Together with Turkishceramics, we put together a group of our favourite designers and architects for a wide-ranging discussion on craftsmanship in architecture
Words and photography by Gareth Gardner
A round table debate about craftsmanship in architecture was recently held by Blueprint magazine, in association with Turkishceramics.
An illustrious panel spanning curating, architecture and manufacturing gathered at Soho’s House of St Barnabas to share diverse opinions on a variety of issues including the importance of craftsmanship in architecture, the use of materials and how to create successful collaborations between architects, craftsmen and manufacturers.
Bahadir Kayan, chairman of Turkishceramics
Johnny Tucker, editor of Blueprint
Charles Holland, principal of Charles Holland Architects
Crispin Kelly, director of Baylight
David Kohn, director of David Kohn Architects
Friedrich Ludewig, director of ACME
James Hepburn, development manager, Hammerson
Kate Goodwin, head of architecture / Drue Heinz curator at the Royal Academy
Robbert Guis, architect at Mecanoo Architecten
Roz Barr, principal of Roz Barr Architects
Johnny Tucker We are discussing the question of craftsmanship in architecture, defining what we think it actually is. Is it something that’s coming into architecture or has it always been here and never left? Are there factors that are pushing it in new directions, particularly digitally?
I read on Roz Barr’s website that her practice is defined by a distinctive ethos of making, and I thought that’s a good place to start. What do you mean by this, and where do you see this fitting into architecture at the present time?
Roz Barr Everybody around this table today is involved in making. My background came from the arts, before I did architecture, and I have a very strong affinity towards making, and thinking about how you make things, as part of the architectural process. It’s not just the construction and making of a project, but it starts right at the beginning.
For me craft is a ritual, it’s about making a mark. Craftsmanship comes through the skill of someone else’s ability to make and repeat; that’s the process of their making. I have an interest in how people make, understanding the technology and the material, what you can do with it and how you can push it.
I guess this is part of the process of making, understanding the size, the scale, the limitations. For our own work, it’s about thinking a little bit outside the box: how can we be playful with the materials that we are perhaps asked to use through planning, how can we change how we use those materials?
JT Materials, are of course, a huge focus for architects. That’s one of the key starting points in a lot of people’s schemes. Has a different materiality come about as a result of moving away from the strictures of modernism?
Charles Holland At its most mainstream, modernism was concerned with industrialisation and mass production, and to me this still seems to be the fundamental driver. But over time, other modernisms have been excavated which are perhaps more interested in craft, the poetics of place and other things removed from that interest in industrialisation.
Certain contemporary digital fabrication techniques mean that you can revisit things that were ideologically or otherwise forbidden by modernism. For instance, decoration and pattern have undoubtedly gone through a resurgence during the last few years. That has been aided by a sense of both being slightly beyond modernism’s strictures and the new opportunities in the way you can make things.
I feel in some senses that when I began — and with the work I did at FAT Architecture — I was primarily concerned with visual and conceptual culture, before materials or craft. Having moved on to building more things, you naturally start to bring those other things much more into the early stages of developing projects. Materials culture is something that has come later to me. Materials are chosen very much by how you pursue an idea once it becomes a material thing, which is different from the position of saying ‘I’m interested in this material,’ as a starting point.
Friedrich Ludewig The craftsmanship idea speaks to me a little bit more about how much you are crafting something for a place. You feel that if you put it somewhere else you would have designed it differently and you would be quite embarrassed if someone simply wanted a copy of it from you, because you made it for this place and not that one, and it has to stay here.
JT So it’s more about localisation and the narrative from that place?
FL It was interesting what Charles was saying about materials. I think I would probably approach it for purely historical and individual reasons in another way, whereas you said you start from the idea, and the material follows as part of the process of the idea manifesting itself in reality. I grew up in the German city of Lübeck. It’s 800 years of brick. You don’t have a choice, everything is built of brick. They only had brick — any idea, has to be applied in brick!
