Friday, June 15, 2007

Helpless Hands: From Arts and Crafts to Blobitechture

Organic Baby Farm's Wacky Hermit follows up on a discussion by Glenn Reynolds about the lack of basic hand-skills among younger adults. Hermit blames the rise of foreign trade, which have made cheap goods so widely available that many skills that substituted the need to buy new replacement have lost their value in saving money. Hermit provides a good example of this change:

Myself, I have the ability to make over a dress, taking it apart down to its component parts and re-making it into a different dress. Back when dresses were not cheap, this was a valuable skill. Not so much anymore, when you can go down to the dollar store and buy spangly knit things off the rack. Who would pay me a couple hundred dollars to make over a dress, when for half that they could have a new one?

I think Hermit has correctly pointed to only a small aspect to a larger historical process of growing mechanization, mass production and urbanization. The growing loss of hand-skills is not entirely new, but rather a development that has been accelerating since the introduction of machinery since the beginning of the Industrial revolution almost two centuries ago. Factories opened allowing many people to leave subsistence farming, a lifestyle that required a tremendous amount of hand skills, for one where knowledge of operating machinery involved mindless repetitive tasks. As the forward march of technological innovation has spawned the current post-industrial era where factory workers have been forced out of a manufacturing dependent livelihood into one of information-dependent service jobs. Cheap goods made available by mass production have given way to days spent typing on keyboards and clicking on mouse buttons managing an amazingly complex yet abstract tool called software. Each major change further away from a life where one had to make much of what one needed has led to succeeding generations defining themselves more as consumers rather than makers of things.

Although Wacky Hermit and Glenn Reynolds refer more to young people's inability to do simple repair and construction, the loss of hand-craftsmanship goes along with this. One of the hardest hit victims of the industrial revolution were those who lived on crafting carefully by hand objects of daily use. Who needed or could afford a craftsman to produce a one-of-a-kind chair or table with fine details when a manufactured alternative was available at much lower price? This problem inspired the Arts and Crafts movement, which emerged during the latter half of the nineteenth century as an effort to reorient creative energies to craft traditions that were rapidly being lost by industrialization. Brits such as C.F. Voysey, Charles Rennie MacIntosh and William Morris and Edwin Lutyens along with some German luminaries followed principles that countered "soul-less" machines by embracing autenticity particular to the way a craftsman directly shapes forms from raw materials. Detailing was crucial to this approach to design, as it allowed individually authenticity to shine, contrasting it with the monotony and lack of attention inherent in mass manufacturing. Many of these designers were critical of the division of labor, preferring a master craftsman to design every single part of a structure, from exteriors, to interior trim, all fixtures and even free-standing furniture (the total work of art-gesamtkunstwerk). In contrast to simply drafting shop drawings and handing it over to a manufacturer or contractor to finish, an Arts and Crafts designer would oversee the entire process and would partake in the execution of every little detail. This was no doubt an exhaustive way to practice but it inarguably produced some of the most original and the highest quality works of any period. Its influence cannot be understated, as even the machine-worshipping Bauhaus school began with arts and crafts curriculum at its founding after the first World War.

Though many of the buildings, textiles, furniture and decorative metal work from the Arts and Crafts movement were popular, it was obviously not very efficient and very unaffordable compared to rapidly improving mass-production processes. It was a fruitfully innovative time for designers, but the sophisticated hand-skills the movement championed were simply uneconomical, so much so that subsequent designers who were imbued in the arts and crafts tradition adapted to the new rules brought about by the machine. Modernist heroes such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and yes, even Le Corbusier were trained thoroughly in the Arts and Crafts style. For them, the movement offered them a means to reimagine new forms for modern times, detached from the classicism that represented older, and in their minds, irrelevant times. Wright's Prairie style was mostly an evolution of the 19th century craftsman style, Gropius helped design an elegant German style arts and crafts house in Berlin as one the first Bauhaus school projects and a very young Le Corbusier was trying to synthesize an arts-and-crafts/art nouveau architecture for his Swiss hometown. As many in their generation gradually embraced industrial processes, their arts and crafts experience would inform their poetic understanding of detail and their sensitivity to materials and color. These masters' timesless furniture designs are a testament to the careful yet expressionistic tendencies that characterize the arts and crafts movement.

