Monday, September 12, 2016

The Existential Craftsman

Image courtesy of Scott Nelson
From time immemorial people have contemplated the nature of being and likewise the concept of origins or the coming into existence. Such contemplations have often coalesced into the core structure of religious systems of belief and correspondingly within the branch of philosophy known as ontology or "the study of essence". Existentialism is a relatively recent focus within ontology that centers around the human individual's concept of being and becoming. Prevalent themes are authenticity and individual creation of meaning, themes that find resonance with traditional craftsmanship. Craftsmen are typically concerned with the authenticity of their creations, whether or not the crafted objects truly retain the expression of their will, as an artifact of their touch. Similarly, there exists a trepidation that their work might be viewed as inauthentic or worse still, meaningless. I would like to consider if there is any potential for intrinsic meaning in craft, how craftsmen use symbolic meaning, and a particularly modern dilemma threatening craft, the absurd.

Intrinsic Meaning

Let's begin by an illustration of a flower. What does it mean? "Well, it doesn't mean anything, it just is!", one might reasonably reply. A flower certainly doesn't mean something else, it doesn't refer to anything. However, I wouldn't hastily conclude that a flower is meaningless. Perhaps we could consider whether a flower has inherent meaning or stated another way, the flower is its own meaning. As humans we're well adapted to this qualitative, inherent meaning of the natural world. A flower will elicit sensual responses of sight, smell, feel and sometimes even taste (with or without further hallucinogenic effect). In this way flowers are intuitively sensible to human beings, even by very young children. Contrast this naïve, direct, visceral sensibility with the literal meaning of a flower as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: "The reproductive structure of angiosperms, characteristically having either specialized male or female organs or both male and female organs, such as stamens and a pistil, enclosed in an outer envelope of petals and sepals."

So the "literal" meaning of flower becomes quite complicated and contingent on other literal meanings whilst our direct experience of a flower remains simple and accessible. Would a botanical that is to say scientific analysis of a flower reveal further or perhaps deeper meaning? We've been at the classification of flowers in general and particular for some centuries now with infinitely greater means of dissection from the cellular, to the DNA, to the now subatomic level with promising theories to take us even further. So it is that a single flower is now classified amongst the most complex things in the universe composed of levels of complexity ad infinitum. We lament the  complexity of the material world losing sight of that fact that we're the ones who keep cutting it to pieces. Flowers are simple yet rich in meaning. However, ascribing meaning to them in artificial, closed, conventional systems of literal and scientific terms has made them unintelligible to the point of absurdity. How does one ever feel at home in a world like that?

Hundisburg, Saxony-Anhalt
Last summer I had opportunity to work on a project of traditional masonry in the small village of Hundisburg, Germany. What do traditional, handcrafted villages like this and others mean? They don't refer to anything outside of themselves yet you just feel that the village itself is rich in meaning, it's authentic. What is physically embodied in my Hundisburg example is successive generations of human intention and attention, humans being humane. The oaks of the timber framing from adjacent fields cleared for cultivation. The stone from the local quarry now the summer swimming hole. The bricks and terra cotta tiles from a clay deposit up on the hill. Crafting a community with our neighbors from materials readily available around us is an eminently human activity, nothing absurd about it.

Symbolic Meaning

There is of course meaning that refers to something outside of itself. In fact, that this is how the term "meaning" is most often used and understood. One way for a craftsman to express symbolic meaning is with ornament, alternatively called enrichment. There are a number of methods for achieving this: carving, scratching, moulding, painting to name a few.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
We appreciate that artistic representation is only a symbol, a reference of something else. Ornament's power lies in human sympathy. The craftsman draws upon the fractal attributes of say, a flower to select a handful of attributes, the essence of the thing to convey in the selected medium. And so when you or I look upon the ornament we "get it", otherwise stated we sympathize with the process. If we have familiarity with the medium we might even begin to imagine ourselves doing the carving, painting or what have you. Likely it heightens our appreciation for the craftsman's imagination and skill. Yet just having fulfilled human beings as embodied in the example of the craftsman are of tremendous benefit to a community. Furthermore, when these investments in intrinsic and symbolic meaning are made in the shared public realm (church, high street, piazza, etc.) as they customarily were, than an inheritance is established for everyone, an enriched community that loves itself, that feels at home.

