R Harkness

Material Entanglements: The Art of Sustainable Building in Scotland


Buildings are part of the world, and the world will not stop still but ceaselessly unfolds along innumerable paths of growth, decay and regeneration, regardless of the most concerted of human attempts to nail it down, or to cast it in fixed and final forms. Taking this ever-unfolding world as my ground, I consider buildings and the practice of building in order to shift focus away from professional Architecture per se towards people's modes of dwelling in the world.

I have been following the orchestrations of people, materials and resources which shape and constitute or have constituted the buildings of contemporary Scotland. From the routes, transformations and combinations, becomings and degradations of architecture’s materials, I have been exploring the architectural in terms of (im)permanence, rhythm and movement, composition and design. Much of my effort in this project has been to establish a creative method, a practice, a way of working: one which lies in the between of art, architecture and anthropology, and one in which form and content are connected. I worked between a number of sites of (eco-)construction, an artist’s studio complex, the University, exhibition spaces, and various satellite locations in the wider Scottish eco-art and –architecture world. My own practice is envisioned, then, as a sort of weaving, or drawing together through movement, which might echo the modality of building more generally. As I moved, I collected materials and stories, and learnt skills and techniques of working with them. The intention has been to research- or to think-through-making, to be juxtaposing, knitting together and interweaving different materials, different ways of approaching and interpreting and experiencing building. 

I work with various other researchers on the project. Enrico Marcore, for instance, is similarly working with communities of builders, but in Italy, and like me is investigating the ways of building and re-building that are chosen in particular places and at particular times. Our different research projects are commonly rooted in consideration of the relationship between DIY cultures and contractor or specialist-led construction, between building and maintenance, and in questions of sustainability and governance. Along with our colleague Judith Winter, we’re interested in the temporal orientations of different forms of construction and different materials, and have been investigating and challenging simplistic notions of progress and historical process. For instance, Judith and I have been collaborating (with Cris Simonetti, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) on a project considering concrete and the Anthropocene that has been experimenting with making concrete, performance and film in order to explore topics such as ruination, modernism and materiality. Still on the temporal, I’ve also written on the temporal nature of design and eco-design with colleague Mike Anusas (University of Strathclyde).

Whilst being open to the complex entanglement of human lives with non-human organisms, materials, forces and processes at a huge variety of scales, many of us in KFI are also trying to remain attentive to the politics of dwelling. For example, with Ester Gisbert Alemany, I’m collaborating on a project to do with Architectures of Enjoyment, in which we are working through architecture to think about participation, landscape and well-being. At the heart of these inquiries then, are the issues of power which surround and infuse the activity and art of forging -of being able to forge- one's surroundings. This is a theme that was central to a collaboration with colleague Jen Clarke and Kate Foster and Claire Pencak (independent artists), with whom I co-organised and produced an art-anthropology exhibition on Land Use. Jen and I have also run a number of KFI-related conference panels together over the course of the project. A wider group of KFI-members have collected around our shared interest in architecture, building and eco-construction and landscaping to form an Architecture and Anthropology Reading Group, which I coordinate. With colleague Marc Higgin I have similarly been part of wider group interested in the subject of knowing in the arts, which developed into two exchange trips and workshops between the graduate school ‘Knowledge of the Arts’ from the University of Arts, Berlin, and the KFI project here in Aberdeen. Finally, I am editing a book for the KFI project on materials, which is gathering contributions from many of the project’s members, its affiliates and people we have worked with. This book, called An Unfinished Compendium of Materials is due to be launched in Spring 2017.