As hand skills in the making of objects have given way to machine precision, new skills in understanding the manufacturing processes are essential to creating any object in high detail. While no longer able to properly handle saws, chisel, or even lay masonry, modern designers have developed an enlarged understanding of a plethora materials technologies that did not exist a century ago. The computer has only intensified the pressure on designers to be containers of information, so much as to devalue that last basic hand skill - drawing. To the surprise of most outside the design professions, it is no longer necesssary to demonstrate technical proficiency in drawing, nor has it ever been since advent of the Modernist curriculum in design schools beginning in the 1940s. The Beaux Arts curriculum which emphasized a mastery in drawing and water color rendering would be replaced by a Bauhaus-inspired attention to concepts , abstraction and the thought process in design. A hand-skill for building quick cardboard models to follow the progression of an idea took precedence, only to be succeeded by 3 dimensional computer models in the last decade. As I've mentioned in a previous post, I predict the ability carefully manipulate an exacto knives, Dremel power tools, acetate sheets and wood will decline and become an outsourced specialty. When thinking about my daily routine at my architecture job, it makes no sense to wield my abilities as a master manual draftsman, a technically flawless renderer or a detailed model maker, when what is truly needed is my expertise in manipulating computer software as well as making problem-solving design decisions. Since it is enough work for people like me to apply my technical and theoretical knowledge to the daily avalanche of client and consultant demands, it makes more economic sense and is a better use of every one's time and talents to outsource hand-skill specialities like rendering and model-making to outside entities, often in places in China and India, where high-quality craftsmanship and technical ability are cheaper.

All these rapid changes in the design professions do not excuse a willful ignorance of some useful hand skills. Drawing skills are a valuable tool in exploring design ideas and concepts and are an accessible way for students to understand how we humans perceive objects in space and light. Model-making skills allow designers to better understand the composition of space, structure, and immediately inform aspects of texture and light. Rendering skills such as charcoal drawing or water color not only force one to contemplate we perceive objects in its context, but engender an ability make abstractions of nature. Although I consider myself competent in all the above skills, I regret that my architectural education could not cultivate them further. It's even more depressing to think that the nature of my job allows no time for me to refine these classic skills, since it's more important to troubleshoot software glitches, write countless emails, and field questions from colleagues. Design, whether by drawing or model-building, requires a single-minded concentration that is the antithesis to the contemporary practice of multi-tasking. Hand skills would be nice, but only after all of the more "important" tasks have been completed.

We can moan the loss of these hand skills endlessly, but we should temper it with the awareness that new skills have emerged that have enhanced designers in unexpected ways. The technological savy of younger workers have allowed them to be more productive and absorb information much sooner. The fact that many recent architecture students have had to learn a large variety of software applications in the span of a few years before starting their first job makes them far more flexible and versatile in the workplace, drafting construction drawings one day, coloring rendered elevations the next, and preparing a walk-through animation the next. Even if older colleagues convincingly demonstrate their command of project management and client/consultant relations, their utter inability to learn sophisticated computer skills beyond writing email reminds me that it is experience, not their hand skills that keeps them in their pivileged position. New skills gained by young professionals open up to new ways at evaluting a problem, as well lead to innovative solutions. The complex geometries of today's "blobitechture" are realizable almost exclusively by the deft manipulation of modeling software that is common with younger architects.

Not all new skills acquired by the young are useful, and some activities that upcoming generations cause a regression in basic skills and knowledge. Some computer games will sharpen physical coordination between the eyes and hands, with a few enriching strategic thinking. Still, most of these computer games are a complete waste of time and prevent some kids from engaging their minds with the world around them. Many in this generation are highly dependent on current technology to maintain a sense of normalcy, making them very vulnerable when such technologies are unavailable. Hand-skills offer a connection to the real world, a world of matter and natural phenomena, a world created for our bodies and minds to relish in. Virtual reality is a mental construct and a product of sort focused isolation. As "hyperreal" as they often can be, it ends as soon as a hard drive is turned off.

Many architects will tell you that drawing by hand or cutting models is actually therapeutic. There is something comforting about the mind instantly directing the hand to express a three dimensional idea. Even the most intuitive computer program cannot compete with this immediacy, since it often functions as barrier between thought and execution. One often feels hostage to a computer's processing speed, its inexplicable bugs, or a program's restrictive parameters that wont let the user move an object in an obvious way. It's impossible for the computer to accurately catalogue the iterations an idea undergoes before it achieves a finished appearance, concealing the give-and-take, the accidents and the patterns that emerge in drawn sketches or sketch models. These basic hand-skills contain concepts in their barrest essence, which is likely why architectural monographs feature them to accompany built projects. They expose to the viewer the designer's train of thought, and also mark paths taken that may be revisited by the designer later on. Like an expository essay, these forms of sketches can make a complex idea comprehensible and can teach us to think from a different point of view. This increases our awareness of the real world around us, something the digital design procsess, in its isolated virtuality could never do.

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