Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Logical Craftsman

I recently was commissioned for the bespoke design development, manufacture and installation of enriched plaster elements of an architecturally Classical Ionic order including capital, architrave, frieze and cornice as well as a large cove above an attic storey. This was carried out under the direction of local architectural firm Glavé & Holmes for Veritas, a Classical Christian Academy in Richmond, VA. I would contend that it is not immediately obvious what Judeo-Christian culture and the legacy of Graeco-Roman civilisation might share in common as a worldview or, in spite of the long history and widespread diffusion of Western civilisation, why it might be that an architecture once developed for pagan temples might be appropriate for a school furnishing a Christian education. Nevertheless, I've personally come to a provisional belief that the Classical and Christian traditions do share certain commonalities that are significant, of value and can be reconciled around specific principles, one of which being the "Logos" that I should like to develop directly towards the conclusion of this essay. Interestingly, the principle of the Logos has much practical utility for the craftsman so I'll first seek to articulate how it was drawn upon for this project through the exercise of various branches of "logic", that being "the art or technique of Logos", alternatively of "reason" but of a particular sort.


Human beings are far from omniscient, our knowledge is both limited and susceptible to doubt or revision. So the question arises, "how might one arrive upon certain knowledge?" or of practical utility for the craftsman, "how might we obtain consistent, necessary results from a given action?"  This can be accomplished by deducing, literally "drawing from" a base of knowledge already established. However, this species of knowledge does not directly originate from experience, rather "rationally" from a relationship of ideas to one another accompanied by a system to encode, conventialise or in other words make symbols for those ideas. The Classical Quadrivium studies of arithmetic, geometry, harmony and cosmology (number in concept, space, sequence, time & space) are all based on deductive reasoning. Although such deductive reasonings originate in the mind, the effects of implementing them can produce objective changes in the material world. For the architect and craftsman these become tools, instruments in the process of design.

The Ionic order of Classical architecture is held (with some controversy) to be based on a Golden harmonic sequence. All of the parts, from the smallest moulding elements to the pilasters and entablature, all the way to the overall elevation and volume of the contained space derive from a conventionalised system of proportion. Having mastered this deductive tool, one's design can largely unfold like a flower from a blossom. Variations of these tools have been encoded into "canons", formulaic treatises that closely followed lead to predictable, necessary forms. One specific deductive tool utilised for this project was that of Goldman's 17th century method for describing the spiral of the Ionic volute. The size and placement of the eye being given by the canonical reference, the volute uncoils in a predetermined fashion. Therefore, this type of deductive, formal reasoning can literally "inform" that is to say "put form into" the design.

An interesting feature of deductive reasoning is that it makes truth claims, at least within the given system of convention. In practical terms for the craftsman, his work is measurable and whether it is correct or not can be verified by physical examination.


Not everything in design unfolds from a prescribed formula; in fact, most things don't at all so other
species of reasoning are needed. To induce literally mean to "draw in", that's to say to take in additional knowledge, to expand the domain of what can be known. One of the ways in which we accomplish this is by analogy, literally "according to logic!" For the architect this may entail finding spaces that are similar in scale, shape and purpose and using them as precedents, reasons for the proposed design. The same analogous principle applies to the craftsman. For this project we studied dozens of examples of column capitals and entablatures, selecting precedents that we felt were both excellent and appropriate to our given project.

Clearly we're not the first to have encountered these design challenges and fortunately many talented folks before us have left instructive content in writing and drawings. The aforementioned "canons" provide a library of proven effective and widely accepted solutions that allow us to use expert, authoritative testimony to bolster our justifications, our reasoning for the design decisions we ultimately take.

However, as helpful as they are we mustn't thoughtlessly follow canon and precedent; if so we wouldn't be fully utilising our own capacity for reason! The canons provide general guidelines in an abstract, theoretical framework whereas precedents are specific solutions adapted for a particular time, space and purpose. Our own location and challenge are always unique and call for adaptation. The question that arises is an ethical, specifically an aesthetic one, "what ought this to look like?" In our project we were obliged to make many aesthetic value claims about what was appropriate for the space, whether to extend the profile of the cove further into the ceiling, to reduce the projection of the cornice, to pulvinate the frieze to name a few of many such decisions. These was hardly deductive reasonings applied formulaically to arrive at guaranteed truth, rather posited solutions inferred from our own experience and cultivated judgement.


