Saturday, August 23, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 101 - 110

AEGICRANIUMA sculpted ornamental skull or more often head of a ram often utilized with the Corinthian and Composite orders. This exquisite example I chanced upon in downtown Charleston.


The most lavish, beautiful and the last of the 'Orders' developed by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C.E. It can typically be identified by its capital which often has a height greater than the diametre of the shaft and is highly enriched.


Thrusting up from the acanthus leaves and spiraling underneath the abacus are typically 16 or 8 as in this example “helices”, delicate volutes, much more diminutive then those of the Ionic order.


A 2nd century Athenian clocktower had a unique, simplified treatment of the Corinthian capital where a single base row of acanthus leave sits underneath a row palmette leaves that reveal the curvature of the bell. This has become a very popular version of the Corinthian order in the United States.


Your might recognize the similarity of 'Fleuron' to the French word for 'flower', 'fleur'. In fact, 'Fleuron' is the Old French augmentative form of flower. Often you'll find a fleuron crowning each of the four pairs of inner helices of the Corinthian capital such as this one at the Getty museum which has a really over-sized version.

If you are going to draw that much attention to yourself, you should be worth the spectacle. Fortunately, this one is quite beautiful.


The cartouche/escutcheon is the crowning centrepiece of the main stairwell of the Vanderbilt estate in Newport. The stairwell itself is a focal point of the main room and its every detail symbolically conveyed the power of the family. Notice how the scroll of the cartouche resolves itself into a menacing lion's roar, powerful imagery!

However, I'd like to draw attention to the band of oak leaves running just above. This motif called a 'fasces', Latin for 'bundle' that has its origin in the Etruscan civilization and was adopted by the Romans. PER UNITATEM VIS or 'strength in unity' was represented by a bundle of rods held together by leather bindings. The implication was that though a single rod may be easily snapped a bundle was almost impossible to break. Here rods are replaced by the leaved branches of the Vanderbilt family symbol, the mighty oak, itself further transmitting the underlying message of power.

In Roman times a literal fasces had an axe head incorporated into the binding and was present as a symbol of the power of the Roman magistrate. The rods and leather symbolized his power to mete out corporal punishment whereas the axe represented his power of life and death. This symbolism was adopted by the 'Fascist' regime of Mussolini and likewise has been used extensively as emblems of the US government and military.


A semi-circular arched opening containing two smaller semi-circular openings (or in this case a window) separated by a small column or colonnette.


A circular form, either in the form of a plate, disc or an astragal type profile such as the foil opening above the center column of this example.

This is a particular form of the architrave or frame surrounding a door, rusticated with large blocks and surmounted by a keystone. Although this particular treatment has existed for millennia, it was popularized through distribution of a pattern book by 18th century English architect James Gibbs, hence the name. 


The raised platform on which a classical building occasionally rests. The term comes from the Greek 'πόδι' or 'podia', meaning 'foot' (think podia-try). The Romans in particular favoured podiums, which can often serve as a basement storey.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sacred Geometry

Courtesy of Gary Callahan
Sacred Geometry, what an irksome name. Certainly, many atheists will find the descriptor 'sacred' troubling, the stain of an unacceptable supernatural patina. By contrast, the deeply religious are likely to reject the subject as potentially blasphemous, bordering on the occult. For the vast majority of us, it is probably the 'geometry' part that brings back bad memories of high school...wait, what's the difference again between a postulate and a theorem? As for me, Sacred Geometry is a subject I love to study and I very much enjoy teaching. It's just as well; one can not get far in the mastery of any traditional craft of architecture without it.

Of course there exists many sacred geometry traditions that developed independently around the world. However, it is interesting to discover how incredibly connected they all appear to be. This can largely be explained by the understanding that sacred geometry is an empirical study, the observed object being Nature, the observing subject, Man. I'll focus briefly on the Western tradition having its origins in Ancient Egypt and Greece, expanded upon by the Romans, Medieval Europe and Islam.

