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Review: Vertical Studio 2020 at Welsh School of Architecture

If you ask any student who attended the Bachelor part of the curriculum at the Welsh School of Architecture what module brought them to produce their most unusual and sometimes frankly bizarre work, the most common answer will likely be Vertical Studio. This short module (just two weeks of group work) is quite inconsequential in terms of grading and serves more as a link to allow students from Years One and Two to integrate and exchange their experiences while working together in a group (hence the ‘vertical’ component of the name). Additionally, the module allows for exploring various avenues of architectural theory and practice, which would often not be dwelled upon in the self-admittedly project-based methodology of teaching. The unit has an impressively wide range, from furniture- and object-making through accessible design to photography and philosophy. The only drawback of this rather interesting exercise was that in the past it have rarely added up to anything – the two weeks of intensive work would ultimately end with a twenty-minute long presentation to some of the fellow Year One and Two students, with the effects of its work mostly forgotten.

Fortunately, that was not the case in 2020, as WSA decided to opt for a different approach. Partly because of the lack of space in the school’s Bute Building, which is still under renovation, and the increase in the number of units students were able to choose from (an impressive number of twenty-one individual studios!), the school decided to partner with SHIFT – an art venue located in the Cardiff’s City Centre – to open the first Vertical Studio Exhibition. While it was rather short-lived – the exhibition opened and closed on the same rainy Friday afternoon – it definitely worked as a proof that this is a much-needed direction the module should take.

The basement gallery space, visibly adapted from a previous warehouse or utility area, provided a very utilitarian, bare-bones aesthetic. Walls made of concrete blocks, rough concrete columns, warehouse floors, dim lights and exposed wires complemented the strong DIY feel of the presented work – including chipboard furniture, models made of everyday objects, photos and brochures hung from the ceiling on a fishing wire. It was very evident that the collected showpieces were conceptually much closer to first prototypes and initial explorations than to finished products.

The exhibition visitors look at drawings and photos hung on a fishing wire.
The rough warehouse finishes complemented the experimental and DIY nature of the exhibition.

This factor is what makes the whole exhibition so much more interesting. The two rather intense weeks allocated to the Vertical Studio module were just enough time to allow the students to explore their initial ideas and showcase their design skills. The pieces on display – often rough around the edges, unfinished and at times, impractical (such as a prototype chair that cannot be sat on!) – nevertheless invite conversation and reflection much more than any finalised work ever could. The lack of time to finalise and perfect the drawings left the students with the challenge to prioritise elements of their work that need to be portrayed in-depth, knowing that any flaws will be immediately more obvious when they cannot be Photoshopped until they look at least agreeable. The resulting work is honest, raw, often flawed and for that even more admirable.

Obviously, how exactly this time constraint would affect the work would depend on the methodology and subject of each unit’s exploration. In theory, all the units were supposed to answer the rather broad leading question of the exhibition – ‘Where do we draw the line?’ – in one of the three suggested contexts (ethical boundaries, materiality and theoretical contemplation) helpfully indicated by the line on the floor in one of three primary colours (respectively red, blue and yellow). However, one look at the collected artefacts and it becomes rather clear that the distinction is not as simple as the one between primary colours. This led to the impression that the units were only retroactively fitted into the three categories and that this division should not have been so clear – and it is quite tempting to imagine this colour circle supplemented by greens, purples and oranges where the unit’s subject is split between (for example) exploration of ethics and architectural form. That, together with the exhibition’s short duration, are two major criticisms of the event and something that would be interesting to explore over the years, as the Vertical Studio Exhibitions grow and evolve.

Three students manipulate the prefab furniture pieces.
Some units allowed visitors to freely interact with the pieces.

The upside of this labelling issue is that the only reason it is so evident is because the units themselves are wonderfully diverse and often quite eccentric. There are twenty-one of them this year, so it would be quite impossible to describe all of them in depth. My interests gravitated towards the more experimental studios such as 7.Beyond Meanwhile Space, 8.Brea(x)thing and 13.Printing the Mundane, respectively focused on innovative exploration of mundane, in-between spaces; creating part-fashion, part-architectural intervention that allows the users to take a break in the quick pace of the modern world or the exploration of everyday architectural forms through, poetry, sketches, montages and the process of book-making. For those more interested in other avenues of architecture and design, however, the units offered something specific for many other areas of architecture and design – from furniture-related 21.It’s hard to find a good chair, 11.Futuremakers and 14.Studio furniture through ones focused on different modes of analysis and representation (12.Rural works, 18.The city comes to you and 15.Perception) to ones focused on the exploration of architecture form in relation to human scale (2.Connecting the city and the human and 6.Bake my wall) and many, many other categories – exploration of different materials, accessible stage design, adaptive reuse and renovation, environmentalism in architecture, to name a few.

Altogether, it becomes evident that even though the units are organized into three distinct groups, every single one offers a unique, interesting perspective on architectural conditions and questions rarely touched upon in the university course, earning its own place on this metaphorical colour wheel. An exhibition dedicated to these unique perspectives becomes not only a place to start a discussion and contemplation, but also a celebration of all various modes of design imagination and techniques that make architecture such a powerful tool of creation. Inspiring, courageous and raw, the Vertical Studio Exhibition will hopefully become an annual tradition of Welsh School of Architecture, preferably more accessible to the general public and open for longer than a couple of hours on one Friday afternoon.

all photos courtesy of Welsh School of Architecture and Peter Evans