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Outrage: ‘Craft might make us happier but it’s not going to save the world’

Ensorweb

A bad design is a bad design, whatever technology is used to make it

There is a man who sits every day in the window of his shop in the London district of Shoreditch and whittles. He whittles spoons, and over the course of the day shavings pile around the feet of his stool until they breach the tops of his shoes. It makes me think of Dante, the punishment of the gentrifiers perhaps, and wonder if it is his ultimate fate to be submerged in sawdust and suffocate beneath the weight of his own futility.

Is craft just something beard-wearers do at the weekend – or, trust-fund permitting, every day – in a vain attempt to assuage their alienation by returning to an antiquated way of making? Or is craft an essential albeit neglected mode of activity that could, if resurrected, make the world a better place? The latter is a popular opinion, one shared by mindfulness gurus and attendees of pottery workshops. To a limited extent, it is backed up by empirical evidence: one study suggests that knitters are made happier by their activity, especially if they do it en masse. 

The insight is not new. Early critics of industrialisation asserted that hyper-specialised machine labour reduced people themselves to machines, and gazed wistfully at the workshops of the past (although Fourier advocated variety as a remedy for the boredom of work, negating the development of specialist skill that is essential to craft). 

‘Even Morris recognised the necessity of the machine in his later years, and he might well have approved of Hannes Meyer’s work brigades at the Bauhaus’

Certainly, craft as an activity may have psychological benefits. It may  even have political value, but only if a return to craft is conceived as a reorganisation of work so that it resembles in some way the (perhaps imaginary) cooperative state of labour in the guild or workshop, rather than simply as a return to superseded techniques. Even Morris recognised the necessity of the machine in his later years, and he might well have approved of Hannes Meyer’s work brigades at the Bauhaus, which were a more politically informed ‘return’ to the workshop as a social structure.

What role does craft have in architectural production today? When Ruskin criticised the industrialisation of the profession in the mid-19th century, he constructed a medieval fantasy as the good opposite of divided modern labour. But the fact was – and this is even more the case now – that a profit-oriented mass society renders the ‘crafting’ of buildings impossible, if by craft you mean laborious and highly skilled handwork. 

Ensor

Ensor

Source: Musea Brugge / DACS

James Ensor, Haunted Furniture, 1888

Nevertheless, construction is still a skilled activity, and so too is architecture – one requiring years of training, despite technological advance. So we can, to a certain extent, regard the kind of lamentations over CAD indulged in by Juhani Pallasmaa, Dalibor Vesely and Richard Sennett as a return to the Luddism of pre-socialist Morris. In his book The Craftsman, Sennett attributes the inadequacy of John Portman’s Peachtree Center in Atlanta to the fact that it was designed using computers – but none of his specific objections to the project is inherently dependent on the use of CAD. 

Pallasmaa makes a more general complaint that ‘the computer creates a distance between the maker and the object, whereas drawing by hand or building a model puts the designer in skin-contact with the object or space’ – choosing to ignore the fact that a computer is just as much an object as a piece of paper or lump of modelling clay, and furthermore that clay or paper is no more a building than a vector drawing is. A bad design is a bad design, whatever technology is used to make it.

‘There is a problem with the discourse of craft, with craft being set up as an end in itself’

The superiority of craft is even more dubious when it is thought to inhere in its products. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with buildings being made well. We could certainly do with a bit more of this in Britain. But there is a problem with the discourse of craft, with craft being set up as an end in itself, and especially with the mystification of its products. 

‘I shall always remember how, as a child, I played on the wooden floor. The wide boards were warm and friendly and in their texture I discovered a rich and enchanting world of veins and knots. I also remember the comfort and security experienced when falling asleep next to the round logs of an old timber wall, a wall which was not just a plain surface, but had a plastic presence like everything which is alive.’ If Christian Norberg-Schulz’s endowment of inanimate objects with life is not enough to grind your gears, and the sentimentality of the expression doesn’t appal, he continues: ‘Since time immemorial, Nordic man has experienced a close relationship with wood.’ This manages the impressive trick of being both silly and sinister, and as such it points unmistakably to the Heideggerian foundation (which is certainly not of poured concrete) that lies beneath all such appeals to craft. 

Norberg-Schulz was one of the first to import Heidegger’s critique of technological manufacture into architectural discourse. It was popularised by the yet more pathos-filled burbling of Pallasmaa (who calls door handles ‘the handshake of a building’) and injected into British academia with superficial conceptual integrity by Vesely. This is all philosophically odious, and its physical fruits are equally inedible: in high architecture you have the hotel lobby-esque over-richness of Williams and Tsien’s Barnes Foundation and, in a more avant-garde mode, Peter Salter’s absurd houses in Ladbroke Grove.  

Navigating the convoluted spaces and uneven floors of this multi-million pound bibelot, my thoughts turned to Flaubert. His Monsieur Binet occupies his leisure hours by pointlessly turning out napkin rings on a lathe, an activity that he recommends to dissatisfied acquaintances whose lathelessness he regards with ‘mingled contempt and satisfaction’. To Emma Bovary, on the other hand, who is more painfully involved in life’s complications than the self-satisfied Binet, the lathe’s humming seems an invitation to jump out of a window.