The Quadrivium

During the Medieval period the classical education was apportioned into seven 'artes liberales' the studies that would prepare a freeman to be a beneficial contributor to society. The first three, called the Trivium, were as follows:

Grammar - the mechanics of language

Logic/Dialectic - the mechanics of thought

Rhetoric - the use of grammar and logic to instruct or persuade

The Trivium were the lesser studies, 'trivial' is you prefer, that were to prepare one for the serious studies of the Quadrivium:

Arithmetic- number in concept

Geometry - number in space

Harmony - number in time or sequence

Cosmology - the dynamic study of number in time and space
In our modern, hyper-rational educational system a disproportionate emphasis is placed on the purely conceptual approach to number, the least instinctive and humanistic of the four and why most students dread math in my opinion (Polynomial long division anyone?) Sacred geometry encompasses all aspects of number in a balanced way. Where to begin in such a potentially all encompassing subject? Simply, at the beginning, by encompassing everything...

Oneness - Unity

The Universe, literally 'Uni' one, 'verso' turn of the divine compass that creates everything. It is the big bang, the pebble in the pond, the point of singularity that expands ever outward. It is also gravity that pulls us ever inward. Geometrically it is fundamentally represented by the point. Now a pencil 'point' really is, under a magnifying glass, a little mountain of graphite in three dimensional space. However, if you give it some thought, a true point does not physically exist. It is location without dimension, a metaphysical concept. It represents the center of the emanation, the outward manifestations of which are the circle and the sphere.

Twoness - Division

Significantly, for ancient peoples numbers were not just abstract 'integers' used for crunching numbers. Number was deeply imbued with meaning. For example, there certainly was a concept of twoness. Not just 'how much' was two but rather, what does two mean? If one already represents everything, two could not possibly be a multiple of oneness. Rather, the solution was that two represented a division of unity. Cell division is a clear example of the division of unity. For example, a fertilized human cell contains all the information needed to generate another human. 

Often this twoness manifests itself in difference, polar opposition. Light/darkness; heat/cold; good/evil. Yet duality has an inherent sense of incompleteness and tension, an underlying desire to return to Unity that generates attraction: positive/negative; body/mind; male/female. One of its geometrical representations is the line, the connection of two points, the concept of distance, a metaphysical separation from Unity, the source of the emanation.

Threeness - Multiplicity

Many ancient languages have a singular case, a dual case specifically referring to two people and a plural case to represent three or more. Essentially one, two...many. So it was that threeness was seen as a way to break through separation and duality that would lead to multiplicity. Father, mother...children. Interestingly, our English words for father and mother come directly from the Latin words pater and mater respectively. We likewise have inherited the words pattern and matter from the same roots and nature from natura, something born. Just as father and mother beget children so too pattern imposed upon matter gives birth to all of nature.

Three was also seen as the way through or a method to bind two polar opposites. This principle is embodied in our legal system. Where a conflict exists a plaintiff brings a complaint against a defendant. There is a provision of arbitration by a third party such as a judge or jury that allows for resolution. Geometrically, with three points we begin to conceptually enclose space. A triangle forms the metaphysical concept of the plane.

Fourness - Materialization

Finally we have moved from the conceptual to physical manifestation! With a location, length, breadth and height, volume is enclosed, a material object can exist in three dimensional space. The most efficient way to enclose three dimensional space is the tetrahedron or four-sided pyramid. This results in an extremely stable structure, the first of the Platonic solids, commonly found in nature as an organizing principle of extremely strong crystalline forms such as quartz or diamond. Likewise, associated with the square and the cube, fourness conveys a deep sense of stability and connection to the earth. Why geometry literally means metria, the measure of Gaia, mother earth! So that we divide and orient our land according to the four cardinal directions, traditionally forming quarters in our cities.

Assembling the tetrahedron and the other Platonic solids

So having journeyed from emanation to physical manifestation what could possibly be left? The most enigmatic of them all, worthy of its own consideration: Fiveness, the number of life, reproduction and regeneration.

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hopes and Fears for Craft

William Morris, In Memorium
What then of hope? My hope for craft is but a personal manifestation of a greater hope for humanity. Craft is such an intrinsically humanistic endeavour that it might be considered a preeminent measure, a barometer if you will of human culture. However, the readings from the metaphorical barometer of craft are very low indeed, the immediate outlook for mankind...stormy.

