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AR 120: Yvonne Farrell on Art + Craft

Index

Even under time and financial pressures there is an eagerness to work collectively to create and share skills to build

When the general public feel disillusioned by contemporary buildings, is it that their bodies and minds are exhausted by the meterage of unscaled, ill-considered surfaces which have not been judged for their impact? When we, in our profession, use only a computer ‘window’ through which to view the world, are we really judging the walking-past experiences of citizens?

Walking through the Trinity College campus and College Green to our office, I pass a Henry Moore, a Calder, an Eilis O’Connell, a Michael Warren, a Pomodoro, a Sebastiano, as well as sculptures of William Leaky, George Salmon, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Grattan and Thomas Davis: each marking the route and enriching city life. Sculpture is focused form, and architecture is containment of life. The creative process, from imagining to making, is perhaps similar in the two disciplines, but architecture has other practical and social layers of responsibility to absorb and transcend, while hoping to achieve the status of art. Artists have the freedom to think and make on behalf of society. It is our job as architects to fold the ordinary into something more worthwhile. All of the arts influence each other; lap at the other’s shore.

‘Craft embodies haptic memory, handing it down from one experienced person to another’

In Juhani Pallasmaa’s book, The Eyes of the Skin, he refers to the 18th-century Irish philosopher and clergyman George Berkeley, who related touch with vision and assumed that visual apprehension of materiality, distance and spatial depth would not be possible without the haptic memory. Craft embodies this haptic memory, handing it down from one experienced person to another, a type of ‘baton’ exchange where one person shares with another ‘ways of doing’, so that a tradition continues, mistakes are avoided, techniques learnt. As Kenneth Frampton writes, ‘There is no significant innovation without tradition and … no living tradition without innovation.’

This transformation of, often modest, matter into something useful and valued, relies on a deep understanding of materials and a long apprenticeship. The First and Second World Wars were not only terrible human experiences, but as a result of the huge loss of life, experience and skills died as well. Construction marched down the road of mass production. 

140 149 ar 12 art 4

140 149 ar 12 art 4

‘Man Made America’, Saul Steinberg’s exquisite satirising of architecture in American cities, AR December 1950

Still, there are craftspeople, wonderfully skilled. Like the organic food and slow food movements, craft costs a little more, because it involves people and time. It requires a rethink on where investment might focus. Collective resistance is difficult in what is by nature a conservative profession. Good architects are quietly resisting.

New types of craft are emerging from today’s context, where ancient and progressive techniques are being combined – for example, rammed earth and post-tensioning. Practices such as Herzog & de Meuron harness projects as material research opportunity, printing on concrete, casting glass … We as a profession need to be constantly aware of the pressure of value engineering: though obviously necessary, it can ‘strip the meat from the bone’, with its continuous unpicking of choices and architectural judgements.

In general, the pressure on architects today stems from time and cost issues. We are witnessing a fracture, a split: more complex legal contracts, the switch from direct client involvement to novation to contractors; more involvement of project managers, expanding over time the distance between client, architect and building.  

‘Large orders would in some cases require brick factories to deal with only one project for an extended period of time’

The long-term vision of buildings to last centuries now has a timeframe of perhaps 15 to 20 years. This in turn affects the way buildings are thought about, now they are to be built at speed. The bigger the project, the more efficient the building time has to be. To make projects more cost effective, bigger sites are assembled by developers. This has a knock-on effect of huge investment and so the cycle continues to push so-called efficiency to its limits, increasing the momentum of the building ‘machine’.

This demand for scale has a direct impact on craft. There is pressure in the French construction industry to use ‘plaquettes’, a thin tile applied to a building in the place of bricks. As we developed our design and construction details for a Toulouse university building, we discovered that although there are factories in the region where bricks are made in the same way as in Roman times, the precious items are used less and less today. Large orders would in some cases require brick factories to deal with only one project for an extended period of time. This would cut off supply to the small projects on which these factories normally rely. The result is a reluctance to commit to large orders. This vulnerability is similar to the relationship small food suppliers have with large supermarkets, with all the risks involved in over-reliance. 

Mg 7022

Mg 7022

The joy of richly rusticated pubs, AR January 1948

Keys

Keys

Intricately worked keys transcending mere funcion, AR December 1914

On the other hand, our Bocconi project in Milan was a wonderful experience demonstrating the structural invention and construction experience in Italy. It involved huge post-tensioned slabs and beams, and self-compacting concrete. Working with the Milan Polytechnic engineering research teams, the mix, colour and additives were developed. You could argue that the great engineering tradition in Italy has become a craft. Even under time and financial pressures there is an eagerness to work collectively to create and share skills to build.

