“One man’s trash is another’s man treasure”, says Martin Kaltwasser, screwdriver and saw in hand. The German architect and conceptual artist is rushing to complete the Jellyfish theatre, which stands in a south London playground, 10 minutes’ walk from the Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames. To say that this building is junk would be disparaging. And yet junk, of a sort, it is.
The Jellyfish theatre is being built from the detritus of markets, timberyards and building sites; from redundant school furniture, hand-me-down front doors, recycled nails and pretty much anything that local residents and businesses have contributed – prompted by a public appeal by the Red Room film and theatre company. As work progresses, ever more planks of wood and stuff that would otherwise be “landfill” have been piled up in this playground in Southwark.
Dreamed up two years ago by Red Room’s artistic director, Topher Campbell, and its producer, Bryan Savery, the Jellyfish theatre looks, most of all, like a shrine to the humble timber pallet. Until a few weeks ago, these hundreds of pallets were being used to stack fruit and vegetables in Covent Garden market. Cheap, strong and hugely adaptable, they also happen to have a distinctly architectural look, especially when flipped on their sides and turned into walls. Some will be left as they are, others clad with sheets of plywood to keep the rain out and to usher in the darkness needed inside an auditorium.
Kaltwasser and his wife and business partner Folke Köbberling are, in fact, building Britain’s first fully functioning theatre made entirely from recycled and reclaimed materials. There are no fixed plans, few drawings; Kaltwasser orchestrates his fellow builders as Mike Leigh does his actors. The building has a strong, if very basic steel frame to keep its structure in check, and yet beyond this basic architectural necessity, all else is improvised: a pallet positioned here, a sheet of plywood there, some MDF on top.
This 120-seat theatre, which fully complies with local building, fire and safety regulations, will enjoy no more than a fleeting life, however. Campbell is busy rehearsing a pair of eco-themed plays that will run from 26 August to 9 October: Oikos (pronounced “ee-kos”, the Greek root for economy and ecology) by Simon Wu, and Protozoa by Kay Adshead. After that, the Jellyfish will be dismantled, and its recycled components recycled yet again.
Both plays deal with people rebuilding their lives after political and environmental catastrophe. “They’re our response to climate catastrophe,” says Campbell, “a condition that might yet come about – partly through our collective greed, our insatiable desire to consume, to waste energy, materials, nature. I imagine how I’d cope if the sky fell in: I’d want to know I could find people who’d be able to create shelters to keep us safe, and allow us space to think about what we were all going to do.”
He describes the collaboration as “total theatre”: the playwrights have been fully involved with the idea, and reality, of the building, while Kaltwasser and Köbberling have, in turn, read their scripts. The building itself – the idea behind it, the way it’s being built, the way it’ll feel when completed – is very much a part of the plays. “This is true community theatre: we’ve been able to involve many different people, from local schoolchildren to office workers across the street.”
“It’s not just materials we got for free,” adds Savery, “but the time and skill of unemployed architects, along with carpenters and people who’ve walked off the street during their lunch hours.” By the end of last week, 81 volunteers had put in 4,200 hours between them over the nine weeks since work began. Eight hundred pallets and 750 square metres of plywood and other sheet material were donated.
“Projects like the 2012 London Olympics have promised public engagement,” says Savery, “yet the entire Olympics site is walled and strictly out of bounds. We’re a completely open stage, trying to prove that local people can create their own public projects. We found our own site by walking around, found Martin and Folke by asking around, asked Southwark if it was possible. And off we went. You can do it, too, without developers, quangos, huge professional teams – and with anyone taking part.”
Well, not quite anyone. A hand-painted notice insists that no drugs or alcohol be brought on site. This is not some trippy 1960s-style architectural happening, but a serious, if good-natured, public building project.
Just nipping out to mow the roof
Building from found materials is, of course, nothing new. Humans (and animals) have always done this. The 1960s saw, however, a heady boom in self-build, initiated by all those alternative lifestyle movements. Self-build tended to fall into two schools: shelters shaped from found materials and other bric-a-brac; and buildings created by local communities with their own hands, to formal architectural designs.
The latter have included the self-build housing programmes initiated by architects like Walter Segal, the Swiss-born British architect who developed a system of prefabricated timber houses built by local people to his simple, elegant designs. In the 1970s, four such schemes were built in Lewisham, London, on sites unsuitable for conventional council houses. Segal’s homes – clean, modern, environmentally sound and sometimes crowned with flowering turf roofs – are much sought-after today.
The alternative to Segal’s style of self-build was the kind of free-spirited hippy homes that sprung up in self-consciously alternative communities, notably in California. Such shelters might be built from anything going. Their spirit lives on today in the guise of “benders”. Hidden away in the English countryside, these simple shelters, made of coppiced hazel and willow covered in army-surplus canvas and other easily sourced natural materials, are part of a fine tradition of independent and ecologically savvy homemaking. Then there are the recent reports of the campsites on London’s perimeters, filled with increasing numbers of commuters who can’t afford the capital’s house prices.
“It’s definitely political,” says Campbell of the Jellyfish project. “Martin and Folke see it as an architecture of resistance, against the ways people are so often just passive users of the buildings they’re given by politicians, developers and their architects.” He points to the Shard, designed by Renzo Piano, a mighty developer’s tower rising close by, behind high guarded walls.
Kaltwasser (born in Munster in 1965) and Köbberling (from Kassell and four years younger) have been working together in Berlin, and more recently in Los Angeles, for the past 12 years. Kaltwasser received a conventional architectural education yet found himself a fish out of water in architects’ offices. In 1989, he built his first house, from found materials, in central Berlin. He expected locals to hate it. They didn’t. In fact, Kaltwasser found himself popular, and even cooked for by neighbours.
Better than a boring mall
Since then, he and Köbberling have built several remarkable buildings in the same vein. Two years ago, the Wysing Arts Centre, near Cambridge, commissioned Amphis, a large patchwork house assembled in just six weeks by 40 volunteers. Used, appropriately, for informal meetings and spontaneous events, it was made of materials thrown out by the University of Cambridge. The pair also cooked up a wholly unlikely urban interloper, the Werdplatz-palais, a social centre and soup kitchen built in 2008 in Zurich, cheek-by-jowl with the stock exchange.
When the three-month permit the authorities granted it expired, the structure was dismantled and recycled into a play space for local immigrant children, who also helped build it. At the end of 2008, that, too, was dismantled. “These buildings were short-lived,” says Kaltwasser, “but it was great, in such a highly regulated city, to let people with so little economic and political power build for themselves and for their needs, rather than giving them more boring public places and shopping malls. Many people were sad when the buildings had to go.”
So how did they come up with the name Jellyfish? “People find jellyfish a little disturbing,” he says. “And yet they’re fragile creatures. They need the clean waters we’re making dirty. And they appear to come and go, just like that.” And just like Kobberling and Kaltwasser’s buildings, too.