Ghost 8
Escaping Normality to Embrace Reality
Peter Buchanan

In retrospect, the memorable success of Ghost 8 arose from factors that could be seen as offering two broad contrasts. One was between the magnificence of Ghost 8’s attractions and the extreme constraints that also applied. The other was that escape from the narrow normalities of academe and practice into rural isolation led, not to a detachment from reality, but rather, by contrast, to embracing both more physically tangible realities and larger, even somewhat mythic, ones than students and architects tend to engage with.

As well as the sense of achievement once it was over, the most magnificent aspect of Ghost 8 to now come immediately to mind is the splendour of the setting. The site is a meadow where the land flattens out between a grassy ridge that rolls down to it and a small cliff dropping to the wide, island dotted Lahave estuary to the west. The views of the latter are enhanced by the foreground framing of the Ghost 6 towers, while to the south is a fine view of the Atlantic, its beaches and headlands. Splendid too, if then somewhat crowded by students, are the cabins (ever-present reminders of the quality achieved by the previous Ghost), as too were the meals delivered to them twice a day. Finally there was the climactic concert when a large gathering of locals came to see and celebrate the new structure to music by local musicians, some of international repute.

The people involved were an attraction too, meeting and collaborating with a range of somewhat like-minded apprentice architects, as well as encountering and learning from, in manner like apprenticeship, the more experienced architects and builders guiding the event. Prime among the latter was Mackay-Lyons whose work is a beacon in times when we recognise the challenge of repairing the ravages wrought by modern architecture and planning to a sense of place and the connection to the past. Though abstractly modern, his architecture has deep roots in place and past, in vernacular forms and traditional construction. Besides enhancing a sense of local identity and belonging, a simple directness of form and expressed construction brings its own aesthetic satisfactions beyond those arising from the tactility and warmth of exposed local wood.

Gathering on a remote rural site to collaborate in building at great speed in a low-tech fashion with local materials was undoubtedly a respite from the norms of academe and practice. It was the antithesis of both, literary-derived theory ungrounded in the quite different complexities of architecture, and the ‘paper projects’ of solo students (aspirant lone geniuses) in which, especially since the advent of digital technologies, seemingly anything is possible in terms of form and construction. It was also very different from the slow rhythms of practice where designs are developed and executed in a disengaged fashion on computer and telephone, and gaining all permissions can drag on dishearteningly. Many participants said the real appeal of Ghost was as an intense immersion in what they find lacking in their education and early years in practice.

Escaping these norms was to engage a more immediate, very physical reality, the whole experience intensified by the already-mentioned constraints of time, budget, technology and tools. These constraints tend to be little discussed in architectural education, but in practice are crucial determinants of design that should be considered in any critical appraisal. Other ever-present realities, especially because of living on site, were the landscape and climate, the former constantly changing in mood with the latter, which in turn affected every experience of the participants. (Again, architecture must anticipate and respond to these changing moods as well as the weathering and patination they bring.) Ghost is a very physical learning experience, involving cold wind and rain or blazing sun, tramping in mud or clambering up scaffolding, hoisting materials or wielding and guiding tools. Participants gain more than intellectual knowledge about construction but acquire that all-important feel for its materials and processes, as well as an understanding of the need to always consider the sequencing and safety of the latter.

From everything described above, it should be clear that insight into detailing is only one of many lessons offered by the Ghost experience. Others included acquiring the all-important ‘feel’ for materials and construction, as well as for the relationship between architecture, landscape and climate. Two potential lessons, however, seem particularly timely. As buildings, and the many technical means of realising them that are now drawn on during both design and construction, get ever more complex, so architects must work ever closer with consultants and contractors in eliciting and integrating their inputs.. Being a good collaborator and team player, even while leader of the team, is an essential skill. And as digital technology makes any form equally easy to draw and construct, so we need to rethink what architectural forms are appropriate and can agglomerate into larger harmonious whole. Neither biomorphic blobs nor slick minimalist boxes, for instance, can create satisfactory streets and urban tissue. Perhaps the virtues of composition and of creating variants on a few recognisable types might need broader reassessment. Yet probably for its participants, the greatest legacy of the Ghost experience is a feeling of empowerment: a familiarity with and loss of fear about construction and construction sites; and a realisation that even the most extreme constraints are no impediment to fine architecture.