The very notion of 'hope' indicates that the way forward is not assured. So for the hopeful, there accompanies trepidation and fear. A fear of loss not easily recompensed, a storm which hides in its dark clouds: war, pestilence with death following closely behind. A day when the chisel falls silent against the stone, the fires of the forge have all grown cold and the handy-work of man is but a forgotten memory.

So what is left for the hopeful to do in the face of fear? What men and women of nobility and purpose have always done. They fight...each one according to his gifts.  More than a century ago a thoughtful, sensitive human being, one very gifted craftsman would take up this fight with every ounce of his being. Thankfully, the poetry and prose of a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris* survives to us today. I'll briefly share and expand on some of his writings in this post.

The Beauty of Life


To lose the reasons for living for the sake of life. 

The earth was more beautiful once, so very alive. At some point in the not too distant past, man arrived on the scene. Under his influence the wildness of nature was tamed and pacified to a degree; in turn the earth, it might be argued, for a time became even more beautiful and livelier still. No longer. Man who has multiplied and spread to every corner, increases in destructive power whereas the earth becomes uglier and more lifeless each and every day. Where industry and technology are most employed the destruction is swiftest and hardest to remedy. Does this state make any of us happy? I don't believe so, although too many of us are mired in complacency, acceptance or distraction.

Morris identified this inherent conflict of a burgeoning consumer society made possible by the rise of industry, against nature, expressing it thus: "The latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts"

The past few centuries have witnessed this exponentially increasing disconnect of man with his natural environment with devastating effects to the ecology. Of course, this is a suicidal trajectory, as we ourselves are nature, we are ultimately rejecting ourselves. As a craftsman Morris saw nature as the only standard of beauty, intrinsic to our humanity with the universal appeal to divert us from this mad course, "This is at the root of the whole matter, everything made by man's hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her...Now the only way in our craft of design for compelling people to understand you is to follow hard on Nature; for what else can you refer people to, or what else is there which everybody can understand?"

A true artist embraces nature and life with all its troubles, struggles and pains rather than this culture of mechanization and death, though the latter be accepted, easy and peaceful.

The Art of the People

There is a persistent delusion that industry and technology has liberated mankind. Historians seem only to record war, pestilence and suffering as if there only existed fear and terror without respite, not one whit of joy in life. Are we to to believe only the written history and discount the reality embodied in the surviving architecture and craft objects of everyday life?

"Once men sat under grinding tyrannies, amidst violence and fear so great, that nowadays we wonder how they lived through twenty-four hours of it, till we remember that then, as now, their daily labour was the main part of their lives, and that that daily labour was sweetened by the daily creation of Art; and shall we who are delivered from the evils they bore, live drearier days than they did,...choose to sit down and labour for ever amidst grim ugliness?

There was much going on to make life endurable in those times. Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

Westminster Abbey
When men say popes, kings, and emperors built such and such buildings, it is a mere way of speaking. You look in your history books to see who built Westminster Abbey, who built St. Sophia at Constantinople, and they tell you Henry III., Justinian the Emperor. Did they? or, rather, men like you and me, handicraftsmen, who have left no names behind them, nothing but their work?

History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created."

Therein lies another great service of craft to humanity, the social dimension, the capacity to give joy and meaning to work, that which occupies the greatest part of our waking hours. Yet, the 'developed' world has transformed itself from being a maker society into a consumer economy, industrially producing a million things that no one really wants. Mere distractions from a monotonous life lacking imagination and meaning. There would be little need to 'get away' or 'live for the weekend' if your everyday life was filled with beauty, creativity and purpose, if it improved your community, if it brought pleasure to your neighbors.

Courtesy of the
 American College of the Building Arts
"Real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour", so that "If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect." Yet empty existence is not an inevitability. There was a time not long ago when everyone shared in art, when "everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful" so that one either participated in the making of beautiful things or in using the things made, more often still, making and using both, so that everyone shared in art. "To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce USE, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce MAKE, that is the other use of it."

"What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent?" Are we giving ourselves that opportunity? What of our children and grandchildren? Or are we propping up a world built on consumption, greed and profit? "How can we bear to pay a price for a piece of goods which will help to trouble one man, to ruin another, and starve a third? Or, still more, I think, how can we bear to use, how can we enjoy something which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?...That evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion."