The Absurd

The kind of life that established traditional villages around the world, many of which still remain for our enjoyment, seem like an impossibility today, a eutopian fantasy. What is the absurd? How has meaning been undermined by civilized society?


In its most virulent forms we find enslavement and serfdom. Great works of beauty like the Parthenon celebrate idealized human perfection, overlooking a city that was the birthplace of democracy. And yet much of this was built on a foundation of war, misery and exploitation. There is an unresolved tension between the rich symbolic meaning of many such cities and monuments of antiquity and the inhumane treatment, the destruction of the intrinsic meaning and worth of the individual. The skilled craftsman reduced to a tool himself to express the will of monsters.


Nothing corrupts meaning like a lie. The McMansion puts its dishonesty on display like a proud peacock. It pretends to use local, traditional materials; all materials are industrial from a factory far away. It pretends to be finely crafted; it extracts the cheapest labor from the most vulnerable in society. It promises you health and status; it delivers toxicity, debt and mediocrity.


A very visible manifestation of subversion is irony, typical of  so-called Postmodernism. Often a form is taken an exemplar of tradition and hand crafted refinement. The proportions are changed,  the function inverted, traditional materials and methods are replaced with the latest in construction tech. To its credit Postmodernism doesn't lie. Rather, it ridicules intrinsic meaning as an impossible joke.

Existentialism has been interpreted by some as an individualistic philosophy, described as isolating or inward looking. However, I would contend that being an individual has no meaning independent of others any more than individuality is possible without the air you breathe. It is modern civilization that is isolating with its increasing manifestations of coercion, dishonesty and subversion: the absurd. Two main tenets of existentialism that I did not develop here were that the individual is free and is responsible. This is very empowering. We can choose to reject absurdity, instead embracing lives of intrinsic and symbolic meaning. Perhaps it is in this time of crisis for humanity that our living a life of individual meaning can have the greatest impact on intrinsic meaning for human society at large.

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

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, September 8, 2016


"TradArch" is short for "Traditional Architecture".  In the context of this essay, it refers to a listserv hosted by the University of Miami that carries the following description:

"Prof. Richard John runs an electronic mailing list from the University of Miami devoted to discussion of the theory and practice of traditional architecture. The list is an open forum for all topics related to this topic, including the posting of images of historic buildings and photographs of list members' own work. It is affiliated with the Certificate in Classical Architecture at the University of Miami School of Architecture."

I joined about three years ago and have really benefited from the perspective of architects, academics, historians, town planners, craftsmen, preservationists, students and laymen. Here are a few of the characteristics of TradArch that I feel contribute to it's success:

Uncensored - The moderators have an extremely light hand. I've not heard as much as an admonishment let alone someone getting banned. Granted the subscribers are by and large well behaved. Naturally (and beneficially I'd add) there is disagreement but for the most part this is kept on a professional level.

Democratic - There is no agenda. Folks post about their interests and what catches the interest of others gets discussed. It might also be thought of as a back channel for members of organizations and academic institutions to be able to compare, contrast and refine their approaches to traditional architecture outside the strictures of stated missions and manifestos.

Diversity - The listserv is open to anyone interested in traditional architecture. There are those with many years of practical experience, others might have a more academic pedigree. There are members still in school or just getting started in their careers. Some members are principals of large, well established firms while others are simply concerned individuals. Participation is entirely voluntary. Whether you read all of the threads or choose to actively participate is entirely up to you.

