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Student Story: Dan Hawkins, MA Architecture, 2017–

A black and white headshot of a man with a beard
Dan Hawkins
Dan Hawkins joined the RCA MA Architecture Programme after studying in Pennsylvania, after which he hiked across New Zealand and along the Appalachian Trail, worked in architecture practices in Copenhagen and Beijing, and became a carpenter and lumberjack in Montana and Maine.

What were you doing before you started studying at the RCA? 

I grew up wanting to design skyscrapers – being a kid in Maine meant that there were no tall buildings for miles around – and I’ve pivoted 180 degrees on that. I had quite a few different jobs before I came to study at the RCA. I worked at architectural practices in Beijing and Copenhagen, helping to design Norwegian student apartments and an art gallery in California, as well as in New York. 

What was your first degree in, and which university/country did you do it in?

I studied Liberal Arts at university in Pennsylvania, which led to a study abroad programme at the Architectural Association in London. That really opened my eyes to what design could be, and allowed me to experience woodworking and its links to architectural practice, which has formed the basis of what I currently do. 

That sounds amazing – would you say you took a ‘traditional’ route into architecture?

I’ve also had some less conventional experiences: working as a logger clearing hiking trails in Montana, where I slept in my truck and watched the moose roam the forest; learning to be a carpenter on a small island off Maine and make the frames for local houses. 

I took time out to solo hike the Appalachian Trail, covering 2,185 miles in around six months, and trekked across New Zealand – so I don’t necessarily have what you might think of as a traditional architectural background. 

Have you been set any particular briefs/projects that you've really enjoyed working on, or have found rewarding, or have had a significant impact on your practice?

In my first year at the College I worked on a project about bodgers; people who used local beech wood they found in copses to make chair legs. It’s a lost art now – it was about living on pieces of land and setting up huts or cottages, using local resources. For the assignment I basically went ‘full method’ and starting bodging, asking tree surgeons I saw if I could use any of their offcuts, or using trees felled by the wind. I went to the Lake District to find established bodgers who could teach me – by the end of it I’d made all the furniture in my apartment. 

A man sat on a shave horse
Bodging in the Lake District

What’ve you been working on this year?

Recently I’ve been inspired by the landscape where I grew up. In Maine one of our most famous exports is lobster – we’re famous for them. But with the seas warming due to climate change, the lobsters are abandoning their old habitats and moving to Canada, where the waters are colder. 

It’s revived an old debate about borders and territory, which made me think about how global warming – and its effect on natural resources – is forcing disputes over land across the world. 

I’m really interested in the lives of the lobstermen; everybody in Maine knows somebody who lives near them, and yet this entire livelihood might be wiped out. Out of this sprang a side project: I found that you can use the ground shell of lobsters to create a kind of toothpaste that’s sustainable and environmentally sound. 

I was in the ArtBar and started talking to another student who’s reusing waste from shellfish used in catering to create bioplastic – it was great to talk to them and think of how we could collaborate.  

It seems like you’re interested in craft – something we don’t tend to think about with architecture.

Definitely – craft informs a lot of what I do. I think I’ll return to being a carpenter for a little while after I finish university. I’m really lucky at the College that I can use the technical studios and workshops, even if they aren’t strictly related to my Programme – I’d encourage everybody to do that. For instance, I’ve been getting to grips with the Jewellery & Metal equipment recently, and I’ve been using the Print studios regularly for the children’s books I write and illustrate. 

Tools on a wooden board alongside lobster shells
Smack Dental ingredients

Are there any specific experiences that you’ve had at the College that you’ve found enlightening?

One of my tutors on ADS6, Guan Lee, has his practice in a farmhouse in the Chilterns called Grymsdyke Farm. He has the most amazing equipment – a full digital fabrication suite with everything from kilns to 3D printers and robotic arms – as well as orchards and a vegetable garden. It’s incredibly rare to get the chance to work with your tutors and peers in that kind of environment.

Do you think that kind of experience sets the RCA apart from other universities?

Universities in the US, in particular, are more concerned with a more traditional architectural practice. There’s a definite emphasis on commercial and private buildings, and the scope feels a lot smaller. I don’t think, for example, that I would’ve been able to explore itinerant woodworking communities in the way I was able to at the RCA.

Is that part of why you chose to study at the College?

Yes, the flexibility and expansive reach of the Architecture Programme at the College was something that really attracted me. I wanted to explore the intersections of architecture; how it affects the world around us in interesting and unexamined ways. I didn’t want to just design homes and offices. I’d also had such a transformative experience studying in London previously, when I came over as part of my study abroad programme, which made me really keen to revisit the city and spend longer here. I currently live near Hampstead Heath, so I find there’s a really nice mix of green space and things to do.