Sometimes there are no precedents, there are no canonical sources. Almost inevitably that is the case for the small decisions, the fine details, the knitty gritty aspects of either the design or technical operations; essentially we find ourselves tasked with things we've never done before and there's no one to call upon for help. It is from this duress and with another type of reasoning that much skill in craft is acquired. It's abductive reason and, just as it sounds, it's reason that is "drawn away", taken from wherever you can get it! Occasionally reasoning through the difficulty will arise as an act of imagination, a scenario contemplated by the mind. We may even go so far to posit an hypothesis, an inferred solution, essentially our best guess verbally or in writing. More often and more effectively craftsmen tend to act out the solution as an embodied form of reason. If at first you don't succeed try, try, try again is essentially the method of abduction, acquiring and constructing further knowledge from the scarcest of data through applied imagination, creative action.

All three forms of reason were brought to bear on this project; however, particularly the latter form of abduction played the crucial role in the most ornamental, symbolic feature: the fleuron of the capitals.

The Logos

Here in the 21st century we've very nearly lost our capacity for communication through symbolic ornamentation. On the one hand ornament may be suspect of being idolatrous while at the other  extreme is often denigrated as arbitrary kitsch, carrying no capacity for meaning whatsoever. In this context much careful thought went into the concept and  design of the capital fleuron so as to be a proper reflection of the values of Veritas and to avoid these two extremes. Below are a few of the values I ascertained of the academy as I developed my design:
  • Engaging the students with the best examples of philosophical conversations, books, art and music that the accumulated Western tradition has to offer.
  • The cultivation (oriented towards cult and culture; religion and society) of the developing mind with an emphasis on logic and reason progressing towards clearly articulated communication through speech and writing.
  • The capacity and desire for lifelong learning imparted to the students is more important than the particular contents of any subject taught at the academy. 
The latter appeared to me to be an overarching principle, at the top of the hierarchy of values as it encapsulates that which can generate additional values. It recalled to me the writings of the Classical Greek philosopher Heraclitus who had a concept of the Logos as "the mind of God". His famous illustration being that of the river whose contents are every changing yet it remains the river and in some sense the same; the overarching structure for the river of course being its banks, the static precondition that makes the dynamic being of the flow of the water possible, an interesting paradox of the reciprocal relationship between the universal and eternal with the particular and ephemeral, that which is always coming in and out of being, subject to metamorphosis.

Plato contrasted Logos and Mythos as two ways of human understanding, two paths of truth. Mythos being a true story but a fictive, poetic, naturalistic account that might be dramatized or acted out as we orient ourselves the unknown, towards what we don’t yet quite understand. Logos by contrast he describes as the higher principle, the rational mind that grasps the higher universal ‘forms’ and represents the known, the knowable most notably through speech, particularly philosophy. Just as the soul inhabits the body, the divine, eternal Logos inhabits the material, provisional Mythos as it strives for a return to Unity.

Aristotle also treats Logos as a higher principle but constrained within one of three persuasive methods of rhetoric. In any given argument there are two subjects and an object of discussion so three bases of persuasion. Ethos refers to the character of the one presenting the argument, one’s credibility or authority. Pathos concerns the emotional state of the one receiving the argument, largely determining if he is moved or receptive to Logos, the rationale of the argument itself. Aristotle’s introduces concepts of Deduction, moving from universal principles to particular cases and Induction, the applying of particular cases to account for universal principles which have become accepted and expanded upon in Western philosophical tradition as the foundation of propositional Logic.

The Logos likewise is a central theme of Christianity:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." - John 1:1-3 KJV

The "Word" being the English translation of the Greek "Logos" so that Jesus is associated with creation itself but in a specific way: a call to order through speech. We can make reference back to the very beginning where all of creation is successively spoken into existence:

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." - Genesis 1:3 KJV

So in view of the above I thought it reasonable to ask, "what might it mean to be made in the image of God?" For me it means at least in part that we can embody in flesh the negentropic principle that can distinguish good from bad, that can develop habitable order from undifferentiated potential by speaking and acting the truth. In so doing we can participate in moving existence closer to heaven, the city of God, paradise, the beautiful. So how do you express that architecturally, in ornament, symbolically?

For starters by not confusing the symbol with the greater, transcendent reality it points towards. The Classical conveys quite explicitly habitable order. We in fact refer to the arrangement in this design as an example of the Ionic Order. Likewise the purpose of ornament is reflected in the meaning of the word itself as derived from the Latin root "ordo"; ornament is principally a means of reinforcing the order of architectural space...through symbolic narrative, through the metaphorical word. So the Classical design reinforced with Christian ornamentation of this room convey both a sense of order and sacred purpose, a temple architecture in essence rededicated to education: the "drawing out", uncovering of the spark of divinity that inheres to the individual.