One of the criticisms leveled against the TradArch listserv was that it was a lot of talk behind virtual closed doors and no action. There was some validity to the charge. About the same time a couple of years ago, the tone on the listserv was getting noticeably irritable. Increasingly, comments were edging closer to personal attacks. Feelings were getting hurt. It was decided something had to diffuse the tension. A Garden Party!


The intention of the organizers was to create a gathering that was a reflection of the listserv and the aforementioned characteristics that made it unique and vibrant.

TAG 2015, image courtesy of David Brussat
The inaugural TradArch Gathering was held in Charleston, SC in April 2015. It began with a cocktail reception at the College of Charleston, followed by a day of sessions at The American College of the Building Arts and concluding with a day of touring infill construction in the historic district as well as the nearby I'on suburb developed according to New Urbanist principles. Despite prognostications of doom and fears of fisticuffs, everyone seemed to have a great time. Folks that had been on the listserv for years were able to meet for the first time face to face and communication noticeably improved. 

To my surprise there was renewed interest to do it again! This year it will be held in Historic Oakwood Raleigh, NC. Members of the Oak City Preservation Alliance in particular are doing the heavy lifting in playing hosts to what we're calling TAG2. Interested in attending? Join the list, join the conversation!
TradArch listserv

Below is a description of the event:

The TradArch gathering is based on 3 simple concepts in the spirit of keeping the event a reflection of the listserv itself, essentially a democratic forum for folks either independent or closely allied to organizations:

1. Non-discriminatory: Everyone on the listserv is welcome
2. No hierarchy: We're all professionals. A meeting of equals. Inspiration
can come from any of us
3. No preconceived agenda: With open session scheduling you can bring your
own ideas. If its got popular support it will be the subject of discussion

There has been feedback for improvement for our upcoming event including:

  • 2 days of sessions
  • An area for project displays open to the public 
  • Public evening presentations
  • A more structured agenda
  • Time for strategy
We've been working to incorporate all of these suggestions. The first three were easily adopted. The question arose as to how an open, democratic spirit while accommodating a preconceived agenda. Here's what we came up with:

  • Maintaining the first morning session for spontaneous open session scheduling as previously
  • Predetermining together, on the listserv beforehand the other topics we would like to take up for Friday afternoon and Saturday morning sessions. **Individuals may lead a discussion but no lectures PPT presentations etc. without unanimous consent
  • Concluding with a strategy session Saturday afternoon where manifestos, plans of action etc. can be addressed

The schedule for October 13 - 16:

304 Oakwood Ave., Raleigh, NC 27601

Thursday , Oct 13      
4:30 PM - 6:00                
Tour of Historic Oakwood led by resident architectural historian Matthew Brown. Matthew is a historian for the state of North Carolina and extremely well informed and interesting. We will include the house that caused the ruckus.

6:00 PM - ?                     
Cocktail party/heavy hors d'oeuvres at home of Carter Skinner, local traditional residential architect. His home is in Historic Oakwood and is a great example of the architecture. He and Chapman are looking forward to having you as their guests. They actually canceled an amazing trip to host for us.

112 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh, NC 27601

Friday, Oct 14            
8:30                               Breakfast in hall, provided by OCPA

9:00 - noon                    Closed sessions

10:30 - 11:30                 Andy Petesch

noon - 1:30                     Lunch

1:30 - 5:00                     Closed sessions

6:00                                Public evening sessions:

Dan Morales  
"A Gift to the Street: How to Speak about the Importance of Architectural Beauty"  

Tom Low  
"City Transformations"

Saturday, Oct 15        
8:30                                Breakfast in hall, provided by OCPA 
9:00 - noon                     Closed sessions
noon - 1:30                     Lunch
1:30 - 5:00                      Closed sessions
6:00                                Public evening sessions:
Nir Buras
"The Pleasure of Beauty and the Pain of its Absence"  

Anthony James (panel)
"Additions to Historic Buildings and New Design in Historic Districts"

Sunday, Oct 16          
12:00                              Tour of Duke Chapel

Contributed by Patrick Webb