Writing: 5 Steps for Rebuilding the Profession of Architecture.

Posted on February 7th, 2010 at 3:10 pm by in Writing

Writing: 5 Steps for Rebuilding the Profession of Architecture.

From the Public Workshop vault, by Alex Gilliam, May 2008.

5 Steps for Rebuilding the Profession of Architecture

In 1976, a major earthquake devastated much of Guatemala. Fred Cuny, an American disaster relief expert, tried something novel in the world of disaster relief: instead of building new houses for and giving them to displaced Guatemalans, he and his staff trained them to build their own. They trained the Guatemalans to build earthquake-resistant houses and then helped these new master builders train others in villages throughout the region. After this humanitarian crisis had passed, much to the horror of Fred Cuny and his team, these master builders were murdered or forced to leave Guatemala by the government. These master builders were seen as community leaders and a threat to the dictatorial power structure because not only were they seen as leaders for helping build homes, but they possessed valuable knowledge and by sharing their knowledge they were helping build stronger communities. The carpenters were invaluable to the displaced of Guatemala.

Save for people such as Sambo Mockbee, Maurice Cox, or Brian Bell can we say the same of architects? It is an interesting if not macabre exercise to speculate if American architects might ‘fall’ in such a totalitarian regime. And if such speculation is cross-referenced with the reality that only two percent of the homes built every year in this country are designed by architects, it suggests that perhaps architects are exceptionally more irrelevant in our society than we may be willing to believe or accept. Some in the profession are not exactly blind to the situation. A number of prominent architects such as Stephen Kieran believe, ‘Architects are now little more than stylists.’ (Kieran). The journal, Architectural Design suggests that we are on the verge of becoming sub-contractors (Buntrock 47). A comprehensive study conducted by the English government revealed that to a majority of the population, ‘architects are perceived as arrogant, uninterested in the values and requirements of their clients and users and poor at teamworking.’ (Fisher 138). In terms of influence, in 2004 the AIA’s ranked 891st in political contributions, over $80,000 behind the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Political Action Committee (Raymond). Throw in the fact that Richard N. Swett is the only architect in the twentieth century to have been a member of Congress and it is clear that our value to and impact on society is a far cry from the days of Filippo Brunelleschi, Henry Yevele or Pierre de Montreuil. The current condition of our society is not much better- a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that 5.1 million American households face ‘worst-case housing needs’, one is six people worldwide are squatters; a study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 3.5 million students in this country attend school in buildings that are in poor condition or need to be entirely rebuilt (Lewis 9); according to the Centers for Disease Control, 63% of adult Americans are obese and childhood obesity has tripled in the last 20 years; the building sector accounts for over 50 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted each year; 10-40% of the waste that goes into our landfills each year is from buildings; we continue to bleed jobs in the manufacturing sector and were the list to continue, it might include issues such as water shortage or the challenge of caring for an aging population. As distressing as all of this may seem, these and other issues are the flying buttresses or the Duomos of the 21st century, and they present a tremendous opportunity for architects to move beyond the occasional ‘styling’ of a building and help solve some of the most pressing issues of our time; hopefully reinvigorating the profession and creating better architecture along the way. This is not going to be easy as it is going to require substantial shifts within the profession, challenging hundreds of years of theory, practice and education; many of the very things that have led us to our current situation.

In Filippo Brunelleschi, William of Sens, Henry Yevele and their Gothic contemporaries, we have models of architects who were at once inventors, administrators, material scientists, engineers, product designers, builders and architects; the full collection of skills needed for the tasks at hand. They also were quintessential modernists, acknowledging the realities of the materials, people and ideas they were working with, but relentlessly adopting or inventing new technologies, methods of production and formal approaches. Today we face a similar challenge of working in a world that requires us to acknowledge often age-old conditions yet at the same time exist in a society that is changing at here-to-fore unknown speeds, presenting both incredible opportunities and monumental challenges. Thus, Filippo Brunelleschi and the Gothic era offer (at least) five lessons as to how we might adapt to and be more successful within our current condition, how we might prove at least as useful to society as Fred Cluny’s Guatemalan carpenters were to their own.

A short history of the death of architecture

Before delving into how Filippo Brunelleschi and the Gothic architects can serve as models for the reformation of the profession of architecture, it is necessary to briefly trace how we’ve arrived at our current state of affairs.