Might we continue to place our hope in industry and technology to save us from this seemingly intractable morass? What remedy can there be for the blunders of technology but further technology? No, the modernized production of the needs of life: food, clothes and shelter have devolved into a highly organized injustice, an instrument of oppression that poisons our planet, strips beauty from our daily lives and stands in opposition to the human spirit. Industry is past the point of reform, it needs be overthrown...humanity needs a post-Industrial revolution. I don't think we are ready though, our life is still not ugly enough. It is almost as if we must complete the full cycle, the complete ecological and social collapse of society. Perhaps facing our own extinction will be enough to shake us from our languid complacency.

The Prospects of Craft in Civilization

"I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

Even if we acknowledge that the ecological and social costs of industry are too heavy to bear for much longer, who can pay for craft but the wealthy, as a pretext of luxury? How can we possibly afford craft again? Simplicity.

Mr. Morris reminds us, "Art was not born in the palace; rather she fell sick there, and it will take more...than that of rich men's houses to heal her again. If she is ever to be strong enough to help mankind once more, she must gather strength in simple places."

What is it that we really need to satisfy our physical needs? Less than we think. How much space can we occupy, how much square footage to we need, how many homes, automobiles, computers? Boats, televisions, cable subscriptions, fantasy leagues? A million things to distract us and waste our life looking after. Do any of the aforementioned, the petty luxuries, pretences of a showy display of wealth, truly enrich our lives? I think not. These commodities are mere fashion, vanities that come and go in our lives as we soon tire of them. In our hearts we recognize they have no value. I believe the drugged pursuit of MORE robs too many of us the time to think and feel, to pass on the inheritance of a better world than was left us. By contrast, "Real art is cheap, even at the price that must be paid for it." and "Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement."

Our physical nature is only a small aspect of what constitutes our humanity. What is it that we really need to satisfy our other needs: intellectual, sensual and spiritual? First we must recognize that we have such needs and so does our fellowman. It places a moral obligation before us to contribute to a society where these needs can be fulfilled. I speak the truth when I tell you that you can not truly enjoy something knowing its production crushed and took advantage of other people. Neither can you verily treasure such things by turning a blind eye, in a thinly veiled, willful ignorance, only suspecting its making was with great injustice.

"If you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. It is not so much because the wretched thing is so ugly and silly and useless that I ask you to cast it from you; it is much more because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them: look through them and see all that has gone to their fashioning, and you will see how vain labour, and sorrow, and disgrace have been their companions from the first,- -and all this for trifles that no man really needs! Learn to do without; there is virtue in those words; a force that rightly used would choke both demand and supply of Mechanical Toil."

This message is admittedly inconvenient if not irksome for industry, nothing more than "mere grit and friction in the wheels of the money-grinding machine." However, it is high time to reject its tyranny, reclaim our humanity, stand up for our fellowman and seize our collective right for happiness, for "an art made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user... How could we keep silence of all this? and what voice could tell it but the voice of art: and what audience for such a tale would content us but all men living on the Earth? This is what Architecture, Art, and Craft** hopes to be: it will have this life, or else death; and it is for us now living between the past and the future to say whether it shall live or die."

*All quotes are from William Morris unless otherwise noted
 **Text added

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Plaster Restoration

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
I must confess, as a plasterer I do not like the work of plaster restoration. Please don't take that to mean that I don't consider it important or a valid aspect of the art. I just have a preference for new work. My reasons are personal and valid for me. For example, in the context of new work I have the ability to reach a high degree of perfection. In restoration work perfection is not usually the goal. Often the substrate has shifted, walls and ceilings are not level. I have found myself obligated to just improve the situation, make it presentable. I find that frustrating. Also, I would say one of the aspects of plaster working I really enjoy is having a hand in the design be it colour and finish, moulding profiles or ornamentation. In restoration all of these decisions have been made a long time ago and are buried under many layers of paint (did I mention how much I hate stripping paint?). Its like all the fun part is done already.

