Architecture as a craft

In a follow-up to the 2009 lecture series of the same name from the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University of Technology, the compilation Architecture as a Craft edited by Professor of Public Building Michiel Riedijk was recently published. A review.

Now that we seem to have said farewell (thankfully) to the Neo-Marxist Hegelian dialectic as the leading model for architectural theory, education and criticism, a big void lies open and is screaming to be filled in. Numerous efforts are being made to that end. For the present, the book The Craftsman by Richard Sennett from 2008 is seen as a useful pointer in filling the void. At least that seems to be borne out by recent lecture series organised by, for example, the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture (The Hand of the Maker), MIT (The New Craft of Architecture), the NAi (Ambacht@NAi), the Werner Oechslin Bibliothek (MÉTIER oder: Das Berufsbild des Architekten), and probably as one of the first the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University of Technology (Architecture as a Craft). The craftsman in Sennett’s book is truly everywhere. And perhaps rightly so. For even Koos Bosma (professor at the VU University Amsterdam) reaches a similar conclusion to Sennett in his recently published book entitled Tent en Piramide — and highly readable and highly recommended for everybody who wants to understand how we got to where we are now. Namely that it is perhaps a good idea if we focus on the object itself again. On the underlying ideas and mentalities of course, but mainly on the processes of making and producing, and on the nature of the design commission. In short: on the craft, on that which we actually do, on what we make. And on the knowledge and skill embodied in it. Or, in other words, on the autonomous part of the profession. On what we really can do and what non-architects can do less well, or not at all.

The book Architecture as a Craft consists of fifteen texts by different authors, among them speakers from the lecture series of the same name in Delft, which have been grouped loosely together around the theme of skill/craft. Remarkably enough, the editor Michiel Riedijk begins his prologue with Italo Calvino, as though we were still living in the 1980s when, as Diane Ghirardo says; “…. a decade of theoretical delirium in which poeticising reflection passed for theory…” But luckily he only needs Calvino to point out the somewhat kaleidoscopic connections in the volume.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, ‘The Invention of the Art of Drawing’, 1830

For it only becomes interesting if we ask ourselves what that craft of the architect really amounts to. After all, architects do not make buildings as such; architects make drawings. Those drawings are a set of instructions about how and with what means a building must be made. And that is why the craftsmanship of the architect is mainly contained in his drawings. So it is no surprise that more than half of the texts in the book are about drawing as an activity and the drawing as a product. According to Pliny the Elder, the first drawing was made by the potter’s daughter Diboutades, when she traced the shadow of her lover on a stone, to keep him virtually with her when he was away. Drawings by an architect serve the opposite purpose: they do not record what already exists but project something that could possibly exist. They take numerous forms. Depending on the aim of the drawing, the same building can be drawn in totally different ways — from the first sketch, the building permit application, the working drawing, as well as presentation and analytical drawings. In ‘Drawing Literally’, Mark Linder explains that this situation might one day be a thing of the past, that soon we might move directly from a 3D BIM, REVIT, CNC model to fabrication. The model is the building. We’ve heard that often enough before, but up to today it doesn’t work that way in practice. Nonetheless, this changing nature of drawing does indeed have consequences for the way we make something. We see proof of that every day, but there is in fact little said about it that is of practical use to the architect. The nicest and best drawings in the book are those by Jan de Vylder of by far the most interesting Belgian architecture firm of the moment: Vylder Vinck Taillieu. He shows that drawing never stops, not even when the building is already constructed. Sometimes drawing even continues on a completed building, like a palimpsest. But not in the way that Eisenman did ad nauseum in the 1980s, thereby hijacking the autonomous debate in the process, but in a highly cheerful, down-to-earth and realistic manner with fluorescent lighting tubes, Scotch tape glue stripes and rainwater drains.

In addition to discussions about the drawing and the model, the book offers us a look inside architecture firms. How do they do that thing they call design? It’s never truly crystal clear, however. Apparently it is difficult to describe that process precisely. The articles ‘Questions of design’ by Grassi and ‘Ordo, Pondo et Mensura’ by Ungers were published years ago elsewhere. Remarkably enough, the book fails to mention that fact anywhere. It is precisely these two texts that come closest in their attempt to formulate what the craft of the architect actually amounts to.
Namely, looking carefully and finding form and proportion.
And the true architect must be a scientist of utmost moral correctness, a representative of a spiritual elite. And, as Ungers quotes Alberti: ‘He who claims to be an architect must possess a lofty spirit, inexhaustible diligence, considerable learning, and above all a profound capacity for judgement and great wisdom. In architecture the greatest virtue is being able to exactly judge what is necessary; building is a matter of necessity; having constructed in a suitable fashion depends on need and utility: but to construct in such a way, to earn the assent of the wise without being scorned by the common people, is the undertaking of a proficient, well-informed and judicious artist.’

The book constitutes a fine start for further study. The fifteen texts offer a multicoloured point of departure in a continuing the search for the true competences in our profession. It is important and good that Riedijk is organising lectures and making publications on the subject. At last we have a professor in Delft who genuinely tries to bridge theory and practice. Because it is imperative that we acquire a common language again through which we can discuss the profession itself. In his inaugural speech in 2009 Riedijk advocated getting Delft students to undertake many more, short, individual design exercises than they do at present. Just as Ungers made his students grind away at a small and manageable architectural design problem every week in the Wochenaufgaben. To bring the craft back into education again. This book is but a start, and we still have some way to go.

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Wedding’, c.1434

The epilogue deals with ‘The Arnolfini Wedding’ by Van Eyck. And indeed, if you are going to talk about craftsmanship, why not then the absolute highlight of the Flemish Primitives. Let’s hope that Mrs Arnolfini is in fact pregnant with many books that were not conceived in a theoretical delirium but, with ordo, pondo et mensura (order, weight and size), that help us to seize possession of our profession again from what Christoph Gantenbein in the book calls a world dominated by the logic and culture — if its merits may be called so — of the MBA.