Reading through a 1943 AR article on the potteries and clay of England, is a reminder of the huge changes since then. Thomas Hennell remembers a potter called Edwin Fishley (1860-1910), ‘the last English peasant potter’, as Bernard Leach calls him in his Potter’s Book. Recently, I heard a lecture by two members of the London-based, Turner Prize-winning architects Assemble. One project presented involved a gable of a building, which they covered with hundreds of beautiful multi-coloured, handmade clay tiles. Working in their cross-professional/cross-craft way, with tactile materials, this type of practice challenges the conventions of contemporary building, fusing art and craft. Eric Parry’s One Eagle Place, Piccadilly, merges the sculptural tactile qualities of clay and polychromatic glazes, stone sculpture and architecture in the making of an urban block, enriching the vibrancy of the city. These architects take positions where the haptic enjoyment of surface and texture is embedded in the fundamental strategy of the work.

‘Maybe, in the same way as music scores are unintelligible to non-musicians, so too are plans and sections to non-architects’

There are important issues to be aware of: for example, estate agents are beginning to be paid the same fees as architects. When you compare the depth of experience and responsibility required of the architectural profession, this holds up a mirror to the commercial world’s distortion of value. Architects think about the future while making the present. Estate agents only assess the world as it is, not how it could be, seeing architecture as a commodity, not a civic and social art.

Maybe, in the same way as music scores are unintelligible to non-musicians, so too are plans and sections to non-architects. Maybe, we do not fully judge the impact of our architectural decisions. Maybe, we are using the wrong tools. The model is a stronger communicator. It is the world in miniature, a treasure of the future. It allows dialogue and shared belief. Writing about how models are being used less (AR July 1967), J Wilton-Ely describes how in presentations to the client ‘the place of the model was taken by the seductive charms of the architect’s coloured impression, with its emotive devices of romantic settings and contrived perspectives’. What would he think about the impact of the so-called CGI! Architects in our office challenge the description of these as computer-generated images, as they are not generated by a computer, but built up from scratch by skilled, thoughtful and talented architects. They are in fact HGI (human-generated images). So, the computer is an enabling tool in contemporary architecture. BIM allows for complex relationships to be tested through the design process. The skill of the computer is that it makes things converge, which is very useful especially when bringing large teamwork together. There is, however, a danger to ‘locking down’ an idea too soon in early design.

Caldercover

Caldercover

Kinetic confection by Alexander Calder, AR August 1949

Peter Buchanan wrote that until the 20th century, ‘architecture was indisputably art’ (AR February 1981). ‘Architecture … was the context for other arts which were intrinsic to it. As neither City nor Arcadia could exist without Architecture, so neither could Sculpture nor Painting.’ 

In the haptic discipline of architecture, imagination is twinned with art and craft, translating use into meaning. To transcend the everyday, it is necessary to navigate creatively within the construction industry, ‘inventing’ with the resources to hand. The earth is precious. Architecture and art create the new ‘crust’ we inhabit in our contemporary world. 

Art, craft and architecture

As well as painting, the AR has maintained an interest in sculpture and craft, seeing them as making an improving contribution to the wider public realm and often integrated with architecture. Sculpture and craft are also essentially process-led, with skilled artists responding to the complexities and potential of materials, something with which architects could clearly identify. In aesthetic terms, the AR’s taste was extremely catholic, ranging from the high Constructivism of Naum Gabo and monumental land art of Ezra Orion to more prosaically figurative offerings from former blacksmith Reg Butler.

Buildings for art also figured largely on the AR’s perpetually questing radar. As one of the more expressive typologies attracting high-profile architects, many art galleries turned out to be significant moments in the canon of modern architecture, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and Josep Lluís Sert’s museum for fellow Catalan Joan Miró when they were completed in 1968 and 1976.  

140 149 ar 12 art 6

140 149 ar 12 art 6

‘Sculpture Field’, a monumental array in Israel’s Negev Desert by Ezra Orion, AR July 1970

140 149 ar 12 art 5

140 149 ar 12 art 5

‘Interferences en plein air’: Deanna Petherbridge on the tectonic and material possibilities of sculpture, AR April 1982

Mies returns to Berlin

Completed in 1968, Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie was the first building Mies van der Rohe had designed in Germany since he left for America 30 years earlier to escape the Nazi regime. A masterpiece of economy and precision, the building integrates sculptures by Alexander Calder and Henry Moore on its podium.

To convey the monumentality of the achievement (with equal economy and precision), the AR responded with pull-out sections and powerful black and white photography. And unusually, as the AR rarely carried interviews with architects, its coverage included a translation of an interview that Mies gave to the American Radio University in Berlin. Here, among other things, he discussed the events that led to the closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis, so the cover of that issue featured Oskar Schlemmer’s 1923 Metal Dance, using an image from the Bauhaus Archiv in Darmstadt. Other Miesian bon mots included: ‘I am interested in clear structures. Whether you do it with plastic or what have you, I don’t care’ and ‘Architecture is not a cocktail’.

140 149 ar 12 art 9

140 149 ar 12 art 9

‘Mies in Berlin’, coverage of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, AR December 1968