is to integrate fundraising in the building process, as well as hands-on participation. Mud bricks will take two years to make, two years to raise funds. [It takes time, but it is a more interesting approach.] The thing that most modern buildings don’t incorporate into their building process is patience. They’re all sheds; they’re all designed to be built very quickly.
I had a customer on the phone this morning worrying about his extension taking more than twelve weeks… It doesn’t matter how long it takes to build something ! I think it is a symptom of people who are disconnected with the natural world. It rains. It snows. Whereas, with earth building… We just have to be much more skilled with natural materials.
Regarding the bricks, are there regulations in the UK on their dimensions ?
No, there aren’t.
Can you make a brick in any way you want?
In this project, it doesn’t really matter, because the bricks are not holding up the roof. They are not structural, but cosmetic. It is an oak frame that is holding up the roof. This building is a complex piece of geometry. Carpentry can be very precise in geometry. Cob can’t be. It’s just much more efficient to build the oak frame and to add reinforced concrete and cob blocks later.
Where will you find the timber?
There will be lots of larch trees – larix decidua – we have a lot of plantation Larch and Douglas firs in the south-west of UK, they grow very quickly, and some pieces of oak might come from France.
Larch is one of my favourite trees, but I think it’s being attacked and killed by a fungus. So lots of larch plantation might have been affected by it in the UK.
The search for a spiritual tree
I am looking for a tree: a curved tree that’s 10 metres long. Most trees grow in a spiral, so it is very rare to find a tree that is curved only in one dimension.
Why is this curved tree so important?
When I made the big model, the 1:25 scale model, I had a flat bottom chord to the truss. It was boring. It kind of ruined the space. Then I thought I would use a glue-laminated beam that could be made in Switzerland or in Germany – or we could make it in our workshop – but then I thought it would be much more interesting, more spiritual and cooler, groovier, better, to find one tree. It’s a more interesting story. It would make the building more unique.
If you go over America or Europe, you can see steel frame sheds everywhere. They all look the same. We’ve got Lidl [a German supermarket chain] in Cornwall – I’m sure you’ve got Lidl in your country as well – and they all look the same.
I think to make a building of real spiritual significance, one of the key features is to have spiritual materials, not industrial materials that have been cooked and cleaned and unified. It’s about having texture. And getting that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you go into a building – particularly an ancient building.
What about the roof?
It will be a slate roof. In Cornwall we have a very strong slate tradition. It’s a conical roof, so the slates start big at the eaves and get smaller as they go up. We call it a Cornish Scantle slate roof. This will be another feature that will make it local.
With the flat roof around the perimeter, I haven’t decided what it’ll be like yet. I like water, a pond, but it is risky. This flat roof would reflect the light under the eaves. It might be a turf roof with big discs of water, which would give fantastic reflecting light. It will be diffused light all inside, and there will also be direct light from the lantern above.
Between simplicity and complexity
How long have you been working on this project?
Seven years. I first came up with the shape, and I’ve done seven models of it. I’ve put everything I’ve learnt in my life into this design, so this building would be the finest piece of work that I can do. When you design a building, you’ve got a dialogue going on between simplicity and complexity. If you are not careful, a building can become very complicated. It’s like a dam bursting, you can’t direct the flow, you just got to trust it. So I’ve redesigned the concrete frames and simplified it. And I think it gets better. It will be a fantastic building! You can see how much time somebody spent designing a building. First you have the idea, and then it is about negotiating between simplicity and complexity. This building is completely geometric. It is a very interesting project and it’s all my ideas: I’m the client, really, so there are no Politics to deal with.
But it’s not just about geometry. There is a lot of culture in there, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
You’ve been studying a lot of different symbolism, different religions?
I’m actually trying to design an interesting building and [it’s only after I’ve done the design] that I try to find the symbolism. – The roof, for instance, it wasn’t like « oh, let’s put a roof in a vesica piscis shape, which is a holy shape », but rather it was about designing a building with a pitched roof that was rational to build, and it just so happened to end up being in that shape. – So actually I’ve been finding symbolism over the last seven years. It wasn’t like I invented the symbolism or like I intended for it to be there. It’s about being disciplined and listening and trying to create a good building.
The bricks, for instance, were an idea of having stakeholders. I don’t want people to be metaphorically a community. I want a literal
community to come and build it. It might transform their lives. It will transform some of these people. They would look at the world in a different way.
By building mud bricks?
Yeah, by building mud bricks and being a stakeholder in a shared project, a public building. I don’t think we do shared projects very well. In Britain, we expect the Local or National Government to do them all. The government or the European Union hands out money for it. It’s not actually a group of [people who builds it. It comes from above.]
“I want to use raw materials, as raw as possible.”
