Loss

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I recently lost a small handsaw with a serrated blade that folded into its handle that I used for sawing up bits of driftwood for the stove. The last time I’d held it was when we went to Suffolk for a weekend’s break from work, to go walking and beach combing near the seaside town of Southwold. Its a desolate section of coastline, rapidly disappearing where the low cliffs are precarious and sandy, offering little protection from the ravages of the North Sea.

We walked out of the seaside town, past the pier and across some coastal defences, reaching a small sandy beach by climbing down the concrete sea walls and through the debris of a collapsed cliff lapped by the high tide. The beach was strewn with the weathered remains of washed away houses that once stood on the disappearing cliff tops. Rounded weathered bricks, broken terracotta pipes and rusted steel reinforcement were scattered about the sands. Above sat a couple of remaining houses, derelict with broken windows, with edges of road tarmac and curious subterranean pipework poking out from the cliffside toward the ever approaching sea.

Our purpose was to walk up to the cove in the apex of a wide bay where the sea’s rubbish deposited in the storms. We’d found driftwood before and were returning with the handsaw and a couple of ruck sacks to collect more wood for our stove.

The cove sat at a low point where the cliffs dropped to the beach between arable fields that spread back from the coastline. In this low gap sat a wide expanse of inland sand that lead to a salt marsh with tall green reeds, that rippled and rattle in the breeze. The sand was covered in all kinds of discarded debris, brightly coloured plastic, bits of fish netting, and green nylon roping interspersed with driftwood. To one side of the opening someone had built a skeletal sculpture from washed up rusted steel bars, stuck into the sand, which caught some of the wind blown litter in its branches. Scraps of plastic and paper fluttered like Buddhist prayer flags at the top of a Himalayan pass giving the cove a sacred feel. For us, as we dropped our rucksacks and bent to see what the sea had to offer, the sculpture gave company amongst the waving reeds and eroded desolation.

There was plenty of driftwood half buried in the sand, parts of broken old boats, chopped off ends of sawn timbers and worn knuckles of heavy hardwood mimicking miniature abstract sculptures. We stacked the wood into piles as we headed back and forth across the sand, and in and out of the reeds. The task became all consuming as our eyes and attention became focused, the sounds of the wind and sea receding as we looked for driftwood for sawing.

We returned to London and several weeks later I realised I couldn’t find the handsaw. It wasn’t in the bags and for an awful moment I thought I’d left it at the cove, adding to the surging flotsam collecting at the indent by the sea. I kept remembering the trip, as I sat back at my computer in King’s Cross, trying to remember what I’d done with the folded blade. The day we spent foraging couldn’t have been more different from the architectural work I’d returned to. There was no need for movement or activity as productive work was reduced to a computer screen and printer. The simple tasks of hand to eye coordination for making an architectural drawing or foraging the coastline were redundant as work no longer required this kind of physical labour and attention.

I felt this loss acutely as I’d begun to notice some of my recently qualified colleagues were unable to draw by hand. It was as if the keyboard had robbed them of this skill, their hands and minds no longer able to test ideas on a sheet of paper. Their note books, I saw, remained largely empty or a mass of unordered scribbles, as if they could not now write by hand either. It was as if the repeated use of the computer’s keyboard had somehow disabled them.

The realisation of this loss felt profound, as if I’d stumbled onto some kind of hidden truth about the detrimental affects of technology and that we were all in the process of losing something from its impact. The loss of the handsaw was a reminder of the satisfaction of sorting and cutting driftwood on that weekend away. The loss of this simple pleasure, gathering firewood or making a drawing by hand with ink on paper, was a worry. We should all be able to draw and write by hand and to keep scavenging for firewood, or whatever else it is, that we might be losing through the distancing of making that comes with the application of more technology.

For architects, it is the potential loss of skill to be able to design and draw by hand anymore that is so saddening, as the quality of architecture and the built environment ultimately affects us all.

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