Irrespective of my feelings, I do live in downtown Charleston so the matter of plaster restoration is unavoidable. Not to mention it breaks my heart to see plaster being ripped out to be replaced with drywall or losing some beautiful ornament to be replaced with absolutely nothing. I just finished working on a small project that I would like to share with you all below. I think many will find the process very educational. Before I do that I would like to share just a few general thoughts about the fundamental properties of applied plaster in the context of restoration and conservation.

The technical purpose of traditional plaster, or stucco if you prefer, in the exterior is as a sacrificial coat. It 'sacrifices' itself to protect the substrate, that is to say the building. It is not intended to be preserved. Rather rain erodes it, soluble salts evaporate at the surface, slowly deteriorating it. Better the plaster than the building. Plaster over masonry on the inside might last indefinitely. Plaster over lath is another matter. It has a lifespan. The wood or metal moves with changes in humidity and temperature, the plaster does not. Between these cycles and some inevitable structural shifting eventually the bond of the plaster to the lath will break down, usually between 120 to 200 years in the case of wood lath. Not bad I'd say. Unless there has been water damage the wood lath is good for another 200 years if sometimes the old iron nails need replacing.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
One of the challenging situations that occasionally arises is when a lath and plaster wall or ceiling has been enriched with ornament. The plasterwork has failed but you don't want to lose all of that art. I don't blame you one bit! There are a few traditional solutions. If there is access to the back of the lath from an upper floor or attic loose plaster can be secured from below using special types of washers, then new plaster can be added to re-adhere the plaster to the lath in the spots where the keys are cracked or completely broken. What I would strongly discourage is injecting some kind of epoxy or glue to fix the broken plaster to the lath. This is a one time, short term effort that destroys the re-usability of the lath. These proprietary "solutions" also tend to form a vapour barrier that causes other problems as well.

If access is not possible it is often possible to save much of the ornament by simply cutting it out, setting it aside to be re-affixed once the surface has been replastered. There are other instances where there is partial water or fire damage so that some of the ornament is lost. This is a similar scenario to my recent project where a room was being shortened in a remodel of an older home in downtown Charleston. I was asked to consult on an highly enriched cornice to see if it could be removed from the wall that was to be demolished. The cornice was so large and so well plastered to the wall that is was practically impossible to remove it without destroying the pieces. Below is a description of the traditional solution that we offered that worked quite well.

A Small Plaster Restoration

Working along with students and alumni from the trowel trades program of The American College of the Building Arts, we took on the restoration of a highly enriched Gothic Revival plaster cornice installed in an early 20th century home downtown Charleston. 

1) Stripping Paint 

We identigy the pattern repeat and painstakingly remove scores of paint layers (did I mention how much I hate stripping paint?) Usually I prefer to use an alkali paste to strip paint, especially if it is a large wall. However, it is a challenge to use on relieved ornamentation. In this case, having a small surface area to cover we utilized a chemical stripper.


 2) Framing

We have to create and affix a plywood frame to enclose the pattern, using clay to seal the ends.

3) Rubber

The rubber we chose is a two part urethane on the softer side. We alternate the colours beige and blue between layers so we can gauge coverage and depth, starting off thin to get in all the nooks and crannies, adding thickener to quickly build on the final passes. It is important to have a minimum of 1/4" thickness and create relief angles so that the plaster applied in the next step does not lock into the rubber and get stuck.
4) Jacket Mould

The rubber captures the pattern; however, it is very flexible and will not keep the form. Several layers of gypsum plaster are applied to the back of the rubber. These are reinforced with fibreglass and hessian cloth to increase tensile strength and reduce weight. It has to be thick enough to be strong, yet you must be careful not to make it too thick or you'll never get it off! The plaster sets very quickly forming a rigid 'jacket' also known as a mother mould that will keep the rubber in its original position.


5) Casting

The moulds are removed and brought back immediately to the college workshop, placed on a bed of sand to reduce deformation. After drying over the weekend we can use the negative mould to generate new plaster positives, our cornice pieces. Again, to reduce weight and enhance tensile strength, fibreglass veil is embedded, a technique called GFRG or Glass Fibre Reinforced Gypsum.

5) Crating

The plaster only takes a few minutes to set. The process of setting puts a lot of internal stress on the moulding. We must find a way to prevent them from deforming. Since we need a safe way to transport them back to the site we build wood frames and mechanically attach the mouldings to the frames.

