Bridport & West Dorset News, Views, Videos & Curiosities

Woodland school plans new course and buildings

A VISIONARY scheme putting West Dorset at the forefront of architectural and environmental education is bursting with new life.

Hooke Park near Beaminster already boasts some of the most extraordinary buildings in Britain (see video), discussed by architects all over the world.

Now the Architectural Association, which owns the 350-acre site, has been given outline planning permission by West Dorset District Council to create many more unusual but influential structures.

There will be a range of experimental wooden buildings for students and teachers, including 12 accommodation units, a construction shed, a hall for lectures, exhibitions and events, a design studio, a seminar room, four offices, a replacement caretaker’s house, and dining and kitchen facilities.

The Architectural Association, the UK’s oldest school of architecture, is planning to use Hooke Park for a new graduate course called Design + Make.

Students will “seek to learn from local craftspeople with traditional skills in woodworking, boat building and construction. The aim is for a reciprocal knowledge-sharing relationship with the local community.”

Hooke Park’s history over the last thirty years has largely been forgotten in Dorset, but it’s fascinating.

It was, for a while, of global significance.

It sought to offer a model for 21st century lifestyle changes.

“Ace”: Hooke Park. Photograph by Sam Bush, from his blog And in my hands a camera

It’s a place with a great capacity to excite. Quite coincidentally, the excellent Bridport photographic blogger Sam Bush visited there with friends just days ago. It was, he writes, “amazing… ace… easily the best fun I’ve had in ages.”

A brief history

It’s more than 30 years since the internationally-renowned Beaminster furniture maker John Makepeace first conceived the idea of a new kind of forestry. In 1979 he went on a trip to Longleat with students from his craft school at Parnham House.

Nearly all week, it rained.

They sheltered in an old Nissen hut, and worked with wood freshly cut from a neglected coppice.

Mr Makepeace was impressed by how quick and easy it was to make sturdy useful things, and he began thinking about what could be done with the enormous number of small trees thinned out from commercial forests, which were normally pulped, burned as firewood, used as fenceposts or just discarded.

Surely better uses could be found?

The Hooke Park project began in 1983 in a 350-acre wood near Beaminster as an attempt to teach Britain – and the world – environmental and economic lessons.

Six years later, Hooke Park College opened.

Scuplture by Andy Goldsworthy at the entrance to Hooke Park. The work was sponsored by the Dorset-based charity Common Ground and South West Arts. Photograph copyright Ian Capper, reused under Creative Commons licence.

“Goldsworthy created his sculptures from second-grade timber which had grown on a hillside where the land had been slipping for many years: the trees had bent to compensate” (Jeremy Myerson, Makepeace, 1995). Photograph copyright Sarah Smith, reused under Creative Commons licence.

Central to Hooke’s programme of research and development was the idea of living and learning in buildings that would – literally – grow out of the woods.

And so – for a while – they did. For example, the Westminster Lodge, spanned with thinnings and topped with grass, was funded by the Duke of Westminster’s charitable trust.

One aim was to provide new models for housing and village life in the 21st century, particularly in sensitive landscapes like those of West Dorset.

Another was to inspire and train a new generation of environmentally-motivated designers and entrepreneurs.

Some – like Richard Lee, who now makes shepherd’s huts, and Simon Thomas Pirie, who designs and makes furniture – are still out there (Mr Lee is based in a big barn at Piddlehinton, Mr Pirie at Briantspuddle). The video below is about an English walnut kitchen made by Simon Pirie and his team for a client in the Cotswolds, near Bath.

Shepherd’s hut by Richard Lee from Plankbridge photo gallery.

Overall, however, Hooke Park College had a patchy record. Its running costs exceeded its income and it was wound up in the mid-1990s in complicated and sometimes acrimonious circumstances.

The Parnham Trust sought to run further courses, but eventually, in 2002, the whole site was acquired by the Architectural Association (founded by “troublesome students” in 1847).

A very exciting moment

The association now aims to resurrect Hooke’s original approach to building, with students and teachers using greenwood poles from the woods around them.

Hooke Park’s new director Martin Self has been busy up in London, but he wrote (in an e-mail) that he was enthusiastic about “a very exciting moment – now that the outline planning is in place and the new academic programme at Hooke is coming together.”

David Hodges, West Dorset District council’s case officer, said that council officers had been in discussion with the Architectural Association before it made the application that was recently approved.

He went on: “This approval will need to be followed by a series of individual applications (what we call the ‘reserved matters’) for the detailed designs of each building once these have been designed by the students before they can be constructed on site.  The council will continue to offer advice to the Architectural Association in making these reserved  matters applications at Hooke Park as the detailed designs come forward.”

The Hooke Park project was ahead of its time, but it’s been one of those West Dorset phenomena that has gradually spread ideas through the wider culture. Guy Mallinson, a graduate of Parnham House, recently appeared on BBC2’s Mastercrafts with his Woodland Workshop at Holditch over in the far west of Dorset.

As John Makepeace once said: “Now that energy, sustainability and employment are pressing issues, trees and timber offer new economic, social and environmental possibilities.”