Liveness 2020

Case Study Project Engagement: Studio Ten at the Navigation Colliery, Crumin

Liveness 2020 (Archive)

Navigation Colliery Site Observations by Christopher Jones

The Navigation Colliery, Crumlin, is a campus of 11 listed structures set near Newport in the South Wales valleys. Constructed as a coal mine at the turn of the C20th, the Navigation has been derelict for some fifty years ago having been closed in 1967, but stands as a proud example of Edwardian architecture as well as the cultural and economic role played by coal in this now deprived region.

As practicing architects, we had been professionally engaged in this project for some time, with a far reaching scope which included anything from masterplanning, repair, adaptive-reuse, reinstatement and the proposal of new architectural interventions. We were excited at first to share this dramatic site with our students, and to use our experiences of the project to share with our students. 

We had taught Studio Ten for three years on the undergraduate architecture programme, and had sought means of developing the teaching and learning environment we were working in through looking to our ongoing work in practice. The opportunity to take our students to this site and allow them to witness first-hand the staggering surviving structures of the Navigation, explore the drama of the site’s topography, encounter the perseverance and aspiration of the wonderful stakeholders of the site, and observe the role played by the architect in trying to respond reflexively to the flux at play as the forces imposed on the project – be it a collapsed culvert, conservation constraints, ecological discoveries, conflicting stakeholder interest – affected our focus in a manner which was beyond the controlled and curated environment of the studio.

When we first drafted our brief for our 2nd and 3rd year students at the Navigation, we saw that this was a brief, much like our own work on the site, that could unfold and become elaborated upon over a number of years. Perhaps in its first year we would ask students to consider how they could re-active the latent energy we observed on site, and begin to attract visitors through considering what a suitable public offer would be. As our own professional engagement evolved, so too could the work of our students as they each observed the change taking place on the site. 

Our own strategy as architects would firstly be to make the site safe for visitors, to consolidate its structures as historic and cultural assets to prevent further decay, and to protect and enhance the ecological features of the site. Where ordinarily we would speak in projective and propositional terms at the outset of a student project, our role at the Navigation influenced the pragmatic needs of the site, and provided the students with some contextualising factors that may sometimes be overlooked; the need to observe, survey and document the immediate challenges and constraints of the site is equally important to projecting the long-term aspirations we would like to deliver. 

For many, the benefits of a live project come in the exposure to manufacturing, construction, craft, materiality, and other matters relating to the physicality of the experience of proposing architecture. At the Navigation, it will be some years still until we see our first footings poured. In our case, the experience of the project allowed our students to develop their own personal (if informed) responses to the constraints and opportunities of a highly compelling site in a highly constrained, fragile condition and circumstance. It allowed our students to think critically about the nature of our work in studio, and to consider the application of our methodology in the context of practice. It allowed students to see our thinking tested and questioned by the unpredictable and unique challenges every project brings about. It gave us an opportunity to show the tools at the disposal of the architect, and how they can be deployed in differing scenarios to understand, persuade and resolve problems. It brought real focus to the core responsibility of the architect; to communicate. 

Our ambitions for our studio work at the Navigation will be explored over coming academic years alongside our architectural work on this site. But in our experience, it is demonstrably the case that the benefit of cultivating live project engagements do not need to involve the physical delivery of a building. Rather, the ability to cultivate long term engagements with sites and stakeholders who are willing to bring students into the project arena holds far greater yield for the environment we are developing to open our teaching and learning environment to voices outside of the studio.