Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Future of Architectural Craft

The technology-fueled, accelerated existence many of us lead leaves little room for applying measured, considered craft to the work we do. Indeed, the notion of craftsmanship—the human skill of making things well—has become quaint, our yearning for it largely nostalgic. The primacy of economy and speed in manufacturing today is simply incompatible with the logic of craft. It’s rare anymore to witness the pedestrian become poetic in the hands of a true master. On the surface at least, our society has sacrificed craftsmanship at the altar of expediency. 

Architecture and construction have not been immune. The evidence is all around us. Too much of our built environment betrays an absence of human caring and craft, compounded by a disproportionate reliance upon manufactured building components. Invariably, these manufactured components lack traces of work by human hands; their hallmarks are an inhuman consistency and thoroughly predictable precision. It should come as no surprise many of the buildings we assemble using such materials correspondingly appear deficient to us. There’s a marked absence of “life,” even if these buildings otherwise solve problems well and are objectively beautiful. 
Additionally, today’s global marketplace and its free flow of resources and goods too often trump regional sourcing and hand-fabrication of building components tailored to project and site-specific needs. The efficiencies and economy of worldwide mass production by computer-controlled machinery or cheap labor are tough to beat. Until this changes craftsmanship will never be a priority. The shame is our failure to adequately recognize the importance of craft and what is learned through using our hands. 

So, is there a future for craftsmanship in architecture? I say yes, unequivocally. 
In his 2008 book The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett advocates craftsmanship as a template for modern living. He equates craftsmanship with thoughtfulness, exploring how “making is thinking.” Sennett argues the values we associate with craftsmanship—the desire to do a job well for its own sake, the “slow learning that enables reflection,” and the application of mastered technique—produces superior work in any modern industry. Sennett numbers construction, architecture, and even urban design among these industries. 
Most architects wouldn’t immediately apply the label of “craftsman” to themselves, yet the training that prepares us for the profession and much of what we regularly engage in typifies the craftsman ethos. After all, like craftspersons who master any trade, we endure a lengthy education and indoctrination into a culture that highly values the obsessive energy required to do good work. We subsequently learn at the feet of those who, by virtue of their experience and command of the professional skill set, provide mentorship and model desirable performance. We learn by doing. Ultimately, we likewise achieve a level of competence (validated by licensure) to skillfully and knowledgeably practice architecture. 
Many architects believe our ability to truly ply our trade is limited by our current tools. The advent of computer-aided design distanced us from the tactile, tangible, immersive, and physically natural craft of drawing by hand; however, our computers are merely tools, just as the pencil and pen are. Ideally, the electronic interfaces we employ will become increasingly interactive, ergonomic, and natural to use, bridging the rift between hand and eye, idea and execution. The application of craft works using all forms of media, across many scales in the built environment, from the detailing of a building component to the organization of life-enhancing public spaces within our urban fabric. The common thread architecture shares with all traditional crafts is meticulousness about the details and an appreciation for the quality and cohesiveness of an overall vision. 
It’s easier for most of us to imagine the many tradesmen and women who do get their hands dirty doing the work of assembling buildings as engaging in craft; however, if they’re not required or allowed to exercise the thoughtfulness and patience Sennett regards as essential to craftsmanship, is this true? The answer to this question is “no.” Craftsmanship is an attitude and a practice, not merely a skill set. If they do not regard their work as an intellectual activity exploring the possibilities and processes to produce unique objects, they are not craftsmen or women. True craft is a consequence of the quality of effort that created the work. 
Fundamentally, our society’s future embrace of the values of craftsmanship will boil down to whether we are willing to radically alter business-as-usual and cast aside the socioeconomic paradigm that has dominated our recent history. The waning of craftsmanship, which generally corresponds to the ascension of global industrialization and mechanization, will reverse if the way we approach construction and the making of things of lasting value itself changes course. 
Bet heavily on change. The tribulations wrought by global heating, social inequity, overpopulation, and political upheaval are progressively compelling us to reconsider how we do things. The production of consumer goods—especially the disposable, ephemeral kind—will inevitably decline. The world’s economies will increasingly localize and differentiate. By necessity, our settlements will become more resilient, self-sufficient, and agile. Because of their scarcity, we’ll aggressively conserve limited resources. We’ll confront the rapidly shifting and complex challenges by simplifying how we live and cherishing what is truly meaningful. We’ll produce and preserve valued objects possessing lasting quality because we cannot afford to do otherwise. 
There is a future for craftsmanship precisely because of the magnitude of changes we’re witnessing. This will be as true here in Eugene as it will be in Akron, or Shenzhen, or Buenos Aires. I predict craftsmanship in architecture and building will return and thrive again. It will blossom in many forms, each unique to its specific geographic and cultural context. The entrenched system isn’t likely to relinquish its grasp on the construction industry without a fight, but I do believe it will happen within my lifetime. 
Richard Sennett is no Luddite and neither am I. We’re not wishing for a return to a pre-industrial existence. The craftsmanship we extol is an ideal to which to aspire, a means to assert an essential humanity in the making of things regardless of the tools at hand. Craftsmanship is technology-neutral. Craftsmanship, now and in the future, is defined by competence, technique, and acquired skill. It accepts that progress won’t always be linear. It acknowledges contingency, anticipates ambiguity, and rewards improvisation. Craftsmanship will always be about the pride and the dignity to be found by people producing useful, beautiful objects, buildings, and places. 
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The American Institute of Architects - Southwestern Oregon Chapter is once again producing its Craftsmanship Awards Program. This edition has been far too long in coming: the last time the chapter bestowed Craftsmanship awards was in 2011. The organizers will soon ask AIA-SWO members and member firms to nominate individuals they believe represent the best attributes we associate with craftsmanship: a command of technique, evident pride in one’s work, and transcendent quality. I’ll post links to the nomination materials as soon as they’re available.

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