Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Pattern Design in Architecture

Spaceship Earth
As a traditional craftsman, particularly in my experience as an ornamental plasterer, I often find my work lies at the intersection of two distinct approaches to design: pattern and architectural. I've observed that in contemporary architecture there is a great deal of confusion as to how the two different thought processes can be brought to bear on an unified architectural scheme. Today they are very often simply conflated, an effect quite detrimental to architecture as I will seek to illustrate.

Pattern Design

With three centuries of advances in industrial printing and weaving processes and the late 20th century move from analog to digital graphic technology, pattern design has asserted a dominance unmatched at any previous time in human history. Nevertheless, the fundamental basis for pattern design has remained unchanged: the articulation of space. By space I mean to imply that which is free, unbounded, infinite, spiritual, heavenly...Space.

The Singularity

The point: in concept, location without dimension. By extension from the source, the origin we have emanation, expansion. The germinating seed, an all encompassing unity. In ornamental design, this has been traditionally represented in imitation of nature: the flower, the star, the all seeing eye.

Private Residence
In much of modern architecture we can see this tendency to apply pattern design to the entirety of the building itself, the building as a giant ornament or manifestation of pattern. The geodesic dome pictured above provides an example of a deliberate intention to create a sense of something from space. Both the shape and choice of highly refined metallic cladding convey a perfect yet alien quality. In more pedestrian contexts spheres are expensive to construct, difficult to live or work in so more often we see built the hyper-rectilinear equivalent, the cube or orthotope. A spatially isolated, unbounded, self-contained unity situated in a 3D Cartesian matrix. 
The Ray

The line introduces concepts of dimension, direction, polarity, duality, separation. Left/right, above/below, inside and out. With the line comes the potentiality of repetition, whereas carried to an extreme results in monotony. Much commercial architecture today takes on this graphically linear aspect not unlike ruled paper, horizontal lines suspended in space, unbounded and framing nothing, the eye seeking in vain for resolution.

The Plane

With surface comes the ability to manifest texture, interlace and interlock becomes most evident and  a second dimension allows the formation of webs and nets. The plane is the bread and butter of graphic design: wallcoverings, rugs, textiles, tiles, wrapping papers to name a few. For decades we were subjected to the most boring, unrelenting glass boxes of government and commerce. We didn't know how good we had it. Today's buildings are typically "jazzed up", pushing windows in and out, switching up sizes and orientations, or spacing them randomly. The façade is viewed as nothing more than a canvas for various decontextualized textures constrained within a rectilinear grid wallpapered onto the same old boxes.

The Tessellation

For pattern design, the third dimension represents the pinnacle of spatial mastery. A clear comprehension of mass and void, light and shadow as well as the ability to fill three dimensions volumetrically with regular pattern is undeniably special. It's understandable to imagine applications in the field of architecture. Modern architecture has taken this in two basic directions. There is the undefined mass that actually rejects overall pattern, lacks any definable boundaries and features only a minuscule, localized surface pattern that will morph to any contour. Also common is the mash up of all the previously mentioned misapplications of pattern design to architecture. Extruded orthotopes are piled up seemingly at random, a mercilessly incessant tangle of lines and grids.

For all of the faux pas' of the recent past, I would contend that pattern design is both compatible with architectural design and has much to contribute. To do so we should consider how architectural design differs and how pattern design has and can continue to perform a very successful supporting role.

Architectural Design

The tectonic or constructive aspect of architectural design has been for millennia and ought to remain primarily about gravity. Secondarily, limits are set while possibilities encouraged by climate (temperature), weather (humidity and precipitation) and terroir (local soil and materials). Granted we're crisscrossing the globe with materials nowadays so perhaps we can temporarily ignore the use of local materials (to our increasing peril). Yet gravity is unrelenting, she imposes and restricts form and structure so that architecture must be grounded in the material and quite literally in the Earth. Attempts to circumvent this are only an affected style, one that is incongruent with reality and thus disturbing. Pattern design ought always be subordinate, not in extreme and defiant aesthetic conflict with the gravitational, earthbound nature of architectural design.

Mondoñedo Cathedral
Points, circles and spheres inevitably become concentrated areas of focus. They draw us to the center. It's only fair that the viewer should be rewarded upon arrival. The rose windows of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals provide stunning examples of placing the finest handwork, most delicate arrangements of carving and color right where we're most apt to look. Notwithstanding, they're not overly insistent. The gaze can easily withdraw and the window will comfortably fit into the overall architectural composition.

