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· Hannah Durham

Cullinans in the Woods

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. You will find the Cullinans visiting the woodland campus of Hooke Park, a timber design and build testing ground owned and operated by the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture.

Nestled within Dorset, southwest England lays an ancient working woodland of 150-hectare called Hooke Park. The site traces a 'thirty-year history of experimental timber construction and rural architecture’. First owned by the Parnham Trust’s School for Woodland Industries during that time 'three remarkable demonstrations of round-wood construction were built: the Prototype House (1987), Workshop (1989) and Westminster Lodge (1997)'. The latter building was the main reason for our office pilgrimage to this site. Westminster Lodge was designed by us together with Buro Happold. Now under the ownership of the AA (since 2002), the site contains an 'educational facility for design, workshop, construction and landscape-focused activities’, with an underlying theme of 'developing new rural architectures and an ethic of material self-sufficiency'. The campus is home to a small division of students and staff from the AA Masters course called ‘Design and Make’ which continues to test, explore and push the boundaries in intricate timber construction and design.

Cullinan Studio outside Westminster Lodge.

In order to get there, we piled into our two chariots (minibuses) equipped with sketch books, drawing utensils, cameras, rope and zip-ties. We began our journey through the metropolitan jungle of London to funnel out into the green lush landscape of southwest England. Driving past the ancient spiritual landmark of Stonehenge, we paused to experience the site’s visitor centre. Before heading through some narrow single lanes lined with tall hedges either side, to arrive at our destination, Hooke Park.

Upon arrival we were greeted by the sight of Westminster Lodge, sitting handsomely and at one with its woodland setting. This was to be our home for the next two days. Designed in 1997, the lodge is constructed from greenwood grown in Hooke Park woodland and there is a timber lattice of spruce thinnings carrying a planted roof. The timber joints were designed by Buro Happold, and was developed with Bath University with funding from the DOE research grant. Currently the lodge is used for accommodation for visiting teachers and students. The current Hooke Park forester Chris Sadd worked on Westminster lodge back in 1997.    

Westminster Lodge

View into the woods from the Lodge

We were met by Jez Ralph, the Estate and Development Manager, Zac Mollica, a Design and Make student and Jack Hawker who used to be a workshop and construction site supervisor. They led us on a tour of the working woodland, describing  to us the different types of trees grown and their use, as well as showing to us many of the splendid timber structures scattered around the dense woodland built by students of the AA’s Design and Make programme.

Exploring the woodland

One of the woodland structures by the Design and Make students

One of the buildings we were introduced to was the Biomass Boiler, built by the Design and Make students in 2014. The building, with its curved rings of round timber, houses a woodchip boiler, accumulator tank and a woodchip fuel bunker to store the woodchips, which are then screw-auger fed to the boiler. The building is 'part of the district heating system to supply heat energy (for heating and hot water) to the existing and future Hooke Park campus buildings’.

Biomass Boiler

As the day came to a close we used the on-site handmade pizza oven to have a feast under the stars.

Day two began with breakfast in the Protoype House (1987). This ‘tent-like’ form of a building was designed by Richard Burton (ABK) and Frei Otto, with Ted Happold, Michael Dickson (Buro Happold) and construction by William Moorwood (ABK) and Dowding & Urdall. Using timber construction material from Hooke Park, this unique building is now Hooke Park’s refectory. To enter you pass through a trapezoid-shaped green timber door. Hinged on one of its slanted edges, the door opens inwards and upwards. Inside the ceiling drapes over the structure and down low to windows which look out over the woodland.

Prototype House

After breakfast there was a tour by Martin Self, the Director of Hooke Park and Jez who led us around the numerous large timber buildings on site, explaining their design, purpose and answering our questions. The first building was the Workshop (1989), designed by Richard Burton and Frei Otto, with the engineers Buro Happold. The Workshop uses spruce thinnings to form a vault from a series of compression arches producing a long-span enclosure. Within the workshop we met the care-taker Charlie Corry-Wright and the technician Edward Coe who work in the building’s large fully equipped timber workshop.

Inside the Workshop with Jez Ralph and Martin Self (The Director of Hooke Park)

Another more recent structure we saw was the Timber Seasoning Shelter, completed in 2014 designed and built by the Design and Make students. It is a large undulating canopy designed to shelter stacks of drying  sawn timber from the wind and rain, ready to be used for future building projects. The building uses beech trees (fagus sylvatica), which were steam-bent into a reciprocal grid structure. The project was shortlisted for the TRADA Wood Awards in 2014.

Timber Seasoning Shelter

The morning followed with a scrumptious lunch made by Georgie Corry-Wright in the Prototype House. After lunch Ted Cullinan gave the Design and Make students and the office a talk about the design and construction of Westminster Lodge. This was followed by a talk by Martin and Jez on the  work already produced by the Design and Make students. We learnt how the students are using 3D-scanning devices to scan individual trees in the woodland, so they can fell the best and most suitable tree which shape matches the requirements in the structures.

Ted Cullinan gives a talk in the Prototype House on the design and construction of Westminster Lodge

In the afternoon, once we had been issued with the necessary kit of ‘making’ parts (prepared by the trip team, including rope and zip-ties), everyone headed into the woods to create and test structures at a small scale, working in groups. The temporary structures produced by the office included; one bracken tent, a strong swing, a fictional woodland character and several temporary timber structures testing zip-tie joints. 

We all left inspired by what we had seen being created, tested and built at this enchanted place in Dorset. Thank you to all at Hooke Park.