Even with fairly incomplete resources it is easy to discern the beginnings of the professionalization of architecture as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries, and therefore the distinct separation between designing and making. With the rapid growth of cities; the development of higher education; increasing ease of transportation; multiple bouts of the Black Plague; simple yet impactful changes in technology and modes of production; and international networks of trade and banking (among other things), the people of Northern Europe were undergoing massive social change. In particular, dramatic increases in the scale of construction and demand for new buildings, as well as new means of representation and new building technologies demanded that different, possibly more efficient social orders/ norms be developed. Franklin Toker characterizes this period as a time during which there was a general ‘drive to specialization and the codification of corporate knowledge.’ (Toker 87). Demand for design services encouraged architects such as Henry Yevele to give up the chisel, requiring instead that they spend more time in the office, traveling or at a drafting table. The further development of the guilds, the re-distribution of tasks formerly held by the architect and thus the creation of new job positions, such as the appareilleur supported this transformation. Likewise the increased availability and decreasing cost of parchment; the use of templates; and the codification of building theory, either through theological or lodge treatises gave architects (and patrons) confidence that they could be absent from the site, still able to communicate their intentions, trusting that the builders would know how to proceed. This wasn’t a uniform or whole scale transformation, an architect’s involvement in the actual building process varied given the project or architect. William of Sens, in many ways a proto-Brunelleschi, carved stones, designed new building machines and intimately worked on a daily basis with his craftsman on the building of Cantebury Cathedral. So involved and integral was William to the design/ building process that when he was injured by a fall while working on the Cathedral, he was forced to resign his commission because his infirmity kept him too far from his workmen (Toker 69). On a smaller scale of involvement, it was quite common for an architect to be intermittently involved directly in the construction process by personally designing and fabricating templates or even carving special details for a building.

Nevertheless, the wheels of change were thoroughly in motion. Demand for drawings was increasing- Siena had one of Europe’s first detailed urban plans in the early 13th century (Toker 85). The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439; Brunelleschi’s invention of the perspective in 1415; and the publishing of texts on architectural graphics, such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s Trattato di Architettura in 1475 made it easier and easier for architects to communicate through drawings. An increasing reliance on drawing as a (or better yet, the) tool for architectural communication was solidified with the Regensburg Ordinance of 1459 in which it was suggested that as part of their mastership training, masons should spend two years learning how to draft (Harvey 31). The invention of the printing press further encouraged a distancing from learning by doing, allowing for the publication and mass distribution of books such as Agostino Ramelli’s illustrated guide to machines in 1588 or Leon Battista Alberti’s De Re Aedifcatoria, first available in 1485. In 1751, architecture’s abandonment of its craft-based roots was finalized when d’Alembert and Diderot classify architecture as an art in the Encyclopedie (Hill 23). Simultaneously, due to incredible demand for new buildings in the 18th century and the disengagement of architects from building, not only did carpenters and other craftspeople step in to fill a design void but their skill sets expanded tremendously as they now had the opportunity to work directly with trades people of other backgrounds from whom they had been formerly isolated. They also were now required to fulfill managerial roles as well, necessitating the learning of accounting, surveying, material acquisition, etc. (Hill 10). In effect, they were consuming the roles and duties formerly held by architects, not to mention the definition of what it meant to be an architect (inevitably blurring our tole in the public’s eye). This created a market demand for books that gave them a ‘virtual’ architectural education. It is important to note, however, that these books were not of the same variety as the architectural pattern books with which we are quite familiar. In fact, books such as Isaac Ware’s A Complete Body of Architecture published in 1756 followed the integrated Gothic approach to design, marrying such things theory, mathematics, composition and construction management (Hill 10). These also typically ran the gamut in size, cost and breadth. Some books such as William Pain’s The Builder’s Pocket-Treasure (1763) could easily accompany a carpenter or builder to the job site, in effect a book standing in for the architect. Thus, as the profession of architecture was becoming more rarified, market forces encouraged the creation of a substantial class of builder-architects, who became the new master builders, furthering the emasculation and isolation of the architect. It is interesting to note