I’ve really enjoyed working with James Hepburn of Hammerson on Eastgate Quarters in Leeds, trying to work with materials from Leeds, but attempting to do something that Leeds hasn’t already got, which hasn’t been done like that before. The material did come first; we went to Leeds and looked around and saw all this terracotta and said to ourselves that we had to do something interesting in terracotta.
CH I think this is really interesting. Of course nothing comes without something preceding it and you can’t have an idea about anything without some preconceived sense of how that idea might translate into a physical object. Your reverse is more than that and very interesting: ‘There’s a set of parameters and innovation occurs within that set.’ To some extent we all work within some kind of a set of preconceived parameters and invent from that point of view.
James Hepburn There are fewer parameters than there were. For me, it’s a consumer-led thing, it’s demand, it’s us. We have access to so much more technology, more products and we see so much more, that we think more and we have more ideas, and then we push you guys [architects] to try and hone that into a brief. If the demand in Leeds is for premium retail, and it’s inspired by this wonderful brick and terracotta next door, that’s part of using what we’ve already got and part consumer led.
JT The 2014 exhibition Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy was very much about making, craftsmanship and materiality. Kate, how did you go about commissioning pieces for the exhibition?
KG For me, craftsmanship is often associated with something that is local and place specific and the seven architectural practices I selected, from six countries and four continents, shared those sensibilities.
It is about doing something which is quite often building upon a local tradition or a local material, or something which is of a place. It’s often about a particular scale, of thought given to details. To my mind it can relate to things like door handles, things we touch or encounter, or can go to very large-scale facades — things where we have an affinity with materials, detailing and how they come together.
In Sensing Spaces, each architect drew upon what they knew of their own place and they brought that. For example, Japanese architect Kengo Kuma brought in people who knew about bamboo, because they were able to achieve what he wanted to do with that material.
I’ve seen quite a lot of architects, particularly smaller practices, at competition stage collaborating with a fabricator. A lot of people are saying that while they are developing an idea they would like to sit with someone who does the making of it. You learn something in the process and it takes you somewhere.
Robbert Guis It’s super interesting, this idea of collaboration with someone who’s actually making the thing.
Mecanoo worked on the Ethiopia Dutch Embassy [Addis Ababa] 15 years ago. In that period the Netherlands was building a huge amount of embassies around the world to show and promote Dutch identity. All these projects were just built in the Netherlands with Dutch constructors. Everything went into a ship.
Mecanoo thought it would be much more interesting to work with a local contractor in Ethiopia, as a big challenge, and find out how to work with their materials and their way of constructing a building like that, and how it could also be given a Dutch identity. That was part of the beginning of this project, thinking about how to make it.
Bahadir Kayan Perhaps the original question should be: ‘To what extent is the architect a craftsman, and vice versa?’ The architect is responsible for taking the right crafts piece and putting it into the right space and location. But the craftsman is the person who is able to handle the material in detail, which is different to the architect’s responsibilities.
To me a craftsperson doesn’t care about which piece is going to be located in what kind of space and place. But on the other hand it is up to an architect to take this piece of craft, a unique object, and deal with it within the whole complexity of their job and responsibilities.
Architects should know about and support craftsmanship and artisanship, but if they deal too much with it then they are distancing themselves from their real responsibilities.
JT Surely architects at the beginning were the craftsmen, but at some point that evolved and changed?
Crispin Kelly A reflection of the quandary that architects find themselves in with respect to craft is that there were two strands of how to be a designer in England in the 18th century. One was rooted in the master craftsman who could design something, and the other was someone who had been on the grand tour and had good taste. Those two things of having ideas and having skills seem to be a rooted contradiction which one feels when talking about craftsmanship.
JT It was the beginning of the profession and the professional, worker divide.
David Kohn There isn’t a complete divorce between industry and craft. Maybe within industry one could try and salvage the craft dimension. If you go to a concrete plank manufacturer, there will be someone who really understands the chemistry of the concrete and knows exactly the depth of concrete you need to cover the steel for it not to crack within a period of time. Contemporary construction could all be very craft led, but it would need to be a conversation. That might be where craft is located. Less the designer designing or the maker making, but a dialogue that can’t quite reside in either.
