the view from stockton house

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Aug 2003 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

The Craftsperson of Today
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has
cast off the common motives of humanity and has
ventured to trust himself for a task-master.
High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may
in good earnest be doctrine, society, law to himself, that a
simple purpose may be to him as
strong iron necessity is to others.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

It was recently announced by the United States Department of Labor that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits has reached a point not seen in twenty years. This is quite a change from a few years ago during the dot-com boom, when there were more positions, primarily of a management level, than people to fill them. Talk was of the American managerial elite leading the world into the New Order of the next century and millennium. Yet this false pride was stripped bare in the wake of September 11, 2001, when people awoke to the reality that, in the words of Marx, "all that is solid," with certainty, "melts into air". There is an old adage that states that everything happens for a reason, and though we may feel uncomfortable to think of a valid and justifiable outcome of the horrific events of that fateful autumn day, let us seek out opportunities for growth in this tragic, but necessary, time of change. Certainly, our concept of safety and security has changed, and with this change, we have through apathy and lack of engagement, forfeited certain rights, but more importantly, the definition and Nature of work has changed. Let us take a moment to understand the cultural value of work, how a worker's hands, mind, and soul, have been abused, how he or she profits little from that abuse, how these recent "terror" events may prove to be the catalyst in the liberation of the worker, and how he or she may find success in this unstable age.

A worker who invests all his or her passion and creativity in the act of work solely for the glorification of God and/ or himself, may be called a craftsperson. Should he or she create beauty in this work, he or she is an artist. A craftsman/ artist is no one man's slave. Yet we still live in a unit-focused world that stringently restricts the life choices most of us are able to make, especially as regards our livelihood. Unless one is born into a great deal of money or comes into it through some good fortune, most of us through the luck of lottery or educational choice must endeavor to find a niche in an employment field in order to put food in our bellies. Educational and professional options are very limited, and thus, most often the chosen vocation one attains is the result of external forces beyond our individual control and have little, if anything, to do with our natural innate talents and inborn gifts. Thus, someone who has a natural affinity as a woodworker would most likely find himself working in any number of "industries" (retail, fast food, etc.), often more than one "job" at a time, simply to earn barely, if even, enough money on which to live and raise a family.

Prior to industrialization, the role of the craftsperson was most evident in the design and construction of a building, primarily in great ecclesiastical and other sorts of monuments. In the rose window of Chartres, we see the glasscutter etching lines in a pane of rich scarlet. Touching our hands to the balustrade of Michelangelo's Campidoglio, we feel the stonecutter's chisel trimming and shaping the marble. Ultimately, the level of talent and skill then available determined the quality of a final product. Craft was then an innate part of the edifice and was reflected in every aspect of it; from out of every pore of the edifice sings the work song of handcrafted beauty. Even into the Nineteenth Century, the whim and fantasy of the craftsperson determined much of the overall design of a structure, such as is seen in the detailed and delicate facades of masonry houses in the City of Saint Louis and other older urban areas.

Yet upon the advent of industrial construction methods, talented craftsmen were no longer permitted to contribute significantly (if at all) to the design process. Hiring a craftsperson instead became like a purchased afterthought similar to buying a high-end chandelier, fine curtains, or a marble-topped credenza; and now, most buildings, large and small, rise from the ground with a measured machine-like regularity in which craftsmanship and artistry are reduced to the sidelines and replaced with technical processes that mimic the regularity of Henry Ford's assembly-line. Where once workers and craftspersons were one and the same, the worker now is merely a regulated tool in the service of a machine process.

Much of this dilemma faced both by consumers, as well as by craftspersons, is generally the result of the direction that has been taken by the entire educational system. Today, we encourage nearly everyone to go on to college instead of into apprenticeship programs to develop their natural talents and abilities. It is assumed by the proponents of this system that for one to "get ahead" and have a viable economic future, one's future must be tied to specific fields of employment removed from "dirty work;" yet this Huxlean pre-positioning of members of the labor pool severely and vastly limits the many opportunities for naturally talented persons whom, it would seem, are "better suited" behind a desk shuffling memoranda than in hands-on occupations.

Just as some individuals have innate, natural talents, be they more intellectual, musical, poetic, etc., so too are there those who have a natural ability to create art from wood, stone, art glass, plaster, etc. It seems, as a society planning and building for our future, we should instead encourage the development of the broader, more holistic educational approach. We would thus be guaranteed an adequate, broad and flexible pool of talent and craft for preserving great architecture and culture of the past and for building that of the future. In this perplexing age, society tends to look down on those who work with their hands and get "dirty." Physical work lacks the admiration and respect of mobocracy, whereas once society viewed it as an honorable and noble way of earning one's livelihood. From an educational perspective, society encourages people to go into lines of work in much-preferred air-conditioned office settings, usually behind desks in cubicles under the buzz of fluorescents. Those who end up in blue-collar physical occupations, such as the building trades, are forced in this direction after it has been sufficiently determined by educational "experts" that they are not of the material for positions requiring a higher "education," and are thereafter groomed accordingly to fill the role of systemic rejects and slaves. Instead of encouraging highly motivated, talented, and intelligent persons to take up the various building crafts, we have left these positions for those living under force at the bottom of the scale — mere automatons in the machinery of mechanized construction and assembly.