While market and technological forces did encourage much of this change, those within the profession are largely to blame, one example being Leon Battista Alberti. It is an unfortunate irony that as the printing press allowed for a tremendous spread of architectural knowledge through the relative affordability (or at least accessibility) of treatises by Alberti and others, their dissemination indirectly propagated the marginalization of architects. On the most basic level they encouraged the idea that architecture is a cerebral exercise, to be learned through books and study, not by doing. Alberti is especially to blame for our current situation as his theories clearly define the role of the builder and the architect, codifying the architect as artist and going to great lengths to discourage the architect from being involved in any aspect of the construction of his building. Furthermore, he firmly establishes drawings as the architect’s primary tool for controlling a project while simultaneously providing for the necessary physical and metaphorical distance from the actual construction, builder, etc.; self-sufficient drawings give the architect control while not ‘being personally drawn into it.’ (Toker 73). Not only did the diffusion of Alberti’s ideas entirely redefine the role of an architect, but they implanted new definition in patron and burgeoning architect alike, recalibrating attitudes and expectations all around. In fact he is almost codifying the adversarial relationship of architect, builder and client, with which we are all now quite familiar. With these theoretical underpinnings of the modern definition of the architect established in the 15th century, the two of the final proverbial straws, the creation of architectural professional organizations and schools of architecture, were mere formalities.

What emerges as unexpected from this investigation is that architecture by remote control is a mixed blessing, since the distance it creates between architect and builder is a professional risk as well as an advantage. The Gothic masters seem to have regarded the working drawing much as Alberti did, as a bridge to unite the brainwork and the handwork (Ruskin’s terms) of architecture. Through most of its history, however, the working drawing has served not as bridge but as barrier. By isolating themselves from building, architects opened themselves to the dangers of irrelevant formalism, technological rigidity, and the take-over of the whole profession by neighboring fields such as engineering. With each step away from the Gothic cathedrals it has become less and less clear what it is that an architect does, until he or she now seems to be only a sociologist with graphic skills (Toker 89).

5 steps for rebuilding the profession of architecture

-courtesy of Filippo Brunelleschi and the Gothic architects

1- Learn how to use a hammer.

Moreover, Gaudi had a great advantage over other architects. As a child he was trained to be an ironsmith in the forge of an uncle in Reus. After that, in the workshop of Eudaldo Punti in Barcelona, he became familiar with carpentry, iron casting, and modeling in plaster. This training enabled him later to direct his workmen in logical ways that were easily understood. He always relied on the same workmen, and when they grew old and retired he trained others.

While increasingly architects of the mid to late Gothic era and the Renaissance spent less and less time engaged in the actual fabrication of their buildings, a majority, like Gaudi, had substantial training as carpenters, masons/ sculptors, cabinetmakers, goldsmiths. They learned by doing, they were trained to manipulate materials and from the outset they learned to translate theory into form through the actions of their hands. Brunelleschi, alone, was capable of working in stone, wood, various metals and even making clocks. This training allowed people such as Brunelleschi to not only be able to ‘converse logically’ with his craftsmen but seamlessly merge structure, theory and function, acting as both architect, builder, product engineer, materials scientist, inventor and administrator. Hermann Muthesius, Kenneth Frampton, Eladio Dieste and even more recent designers such as Office dA have continually re-asserted the value of this connection between understanding a material’s qualities, the mind-hand relationship and architectural invention:

(Baukunst) In acknowledging the qualities of materials and the traditional uses of them in building, craft provides a linkage between mind and hand as well as between generations. (Nyborg 131)

For architecture to be truly constructed, the materials must be used with profound respect for their essence and possibilities; only thus can ‘cosmic economy’ be achieved… in agreement with the profound order of the world; only then can have that authority that so astounds us in the great works of the past. It is not enough to use brick because we like its texture or because it is a material full of reminiscences. Because, although these qualities are not worthy of our rejection, the material possesses many more, and the risks of these kinds of reductions are greater today than ever before. (Dieste 27)

