Offsite Series #2 - Visit to the Jerwood Gridshell

On Thursday, January 23rd the full-time Visual Arts students visited the Jerwood Gridshell at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. The visit was organised by Pernille Fraser, currently in the second year of her MFA, as the first in what we hope to be a series of visits culminating in an exhibition of work later in the year.

The Weald and Downland Museum neighbours West Dean College. It spans 50 acres and is home to 45 timber-frame buildings dating from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries. All the buildings on site have been rescued from destruction or relocated for conservation―for example, a sixteenth-century farmhouse in Folkestone was in the path of the Channel Tunnel and was dismantled, brick-by-brick, and rebuilt at the museum. The Weald and Downland also houses a large collection of artefacts and tools relating to rural trades. The Jerwood Gridshell was built in 2002 and has two main purposes: to store the majority of the artefacts and to provide space for workshops, courses, demonstrations and, more recently, events.

The Museum was founded in 1970 on land offered by the Edward James Foundation in the interest of conserving buildings and techniques that would otherwise be lost. James' intention of establishing a college for the preservation of art and craft techniques was here extended, with the present-day museum standing as a further example of his scope and vision. The Gridshell itself weaves together the history of the museum with its current activities and is a fine example of architecture that speaks for the ethos of a place and encapsulates past and present activity as well as foregrounding the future. Designed by Edward Cullinans Architects (now Cullinan Studios), working with Bruo Happold engineers, and constructed by The Green Oak Carpentry Company, the building was the first major timber-framed diagrid to be constructed in the UK. Those familiar with the architecture of Sir Norman Foster will be able to envisage the steel diagrid of 30 St. Mary Axe (more commonly known as the "Gherkin") or the Great Court at the British Museum. What is striking about the Jerwood Gridshell, however, is the undulation of the frame, inspired by the landscape of the South Downs, and the smell of timber as you enter. The main frame is constructed from numerous 50-metre lengths of oak, made up of 35x50mm laths bonded with finger joints. The oak, which was imported from France, was laid out flat like a trellis and tensioned at various point and to varying degrees (with a scaffold and hydraulic system) allowing it to be pulled into position over an eight-week period. The Green Oak Carpentry Company designed the newly patented "node clamp" by which to hold the structure in position, allowing the timber to be manipulated, and creating flexibility for natural adjustments during its first year. The external cladding was cut from local Red Cedar, which has faded over the years. During its first few months the colour was so rich and so prominent in the landscape that the Gridshell was nicknamed the 'Ginger Peanut', but as the colour of the cladding faded the Gridshell relaxed into its environment. The undulating design, together with the light structure and natural materials, provide the Weald and Downland Museum with a piece of innovative and iconic contemporary architecture that blends seamlessly into the grounds.

The upper level of the Gridshell, which is covered by this timber roof, is used as a conservation workshop and provides enough space for large buildings to be deconstructed, laid out and worked on, away from the elements outside. The space also provides room for practical demonstrations, as well as classes in building conservation (a wattle and daub demonstration was progress during our visit) and various private functions. There are cabinets at the entrance with various examples of diagrids and geodetic structures. One such example is a fragment from a Wellington bomber, an aircraft famously designed by British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis in the 1930's. The geodetic structure, an irregular variation of the geodesic popularised by Buckminster Fuller, is famed for being very strong yet lightweight. It was commonly used in warplane design because, in the event of attack, a blow to one area of the plane wouldn't affect the load-bearing capacity of the whole structure. Other examples included diagram basketry and photographs of the Gridshell at various stages of its construction.

It was remarked that being inside the Gridshell was something like being in the belly of a whale. There is an unexpected connection to be made here with Edward James' surreal architectural monuments at Las Pozas in Xilitla, Mexico. In 1945 James discovered Xilitla after searching for his own "Garden of Eden" and over a 20 year period built 36 concrete structures in the rainforest, with names like "House with Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six" and "House with a Roof like a Whale". As the UNESCO website points out this "overflowing, excessive architecture represents the materialisation of willpower, the constructive aspiration to build stunning, surrealist surroundings…" (*) As one walks around the Weald and Downland, with its collection of buildings that are living, semi-functional relics of various times and places, one cannot help but think that the legacy of Edward James is tied up in its history. This history comes around, full-circle, as one enters the Gridshell, with a roof like a whale.

The basement level of the Gridshell was designed to house the museum's collection of artefacts and tools relating to the construction and furnishing of the buildings onsite, as well as various rural crafts and occupations. Before the construction of the Gridshell, these items were scattered around the local area: in garages, barns and a nearby railway siding. The building of a dedicated store gave the curators the opportunity to collate the archive and systematically account for all items within it. The collection now exceeds 10,000 items which are organised and displayed typologically on large, movable shelving units. Typological displays are unusual in museum collections, and it was refreshing not to see the more conventional geographical system. As one walks through darkened corners dedicated to 'lanterns', 'dairying' or 'chimneys', the Pitt River's Museum in Oxford springs to mind. Pitt Rivers stipulated that his collection of 20,000 artefacts, which he donated to Oxford University in 1884, be displayed by type, according to his (now outdated) theory of cultural evolution. Whilst the Weald and Downland's display is based on a pragmatic system for collating their collection, the sense of both continuity and ingenuity that is observed in the hand-crafted objects, especially in their overwhelming number, presents a similar charm and fascination. Dan Smith, Senior Lecturer in Art Theory at Chelsea School of Art and Design, makes an observation of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which could equally apply to the Weald and Downland, when he explains that the "museum is a site that has managed to steer, navigate, and control the shockwaves of modernity. This is not a fossil, or a ruin. It is a living, ethically committed form of a contemporary space of modernity and enlightenment." (*)

The basement level is normally open to the public as part of a daily tour but we were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to spend the day looking through the collection, handling objects, climbing ladders and taking photographs. We spent time talking with volunteers, one of whom demonstrated the ingenious design of a pair of four-bladed shears, who spoke eloquently about the history of the museum, lamented the short-sightedness of modern attitudes to objects and tools, and praised the value of the Gridshell. Since its construction the collection of artefacts, along with the 45 historic buildings, have been officially designated as being of outstanding national and international importance. The designation scheme protects special collections in non-national institutions and the Weald and Downland joins a group of 145 such collections in England (*). This status secures the future of the collection and provides the museum with a number of funding opportunities that will allow it to continue its programme of life-long learning and community outreach.

- Sarah Hughes, Visiting Lecturer

With thanks to Julian Bell (Museum Curator) and John Welch (Volunteer)


Smith, D., (2012) Traces of Modernity, Zero Books, UK

For more information about the Weald and Downland Museum visit