Reflections on craft.

We live in a world where speed affects everything we do.  From our forms of socializing, to communication, to the construction of buildings, we are constantly surrounded by the need for faster processes.

The human brain has specific limits, but machines enable us to think faster, create faster, and to develop concepts that were impossible before.

In architecture, we use digital technologies to facilitate imagination and to create new forms, and we need to continually develop new technologies to be able build them.

Given the need for speed, a single entity is no longer capable of creating these complex products.  We need to have a system, a network of people, skills and processes, that work together fluidly to produce the ideas that we create. Many are worried that the beauty of craft has disappeared, but in the contrary, it has evolved and simply taken a new, more complex form.

The Understanding of Craft in the Everyday

We often understand the notion of good craft in the context of handmade objects.

For example, in the case of clock making and luxury of watches, the quality of manufacturing was always considered a key driver for the industry.  But it took centuries for the invention of the wrist watch and then only a few decades for it to be a wearable object that syncs our digital world with reality.

The first wrist watch is believed to have been designed by Patek Phillipe, as a piece of Jewelry in 1868. And by 2015, the intricate mechanism that was so greatly designed was replaced by a digital object, as powerful as a computer, no longer just a piece a jewelry.

Does the new wearable watch exhibit less visible craft than the former intricately designed fashion objects? Can we certainly say that the attention to detail and workmanship is less present in the wearable objects of today, that those that were so delicately toiled on by “craftsmen”?  We cannot; but this is a different kind of craft, one where a more skilled, larger team together creates the finished product.

As we all well know, Apple, the company, it is very much design driven. The products that we so widely love and use every day, take great pride in their intricate design process.  The introductory video to the new iPhone 7, goes beyond showing us the finished product. In their quest to continuously “simplify and improve”, the Apple designs are intricate, and they aim at a new “seamlessness between materials, and producing a pristine, mirror like surface”.

The great effort and need for quality collaboration between the initial idea, and its implementation, is summarized in each product. From inception, to design, manufacturing, packaging, and ultimate use, the products are carefully crafted not by a single person, but by a large team with a wide variety of skills and varied knowledge base.

From Singular to Collaborative Craft

At the end of the 19th century, a very important technique, of mass production entered the furniture industry. The Thonet chairs created by an extremely skilled craftsman, Michael Thonet, have uniquely engaged the technical limitations of the flexibility of wood, and became a creative line of bent wood furniture.

The Model No.14 bentwood chair, created in 1850, is to this day one of the most popular chairs manufactured. It took the concept of singular craft to factory production, being an ingenious object not only from the standpoint of design, but that of mass production, therefore making good design widely available.

In design and architecture, the understanding of craft was further changed by the Bauhaus School at the beginning of the 20th century, where Walter Gropius developed the idea that all crafts (architecture, graphic design, art) can be mass produced, and should be adapted to the machine. Bauhaus introduced a great deal of simplicity, with a focus on mass production and understanding of economics. They influenced the architectural world as much as development of furniture, utilizing what was then new technology that made mass production possible.

Today, technology has reached a new and highly-sophisticated level, and has expanded into more than just manufacturing processes. The digital world has facilitated a sophistication in collaboration methods and product development.

The importance of economics presented by the Bauhaus group is influential still today in the development of design, and enhanced by the capacities of new technologies. Architecture has inherently adapted to economics not only in its manufacturing phase, and the capacity of mass production, has now given way to the era of mass customization in all aspects of the building industry.

The Building Process:

From the art of craft involved in making a watch, to that of a highly complex building product, craft has taken on a new meaning.

In the context of contemporary architecture, the speed at which construction occurs is widely unprecedented. The concept that a single person can be responsible for the innovation and quality exhibited by each project is impossible in today’s realm.

Also, due to the availability of technology and diversification of building components, we have achieved the highest levels of specialization seen so far. Both in design and in construction, we utilize many consultants, each with their own skillset, and each has a particular role in the production of the final building product.

In the design process we engage a multitude of engineers and specialists (structural, mechanical, façade, systems, code, wind, snow, energy.. etc.),while the architect directs and coordinates the collaborative process between these entities.

In the construction phase, we engage a team of builders and in turn many specialized trades for each discipline involved in the process. We require a wide range of knowledge base that together combined, build up the project. For example, in the development of an office tower (as many of them are being erected all over the world), the construction needs to be carefully coordinated between the main structure, its systems, exterior components, and interior so that scheduling of building occupancy can be linked to the construction completion.

In many complex structures that generally engage large systems and envelope geometries, the building components are all customized to follow the desired design intent. Collaborative craft comes into play when all components are seamlessly coordinated and adapted to one another.

In coordinating this complex endeavor, the ultimate quality of craft, becomes then the potential of collaboration and coordination, in the same way that the director of an orchestra directs all players. In the building process this role is taken on by the architect.

In this new era of industrialism where we rely mostly on such a wide digital infrastructure to produce buildings, all this means that, architects will be required to take on a role beyond design, and the craft of the industry lies in directing a large collaborative effort.




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