We now know that this is not mere architectural conjecture, the work of developmental psychologists such as Jean Piaget and others have repeatedly shown that we learn about a material or object by physically interacting with it. Although more developed, these were not new ideas, in 1709 in his New Theory of Vision, George Berkeley posited a similar idea, that we come to understand two dimensional things or ideas by touching three dimensional things (Hill 62). Over time we move beyond something’s basic material qualities, layering on both cultural and our own relevant values. Perhaps then it comes as little surprise that with the general death in the Renaissance of material and crafts-based training for architects, that there is a distinct absence, in the historical record of buildings from the middle of the Renaissance until the mid-19th century, of any buildings possessing technological or structural advances, not to mention a strikingly different aesthetic. The impact of this training in crafts extended beyond invention to self-conception as well. It is interesting to note that despite increasing specialization and division within the production of buildings, architects largely saw themselves as engineers and vice-versa; ‘Still in the 16th and 17th centuries authors of books on machines like Salomon de Caus, Giovanni Branca, Georg Bockler explicitly mentioned on the title pages of their works that they represented both professions.’ (Knobloch 4). This conception of the duties of the architect extends back to the very roots of architecture through the writings of Vitruvius and others. In turn it meant that because of their training, architects such as Brunelleschi and Francesco di Giorgio were able to extend their utility to society beyond simply making buildings; designing fortifications, unfortunate methods of conveyance (Il Badalone) and the waterworks of various cities.

The function of this breadth of skills and duties allowed for a number of key things to occur: there was no disjunction between making, design, engineering and theory; this range of skills increased the utility of architects in society, placing them in greater positions of power and influence; and allowed the architect to exert greater control over the design and building process. Perhaps less tangibly but equally important, remaining deeply connected to and knowledgeable of the process of building afforded the architect greater respect, and therefore, clout with everyone involved in the making of the building- potentially improving production, quality, innovation, lowering costs or even allowing for much more daring designs to be executed. Conversely, as soon as the architect began to separate himself from craft, elements of society reacted negatively. For a modern observer, the ferocity of the seemingly instantaneous reaction to this shifting condition is somewhat startling. Whether it be the sermons of the 13th century Dominican preacher, Nicholas Biard or passing ‘water cooler’ talk amongst masons of the time, the elevation of the architect (via pay and distinction) above the other masons and the general replacement of his chisel and hammer with words and parchment, was not well received in some parts of society. Much of this reaction can be attributed to what is now a particularly American approach to reward, achievement and to a degree, intellectualism. That is, unless you win the lottery or some sort of lucky/ clever simulcrum, money or reward should be obtained through hard (physically) work. Otherwise, Biard and others were reacting to the dramatic social restructuring that was occurring in the Gothic era, positions that have since largely solidified and we are now accustomed to, although few, workers or architects seemed to be especially pleased with the many results.

At various points (and through various guises) over the past 150 years, many theorists and practitioners such as John Ruskin, Hermann Muthesius, Walter Groupius and Sambo Mockbee have called for architects to re-engage the process of building and making. Indeed, there is a growing trend within the profession and academia of design-build, and this can only be a beneficial improvement. Within academia alone, many of the buildings at the Rural Studio are pushing the boundaries of form, structure and meaning; Eco-Mod is making similar strides in sustainability; and Studio 804 is addressing mass-production. However, Stephen Kieran has made a critical observation, that unless one is working at a smaller scale, it is simply not possible today to fully cast oneself as Filippo Brunelleschi or William of Sens. He believes that they were able to simultaneously take on the role of architect, builder, material scientist, engineer, administrator, product designer and inventor, not to mention, seamlessly merge function, form and meaning into an inseparable whole is that the systems associated with building in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries were relatively simple. While I think Kieran fails to fully recognize the full complexity of Brunelleschi’s Dome (especially given the complexity of Florentian society and the tools/ systems that Filippo had at his disposal), it is perhaps unrealistic to expect that everyone can follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, Filippo Brunelleschi, William of Sens and their contemporaries demonstrate the pressing need for the architectural profession and academia to fully reconnect with materials, building, and making, to return to the full embodiment of the  definition of the word architect: architectus (Latin)- master builder, architect, inventor, deviser, author. The benefits are numerous, not the least of which is laying the foundation for architects to be the inventors, technologists and leaders that society will gravely need in the coming years.

2- Relentlessly seek out new ideas and influences

Both the magnificent dome of this famous church and many other devices, invented by Filippo the architect, bare witness to his superb skill…

In the epitaph from Filippo Brunelleschi’s tomb in Santa Maria della Fiore, we can see that the Florentines valued Brunelleschi as much if not more for his inventions (the scaffolding, his hoists, the Dome, etc.) as they did his aesthetic and spatial developments. Today, we have few formal/ structural challenges in the same order of Florence’s Dome. Sustainability, affordability, resource conservation and the well being of our population may very well be the Domes of the 21st century. Brunelleschi’s success in solving the problem of the Dome was partially the result of his training but it is doubtful that he would have ultimately been successful had he not relentlessly sought out new ideas and solutions, ones that were well outside of the bounds of his everyday culture.