The Lincoln Memorial is a Classic example of the mastery of linear pattern applied to architecture. The repetition of vertical lines of the columns gives a clear indication of stability and support. The incised flutes only serve to bolster the feeling. Between stylobate and the capitals the lines of the columns are clearly bounded. Richly ornamented, the horzontal bands of the entablature and attic hold visual interest; however, they are also contained within a series of bounded frames that permit the eyes to rest and once again establish a unified composition.

Drawing on long established vernacular traditions, Arts & Crafts homes such as the Red House designed by Philip Webb for William Morris avoid rationalizing the exterior and naturally arrive at a façade filled with variety and visual interest. The surface is not reliant on any jarring tricks to stimulate the senses. Rather the restrained aesthetic is filled with similar details at a range of scales. Even the materials selected are textured and lively, notably the bricks laid in common bond with English corners.

Saint Petersburg Mosque
I think the absolute mastery of tessellation applied to architecture without contest belongs to Islamic architecture. The muqarnas of palaces and mosques are simply breathtaking. Islamic architecture in general is rich in color and pattern. The underlying philosophy purposefully utilizes point, line, plane and 3D tessellations to express the infinitude of the divine. It is important to note that what makes all of this exuberance coherent and comprehensible is Islamic architecture's expert use of framing and boundaries. Even this apparent superabundance of pattern remains subordinate to the architectural design.

Despite having a great love for pattern design and using it extensively in my own work, I believe architectural design taught essentially as a rationalized discipline of the articulation of space has been very damaging. We don't live in space, an abstract concept of nothingness. Rather, we inhabit a rich material reality. Even the air we breathe engages the senses with texture and scent, is a medium for light, warmth and sound. Our collective architectural heritage is clear evidence that pattern and architectural design are not necessarily antagonistic. Quite to the contrary, we need architectural design to reassert its position at the forefront of design in our built environment. An architecture rooted in nature and the earth that pattern loving craftsmen like myself can support with our hands and our hearts.

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

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Center for Traditional Craft

Image courtesy of Savannah Tech
The future of trades education has been the main topic of debate and concentrated focus among highly skilled traditional craftsmen the past few years. The interest in traditional crafts and demand for qualified tradesmen has been increasing steadily alongside a parallel resurgence in traditional architecture and urbanism. While there are good paying jobs available in the traditional building trades that contribute in a constructive way to our economy and built environment, the educational infrastructure needed to produce capable tradesmen lags far behind. This gulf between demand and supply of skilled craftsmen translates into opportunity.

Currently, there are only a handful of accredited higher education programs in the US that include even a component of hands on traditional craft education. Many of these are dependent on a single instructor. None of them are integrated into a larger program of Historic Preservation or of Architecture. What we need is a model, a replicable model for craft education. I'm encouraged by what I've personally seen under development recently at Savannah Technical College.

Department of Historic Preservation & Restoration

Savannah Tech offers an Associates of Arts in Historic Preservation & Restoration. It's an extraordinarily practical program, 57 of the 69 required credit hours are dedicated to occupational courses. The program was founded in 2009 and is accredited by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Students learn to work with a variety of traditional building materials including wood, glass, iron, brick, stone, ceramics, plaster and gilding. The department is looking to expand its degree program beginning with masonry in 2017 followed by a plaster program in 2018. Beyond the aforementioned, here's what really excites me about the program:

Former student, current employee of the
Coastal Heritage Society
*Students can and are entering the marketplace debt free!
Grants are available that will pay for 100% of tuition and books for in state residents qualifying for financial aid that do not yet hold a bachelor's degree.

*Savannah Tech is part of the Technical College System of Georgia which has already established learning objectives for their students and clear benchmarks for determining learning outcomes.
*Interning students and graduates being placed in their field due to determined collaboration between the administration, the department head and partners in the private sector.

The immediate success of the program and evident benefits to young people and the local community led to interest from the private sector to support a plan that would both enhance the impact of the state program and expand educational opportunity to professionals and the general public. That plan became The Center for Traditional Craft.

The Center for Traditional Craft

Officially founded in 2014, the primary objective for The Center for Traditional Craft is to underwrite educational opportunities that enrich the curricula and extend educational opportunities to the professional community and general public through private endowment. Additionally, the Center in conjunction with Savannah Tech has been host to recent gatherings of the National Council for Preservation Education in 2014 and the International Trades Education Symposium in 2015. Below are a couple of the programs the Center has instituted and is in the process of developing further:

Visiting Artist Series
The series funds highly skilled craftsmen, experts in fields as diverse as glass blowing, ornamental plastering, timber framing, brick making and dry stack masonry to spend a week or more of intensive instructions with students. 