6) Affixing

Completion in view, the next task is to affix the plaster mouldings to plaster with, you guessed it, plaster! We do use some temporary plywood blocking to align our pieces and help support our pieces from below. Also, a few galvanized screws are used at the top to secure the cornice until the plaster has set. It is optional to remove them later. We're in a seismic zone so I'm going to leave them in. 

7) Pointing

The final step is to join all of our pieces with each other and to the existing moulding. This is done with plaster. Because plaster sets quickly we mix a little bit of rabbit skin size as a retarder in our water to give us more time to work. A bit of sanding in spots and its ready to be primed and painted.

Everybody was really happy. The contractor that he could find folks with skills to do the work (He's already given us a nice recommendation for a project we'll tackle in January), the owner who was afraid they might lose the cornice or have it missing on one wall, and the sophomore students who got to learn an advanced skill during their summer internship. A special thanks to our alumnus Michael Lauer who was the plaster contractor for this job. I recommend giving his website a look:

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Lamp of Life

Humans are very attuned to life. For example, we won't easily mistake something dead for something alive. We sense degrees of life. Youth has more vitality than old age. Warmth than cold. Spring than winter. The jungle or temperate forest feels more alive to us than the desert or frozen tundra. In fact, we constantly calculate either consciously or intuitively how alive our environments are, how capable they are for engendering more life.

In our own acts of creation, although we can not animate, we can impress our intellectual vigour, an instinctive vivaciousness in what we make. Contrariwise, we might also create stillborn objects, sterile, cold, unfeeling. Intelligible they may be yet insensible, dead things. What we create and how we go about those activities can have a most personal effect upon us, bringing us joy, enlivening our souls or draining us dry, oppressing our spirit.

John Ruskin had some insightful things to say on this subject in regards to architecture. However, writing at the dawn of the industrial age, I would prefer to focus on his rich commentary regarding machined ornament, its effect on the craftsman and society at large. This is quite germane to our time with the increasing sophistication of Digital Sculpting software, 3D printing, CNC machining, robotic automation and especially AI systems under development that will not only produce objects but actually intend to replace people in designing art and architecture. Although most of my comments relate to stone carving, the principles are applicable to plaster, wood carving, glass, iron and a number of other traditional mediums.

Man as Machine

I engaged recently in an online debate on this subject of machined ornamentation with a self-proclaimed master stone carver. He excitedly described his process. First, he hires out his designs to a 3D graphics specialist digitally sculpting the design in a software program called ZBrush. Next, CNC machining grinds the stone to within 1 mm from the final surface. Finally, in his own words his role is "just a bit of cleanup, sanding and honing." He was so proud of his work, posting images of a recently completed fountain with a fair bit of ornamental detail. Yet I saw immediately something deeply disturbing about his fountain, the regularity of it rendered it completely cold and lifeless. Ruskin was all too familiar with this type of work: "They had rather not have ornament at all, than see it ill cut deadly cut, that is. I cannot too often repeat, it is not coarse cutting, it is not blunt cutting, that is necessarily bad; but it is cold cutting the look of equal trouble everywhere the smooth, diffused tranquillity of heartless pains the regularity of a plough in a level field. The chill is more likely, indeed, to show itself in finished work than in any other men cool and tire as they complete: and if completeness is thought to be vested in polish, and to be attainable by help of sand paper, we may as well give the work to the engine lathe at once."

This same "stone carver" proceeded to justify his process on that of 19th century precedent by which time the former art of stone carving had been broken down into a strict division of labour. Certain labourers specialised in rough out, others did the measuring and pointing. Various specialists might carve the drapery, rosaries, lace, flowers, etc.; whereas a master sculptor would do the faces and hands, leaving more labourers to sand and polish. In the case of our 21st century stone carver, his practise eliminates most of the labour he considers brutish, invaluable toil, ostensibly leaving time for the art. Yet, was the 19th century process the model of vitality, life and excellence to emulate or evolve from? Or perhaps was there within the sign of a sick, dying art? 

