Life of Clay

Princes Risborough

29 November 2016

Grymsdyke Farm is an architectural research facility and fabrication workshop. Situated in Lacey Green, a leafy village in Buckinghamshire, south east England, with a population just short of 2,500, the facility is an unexpected discovery at the end of a country lane.

The farm is run by Guan Lee, an architect and academic, and provides architects, artists and designers with the space to explore experimental making processes using locally sourced clay. Lee originally purchased the farm in 2004 as the location for his site-specific PhD and in 2010 transformed the site into a teaching facility. Despite Grymsdyke’s traditional farmhouse vernacular, its outbuildings house an array of advanced technologies. Alongside a wood workshop and a casting studio sit a laser-cutter, 3D printer and a robotic arm.

By its nature, the farm is rarely in the public eye. Life of Clay however, a recent exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), offered a rare insight into the farm’s inner workings while also prompting reflection on the challenges of fundraising for experimental facilities. “It allowed us to speak to a wider audience, which will hopefully allow us to get more funding,” says Lee. “That is key because we need funding in order to continue producing work.”

In 2014, the facility was awarded the RIBA Research Trust Award, a prize that highlights projects making a significant contribution to the advancement of architecture. The £10,000 grant was awarded because of the farm’s objective to develop a local clay mixture that works sustainably with a robotic dispenser, and which can be used with digital technologies to create domestic and architectural forms that are ecologically and economically efficient, as well as continuing to develop its collaborative research method. Central to the facility is a desire to demonstrate the the versatility of clay: “It is not just good for making pots,” says Lee. Intricately glazed ceramics featured in the show alongside more unexpected pieces: screen prints made using clay ink, musical instruments and architectural components.

Through its unconventional setting, Grymsdyke Farm seeks to demonstrate the importance of place in the making process. “The idea of a place is important because things take time to establish,” says Lee. “If the place is not important, and you move around constantly, you are unable to establish any kind of meaningful relationship." The creative practices that take place at Grymsdyke Farm are either related to specific local materials or directly linked to industries in the immediate vicinity of the farm.

Students visiting the farm pay a fee of £25 per day, granting them access to all of the site’s facilities, machinery and materials, as well as the expertise of its staff. As a tutor at the Royal College of Art, the Bartlett and University of Westminster, Lee allows his own students to use the site free of charge. “Education is already really expensive,” says Lee, “so I cannot see how students can be charged any more than £25. My own students are already paying fees so I don’t see how I can justify charging them any extra. Of course, this is not a very sustainable model.”

The upkeep of the farm is expensive and without consistent funding, its future seems uncertain. “There is an issue with funding,” says Lee, “so I am constantly looking for ways to bring money into the farm.” One such method is working with institutions on select paid-for projects. Next year, Grymsdyke will create a series of tiles for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), which will pay for the materials. It is a model that the farm hopes can be applied in the future, although Lee is loath to yoke the facility to any set programme. “We are trying to find ways to raise money that don’t make a tie with one particular institution and which avoid having to go by their rules,” he says. “We want the students to be free and it is important that they have the freedom of thought to establish what they want to establish.” Beyond funding Grymsdyke Farm through collaborations with institutions, and hosting workshops with architecture practices in which he is able to charge a greater fee, Lee intends to secure further funding from industry.

Grymsdyke Farm’s commitment to put creative freedom and affordable tuition at the fore undoubtedly brings challenges and the farm will suffer without funding from external bodies. “The problem with education and fabrication coming together is that it costs a lot of money to make something,” says Lee. “If students draw something on a piece of paper or a computer it is a lot more economical: you can draw over and over again until you have an output. When you experiment with materials, everything costs money. Every bag of plaster, every bag of cement and so on. Nobody pays for these. Without help from industry it is not possible: we can’t expect students to learn how to make things and not pay for the materials that are going towards it.”