In many ways, the innovation of the industrial age has allowed for us tremendous advantages. Improved technologies have made the impossible possible, but tragically, this technology has not always been properly harnessed for the benefit of all. Buildings today go up with a machine-like swiftness; literally, this is an act of perfidy in construction, with little regard shown to detail. When one hears the cliché "they don't build them like they used to," one is hearing a statement that is really based in a great deal of truth. They don't build them like they once did because they (the craftspersons) are not allowed to take care and time in completing the work; instead of setting a one-ton lintel into place over an entrance, a prefabricated, two-foot deep porch roof is attached to the eave above the applied Chippendale header trim which crowns the front door. Budget limitations and union restrictions certainly play a role in this, but so does the local building trades school which teaches assembly as opposed to craft. Though the structure of our society is organized such that when one enters the building trades he or she must nearly forfeit his or her creative soul to find a "job" constructing inferior buildings and receive a pittance after the executives, the unions, and the government have taken their shares, and to be the outcasts of society, though seemingly all cards are stacked against the independent craftsperson, he or she may still succeed and prosper, despite the fact that plastic door trim sells for a few dollars at the local hardware superstore. As we move into a great Restorative Age, this case of cheap and applied craft will be no more; it will once again be up to the craftspersons to create the great buildings of the future, and to do so more organically and holistically. However, for the immediate future and until that day, the craftsperson must at all times exhibit his or her willingness never to conform, and to never be consistent in order to not only make a living, but to make art as well.

Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist...
...Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

From the earliest days of their infancies, we control and regulate the choices and professions we allow our offspring to make. When a child proudly announces that he or she wishes to be an artist, we, as instruments of our culture, instead point to insurance agents, bankers, and lawyers as suitable role models whom we wish our children to admire. And should the child not be an "A" student, perhaps he could be a baseball star — at least then he could still be a "hero," unlike if he were a gardener or a carpenter. But for most, a position in any number of "industries" is the future. To prove the ridiculousness of this cultural paradigm, let it be said that even childcare now deems itself an "industry," as opposed to an art. This is the paradigm of educational typing and conditioning processes for the purpose of guiding and diverting persons into directions industrial America best feels would serve the economy of the state. Developing one's innate talents is often relegated to the background as perhaps a "hobby" if that talent has no viable role in a production labor market.

Caution, craftspersons of today! You know who you are, and that you are your own man, your own woman! The society will attempt to show you the honor and glory of accountancy, but your heart must resist! Be true to that which is really you- your naked aboriginal soul. It will teach you how to lay a brick wall or carve an oak balustrade, and it will warn you when others wish to tell you how to do your work. Gird your soul against their criticisms and refuse the offers of the unions to steal you money and rein in your creativity and sense of invention. Your work is of your soul, and is therefore holy, so never allow another to persuade you that you and your work are insignificant in the progress of culture.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

It seems that with the passing of every year, that the art and craft of construction devolves more and more into the realm of standardization and regulation. Little is left for the craftsman to express outside of given boundaries. If a mason wishes the opportunity to craft an elegant lattice pattern in a wall, he or she must wait to use that design in a dream project off in some vague future he or she may never see, for now, the standard of what is considered an elegant brick wall is simply the haphazard stacking of mortar dabbed bricks. But fear not, young mason, for the day shall soon arrive when the society shall understand the value of your invention. It is this inventiveness that is required of persons in the Restoration Age, and your whim and fancy shall find validation, and you shall be praised as an artist. As we rebuild our cities, your willingness to solve unique and difficult problems will prove invaluable, for most of the problems with older buildings are not of the superficial, and are not resolved by painting masonry or patching it with cement. With a change in societal expectations, your chances of constructing the elegant latticework grow more realistic. And though most projects preclude design complexity due to their smaller budgets, prove to your clients how much more they can get out of their money by hiring you, a craftsperson. Surprise them with clean uniform mortar joints and when responding to the profile of an adjacent stringcourse, persuade them that to set two courses out far enough from the face of the wall that you will provide them with the art of shadow and depth for no extra cost. They will perceive the play of the shadow and will proclaim your genius!

The shoddiness and carelessness of modern construction has become the norm, rather than the exception. Few workmen seem to feel inclined to do things carefully because either they sense that their client will not appreciate it or that their union would forbid it. Part of the dilemma facing architecture today, and the reason for its overall poor quality, stems from the necessity to design buildings to be constructed with the minimum of effort and thought in order to fit the logic and basic patterns of the machine system. Overall care and attention to detail have been largely abandoned; what once was the soul of a building, what gave it its character and reflected the quality of its design, is now largely lost, thus establishing a societal expectation of buildings to be more like mere "appliances" for living and working within than as noble and inspiring extensions of ourselves.