Formerly, one would apprentice for years under a master gaining a deep understanding of flatness, roughing out, taking a design to completion without any need for sanding or honing at all in fact. This process produced journeymen carvers (any one of which might be considered masters today) with perhaps one among a dozen journeymen innately possessing the transcendental gifts to achieve the position of a master himself. By contrast, the factory system the 19th century master worked under left little opportunity to pass on a complete understanding of the art and generate true masters for a subsequent generation. This was Ruskin's century and he records: "Handwork might always be known from machine-work; observing, however, at the same time, that it was possible for men to turn themselves into machines, and to reduce their labour to the machine level; but so long as men work as men putting their heart into what they do, and doing their best, it matters not how bad workmen they may be, there will be that in the handling which is above all price: it will be plainly seen that some places have been delighted in more than others that there have been a pause, and a care about them; and then there will come careless bits, and fast bits; and here the chisel will have struck hard, and there lightly, and anon timidly."

Stone Carving students at The American College of the Building Arts


'Gebs', traditional plaster carving
"If the man's mind as well as his heart went with his work, all this will be in the right places, and each part will set off the other; and the effect of the whole, as compared with the same design cut by a machine or a lifeless hand, will be like that of poetry well read and deeply felt to that of the same verses jangled by rote. There are many to whom the difference is imperceptible; but to those who love poetry it is everything -  they had rather not hear it at all, than hear it ill read; and to those who love Architecture, the life and accent of the hand are everything."

I spent a few weeks some years ago in Marrakech, Morocco studying artisan plaster manufacturing and application. Where I stayed was practically a palace, a Riad in the centre of town with an inner courtyard and fountain, intricately tiled 'zellige' walls and floors. Towards the end of the visit, our concierge invited me and my colleagues to her family's home to share a meal. Humble by contrast, earthen walls and floors, the courtyard exposed to the nite sky above. Yet as she rolled out the family hand woven carpets and offered us mint tea ceremoniously poured from the crafted silversmith's pot into the gold filigreed hand made glasses I began to inwardly confess my poverty as well as admiration for how everything I had seen during my stay: the garments people wore, the filigreed glasses they drank from, the pottery they ate off of, the carpets, everyday objects beyond count...everything was hand made and beautiful. Even the poorest among them, if they possessed anything, it was beautiful as there were little industrially produced goods available. I hold no illusions of Marrakech as an utopian society but it is a vibrant, living culture whose joy is so evident, publicly shared on a daily basis.

Social Responsibility

The developed world now lives in a predominantly Modernist built environment. Yet it was not Modernists that led the initial abandonment of craft. Much of the blame is borne on the shoulders of 19th century Traditional architects who weakly compromised the pursuit of beauty for the cheap imitation that industry could provide. Still today architects fall into 4 general groups in order of prevalence:
  1. Modernists (traditional or otherwise) who wholly, unapologetically embrace the machine aesthetic
  2. Architects who personally appreciate craft yet willfully specify in favour of industry because of weakness, financial gain or both and in so doing violate their conscience. These often train their energies on denying responsibility, justifying their actions and condemning those who expose them for the damage they do to society
  3. Architects who are sadly untalented, blind, unqualified for their practise, who can't see the difference between craft and the products of industry
  4. Architects who support authenticity, beauty and craft without compromise, on moral and aesthetic grounds 
"I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment - was the carver happy while he was about it?" - Ruskin

I concur this a fair question to be asked. After all if we admit the purpose of decoration is to give pleasure to someone who must USE a thing, why do feel the right to deny pleasure to someone we obligate to MAKE such decoration? Architecture is after all an amazing human activity that takes up more energy and resources than any other. Do not artists and architects working together share the responsibility to create a better society, one that gives joy and meaning to work, that engenders more life? Are We the People to foregoe our inalienable moral right as penned by Thomas Jefferson for "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?

Ruskin ends his essay with a similar appeal for our humanity: "There is dreaming enough, and earthiness enough, and sensuality enough in human existence, without our turning the few glowing moments of it into mechanism; and since our life must at the best be but a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away, let it at least appear as a cloud in the height of Heaven, not as the thick darkness that broods over the blast of the Furnace, and rolling of the Wheel"

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Contributed by Patrick Webb