In Christianity the greatest exemplar of divine light is of course Jesus Christ, "the Word made flesh", the Logos. One of Christ's symbols, "the Lion of the tribe of Judah", was taken by author C. S. Lewis and further symbolised in the Chronicles of Narnia with the character Aslan the lion who created Narnia with a song. The symbol of the lion also came to be associated with John the Baptist, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” - Mark 1:3 KJV, identifying the voice of truthful speech as a precondition for spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, the evangelist (literally the angel or messenger of 'good') Mark himself came to be depicted as a winged lion who held the truthful word in his right paw. So that was the inspiration for my design of little Aslan fleurons, to serve as a symbol, to point, to remind the young men and women who pass through those doors to embody the Logos in their own education, orienting themselves towards the good by becoming powerful, articulate speakers and actors of truth.

Lion of St. Mark, Venice

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Mystical Craftsman

"You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop" - Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad

A commonly expressed tenet of the mystical perspective is that we and everything surrounding us are localised and temporal manifestations of a greater wholeness. Stated another way, between you and the ultimate reality...there is no separation.

Unsurprisingly, for a number of mystic traditions such as Sufi Muslims, Kabbalist Jews, Taoists, Zen Buddhists and many monastic traditions within Christianity the boundaries of belief have always remained somewhat permeable. This openness and desire for unity typical of mysticism has the capacity to transcend dogmatic belief, heal division and uncover that which connects and binds us to each other and all there is.

Working together with a traditional plaster and masonry company, Preservation Works, I recently received a commission for the design, construction and installation of an enriched plaster dome of Islamic geometric design. This was for the "mihrab" or private chapel of a couple in their newly built home situated on the "Farm of Peace" an 150 acre Sufi Muslim community, retreat and healing centre nestled in the gently rolling hills of south-central Pennsylvania. I was given great liberty with the design and manufacture of the dome of which I'll attempt to share my experience.

The Tessellation

The owners presented me with a rendering of an hexadecagram, a 16-sided star polygon as a point of departure for the design. Such "four-fold" geometries are the most common in Islamic geometric design as the root regular polygon, the square fully occupies surfaces, making it well adapted it for complex designs. However, the first challenge was to determine the surface to receive the design, to research what kind of curvature for the dome was possible given the architectural constraints of the room height, the potentially obstructing rafters above and even the thickness of the dome itself. We managed to squeeze out the most curvature possible with a profile generated by a three-centred arch, an approximate ellipse.

The hexadecagram pattern could now be adapted for the determined surface. This was all carried out traditionally, geometrically with compass and rule. The initially provided design was modified, the proportions of the 'safts' or petals of the star-like tessellation were adjusted to produce a more harmonious composition and the entire pattern was reduced in scale so as to be fully observable from a prostrate position on the ground. A calligraphic element, "ﷲ‬, Allah" was placed in the direction of Mecca to provide orientation for prayer.

With the occasional exception of highly stylised vegetal design, representational art is strongly discouraged, at times forbidden in Islamic tradition. Artists have responded to these constraints by pushing the very limits of aesthetic potential and symbolic meaning possible from geometric design. The star becomes a common motif. As an emanation from a centre it acts as a symbol of divine enlightenment, yet the same centrepoint draws you in to the divine unity. This sense of unity can be fortified with an interlacement of the bands, representing the woven tapestry of the universe in its infinitude.

Translating the interlaced pattern from a scaled two dimensional drawing to the three dimensional surface of the dome was another important step involving more geometry. The dome was to be cast; this meant that the "void" had to be first extruded in plaster. Onto that inverted surface the pattern was carefully and methodically transferred, physically inscribed utilising several methods to verify its precision. This accomplished, the casting of the dome in a relatively thin shell of plaster could commence.

Contrast, Harmony, Unity

Islamic geometry participates in a far more universal tradition of sacred geometry. Principles of the sacred feminine in harmonious relation with the sacred masculine were intrinsic characteristics of the tessellated dome that I sought to augment. For example, the "void" of the dome can point to the vault of heaven but has a perhaps stronger correlation with the universal "womb", the unseen and unknown mystery out of which all emerges. Rather than being considered empty or being nothing, the void symbolises that which is as of yet undifferentiated...potential itself. The gentleness and ethereal nature of the void is contrasted with the rigourous order, the imposed and revealed pattern of the tessellation.

For the enrichment of the surface we chose to further accentuate these principles of softness/sharpness, darkness/light, the sacred feminine and masculine. The oculus at centre surrounds a lightwell, literally bringing the light of the sun to be the focal point of the design. The tessellation continues to emanate from there in successive waves. The sixteen pointed star received a soft dimpled pattern representative of the sacred feminine, next contrasted by the sharp "flamed" texture hand gouged with wood chisels. The safts of the tessellation were so proportioned as to provide balance between these soft/hard, feminine/masculine elements. The end result is an harmonious composition that takes disparate, contrasting elements and interlaces them together into its own symbolic "universe", a single turn of the divine compass, encompassing quite literally the sacred feminine and masculine, seen through the symbol of unity, the perimeter of the circle through which it is entered.

Contributed by Patrick Webb