I think the best architecture starts with ‘materials’ at one end and ‘ideas’ at the other end, and they meet somewhere in the middle. Whereas most modern architecture are just idea-based, and use materials that are idea-based, like reinforced concrete or glass or shiny steel, these are materials that consume an enormous amount of energy. They have no
craftsmanship. They are mental materials, whereas mud is a practical, spiritual material. I suppose it’s a cultural thing. Most architects use industrial components. I want to use raw materials, as raw as possible. I am making a building like a salad. And most of architectural buildings these days are ready meals. They are overcooked.
You care about details. What will the joinery of the timber frame be like? Will there be any metal in the joints?
Timber frame will be all mortise and tenon joint with cleft oak pegs.
So, no metal?
The vesica piscis lantern will have stainless steel wires – they are structural, in tension – because I do like a slight stainless steel flavour, too. It’s a combination of old and new. I don’t want to be a Luddite. I’m not somebody who hates technology. I think I’m very contemporary, by using ancient and modern materials in the same building. I’m just waiting for recognition!
« Everyone will understand the building’s geometry, its reference points and how it is put together. »
The carpenters, when they’ll build it, will know their reference points. A lot of modern buildings, like Frank Gehry’s, that kind of wobbles, or Hugh Hardy, there is no shorthand way of communicating to the builder what’s going on. The builders will just have to obey the Architect’s measurements.
With the Dor Kemmyn building, it’s totally different. The builder will know where the centre of the radius is. He or she’ll be able to check it. Every carpenter who works on this building will understand its geometry and know how it’s put together. And I guess this is a metaphor for people who believe in God. It’s a reference point, it’s something they can always return to and it’s accessible to everyone.
From Philosophy to oak frame carpentry
How many buildings have you designed in your life?
I’ve designed about eight new houses, four bridges and lots of extensions to houses. But in a way, an extension can be more difficult than a new building, because you have to listen to the existing building. I think, compared to a lot of architects, I’ve built quite a lot. Nothing I’ve built [so far] has been on a very big scale, but these buildings have a lot of design density in them, which is to say, there’s been a lot of thought behind them. And I know my materials now. I know my language.
How long have you been designing buildings?
For twenty years. But I never studied architecture at the university. I did a Philosophy degree instead. So I’m self-taught [in architecture]. I learnt how to be an oak frame carpenter. So I know about wood. I know how to choose wood in the woodland and how to convert it. I’m mostly self-taught.
I’m very good at oak frames and at structures. All my buildings are designed with a structure in mind. Whereas most architects, I would say, are looking at the space, and then they would get an engineer to sort out the design problems with a lot of steel, really. And I’m not interested in that. For me, the thing I am most interested in is the structure.
Timber frame structure?
Yes, mostly timber frame. But I wouldn’t mind doing some reinforced concrete. But I don’t have clients who like concrete.
Do the clients come to you? Do you have a reputation?
Yeah, very locally, in West Cornwall.
Since you don’t have a diploma in architecture, do you need someone to sign the plan?
I would probably get a certified architect involved somewhere, and that would just be to sign the plan off.
Inspiration by walking in local towns
How do you design? Do you draw with a pen?
Yes, with a pencil. Lots of pencil sketches.
What about observation? Where do you find your inspiration?
Yeah, well, there’s a problem to solve. So I go for a walk, in Penzance for instance. And I’ll see a solution. So I steal all the time from local solutions, [from my surroundings]. I never read architectural magazines! Because then I would steal from architectural magazines and then I’d start producing buildings that look like everybody else’s. I can look at the past and I can look at local buildings and occasionally I have an idea myself.
So do you get inspired by walking through your neighbourhood or by being surrounded by nature?
No, not nature. But towns, towns in Cornwall, really, and I like that, because then my buildings look like Cornish buildings. They are part of that tradition.
As a trained philosopher, do you read a lot of books?
No, I don’t really read books. I look at picture books! I wasn’t particularly good at philosophy. There was a philosopher called Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was Austrian, from a very famous family. Anyway, he [was also interested in architecture and] designed a building [in the 1920s], but he was a much better philosopher. I like to think I wasn’t a very good philosopher, but I make good buildings!
So what do you call yourself? A designer? An architect?
Well, my company is called Matt Robinson Architecture. So I cannot ‘call’ myself an architect, but I ‘make’ architecture. And actually, I’m not worried. Clearly, I am an architect. That’s what I do.
So if anyone wants to donate time or money for this building, what do you say?
Yes, please! It would be ideal if people wanted to donate money and time. We need labour.
Do you accept labour from overseas?
Absolutely. If somebody wanted to learn how to build their house out of earth and they just wanted to gain confidence in building with earth, then bricks are the best way to start!
More information on :
Matt Robinson Architecture’s website:
Interview with Matt Robinson, Architecture, England