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Separating Architecture From the Building Arts Produces Soulless Structures

Truth be told, many architects I know are a little uneasy about their lack of building knowledge. Since architecture without construction is largely a graphic arts exercise, this is either deeply ironic or grimly paradoxical. To bridge this yawning gap, architects today typically hire a slew of consultants—roof, skin, curtain wall, interior, sustainability, preservation—who join the growing influence of software-driven structural and mechanical engineers to absorb much of what architects once assumed they could handle.

 

Back in the day, architects knew just enough about construction to be a little dangerous. The balconies at Fallingwater are still in a slow sag. It took two renovations to fix the leaky glazed roof in Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art.

 

It’s pretty easy to look back at a masterwork and presume the architect was in full control of how the project was built—a dangerous assumption. In the early 1960’s Yale Architecture Dean Paul Rudolph was on the construction site of his Temple Street Parking Garage in New Haven. In his entourage was Dave Sellers, a young Yale grad student. Sellers remembers Rudolph gesticulating a sweeping instruction to the assembled crew, while behind his back, a construction worker openly mocked the Great Architect’s errant, uninformed “corrections.”

 

The resulting building was a reinforced concrete masterpiece. But Sellers vowed to never let that happen to him: he devoted himself to understanding construction by participating in the realization of his designs. He went on to design/build scores of structures, starting with a gaggle of crazy spaceship homes on Prickly Mountain near Warren, Vermont. Among those helping him build the houses was another Yale grad student, Louis Mackall.

 

In July 1978 I took the bus from Philadelphia to New Haven, to visit the man who would become my mentor. Mackall was one of four architects I wrote to, offering myself as their slave. (The others were Antoine Predock, Barton Myers and Turner Brooks.) Nice notes of “sorry” were returned from all but Mackall.

 

He had just published an exquisite house in Record Houses. It was sweet in its soft shape, edgy in its cut voids into that shape, but what got to me, deeply, was that Mackall had made every door, window, railing, cabinet, and piece of hardware for that tiny beach house. Louis was the classic hybrid: an authentic craftsman-architect.

 

Every detail in the home was exquisitely thought out; each piece of assembly had presence; each connection was expressed; and the materials mattered: teak, brass, ash, steel. The other architects I wrote to also cared passionately about how their work was built. Like any good architect they knew that a building’s shape mattered in relationship to its site. However, unlike so many of their peers, then and now, these architects also expressed each design’s functions and structure through the nature of the materials and the connections they employed: their joinery and the surfaces and shapes they created were rich tapestries woven together by the art of building.

 

After my schooling—five years at Cornell, in the belly of MidCentury White Architecture’s beast—something in me knew that I could only learn from those who had a deeper knowledge. And precious few of my teachers, up to that point, had more than a passing acquaintance with one crucial aspect of architecture: construction. (Building, in other words, as a verb.) Yes, we had built fabric stress-skin structures and polyhedron 3D trusses of electric conduit. But it was clear that this was simply checking off a box, like acoustics and materials, garnishes to a 5 year academic feast of design-uber-alles.

 

So I travelled to Connecticut to audition for an internship with the architect-craftsman. Upon entering I was completely blown away by his house, which he wrought as a three-story wall between rocks, completely clad in concrete bits and pieces. Each piece had a wooden “boss” made by Louis, which allowed a fiberglass mold to be made from it, where Louis, inspired by Bernard Maybeck’s “Bubble Crete,” poured fibre-reinforced concrete into them to make shingles, windows, trim and stairs. Inside those cast openings were wood and plexiglass doors and windows. All of course fabricated made by the architect.

 

My drafting board was set next to a giant bandsaw and, as Louis and two woodworkers ground away, I drew, getting sunburned in the Plexiglas window that my drawing board faced. After toiling for a week amid the screech of power tools and the stench of Muscovy Duck poop in the walk-out basement, I passed the audition.

 

The home of architect and craftsman Louis Mackall, 1974, Guilford, Connecticut.
The home of architect and craftsman Louis Mackall, 1974, Guilford, Connecticut.

 

Six months later, I joined Louis at a new shop location with a drafting spot away from power tools, but I was never away from building. In my nine years working with Louis, ultimately as his junior partner, I was the “shop drawing guy” for his shop, Breakfast Woodworks. In that role I redrew drawings from some of the highest profile architecture offices in the northeast.

 

I was initially shocked, then amused, at the lack of understanding of how basic material properties, connection technologies, and simple dimensioning, compromised so many clever, even inspiring, designs. Eventually I realized that was the ethic. How a building was assembled, its build-ability, was seldom at the top of most architects’ agendas. I was effectively a 1980’s version of Millwork Revit. I answered the questions that the design architects did not know were there to be asked.

 

It was just easier that way: out of sight out of mind.

 

Today that wave of white shape that floods our screens is blissfully mute when it comes to conveying how these shapes get built, seldom expressing what materials other than “white” and “void” are at the heart of their forms. Metal, stone and wood are astringently applied spices in a decidedly non-crafty cuisine.

 

Aesthetics are subjective. The human factors of bias and belief are neither “right” nor “wrong,” but our choices do have consequences. For example, I don’t like seafood. I don’t have a food allergy, and I’m not taking an ethical position, it just tastes bad to me. So I miss out on cracking open a lobster tail, extracting the contents, dipping it in butter, and devouring the meat. The architects who cannot taste the beauty in the act of building, the joy in each joint, the thrill of openly expressing a set of materials, are just not hungry for them. I am not a bad person because I get queasy over shrimp, and the new flood of software technologies are a terrific appetite suppressant for those who might hunger for a richer cuisine.

 

There are very few role models of the architect-craftsmen celebrated in awards and publication. This lack of exposure distances young architects from the joy of knowing how things are made. Distance can make the heart go wander. Once lost, the taste for diving into the beauty of detail expression can leave an architect uneasy about asserting its value.

 

Many architects are fine with giving up control of how their designs are built, just hitting “send,” and whisking their drawings off to the software jockeys. But something is lost when the design/build process is based more on hands-off two-dimensional design than than three-dimensional building. Buildings are increasingly losing their humanity as software answers questions that used to give architects new avenues for creativity. Once lost, the artisanal aspects of any creative act are gone forever.

 

Like architecture, technology is processing music into a place where there is less evidence of the human hand in the final product, as more of it is Autotuned and “digitally enhanced” to become predictably “perfect.” If architecture is, as Goethe noted, frozen music, then Autotuned Architecture loses the potential for spontaneity and idiosyncrasy. When architects lose contact with the building arts, the human touch is lost.

 

Featured image: The construction site for a house (designed by the author), located on one of the Thimble Islands, off the coast of Connecticut, circa 1990.

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