Issue 41Designing in the field

A team of young architectural staff from FCBStudios take architecture back to its roots for Forest of Imagination. Michael Lewis reports. 

In an industry dominated by digital output, it is very easy to lose touch with the physical realities of architecture. Forest of Imagination provides an opportunity for students and young professionals to work on small projects, testing ideas at 1:1 scale and resolving complex issues in-situ.

Each year, Forest of Imagination transforms a public space in Bath into a hive of excitement and creativity, inviting participants to engage with artwork, workshops and interactive installations.

Two years ago, Queen Square was re-imagined as a bamboo space-hopper arena, home to a giant white rabbit. In 2016, Bath Abbey and Kingston Parade welcomed inflatable Baobab trees and natural ‘portals’ into a magical alternative world. With these beautifully crafted installations, the annual event highlights the creativity within the city and connects people with nature through intuitive play, exploration and an invitation to unleash their imaginations.

At FCBStudios we strive to design inspirational spaces that encourage social interaction: places for people to gather, relax, explore and be at home in a shared public environment. Our involvement with Forest of Imagination allows us to channel that experience into a pop-up event that attempts to transform the physical and emotional wellbeing of visitors, to provide moments of joy and enhance lives.

This year, Forest of Imagination took place at Bushey Norwood, a picturesque National Trust meadow next to the University of Bath. FCBStudios were invited to work with architecture and engineering students from Bath University to design and build four ‘Houses of Imagination’. Each house would nestle within the meadow and accommodate a different artist or workshop during the festival.

Alongside Harry Hewlett, Marcus Rothnie, Jenny Carlin, Luke Macnab and Henry Lascelles from FCBStudios, I led a team of students on a design and build project to create the ‘Houses of Imagination’.  Each one was to be made primarily using timber felled from the site and built within the one week window.

Working on site, we chose our locations, imagined our concepts and produced scale models, 1:1 prototypes and endless sketches before finalising each of the projects and producing a full cutting list ready for the sawmill. Over the following few days we built the structures by hand, manipulating heavy pieces of timber into the correct position and ensuring each installation was structurally sound and safe for visitors.

The experience was not without its challenges. It was difficult to fully predict how the finished structure would behave. Compared with seasoned wood, recently felled green timber is notoriously difficult to cut and has a tendency to move and bend much more. Our beautifully crisp balsa model did not translate directly into a full size structure, and adaptations had to be made in-situ, through quick decisions and newly learned carpentry skills. We were quite literally designing in the field!

It was amazing to see what could be achieved in just a few days. Architecture can be a long process, taking years between the first concept sketch and the finished building. Working collaboratively to physically produce something beautiful in a very short period of time was refreshing and inspiring. Each of the Houses of Imagination was used to host workshops for art, writing and music, for exploration and reflection. They acted as markers within the Forest, and invitations to people of all ages to engage and interact with space and nature.

For us, each structure also acted as a reminder that there are many ways of doing things. Every person involved, whether as a maker, an organiser or a visitor, brought their own ideas and skills to the Forest of Imagination, contributing to the overall creative experience.

Michael Lewis

All images © FCBStudios

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