The boldness of Brunelleschi’s decision to travel to France in search of aesthetic and structural inspiration cannot be over-rated. Of course after Brunelleschi, Florence would establish laws to encourage the infusion of outside artisans, but even with such encouragement, Florence and much of the Italian peninsula (save perhaps Venice) would remain focused on its Latin and Greek traditions. Without perhaps visiting Amiens and other Gothic building sites it is questionable whether Brunelleschi would have developed his particular aesthetic, solved the problem Santa Maria della Fiore’s dome or devised the machines/ methods necessary to build the Dome. The engineering, building and design innovations that Brunelleschi borrowed from the Gothic cathedrals and employed in the Duomo are relatively easy to trace. Whether it be the ribbed vaults, the projected designed of the dome, the complex use of masonry or the integrated scaffolding, these can fairly easily be traced to the Gothic cathedrals of France. Unfortunately, due to the less enduring nature of wooden structures, Brunelleschi’s predilection towards secrecy, the general discarding of his inventions by Florentian society and a difficult history of medieval mechanics, and machines, it is more challenging to connect his machines with those of the builders of Gothic cathedrals.

Aside from some basic written descriptions and a few surviving treadwheels lofted in cathedral towers, there is little documentation of the machines that architects such Henry Yevele used to build their cathedrals. We know that William of Sens was widely respected for the devices and machines that he invented for work on Cantebury but currently there are no available useful descriptions of the actual nature of said machines. The treadwheel and basic hoists are quite commonly represented in paintings of the time but this may also be because they are both fairly simple to represent graphically. Likewise, Andrea Matthies points out that often artists had to contend with ‘closed’ building sites and much of the time the machines were actually located within the walls of the cathedrals as opposed to the outside, as they are usually represented in the paintings of the day. Thus, it is difficult to place faith in the accuracy of any of the visual representations of medieval machines.

Nevertheless, I think it is a fair guess that the machines he saw and the ideas he was exposed to during his travels clearly influenced the creation of his hoists, etc.. While it is possible that he could have seen some precedents for these machines at major ports (where they might be used for offloading ships), Gothic cathedrals were the only buildings contemporary to Brunelleschi of similar complexity in construction to his Duomo, requiring similar technological advances. His visits to northern Europe might have also exposed him to tangential technologies that may have otherwise been slow to reach Italy at that time. Many of these things, such as advanced clock making and the re-birth of Archimedes screw came about because of the infusion of Muslim texts and knowledge into the cathedral schools. These two influences in particular could have allowed Brunelleschi to create two of his more radical ‘inventions’, the reversibly geared lifting device and the positioning hoist. In some respects, specialized historians on the subject such as Frank Prager support this theory in their general belief that Brunelleschi could have only created these devices through direct observation of and improvement upon existing machines- they just can’t figure out where one is to find said machines being that thus far they have not been able to attribute them to either Roman or local sources. The particular respect afforded Brunelleschi by the Florentines at the time of his death and when awarded a prize for one of his machines by the Opera in 1421 also indirectly supports the theory of a Gothic or foreign design influence,

‘a new device or hoist constructed constructed for pulling and moving stones, block, and other requirements……newly invented by him (Filippo), whereof the Opera has more useful than from that previously use.’ (Prager 89)

The numerous sketches made by Leonardo DaVinci, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Mariano Taccola and others, as well as the subsequent prints further indicates the complete novelty of Brunelleschi’s creations.

Of course traveling in the service of design education is not without precedent. The wandefuhr or wander years, (part traveling apprenticeship, part observation based study) were at least in plan an integral part of a master mason’s training and there are records indicating that as early as 1026, patrons such as the Bishop of Arezzo saw merit in appropriating money to send their architects abroad for study (Klotz 381). Slightly more recently, the Grand Tour became are required part of the education of the gentleman architect. Today the Grand Tour has been replaced by broad searches into other fields for architectural inspiration yet they are conjoined in that, unlike the Gothic architects and Brunelleschi, these travels/ searches are related to form, space and theory, rarely structure or other technical issues. Some current designers, such as Hernan Diaz Alonso, Greg Lynn and Ali Rahim are looking well beyond the boundaries of the practice, at the most basic elements of life through the notion of emergence for inspiration. But as evidenced by the disastrous durability of Alonso’s rather small architectural installation at PS 1 in New York in the summer of 2005, they are currently only able to merge theory and form, but not structure into a whole.

