Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What is needed

After chatting with a friend last night, who told me that my blog was taking so long to load and sometimes his computer crashed, I took a look this morning at the situation and have made a change to the format. From now on, only the most current blog entry will appear on the start page - all previous blogs will be archived on the right. So, this should make for quicker page loading, and it means that if you haven't been on here for a day or three, you might want to check the archive to see if you missed any posts between visits.

One other note I wanted to make. I realize that many readers here are building professionals, furniture-makers, architects, woodworkers, and of course, interested laypersons. Sometimes I fear that by expressing criticism of a particular approach to making something, or commenting upon a shortcoming I perceive in a trade or profession, that some readers might take that personally. If so, please know that is not my intent to attack anyone in that manner, and I am expressing my opinions only, not Holy Writ. If you feel I am off the mark in my characterization of something, please do not hesitate to express your view. I am engaged in a learning path, and have no desire to labor under false assumptions or conclusions for any length of time.

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I have been reading a book called Building Early America the past couple of days, a compilation of symposium presentations from a conference held at the Carpenter's House in Philadelphia to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Carpenter's company of Philadelphia. The essays cover a wide range of topics, including restoration, early use of steam power, the history of HVAC systems, and so forth. There is but one chapter on Carpentry practice, and it has a slightly narrow focus, The Eighteenth-Century Frame Houses of Tidewater, Virginia. Nevertheless, the essay contains some interesting information. and I was struck by some of the commentary, and thought I should share it with readers here who might not have access to this book.

The author, Paul E. Buchanan, an architectural researcher, discusses the building process at length, and the role of the Master Builder in that process. He notes,

"The "art of building" was esteemed in the eighteenth century, both by men of taste and culture who appreciated the aesthetic refinements of architecture, and by the skilled craftsmen who exercised their expertise in the practical employment of construction. Carpentry was a master craft in the eighteenth century, requiring versatile abilities, disciplined training, and honest and proficient application. Mr. R. Campbell, who published The London Tradesman in 1747 for the instruction of youth in the choice of their profession, aptly described the qualities and qualifications prerequisite to the trade:

The Carpenter is the next [among] Person[s] of Consequence in the Employ of the Architect. The Carpenter is employed in the Wooden-work, from the Foundation to the Top. In Works where the Foundation is supposed soft, the Carpenter drives piles down to support the Edifice. In Brickworks he places bearers, where the chief weight of the building lies: He lays the Joists, Girders, and Rafters in flooring, and when the outward case is built, he puts on the Roof and prepares it for the Slater. This is the proper business of a House-Carpenter. He ought to have a solid judgment in Matters of this Kind, to be able to act not only by the common mechanical principles of his Art, but to strike out of the common road when the Case requires it; as it frequently does in propping of old decayed Buildings; Strength is the chief of his study, and to dispose his work in such a manner as that which is designed for the support of a building may not, by its weight, overturn it. It requires a strong robust body, and Hale constitution. He must read English, write a tolerable hand, and know how to design his work. He must understand as much Geometry as relates to the Mensuration of Solids and Superficies. This business is by no means despicable in respect to its profits..."

I think this quote from the London Tradesman sums up quite well the nature of building and of being a Master Builder. When I think about Buchanan's comments about the esteem which the building arts were held, by both builder and client, I can't help but wonder where that has gone. In 1954, in The Natural House, Frank Lloyd Wright, in mentioning his early years, makes the following comment about the builders of that day:

"It is not too much to say that as a young architect, by inheritance and training a radical, my lot was cast in with an inebriate lot of criminals called builders; sinners hardened by habit against every human significance except one: vulgarity. The one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. And I will venture to say, too, that the aggregation was at the lowest aesthetic level in all history."

His opinion of builders was so low, that later in the book he goes on to recommend to the client,

"To build a low cost house you must eliminate, so far as possible, the use of skilled labor, now so expensive".

Curiously he does not call for the removal of his own skilled labor as architect from the process, as a means of economizing! When one has contempt for the artisan, no matter how justified that may be, the solution offered of reducing skilled labor is a slippery and logical slope to the mass-produced pre-fab house, built in a factory, and the death of skilled trade.

Well, as a builder I definitely have a few things to say about FLW's ideas, and the manifestation of those ideas one can observe in his own body of work, and will be tackling that issue in upcoming posts.

Suffice to say that the Master Builder tradition appears to have fallen from one of esteem in the 1700~1850 or so, to condemnation at the fin de sicle, the end of the 1800's. I think I have already pointed out some of the contributing factors in that decline. Identifying causes is helpful, and even better, I think that recapturing that early mode of excellence and artisanry in building, all those versatile abilities and keen perceptions, and finding a way to bring it forward, to find some touchstone of renewal, is the important thing.

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