Baptistery Launderette

Baptistery Launderette

“Washerwomen had always used the rock pools. He gradually builds his launderette around the beached whale. Stripping the washing machines as they arrive, he sets up the motors in the pools and arrays the heating elements across the rocks for drying. Fish skin and white enamel make his house. Sometimes people come for baptisms”

Phil Tabor, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, The Bartlett School of Architecture, London

Below is an extract from the Bartlett Book of Ideas, London 2000

PT – Phil Tabor
NM – Niall McLaughlin

PT Up until the Aran trip, Unit 17 had designed analogues of architecture, but few things conventionally identifiable as a building. It had also preferred making things rather than drawings. An Aran project by Marc Medland changed all that. His site was a stone beach once used by local women to wash clothes. He imagined that a whale was washed up on this beach, dying at exactly the same time as helicopters dumped scores of old washing machines there. A holy hermit who was living on the beach then decides to construct a combined baptistery and launderette from the whale’s carcass and the dismantled washing machines. This illustrated a powerful design strategy; the use of a quasi-random starting point or a surreal juxtaposition as a prod to jolt designers into freshness, to trick them into otherwise inaccessible territories.

This project’s mood is witty, even light-hearted. But it was no droll or easy-going exercise. For this strategy to work, Marc had to follow through an apparently fantastic initial hypothesis with scrupulous intelligence and rationality. Having established the scenario, every subsequent design decision he made was its technically inventive but logical consequence. He became the hermit, making spectacular drawings which daily recorded what he would do on site. He told his shaggy-dog story with a straight face.

NM The story sounded hopelessly unlikely, but those were the days before Father Ted! Marc’s project succeeds because it outgrew the initial fiction. A good story can help a student achieve an architectural project but can’t authenticate a project or redeem a weak one. Previously we’d found that by making devices and studio pieces not in themselves architectural propositions we could recover a range of architectural ideas. But Marc said ‘Wed can do all this through designing buildings’,and produced one with many of the qualities which the non-architectural devices had crystallised. It was an eye-opener, and directed the Unit sharply back towards built form.

Marc’s building was never described as a static object, in the way architecture usually is but as something that comes into being by stages, then changes and eventually degenerates. His beautiful plans, made by tracing modifications over the previous day’s drawings, were successive snapshots of a process which began with the whale being beached and the washing machines arriving, and progressed as the hermit assembled the building, with some of its parts gradually succumbing to salt and rust. As tutors we watched as the project was born, gradually grew and aged – architecture as a journey over over time rather than an object fixed in space.