Building benches at Canning Town Caravanserai

Canning Town Caravanserai is an incredible space right beside the Canning Town DLR, ‘architect Ash Sakula’s innovative concept for a dynamic and economically sustainable 21st Century Urban Public space.’ But so many people have been involved building and creating things there (look at this outpouring of creativity and effort), and it has been all about recycling, reusing, reimagining. There is a cafe and theatre space, tables and chairs and room for workshops and so much more.

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These extraordinary ripples of color are actually created from old saris pressed into the the shape of corrugated iron and encased in something to make them hard and strong and waterproof…

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It has been up for over four years now and so much has happened here — and sadly it is all coming to an end. You should definitely get down there for the final closing down party this Saturday, September 26th and a final week of events, including two productions of Macbeth and some dancing and steel drums and more… Still, it was only ever meant to be a temporary ‘oasis-like meeting and trading post’, and its spirit will be carried on in the projects it has inspired and supported with help making and imagining things.

Like this Wednesday when Che and Makhosi helped Gabby and I build two beautiful benches that will soon sit in our yurt cafe. They are built entirely from pallets — here are some of the ones we used for our project. We hope now when you see them discarded and sitting on the pavement, you might not just walk past…

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We started with a very simple design:

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Which was made reality through playing with wood, bringing together pallets of the same shape and general feel (there are many varieties of pallet as you soon learn…) and thinking about ways to make it lighter, sturdier.

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Then the sawing began — old school, and extremely beneficial for the upper arms:

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Almost before we knew it, the first bench was done…though there was some extra work in a removal of excess slats after thinking through how to build it in a way that would allow us to sand it all down and remove splinters, and then varnish or paint it — I think we’re going to do a bit of both, but in the next few weeks.

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The second one came together with a little more work, because the form of the pallets wasn’t quite as amenable, and they were much fuller of rusty nails. Forests of them. This work saves wood from landfills, reduces the demand for new timber…it’s part of both the ethics and the aesthetics we hope to promote in St Katharine’s precinct. It’s not meant to stand forever, but to recycle materials and be recycled in its turn when the project is done. It does take extra time but we still managed to finish them both.

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Here they are in formation, as we hope to see them in the cafe alongside the stove.

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This was a wonderful project and we hope to do several more. The main lessons we took away were:

  1. Just how immensely fulfilling and good it feels to build things like this yourself, to work with your hands and take something like a pallet and make it into something newly useful and beautiful.
  2. Having someone who knew what they were doing and wholly enthusiastic about this kind of work made the experience enjoyable instead of just hard work, especially at the end — so an immense thanks again to Che and Makhosi.
  3. It took much longer than we expected — that seems like such an obvious thing, but good to keep in mind. Just plan to give it a day, because you’ll want a bit of a rest after as well…
  4. Our group of 3-4 was about the right size for this project building to a new design, more people wouldn’t have had much to do without a larger project planned in much more detail in advance and some thought given to splitting up tasks — but that is hard because it was through the process of actually building it that we made lots of small and impromptu decisions to improve the design. You’re also limited by the tools available — hammers, electric drills, saws, chisels.
  5. This would have been faster with a crowbar. We need to get a crowbar. And a large selection of screws. And something that helps remove or break off long rusty nails that does not require quite so much brute force.
  6. It was important to have a wide range of pallets available to mix and match sizes and styles and etc…
  7. Did I mention how wonderful it is to be outside and to build things with your hands? It’s wonderful. I had somehow forgotten. It’s definitely something we need to think more about as we explore how people can find out what wellbeing means for them here at St Katharine’s.

You can visit and even sit on our new benches if you head to the Caravanserai this weekend, they will provide seating for the final festivities before they come home to us.

[also posted on St Katharine’s blog]

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