There’s a social dimension about it being about place, which is somehow very present but not much talked about, certainly among designers. It’s also interesting to talk about craft at a very large scale, as that’s a way of slightly divorcing the handmade from contemporary construction.
JT Do we need to redefine what we mean by craftsmanship? There is clearly craftsmanship in the person who can say exactly what’s needed in that specific kind of concrete — but what about digital fabrications where there’s a huge amount of individualisation to create these fantastic forms that couldn’t be achieved before? Is that not craft also?
DK Maybe there are lots of types of craft that we assume for historical reasons start and stop, but they are probably all quite continuous. So there are practices now that have aspects of other craft and one can effectively raise the value of certain types of craft at any moment.
A contemporary designer might want to influence a manufacturer. I’m quite interested in the École Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne (ECAL), a design school in Switzerland. They team up all of the students with local businesses in the cantons around the school. Often the businesses are slightly stuck in their ways, and the ECAL students have a conversation where they try and reinvent the output, and thereby revitalise the local industry. That’s something we’re quite interested in. Do we not just use something that’s already there but can we through a conversation change one aspect. We were doing this with some tiles — we were working with a Catalan manufacturer and as a result of one change that had no cost impact it transformed their business.
The product that came out of the end was different and they managed to sell loads more tiles. I’ve always wondered why there isn’t more of this ECAL model in education. Architects tend to want to do it all themselves, to design it and make it.
FL The main problem I’ve found is the lack of local manufacturing. But sometimes we do find interesting people to talk to and you can do really interesting things with them. However, I think manufacturers get their fingers burned a lot, doing work for architects which then gets value engineered out, and they become less confident.
CH There’s construction and there’s craftsmanship, and they are not necessarily the same thing. The majority of buildings are assembled out of products as opposed to crafted. I’ve worked on projects in the past that were at the sharp end of quite harsh procurement systems, such as design and build. Involving a maker, hingeing a certain aspect of the construction around a particular fabrication technique, is quite a good way to shore up a bit of quality.I worry a little bit about the fetishisation of craft, just as you can say that modernists fetishised mass production, constantly asking if they could make things in the way that aeroplanes were manufactured even though it led to incredibly inefficient models of housing construction. The fetishisation of craft can be problematic.
I look at someone like Flemish architect Jan de Vylder, who accepts the reality of how things are built and looks at how to make it poetic. Some bits are very carefully built and some bits accept a measure of trial and error or the ordinariness of things. It gives meaning because it understands the realities of the construction industry and tries to make beautiful things within that.
RB It’s about changing the perception of what is beautiful. De Vylder did a wonderful piece at the Venice Biennale last year taking the banality of an object and asking how we see beauty in that.
The idea of craftsmanship, is it about terracotta, is it about ceramics? I don’t think it is. It’s about how you apply that material or apply the process within a context. We did a public space using sandbags. It was fascinating learning about hessian sandbags and how we can make something associated with disasters become part of quite a beautiful public space.
CK There’s a danger of saying that we think craftsmanship is a good idea and very romantic, that it’s all about someone with a mallet and all very picturesque.
Architect Peter Salter, who has been doing these four houses for me in Walmer Yard, London has talked about his interest in craft being a question of risk, which I think is an interesting way of thinking about it. He will work with someone who does copper shingles, but he wants to put them in a position where they share a risk about doing something where they don’t quite know the end result. There’s this invention which is part of the architect’s profession and is also part of the challenge to the craftsperson.
That then makes something that isn’t necessarily picturesque but something that for some projects is very beautiful.
CH That raises the question of the unknown, which the whole construction industry is geared up to avoid. We collaborated with Shaws of Darwen on A House for Essex. Translating a handmade clay thing into objects that can cover a building was a challenge. A subset of that challenge is how you can retain a certain handmade-ness and unexpectedness of variation. In the context of the construction industry that’s quite hard. Peter Salter is someone who challenges the norms of the construction industry enormously.