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Architecture of craft by Daniel Ovalle Costal

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

In his 1968 essay The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye defines Crafts as the workmanship of risk, as opposed to industrial mass production which he defines as the workmanship of certainty. There is as little doubt about the currency of Pye’s definition as there is about its poetic beauty. In so few words he manages to represent the alienation of the industrial worker and the flat uniformity of their output, in contrast with the audacity, the bravery of the skilled craft man, maker every time of a unique piece that is the result of both his mistake and virtue.

Could we take the definition further into the realm of architecture? I believe we must. If Mario Carpo says digital techniques such as parametric design are bringing the unique and the bespoke back into the architectural mainstream thought, not so long ago dominated by the pensée unique of standardisation and mass production, we cannot evade the implications this has in the long time forgotten relationship between craft and architecture. Architecture as a craft.

If risk, understood as opposite of certainty, is the attribute of craft, architecture is the craft of space, for it is the practice of design in an environment of uncertainty. Whereas designers of cars, computers or planes work in the bubble of certainty of the factory, architects throw their designs to the open, just like a bird pushes its children off the edge of the cliff. It is the only way to teach them how to fly. They look at them falling first and flying off afterwards, surely with the same eyes Frank Lloyd Wright watched the removal of the form works of Falling Water.

Architectural design is all about the management of risk. Each detail is influenced as much by the design philosophy of its author as by their anticipation to the uncertainty of a construction site, the unpredictable nature of contractor desires and even the advent of dead pigeons.

When visiting Villa NURBS, by Catalan architect Enric Ruiz-Geli, its ceramic wall tells a story of uncertainty. Hundreds of ceramic tiles, each of them different in their size and gentle double curvature. They were not conceived different, however the technique chosen for their manufacture made them so. A number of different moulds were designed with the help of computer software and carved in polystyrene using CNC machines. Bespoke tools were digitally fabricated as well in metal in order to obtain the desired curvature when applying the clay. The moulds and bespoke tools were then passed to Toni Cumella, architectural ceramist, author of the ceramics for the Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona. At his atelier, each tile was cast and finished using the moulds and tools supplied. Making each piece unique in its texture, color, curvature, regardless of several being cast on the same mould and the clay applied using the same tools.

In this case, the unknown nature of the end result while the designer is in front of the computer screen, resonates with Branko Kolarevik’s interpretation of Pye’s work. He compares the uncertainty of computer aided design with that of traditional crafts. Ruiz-Geli’s ceramic wall, however takes us even further. The uncertainty starts within the realm of parametric computer software and is not unveiled to the architect until the manufactured product is set out on site. Some despise parametric tools as a thing of magic, as evading design, but there is no more mystery or magic to them than to the unveiling of patterns in wood by carving.

Even the sophistication and rigour of the design and fabrication process developed by Helen & Hard for their Ratatosk tree folly at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010 left ground for uncertainty at all levels. Trees were selected in their Norwegian homeland, 3D scanned and used as input for 3D modelling of a pavilion that was then CNC manufactured off the trees themselves. Still, the result is magic, unexpected and extraordinary. A joint effort of organic growth, digital fabrication and design intuition. CNC routing, carefully traced to achieve certain geometry also unveiled textures that the designers could not anticipate, let alone, plan. Patterns in the wood that are the result of decade long organic processes.

Helen & Hard may be criticised for the naiveté of addressing the carving of unpredictable fresh hard wood with the fragile clockwork precision of CNC routing. However, instead the result displays the multiple layers of beauty and meaning of an Architecture that is not built, but crafted.


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