Historic Homeowners Academy
In addition to the many locals in Savannah interested in caring for their beautiful homes, traditional craft workshops have been well attended by professionals such as architects, preservationists, contractors and tradesmen. A long term program is currently being considered for lectures, drawing and hands on study of Classical Architecture, a certificate granting program for students that would qualify for continued education units for architects and designers.

Historic Homeowners Academy - Plaster Workshop

One of the Center's goals is to have a privately funded independent brick and mortar building (perhaps quite literally) for the Center, a state of the art facility dedicated to traditional craft education. More information on Savannah Tech's Historic Preservation Program and The Center for Traditional Craft can be found here:

The Whitehill Report on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation

Image courtesy of Savannah Tech
Although today largely forgotten, the Whitehill Report was a very important document for historic preservation. The committee was formed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation shortly after the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted into law in 1967. Among its findings was that there was a need to fund both schools of historic preservation as well as restoration, i.e. hands on traditional craft skills. Historic preservation schools were to be associated with established architecture programs. The importance of a living tradition of craft and architecture was repeatedly stressed. Preservationists were essentially to be architects who received training that would qualify them to sensitively work with historic buildings as well as design new traditional buildings.

Although academic preservation programs did and continue to receive government funding as a result of the report, the particular suggestions of the report were not closely implemented. Certainly comparable funding for traditional craft and restoration training never came through. Nevertheless, I see the findings of the report itself well thought out and mostly valid even almost 50 years later. They  outline a necessary level of support that would help programs like Historic Preservation and Restoration at Savannah Tech and the handful of other similar programs to flourish and spread, providing meaningful, well paid work for an entire generation of young people. It's high time for a revised report on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation!

You can find a copy of the original Whitehill report in its entirety below:

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

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, August 12, 2016

Classicism's Status Quo

The Fire of Rome, Hubert Robert - 1765
I want to begin by saying that the use of 'status quo' is not meant to be pejorative, rather a literal recall to the Latin meaning: 'the state of which' Classicism, the contemporary related ideologies based upon Greco-Roman and Western Classical traditions and specifically Classicism as applied to architecture, currently finds itself.

With that clarification in order, I want to use this essay to address a historical question, a contemporary question as well as open a dialogue around the possible future, even resurgence of the Classical tradition, namely:

What became of Classicism's dominance?
What is the status quo of Classicism?
What are the preconditions for a future Classical Renaissance?

The Coup de Grâce

By 476 A.D. the physical city of Rome had decayed into little more than a desiccated husk of its former glory. The sack at the hands of the barbarians was simply a 'coup de grâce', a merciful stroke to end the miserable sufferings of an imploded civilization. Still, Classical traditions simmered in the Eastern empire, among the conquering barbarians, with the church. For a thousand years this was expressed architecturally through broad styles manifesting Classical influences that we now call Romanesque, Gothic and even Islamic. And so, in the 15th century long stirrings began to fluoresce into the recognizable period of Classical Renaissance. The death stroke didn't take.

For four centuries, from the 15th thru the 19th, Classicism again dominated the culture and architecture of Western civilization. However, by the early 20th century she had given out. There was no dramatic finale, no violent conflagration. She had simply collapsed from exhaustion.

What happened? In a word, Industrialization. I know that some of you will protest that Industrialization is inseparable from the progress of science, capitalism, revolution and the philosophies that gave rise to them. I don't dispute that; however, I maintain the position that these and other developments all coalesce into the physical transformation of our world and human culture that is Industrialization. The great intellects of Classical antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Vitruvius; none of them could have foreseen or prepared us for the havoc that industry would and continues to wreak with human culture. It is completely unprecedented.

The Status Quo

Architectural Classicism, that is to say the contemporary ideologies based on the building traditions of Classical antiquity and the Renaissance, continues to lean heavily for its intellectual underpinnings upon the writings of Vitruvius, Alberti and a handful of other theorists from the Beaux Arts up until the present. Virtually all of them have operated within the tripartite maxim of firmness, commodity and delight. Classicism concerns itself almost exclusively with the formal articulation and refinement of the built environment. That is hardly a criticism, yet at the same time it is no longer sufficient.

