Hair, Spikes, Cattail, and Turkeyfoot
Research and Re-tooling. Thatch is a building material and a process of construction that has been widely used for roof applications in vernacular architectures in both tropical and temperate climates. Known for its water shedding and insulating qualities, widespread use of thatch was attributed to the access of rapidly renewable resources (grasses) and the ease of assembly and economy. Despite the variety of thatch applications across the world, one of the most ubiquitous tools developed to thresh and dress thatch is the comb. This project aims to redefine the "comb" tool and incorporate it as the structural basis for the pavilion. Throughout the sequence of assembly, the comb is first used as a threshing tool, then as a transporting device, and finally arranges the thatch into a unitized, stackable comb-as-wall component.
Construction. Thatch is a craft based process. For this project, the process was unique in that it integrated a cumulative knowledge of a material that is largely indeterminate. A large part of this knowledge was passed on from William Cahill, one of the few Master Thatchers in the United States. Cahill shared his knowledge base and consulted on the profiles of the digitally fabricated comb. At the same time, the harvesting or gathering process entailed "getting to know" the grasses in order to collect just the right growth and grain from the pond at the site. The ideal selection involved looking at the nature of the organic matter and determining how each bundle of thatch was to be segmented, and then arranged in the structure.
The result of these processes is a structure that looks forward in its use of digital fabrication but that does not lose sight of the notion of assembly; the final product does not come fully formed off the bed of the water jet cutter, it must be worked and processed to conform to the contingencies of the organic material. By the same token, the thatch also undergoes a process of classification and standardization, one which draws out the formal potentials of the grasses by selecting them and accentuating their differences to greater effect.
Representation. From the beginning, the project sought to somehow take what is an oral tradition and bring it into architecture through representation. To this end, there were two types of representation. The first is the "how to" drawing: harvest, bundle, jam, jig, etc. The second are more conventional orthographic data sets – comb courses, sizing, length of thatch and type and mixture of grasses (cattail or turkeyfoot), etc.
Integral to the notion of Research through Making is the idea of learning from and adapting to the contingencies of the given situation and material. Thus the three phases of the project, representation, technology, and construction, did not occur discretely or chronologically but informed one another over the course of the project.
Site: Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Wei-Han Vivian Lee
Project Team: Tarlton Long and Peter Yi (Resreahc and Design Assistants), Patrick Ethen, Rennie Jones, Tarlton Long, Nate Smalligan, and Jon Swendris (Fabrication and Construction Assistants), Andy Greco(Structural Engineer-SDI Structures)
Special Thanks to: Robert Grese, James Macgillivray, and David Michener