Housing a Craft: Cyanotype and the importance of space when creating.

Published 3 March 2023

Written By Jessica Lin Hall

The essence of any craft is determined by context and response to place, be it cultural, geographical, or both. When working with unique characteristics of any region a relationship between people and their environment is formed, one that is defined by understanding, empathy, and, more importantly, a sense of awareness and care.

A craftsperson learns to work with the available resources and materials to create something new, and their craft process often shows us how limitations and even challenges of place can be woven into a bespoke piece of craft narrative, one that gives shape to the creator’s skills and their environment at once.

If the tools are an extension of the craftsperson’s hand, then the space which houses the craft is an extension of the body. This is the craftsperson’s dwelling, a sanctuary that is equally defined by the unique traits of process and product. Here, both craft and architecture reveal moments of beauty that can be sensed and appreciated.

These moments of beauty may vary, yet the appreciation of nature always seems to remain close to the craftsman. But as traditional craftsmanship starts to lose its footing in the contemporary world, our innate connection to nature also begins to fade. This may be why, perhaps now more than ever, there is a growing desire to capture beauty that goes beyond the human, leading to a resurgence in the practice of traditional crafts.

Take for instance the craft of traditional cyanotypes. It does not require specialised training and most of its crafting tools can be easily replaced by common household items, so although unique and novel, it is often overlooked as frivolous. However, within the craft lies the potential to reveal the connection between people and their environment. Using sun, wind and water as tools, the craft process begins with applying a light-sensitive solution onto an absorbent substrate (paper, wood, fabric…etc.). Once dried and exposed to UV light and water, a deep blue colour is created. The steps to creating a cyanotype print is intuitive and reinforces a physical interaction between people the familiar natural elements. As a result, this process evokes a sense of awareness of the self and the land, or more specifically, the self as part of the land.

During the first semester of my Masters of Architecture degree, I investigated and explored these ideas and concepts in the design of a workshop and residence for the cyanotype craftsperson under the tutorage of Yui Uchimura. I looked at architecture’s pursuit of comfort – which has been fixated on weatherproofing – as a point of conflict when creating spaces inspired by the natural elements, as architecture is often defined by a desire to control the elements, or in most cases, keep them out entirely. So, in order to approach design as a way of celebrating the natural elements, in both small and large gestures, I had to learn to fight this desire that defines my training as a student.

In the workshop, sun, wind and rain seep into the architecture, providing light, breezes and water for craft spaces used for exposing, drying and developing cyanotypes. A long corridor linking these spaces together features a large opening in the roof, where sunlight and rain fall through the architecture to meet the ground plane, passing through a series of in-built bio filters. In these varying moments, the natural elements are highlighted theatrically and practically, defining the meaning of ‘performance’ in two ways. By allowing the architecture to be directly activated by the elements, the workshop itself becomes a tool at the craftsperson’s disposal, whilst also serving as a backdrop to nature that continues to feed their creativity.

The craft journey ends when a cyanotype print is finished and stored away in the archival library. Here I wished to capture the pure intentions of cyanotype, by paying homage to its original use for botanical sampling. So, with every finished piece added, knowledge and appreciation for endemic species of the region is regenerated, protected and shared. Six simple shelving units are used to display the varying shades of cyanotype blue between six indigenous seasons of the Gariwerd calender. And as I continued to delve into the layers of history left on the site, unearthing the roots of place became important in the resulting intention of the architecture, which was to continue a replenishing of the environment beyond the structure.

Away from the workshop in the craftsperson’s residences the natural elements meet the ground in a series of semi-enclosed courtyards. In these areas where sun, rain and wind promote plant growth a direct link is made with the uncovered areas of a cyanotype print. In highlighting the relationship between print surface and print objects, I wished to examine the relationship between the ground and built form. Like the workshop, the architecture of the residences is deliberately floated above the ground plane and extended using a portal frame system to minimize disturbance to the existing ecological fabric. Though the main intention in the residence is rest, connection to environment is continued through open earth foundations used directly for sowing, propagating, grafting and planting and raised levels that help to open up views to the site at a broader scale.

Upon reflection, much like the limitations traditional craft faces, architecture inspired by crafting comes with its own set of challenges. In creating spaces for much that happens at the hand scale, I had to attempt at making considerations for a certain level of intimacy in the architecture that only years of dedication to cyanotype could truly grasp. So, in the only way I could, I chose to make the architecture my crafting tool and the ground as a canvas, allowing the project itself to become an abstracted, life-sized cyanotype. One which I hope reveals a self-awareness in both expressed functionality and beauty that captures the evolving relationship between craftsperson and the built and natural environment.

We offer deep respect to the traditional custodians of this land and honour their ancestors who have nurtured and cared for this country for thousands of years. We pay homage to the living cultures, languages, and knowledge systems of the Noongar, Wurundjeri and all Indigenous Australian peoples.