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

1 comment:

  1. Amazing work, a thing of beauty is a joy forever.