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Architecture (MA)

Jessica Benisty

Jessica is an architectural designer based in London. Her work embraces an inclusive form of architectural practice that brings to the fore unheard oral histories that link hybrid traditions, geographies, and culture to the built environment. Jessica’s research has focused on infrastructures that have shaped her personal history, such as the divisive border fence in Melilla and the material culture of migrant Jewish community spaces.

In ADS1 last year, Jessica’s work investigated the architecture of reuse. Her proposal imagined alternative social, economical and environmental systems of value that could enable communal forms of living in the London offices of a Swiss Bank. Jessica graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2019 with First Class Honours and has since worked at Sanchez benton architects in London.

Rectangular Tefillin bag (ritual object used for communal prayer in the Jewish religion) Made by my great grandmother in Morocco

Tailoring Resistance begins with the metaphor diasporic threads. This refers to the textile based material culture that enables a person to feel at home in the world. Diasporic threads also acknowledges the intergenerational and lateral connections that stitch, form knots and weave through in contexts of family, community and strangers. 

Two objects I recently learnt of formed the start of an exploration of home and community space in relation to handmade objects. These are my great grandmother’s wedding dress, and my grandfather’s bag for his prayer shawl, both embroidered by his mother. The objects are at the centre of experiences of lived religion, intimate and community rituals, making practices, reproductive labour and gift giving. Through the objects I learnt of connections between people, places and other related objects, I sought for stories and skills which had been erased. This encouraged me to ask how oral histories and storytelling can become embedded in relationships of care in a community. 

The objects drew me to the typologies of workspaces in which they were created and the cultural shift that has caused a loss of knowledge of how to make them. The project therefore asks, how do these connections and forms of labour physically stay present a city like London, where infinite layers of identities, cultures and values exist at the same time and overlap? 

In this context, how can second generation migrants, and people of mixed heritage construct visions of community, and versions of historic memory to give narrative to daily life?

In the final proposal, the project reclaims a historic street in East London and creates a material frame for different grains of urban intimacy.

Image: Diasporic Threads. My grandfather's Tefillin bag made by my great grandmother. Inscribed with his Hebrew name Yehudah, which he later anglicised to Leon.

Ground floor plan line drawing
Dialectic process of embroidering, learning, modelling and drawing the proposal
Embroidered plan, red stitching on white cloth
Plan segment details
1. Entrance courtyard as extension of the market 2. Gardens, level changes and walls filter levels of privacy 3. Public and private programs stitched with gardens and courtyards
 Ground levels plan. Digital embroidery with off white sheen thread on fine calico
The proposal suggests a reconfiguration of the ground. Level differences across the site mediate private working areas from the public rooms and gardens.
World of text embroidered

Gathering in a World of Text

Tailoring Resistance seeks out the narrative of the female presence in the family enterprise which is generally unaccounted for, leading to a loss in knowledge around making, reproductive labour, caring and repairing. An experiment that focused on women sharing stories shaped the basis of the project. It involved A gathering of voices in a virtual setting comprised of a blank, infinite space where users can type anonymously in any chosen location. A group of women, some young, some mothers, some grandmothers chose from themes body, memories and community and typed the stories, poetry or thoughts came to their head. The result of this gathering was then inscribed into a material, through learning and using digital embroidery software to create a sheer curtain to be read and touched. The blurring of container and content diminishes any idea of fixed, solitary authorship. In this way, the spaces I propose suggest different levels of privacy and openness, with flexibility for the community to inhabit it in a variety of uses.

Repositories of knowledge and chance encounters

The medium of embroidery revealed itself at the early stages of the project as a language of contradictions. It represented the story of the idle woman repressed and confined to the home, decorating and embellishing its material fabric. However, working with embroidery and looking at the work of a range of individuals and collectives revealed the vitality in this medium. Rozsika Parker analyses works of embroidery as cultural expressions that involve a ‘social function’, thereby revealing the agency of hand embroidered objects.

The project expresses itself through the concept and material object of the embroidery sampler. Typically, this is a piece of fabric that one uses as a place to practice techniques, stitch types, symbols and text in a document that grows over time. Although these pieces are supplementary, preparatory work, the samplers act as repositories of knowledge and chance encounters, and also exposes the time element of this labour which historically took place in the domestic setting.

