The Craft of Architecture

It didn’t start out this way for me.

When I was younger, I had an idea of what “Architecture” is – Architecture with a capital A. I held that idea in front of me throughout my career to serve as a guide, as I worked on my craft. To me, Great Architects were those that refined their concepts and details and forms with each new project. Occasionally, jumping forward with an innovation, but, usually building a career one client at a time, one building at a time. In school I spent hours in the library flipping through a 25 volume photographic archive of everything left in Le Corbusier’s flat files after he passed away. The volumes contained: every sketch, every construction detail, and every project. His whole life was there in light awkward drawings in pencil on translucent paper; all his failures, his incomplete thoughts, his grand gestures, his moments of pure clarity. I was amazed at the craft developed throughout a career; the gentle arc of a man’s life.

So, I’ve always thought in long stretches of time. I imagine where I’ll be eventually, to inform my choices today. I’m patient. I’m persistent. I’m meticulous. I gaze ahead of me. And I build my future, one small piece at a time. I’m crafting my own history, with each move of my hand.

In school I spent days drawing each and every brick in a blank wall on one elevation of my thesis project; in light lines of pencil on translucent paper. I sketched, again and again, filling book after book with black lines and color and incomplete thoughts, and small gestures. Looking for my own moments of clarity, yes… and slowly building on a craft.

I imagined my work in terms of a “life’s work”. I imagined a consistent body of work defining a thoughtful career. Of course, each individual project was a failure in a way. But, I was only partly concerned with the shortcomings of the current work. Failures were part of the process, I would learn from it, and the scars would add character. The next project would be better.

But, at some point I began to drift from the idea of craft.

My “idea” of the Architect I want to be has started to fade. Now, I look at the Architects I admire. I look at their body of work; their craft. How many projects did they do in their lifetime? Hundreds? How many people did they build for? How much effect did they really have on the way we live? Their work had an effect on a small elite segment of society, the few who could afford the privilege of their work. Granted, the truly great Architects have influenced other designers with their work; some have even started movements and defined an emerging style. But, if we follow them, are we part of a movement or are we just emulating our idols? Is there anything worse than a poorly executed knock-off of Le Corbusier? As we build our craft, are we narrowing our focus on the few who admire our work? As we perfect our ideas, do we become more esoteric and less relevant?

I’ve started to realize that craft doesn’t scale.

One of the better Architects in my town (Someone I greatly admire) has won dozens of awards for his elegantly crafted homes. dozens? Currently there is a list of over 2500 families waiting for affordable (government-assisted) rental housing in my town. I don’t think they’re waiting for the next round of AIA awards to come around.

But, maybe it isn’t the role of craft to solve social problems. Craft is about precision and perfection and elegant design. Craft is about that moment of clarity.

I was at a lecture of an Architect I admire a few years ago. He held up his iphone, and asked us if we “had one of these?”. Of course we did. We were all Architects, we value design and that device is beautiful, maybe one of the best designed objects in a century. He waved it around and said he wanted to make a “widget”. Design wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to build a physical thing. So, he moved into Development and Construction and Real Estate investment. He “owned” his creations and rented them out for profit. But, that’s a flawed argument too. He’s not building an iphone. He’s created one building a year for 30 years with a total of around 1200 residential units. Almost all of them are beautifully crafted, and elegantly designed for upscale clients. Of course, he’s also won dozens of awards. dozens? But, there are around 73 million iphones in the world, and the technology behind them has changed the very fabric of the way we live. The iphone isn’t a well crafted device, it’s a cultural movement.

I used to imagine myself becoming an Architect who’d struggle through my whole life refining my work, perfecting my craft, and hoping to achieve just one moment of clarity.

But, lately, I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’m doing.

{ coffee with an architect }

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photos are from Wanaku’s photostream on flickr (used under creative commons license)

Cite: Brown, Jody. "The Craft of Architecture" 02 Nov 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 18 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=180775>

4 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    Sounds like you chose to run your own firm rather than work on projects you feel are worthwhile.

    That doesn’t mesh with your claim that you built your career carefully with craft, but rather implies you wanted your name to be known instead.

    That’s a choice. Many people make it, one way or the other. But now you probably have to live with it.

    Your blogging (as opposed to more careful/thoughtful writing) also makes me believe that’s part of your character – ie a preference for recognition over the quality of the work.

    I’m not convinced that you’re as interested in crafting your work as you claim, or maybe you don’t really understand what it takes?

    It’s a warning to all young architects out there. Make sure you understand what you’re getting into and are ready to own the consequences of decisions.

    If you want to run your own firm AND have a family, it’s going to take money, and you may have to sacrifice the quality of your work to pay for your family’s expenses. These are the real world consequences of decisions everyone feels they have the right to make, and it may not seem fair, but it’s the way it works in architecture for 99% of those who are practicing.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    “The iphone isn’t a well crafted device, it’s a cultural movement.”

    Don’t say that and expect to be taken seriously…

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    My craft does not have to be art, solving any problem is my craft.

    In the end, one aspect of your life will be the ratio of what you took to what you gave. Solving the problems of elite, poor or middle income alike is all good, Helping pick out an air conditining system is helping and giving and no less important of designing that great staircase.

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