Architecture: Prince's shelter from the Modernist storm: It is made of wood, with not a pillar in sight, but the first building fron the Prince of Wales's institute represents a promising beginning, says Fay Sweet

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The Independent Culture
The Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture has completed its first permanent building. Do not, however, expect to see a handsome stone structure dressed with Corinthian columns or Ionic pilasters, nor even a dinky, brick-built, forelock-tugging labourer's cottage fit for the Prince's model village of Poundbury in Dorset.

No, this building resembles an overgrown, hump-backed armadillo on stilts. It is made entirely of wood, took just five weeks to design and build, and sits between goat pens and a vegetable garden in the middle of a farm.

Curiously, this is no rural idyll. The new building, which had its grand opening last week, is the architectural high point of Spitalfields Farm, a few hundred yards east of the City of London. It is in the heart of one of Britain's most deprived areas. The Prince has forged close links with Spitalfields through his Business in the Community schemes. Students of the Prince's institute were invited to design a shelter that would act as an exhibition space, education centre and meeting hall for the city farm.

If the new structure looks a little quirky and homespun, this is because the students cut, nailed and bolted each piece of timber themselves. However, while the organic style of the structure is intriguing, its design and construction marks it out as something new. Where other schools of architecture have pursued theory and concept almost to the exclusion of practical building work, the institute stresses hands-on experience and the value of traditional skills.

'Its aim is to bring students and professionals to face the question of how to unite theory with practice, traditions with new techniques, and the arts and crafts with architecture,' the Prince wrote in the institute's magazine, Perspectives, launched earlier this year. 'It seeks to unify the professional training of all those involved in architecture . . . to make architecture more accessible, more responsive to public desires, and to reinforce a real sense of responsibility to people among the architectural profession. It seems to me that only when all those involved in architecture, from planner to passer- by, are fully involved at all levels, will bad building wither and excellence flourish.'

Although a modest first representative of those noble ideals, the farm building is truly the product of a collaborative effort. It has involved the labours of 28 foundation students and their tutors, three guest project leaders from Imre Makovecz's organic architecture practice in Hungary, an engineer, farm staff, visitors, members of the local community and representatives of two community action groups - Spitalfields Community Trust, which stumped up the pounds 4,000 for materials, and Bethnal Green City Challenge, which has taken care of landscaping and maintenance.

The Hungarian architects, Arpad Almosdi, Tibor Bata and Ferenc Salamin, have wrought a powerful influence over their pupils, most of whom came to the course a year ago with little or no formal architectural training. The rough-hewn, animal-like Spitalfields structure is reminiscent of many of Makovecz's buildings, including the best-known recent example, the womb-like wooden Hungarian pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo.

'The Prince is a great admirer of the heroic stand taken by Makovecz to work with rural communities and celebrate the native arts and crafts of Hungary through architecture,' said Brian Hanson, the institute's director of projects. 'The work of the practice has an organic base - its form is grown from the exploration of its location and discussion with the community and it employs natural materials. The buildings also have a powerful spiritual element.

'Wood was chosen as the material for this particular project because it is appropriate for the farm, inexpensive, and is a good pliable material for foundation-level students to work with. It also allows rapid construction. One of the main reasons we made contact with the Makovecz practice was because of its expertise in, and affection for, wood.'

Clearly the students have relished their opportunity. 'The architects told us about their work in Hungary and have taught us a great deal about thinking holistically and working in teams,' Jane Samuels says. 'We took part in visits and were given lectures on the Spitalfields area and the farm, but we also had the opportunity to learn about materials. We spent one week at Hook Park in Dorset (part of the John Makepeace furniture school), where we were able to study and draw trees, then explore how wood performs by making large snakes incorporating all sorts of joints.'

The next step was to stage a design contest. 'After the period of on-site research the students negotiated a brief with the client, the farm, and then each produced models and drawings,' Almosdi says. 'At first, enthusiasm got the better of them and many of the ideas were very complicated. We suggested they should be simplified and always bear in mind the fact that we'd be building in wood. The final designs were impressive - they'd understood the material well and all were buildable.'

On judgement day, representatives from the farm and Bethnal Green City Challenge joined lecturers and students to decide on the winning design. One design, by Jim Gomez, a 26- year-old student from Oregon, emerged as favourite. Before entering the institute he had spent seven years working on a farm in the United States, where his sole experience of building and design had been the construction of a concrete subterranean store for vegetables.

'Because the building was intended to be a meeting hall and something of a landmark, and it was to be placed at the junction of two main thoroughfares, I made a vaulted structure with a roof in seven segments,' he says. 'The number seven was chosen after I'd spent a long time watching how the farm worked, the processes of feeding and care and gardening. Seven is the traditional number of stages that make up a process. The sides were kept open to allow views out across the farm.'

Gomez is determined to pursue his architecture education and is casting around for a college place. Other students have decided to study construction and some want to study fine art. 'The most important aspect from the institute's point of view is that, at the end of the foundation course, all students now recognise they can make a valuable contribution to the built environment,' Mr Hanson says.

The new meeting hall is an unequivocal hit with locals. 'It's rare and refreshing in this area to see something so useful happen so quickly and provide immediate benefit,' says Lesley Klein, chief executive of the Bethnal Green City Challenge. 'Too often we've suffered from having things imposed on us - it's wonderful to be consulted,' says Tassaduq Ahmed, chair of the Spitalfields Small Business Association.

The building looks whimsical but fulfils its function. No one is pretending it is other than a basic shelter at the lower end of architecture's evolutionary scale. The institute would surely be open to scorn if cute farm sheds were the limit of its ambition, but that is not the case. Steel, glass and concrete will be explored in future projects. Meanwhile the second, due to go on site next month for completion next Easter, is a visitors' centre using brick, flint and tiles at the West Dean adult education college in West Sussex.

(Photographs omitted)