Sunday, June 8, 2008

EP2 — Tradesmen and Skilled Labor

I was at a conference a decade or more ago, and a major Midwestern building contractor said that his greatest fear is that he'd no longer have the labor force he needed to do his work. He predicted that he was going to lose a huge percentage of his electricians, plumbers, steelworkers and masons to retirement, and he just didn't see another generation coming up behind.

As a nation, we value the idea that we can work without physical labor. In fact, one of the best definitions I've ever heard of social class is that it's based on the size of the muscles you use to make your living. Laborers use their legs and backs; skilled tradesmen use their arms and hands; white-collar professionals use their eyes and fingers; the ruling class uses other people. Working with your body is somewhat looked down upon (at least until you need someone who knows how to do physical things -- I recently heard one contractor describing a young apprentice as "book-smart and field-stupid." That would be me...).

We've now reached a point where a majority of high school graduates at least starts college (and where a majority of the population graduates from high school). Neither of these were true before World War II. But working in the construction trades, being "a craftsman," was a respectable livelihood. And if you look at buildings prior to that era, you'll often see a remarkable articulation of materials — brick patterns, cut stone, wrought iron, carved details, custom-milled moldings and railings and ballusters. Apprentices often had to make scale models of their future work in order to gain entry to the guild, and those have become collectors' items. The final block of Boston's Newbury Street was mostly carriage houses for the mansions on Commonwealth Ave... but even those carriage houses were fabulously detailed in ways that we now rarely attempt.

What do we make of this, in our era of Simpson Straps and nailguns and engineered lumber and masonry veneers? Is it possible to make a great architecture from channel studs and drywall? Is it possible to have engaging details when working with panelized materials? And can we reclaim the skilled trades so that masons and carpenters and millworkers actually make architectural decisions? In an interview conducted by Dana Cuff, the architect Hugh Hardy talks about how much he likes working with skilled tradesmen, because they constantly develop innovations and details that make the finished experience of his buildings better. How much control can the architect surrender if s/he trusts her tradespeople to finish the job with care and craft?


Lee Peters said...

I have been looking for ways to enter this conversation for a while. HC is someone I have grown to enjoy and respect over the past few months as a fellow colleague at the local design college.

I have been afraid to flame or become snarky as HC laid out his arguments. I mean, he comes into a meeting and lays it out there "Architecture is not Art". The hair on the neck bristles, but I have learned to keep listening.

I really value what he is saying, but I hold design, for design's sake, in high regard and want to instill a similar attitude in others. Beauty and intention can manifest in a building, an interior and a landscape and that is a valid pursuit for designers. The 'art' of a building can take us 'there'.

For instance, outside of La Sagrada Familia in 2003 I wept. It was embarrassing and had to go around the corner before getting in line to enter. Now, it likely happened because I'm an architect. The building was conceived and built in the traditions of Gothic architecture with intentions to impress pilgrims without architecture degrees. Evidence of the human hand was in that building, too.

Another instance, is Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I show this to my students to discuss the power of design and to encourage careful thought in making form and experience. We gather around a book and talk about how a visit to this human built landscape makes people weep. We also talk about the subtle transformations made by the designer on behalf of the user's experience. And I point out the desire of the veterans to construct a typical memorial statue off to the side.

I am fully enjoying working with design students at the foundation level. Admittedly, many of HC's points are absent from those studios. Perhaps, with more posts/responses (on my part) or just reading The Vita will bring our manifold concerns a little closer to integration.

For now, I am hanging on to Art as a constituent of Architecture. Art is intention - my current definition of art.

Herb Childress said...

Hello, Lee, and welcome aboard. I'll look forward to your comments throughout TVA, as well as hallway conversations. Sorry about the bristling hair... And if flames or snark are ever appropriate, go for it.