For the ancients and Renaissance men, materials and craftsmen were more or less taken for granted. Wood, stone, bricks, plaster and to a lesser degree glass and iron were the materials of architecture and armies of skilled craftsmen supplied them. Similarly, social structures were fixed around a craft or maker economy. The concept of consumable goods applied mostly to food. Architecture was certainly not a consumable even for the very wealthy. There was simply little thought to write about either materials, the craftsmen making them or how their work might contribute to their personal happiness or a better society. It was tradition, it was just how things were and had always been.

However, by the 19th century it became evident that was not how things were to remain. John Ruskin, William Morris and other leading thinkers of the Arts & Crafts movement fiercely campaigned for the constraint of industry to protect the joy that humans experienced in making and the intrinsic social value embedded in traditions. In stark contrast Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and other leaders of emergent Modernism fully embraced industry and a progressive consumer economy whose surpluses would eliminate what they stigmatized as useless toil. During the same period Classicists largely ignored the social questions and the material qualities of their work, continuing to focus on its formal qualities and further refinements. An examination of period literature reveals that as a collective intelligentsia Classicists had completely missed participation let alone leadership through the most significant transition in human civilization and by the 20th century had become intellectually irrelevant. All that remained were the industrial war efforts to destroy by violence the Arts and Crafts movement, severely diminish Classicism, and lift Modernism to ascendancy in academia and practice as industry's sole hand maiden.

The social, tectonic, ecological and increasingly economical failings of a built environment, now dominated for 70 years by Industrial Modernism, has begun to open up narrow opportunities for at least the consideration of revisiting traditional architectural solutions. Lifted on the crest of Post-Modernism, Classicism has made a small but significant resurgence, particularly in the luxury residential market and likewise has made minor inroads to claiming some presence in academia. Yet, after a couple of decades of growth Classicism has seemed to more or less plateau as a stable if minority participant in the contemporary built environment. What gives?

The Dialogue 

I contend that collectively, as a movement contemporary Classicism still has her head in the sand as far as addressing in an organized fashion the ethical, social, economic, ecology and material questions raised by Industrialization with anything resembling the vigor and coherence of the traditional formal arguments. That being said many individual Classicists are very agitated about the lack of dialogue on some or all of these issues and the stagnation of growth. We cannot look to Vitruvius or Palladio for answers to this current dilemma. Industrialization is unique to our time and we have to address the broad issues it raises on our own. We have to create our own Renaissance.

There are a few, really considered at the fringe of Classicism, that are leading this conversation. Among them I would count myself, bringing a perspective picking up and expanding upon the work developed by the Arts and Crafts movement. Also, I would reference Christopher Alexander and Léon Krier with their respective colleagues. Basically, at these early stages of development I see at least two distinct approaches developing.

First, Classicism's complete embrace of industry, simply displacing Modernism as the preeminent formal language of our built environment without any vigorous attempt at addressing the aforementioned issues, at least for the time being. Emergent advances in automated algorithmic design and robotic production including various 3D technologies are pointed to as means to convert Classicism to the favored consumable architectural product of a global industrial market. Personally I do not favor this approach, at all, not even a little bit as it relegates Classicism to a mere affected style of a rationalized constructed environment, an abandonment of the deeply humanistic germinating power of growth at it's core.

Instead I see Classicism as reasserting its traditional nature. Traditions only pertain to humans, the placing of knowledge in the commons to be shared with successive generations. Local materials and building customs were embedded in the 'genus loci', the Classical 'spirit of the place'. With cheap, proprietary industrial alternatives and construction systems, materials can no longer be taken for granted. Classicism today must build a philosophy around material qualities in addition to formal ones. Furthermore, it is time for Classicism to take the lead in reconciling the seemingly opposite terms of 'ecology' and 'economy'. The Classical Greek root 'eco', 'oikos' (οῖκος) conveyed the sense of home but more than that also of an extended family and estate. Therefore, ecology (logia, λογία) concerns itself with the knowledge of the familial estate needed for the economy (nómos, νόμος), the sustainable management of our living environment, natural and built. This familial consideration concerns itself not just with what things are built but how they are built, who is building them and how that process or hopefully tradition contributes to their happiness as a contributing individual as well as the collective good of human society taking its place in the greater order of the natural world.

Whichever perspective you lean towards or perhaps independently bring to the dialogue the most important thing for Classicism now is that we start talking.

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

Contributed by Patrick Webb