Lantern HOUSE

I’d have to say that the book that has had the most influence on my thinking about building design, use and how buildings develop overtime is How Buildings Learn by Stuart Brand. Brand is a polymath who started in the 1960’s as a Merry Prankster, worked on, among other things, the Whole Earth Catalogue,CoEvolution Quarterly, the WELL, the All Species Foundation and more recently The Long Now Foundation. His take on architecture was always going to be interesting.The one thing I remember clearly from the book was the statement that “New ideas never come out of new buildings.” That they come from people working out of their garage, or at the back of an old industrial building. (In sheds & caravans on a council dump, or in an Old National School building!) And that by the time a company has matured to a point where it can afford to create fancy new custom built premises it is essentially past it’s sell by date as far a new ideas are concerned. The big ask then for HOUSE was could we refurbish the Ellers without losing that rough and ready DIY feel that allows new ideas to ferment and develop?

The process of creating LANTERNHOUSE was unique. There was an unusual partnership between the client (WSI artists), the architect and the builder. At every stage WSI monitored the work through a dedicated Project Executive answerable to our Board, an Artists’ Forum and Works Committee, all under the stewardship of Gilly Adams – Chair, Sue Gill – Education Director and Celebrant, Hilary Hughes – artist, Chris Coates – Works Convener and John Fox – Project Champion.

A huge amount of work went into getting the final stage of the HOUSE project off the ground. Early on a feasibility study was written by John Faulkner. There were a whole series of artists’ retreats where we work-shopped ideas with help from Elsa Leviseur and MA Students from Manchester Metropolitan University. This scoping work went on alongside the practical prototype sketching of the BARN & Candletower projects. Then in late 1995 we submitted an Aberdeen fish the Arts Lottery containing our bid for a total of £1.6 million to refurbish the Old National School as an artists led training centre, fit it out, create a portable ceremonial space kit and built a warehouse cum workshop to house the companies equipment and provide a making space. This still left a whopping £750,000 match-funding to find

Between 1996 and 1997 we raised the matched funding of £750,000 (through the hard work of everyone, especially Eileen Strand and Sophia Culbard). In January 1996 Bob Hodge of H. T. Associates was appointed Project Manager. Then twenty-five architects were approached nationally , fifteen responded, eight were invited to first interview and four selected to produce detailed submissions. In October 1996 Francis B. Roberts was appointed and after three tenders, Leck Construction Ltd. started on site in December 1997, whilst WSI moved out to temporary headquarters in Ulverston Point.

Why LANTERN house?

In 1983 Welfare State created the first Lantern Parade in Ulverston. Inspired by a traditional lantern procession in the North-East of Japan where the company were performing in an international theatre festival, the procession is now an annual secular ceremony in Ulverston. The first procession through the streets of the town involved one hundred people, who had made their own candle-lit lanterns from willow and tissue paper in workshops organised by the company.

unfinished histories

How long does it take for something to become a tradition?

By the time I was working for the company a decade later the Lantern Parade was being referred to in the national press as the ‘Traditional’ Ulverston Lantern Festival and attracting a crowd of 1000’s boosting the local tourist trade – you try and book a B&B in the area for that weekend. It has continued as a part of the local calendar of annual events .

Not only in Ulverston, but the idea and basic skills have been spread across the country.By artists and community activists inspired by WSI.

For a few years in the late 1990’s me and Kate had the pleasure of taking part in the Lantern Parade. First as a touristy onlookers.Then at the end of the BARN summer I made my own chainsaw lantern and joined the parade. And I think it was the following year I was part of the crew for the finale in Ford Park. Where working with Duncan Copley we built a magical bandstand out of whatever scrap and leftover material we could find in the WSI store before the Ellers was finally cleared out for construction work to start on Lanternhouse. The Ulverston town band played on our skeleton bandstand made of oak poles, water pipes, string and scaffolding.

Convening the Works

The role of ‘Works Convener’ was sort of invented for me as a go-between-cum-translator between the two worlds of building and community arts. I was co-ordinator and admin support for the Artists Forum which was the main interface between the project team, the architect and the various WSI associate artists who inputted into the project at different stages. I also doubled as deputy dogsbody and general handy-person-to have round to: relocate archives, set up temporary office space, move stores to local industrial unit, bounce ideas and carry out adhoc research.

Architect Frank Roberts practice based in Preston was steeped in the ethos and design aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement and brought a distinctive design sensibility to the project – in contrast to other practices that we interviewed who tended to reflect our own ideas back at us. The attention to detail that is evident in the finished building and the inspired proposal to lift the roof by 1.5M and insert an extra floor into the building created a building that offered more than we had imagined. Actually we had imagined more than could be feasibly fitted into the space available and the extra floor was the answer Frank came up with. The architecture also provided a wonderful frame for the work done by WSI artists in the final stages of the fitting out of the building.

SO did we manage it? – A refurbished ‘new’ building that would still act as a catalyst and melting pot for new ideas. Well it did continue to host the company and artists for another decade – inspiring countless people who beat a path to it’s door to work with and be trained by the company. Though John Fox did move his office into a shed on the roof garden which might point to the underlying tension between the needs of running a new building and having space for artistic inspiration/innovation. On the way we were chosen as RIBA Cumbrian Building of the Year which got us a nomination for the national Stirling Prize for excellence in architecture.

As a gathering point and sometimes a haven, for both community and artists in residence, Lanternhouse has played a role not unlike that of the traditional parish church. In the context of most Art Centres this pattern is unusual and a significant prototype worth copying.

John fox : A Note about prototypes April 2006

Looking back on the whole HOUSE / Lanternhouse project I can see it as one twenty year long gig – Welfare State does architecture and artist led arts centre. And in that sense as another prototype it was undoubtedly a success. Neither Lanternhouse, nor Welfare State itself survived the ‘retirement’ of prime movers in the company John Fox and Sue Gill. WSI was wound up on April Fool’s day 2006 and Lanternhouse was sold following cuts to arts funding in 2012. John & Sue continue to work in ‘retirement’ under the banner of Dead Good Guides.

…I had learned two new concepts. The first was ‘The Client’ who is traditionally useless but has clout and cash, and the second was ‘Poet’s Day’, which on building sites means ‘Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday’. As I was both client and poet. I was in trouble…

John fox eyes on stalks

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