Article by THEMBA MTWAZI*
In many ways, the relationship between humankind and stone dates back to the inception of time itself. Whether from a religious standpoint through a genesis involving a supreme being, or as the culmination of an unprecedented explosion, one of the first forms was stone. This somehow unpredictable entity that exists in multiple configurations with volumes and voids, patterns and tones so different that it’s hard to find two that are exactly alike has been at the centre of human existence. From the solid shelter of the cave, to the first tools of hunters and gatherers, to primitive agricultural equipment, stone has carved a path for human life to flourish. This hard substance became a canvas for prehistoric artists, teachers and authors to pass information from generation to generation, a practice that would become a continuum, as observed in the pages for the early Sumerian cuneiform tablets, the scroll for the decree of the Rosetta stone and the material that made construction of the pyramids possible.
Adopted and mastered by the Greeks and Romans in manifold temple forms, stone became crucial in the history of architecture. However, it can be argued that it was at this moment in universal history that the purity of stone started to become lost in architecture. What stone wanted to be it could be no more: the natural grotto it wanted to create for the early men was to be no more; the dry stone walls built by the Shona of Southern Africa were to be no more; the balancing Boulders of Neolithic ancestors at Stonehenge were to be no more; the unpredictable architecture created by the insufficient technology was to be no more. The era of its uniqueness was over.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” (Michelangelo)
Like the artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque playing with the boundaries of the orders, or the leaders of the arts and crafts movement rebelling against low-quality, mass-produced products of the industrial revolution, the Pure Form project at Kent School of Architecture ran by sculptor Patrick Crouch follows this defense of stone. True to traditional materials and tools, conceiving form from stone and wood, Crouch is bridging the gap between traditional sculpture and modern architecture.
Michelangelo proclaimed that “every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Conversely, in his polemical essay on architecture, Mark Antoine Laugier argued that architecture ought to divorce the harmonious proportions of antiquity and look towards the structural clarity embodied in mankind first structures.
Such intertwined ideals are the driving force behind the Pure Form project. Open to all ages or to “those who are alive” (in the words of Patrick Crouch) the programme aims to bring the craftsmanship lost in the materials of modernity. As contemporary skylines become glazed by the structural gymnastics made possible by steel and glass, the room for chisel has become narrower. To address this redress, Pure Form recreates the environment experienced by our forefathers during the construction of the great monuments that marked history. The process evokes memories, breeds artisans, and inspires a revolt towards some of the perceived limitations of contemporary architecture.
The sounds of traditional tools chipping away at blocks of stone sound like an ancient song in the night but when mixed with the robotic sounds of laser cutters and 3D printers, it creates a unique melody never heard before. Could this be the future of architecture encoded in the notes of a new song?
All photographs © Themba Ben Mtwazi
*Themba is currently undertaking his Stage 2 on a BA Hons degree in architecture at the University of Kent. Born and bred in Zimbabwe, the former hip-hop and graffiti artist holds two diplomas in art and design ranging from levels 2,3 to 4 acquired at Tower Hamlets College London and Sheffield Hillsborough College.