White embroidered model
White embroidered model
White embroidered model
Embroidery sampler showing symbols from the site
white embroidered model
white embroidered cloth
White embroidered model
White embroidered model
Map and historical image of lost street in Spitalfields
Site section through Green Dragon Yard
Green Dragon Yard Flanks Low Rise Housing and the bustling Whitechapel High Street

Urban repair in East London

The site is situated in the realm of Petticoat Lane Market, Spitalfields in London. Petticoat lane has been a location of historic weaving, rag trade and textile industry and trade since the 17th century up to now. The urban grain of the area has been shaped by the practices of textile production, such as the Huguenot’s large tenter grounds used for drying silks, and factory buildings organised around worker’s yards and large, low rise plots of social housing units. The labour around these markets and industries, were undertaken by successive waves of migrants who shaped a distinctive cultural and mercantile sense of place.

archival images
Labour and textile in Spitalfields1. Hugenot Weaver's room, 1853 2. "East end production, West End retail", 1950 3. Protest following the racially motivated murder of textile worker Altab Ali, 1998 4. Petticoat Lane Market, 2023
Site plan of Spitalfields
Middlesex Street Estate at the head of Petticoat Lane Market
site plan showing proximity of site to petticoat lane market
Site Plan

The trading of textiles still characterises the street today, with shops and market stalls specialising in African and European fabrics and clothing, containing sub worlds of knowledge, skill and social space. However, finance led development in the adjacent city of London leaves the market and shops in a precarious state. The street is often described as a ghost town with sellers faced with the disembodiment of online shopping and rising rent prices. Historic England has designated petticoat lane a “Heritage Action Zone”, with buildings deteriorating due to lack of maintenance. Meanwhile, the local community have had to act with resilience against demolition notices threatening to redevelop existing housing.

The project imagines an alternative space for the organisation ‘Stitches in Time’ in time to function and grow. The site reclaims a small street that historically existed and proposes a series of work rooms that serve as gathering and making spaces in the dense urban condition of the site. The building provides a series of rooms for general community use with adjoining yards, varying in scale.

As a counter proposal to the hotel development being built on the site, it resists the over densification and privatisation of the city. Straddling across the private domestic interior and the bustling street market, it explores the value of shifting making practices from the self contained private to the more collective realm and give visibility to labours of care.

embroidered overlay
embroidered overlay
Pattern cutting room
A garden
Interstitial Garden
embroidered overlay
embroidered overlay
Making rooms and lodging residences come off the garden path
Gathering space and rainwater collection
Embroidered images of a shop office and a woman
The fabric shop owner and the brideThe shop as a traditionally masculine space of the family enterprise. A shop owner's office in Petticoat Lane is laden with personal objects, photos and symbolic fabrics. Meanwhile my great grandmother's wedding photo represents her practice as an embroiderer. Her space of work were in the multi family courtyard house, where the central courtyard served as the "shared living room".
white model of the courtyard, mashrabiya and mikveh
Proto-private space, a composite of domestic courtyard typologies
Precedent drawings of harem courtyars, mikveh, mashrabiya
Seraglio (Harem Courtyard), Mashrabiya (Protruding Openings), Mikveh (Ritual Bath)

Typologies of Urban Intimacy

The courtyard is a spatial element that has come up in different strands of my research and in my family oral histories. As more than pleasant pockets of air and light that naturally ventilate the building, the courtyard has also been a device to contain women in the private realm. The Arabic root h-r-m translates to notions of forbiddeness and unlawfulness but also of sanctity. These hidden spaces connected women through daily rituals, gossip and intimate encounters.

Within my proposal, the courtyard is seen as a useful device for making additions to urban space and creating various levels of privacy. My proposal borrows from the harem a logic of interconnected multiple sized rooms and yards that is added to and adjusted, however it provides lines of visibility and instead of enclosing, mediates activities done in private from the larger open spaces. The building uses the existing walls on the perimeter of the site to forms deep but permeable thresholds from the courtyards to the main rooms with semi outdoor circulation spaces, small rooms, sunken areas.