One has only to compare both new and older construction here in the City of Saint Louis to notice how most new construction is far less visually engaging in comparison to older buildings. Fine brickwork, carved stone detail, and well-articulated forms are pleasing to the eyes and allow one to ponder a building and feel a connection with it. Preformed concrete, glass, and vinyl siding do not invite engagement. And thus, talented craftsmen are necessary to our physical and aesthetic well-being, as well as the well-being of a local economy as less revenue is sucked up by international corporate machines. A mere machine-made house, for example, has no real warmth or character when compared to a hand-built bungalow, for example, and a society that finds the craftsperson of insignificance will never again experience that warmth and character. From a purely economic point of view, a culture of development that is based more in restoration will produce more revenue that will stay in a particular neighborhood or city, and will therefore exchange hands primarily within the domain of its origin. Jobs will be filled as we recognize the importance of properly maintaining and restoring our decaying buildings and infrastructure, and new infill construction and public amenities will be held to the same high standards required in the act of restoration. Pride will swell in the community as the participants of the local economy ground themselves within their immediate surrounds as natives. They will then pass on their knowledge to a generation of future craftspersons, and the cycle will repeat itself as the new artists work to maintain the work of the predecessors and build new structures.

Much of the current new residential construction in the City of Saint Louis is depressing and predictable, offering the homebuyer mediocre workmanship in construction and a qualitative sameness of product that borders on the mundane. Much of it might seem acceptable as a "quick-fix" for stabilizing deteriorated parts of our city, but imagine if these buildings were found everywhere; the City of Saint Louis would cease to be a urban experience. Young craftsperson, worry not, for your future is very bright indeed. As we return to the urban areas, your position shall be guaranteed, for even the first brick laid in the Restorative Age shall not be laid without the blessing of your genius.

Architecture once celebrated and glorified the various building trades. Whether a simple barn or a glorious cathedral, a building's construction reflected the handiwork of the craftsman and how his/ her trade had evolved to that point in time. It expressed a certain pride of workmanship, attention to detail, and a promise of durability, yet in our "build and quickly dispose" culture, buildings designed to last for the ages connote absurdity. Why have an old house that is falling apart when I can have a new house and not worry about maintenance. Yet all buildings in the end require conservation and restoration, and so, from an energy deficit standpoint, can we really afford to continue building cheaply and then filling our landfills with worn out materials? Does it make sense ecologically, culturally, economically to build only for the short-term without planning for and investing in the long-term future? From a cultural deficit standpoint, does it make sense to allow the building trades to "devolve" and to completely atrophy centuries of creativity and learning?

And so, the architect must at all times act in a guardianship position on behalf of the craftsperson. He or she must express to his or her clients the importance of building correctly in order to insure that the craftsman will always have work to do. He or she must design a building and detail the use of materials such that the labor of the craftsperson is simplified in order to have enough time to pay closer attention to the details and perhaps even extrapolate his or her own stylistic interpretations on a cornice detail. And finally, the architect must see the craftsperson as his or her peer in design, and allow him or her the opportunity to creatively solve design problems. Fine craftsmanship is one of the most important and essential ingredients of fine architecture. One cannot have fine architecture without fine craftsmanship, and a great idea can fail miserably when it is not executed properly, therefore it behooves the architect to understand that the craftsperson is in essence his or her equal, and that they are partners in an act of creating a finer, more universal and organic architecture.

Unlike machine-built, industrial style ways of doing things, a hands-on approach to performing tasks not only utilizes our hands and bodies- which is obviously good from a physical/ health standpoint, but it also affords us the opportunity to be more conscious and caring in what we are doing as well as the opportunity to strengthen our own local economies from the inside out. If we as a culture and society are to survive and have any meaningful future, does it not make sense to do things well, utilizing our hands to create great beauty in functionality? Naturally, the machine can assist in this, but only if it is within the control of the craftsperson, the artist. When the machine and its industrial processes control the end result, "the product," whatever it may be, does not have the love and affection of human touch in the act of creation, and the requisite attention to detail that is an inherent part of its essence. The result then holds roughly as much value as a tin can, or a napkin, or any other mundane accessory used and then tossed in the landfill.

As we enter the 21st century, let us renew a commitment to not only design our buildings with greater sensitivity and care, but to develop and encourage a greater level of skill and awareness of detail, and that in the process, may we reassess our cultural value of what it means to craft and create. Not only will our buildings blend more seamlessly with our city's architectural past, but they will also provide for us an improved sense of pride of self that is now, unfortunately, nearly completely lost.

David W. Laslie
In Memory of David W. Laslie
"An American Craftsman"
(5 Jun 1948 - 17 Oct 1989)

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living
Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable
A More Appropriate Plan for Grand Center
Architecture & Landscape: The Inseparable Pair

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at stocktonhouse@sbcglobal.net.

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