If we are to be valuable, active leaders in the tackling of today’s most important technical and cultural challenges, we must be prepared, as Brunelleschi was, to look far and wide for inspiration, and solutions. Yet we must also follow Filippo and his Gothic counterparts’, moving beyond a professional tradition of looking primarily at aesthetics, form, space and theory. Because of the tremendous complexity of some of these problems, we will be required to not only look to other professions for best practices, but also collaborate with them to develop new ones. There are a few current examples that offer inspiration: William McDonough’s partnering with the chemist Michael Braungart to develop sustainable materials and practices, and Kieran Timberlakes’ restructuring of their practice to embrace the design, fabrication and communication methods of modern industry, as evidenced in their Loblolly House.

3- Make it local

definition: technology- the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes

Knowledge is extended outside the laboratory not by generalization to universal laws instantiable elsewhere, but by the adaptation of locally situated practice to new local contexts (Rouse 125).

The challenge of an architect who heeds the call to design a solution of equivalent value to society as the flying buttress will probably not be the creation of the idea itself. This end of the solution may come about through much individual research and experimentation or through collaboration with experts in the appropriate fields. Either way, it is useless and as the definition implies, it is not a new technology or even a viable solution until it is adapted to the particular problem, culture, place or people.

For an architect to move beyond being a mere stylist, he or she must take into consideration (embrace) the materials, building skills and cultural knowledge inherent in a place when developing, and applying new ideas, technologies or building methodologies for it to be executed well, adopted or useful. In doing so, you also advance the evolution of the idea into a technology. Outside of the design profession, this might be described more simply as the transformation of a concept or hypothesis into a solution. In science or the business world for instance, a solution doesn’t occur or isn’t known until it’s actually been tested or applied. But this is not the way most architects today approach innovation, design or building. The professionalization of architecture and hence the over reliance on drawings as the surefire method for insuring positive results completely detaches the designer from the materials that compromise the design, the people for whom he is designing and the people who will build the design. The assumption is that if it is drawn, it will be built…. just as it is drawn. The drawings become a placebo, as soon a detail is drawn, our responsibilities end. Although new computer programs allow for incredible collaboration, precision, specificity, testing and representation of reality, only the very smallest portion of the construction industry is poised to use these tools and thus in many cases these new technologies only increase the false sense of ‘solution’ and detachment from reality.

Filippo Brunelleschi, although perhaps being overly secretive over the details of his designs, is a perfect counter example to this problem. Clearly the Gothic cathedrals of France provided structural, aesthetic, formal and technological inspiration, but somehow he had to make these ideas appropriate for Florence, convince the Opera of their efficacy and likewise translate them so that they might be build-able by Florentine craftsmen. He accomplished this in a number of ways: instead of importing the Gothic style, he appropriated Gothic methods for designing a building, such as projective geometry and a reliance on the module; he employed local materials, such as brick, that both helped create an architecture that was appropriate for Florence and meant that his builders were quite familiar with the materials necessary to accomplish his daring feat; and he used every means necessary from large scale mock-ups to carving construction details from turnips to convey his intentions to the builders, not to mention the patrons. Strangely, his desire to protect his intellectual capital by compartmentalizing many aspects of the design may have resulted in Brunelleschi being much more attuned to the capabilities of his builders, and the need to make adjustments to his design based on this information. Quite simply, he had to be consistently engaged with systems of production in Florence and his builders otherwise the dome simply wouldn’t get built. Although Manetti devotes considerable time to explaining Brunelleschi’s engagement with the workers and the construction of the Dome, the efficacy of his efforts, his translation of French Gothic knowledge to an appropriate and buildable Florentian architecture can be best proven by the fact that to this day scholars (except for you Danilo) are at a loss to explain every aspect of its origins, its construction and the tools used to build it. A quote from Ed Ford in his book, The Details of Modern Architecture, helps explain how the sources of Brunelleschi’s designs have been so confounding to historians all the way back to Manetti and Vasari,

The role of the architect, therefore, is a form of cultural leadership—finding a progressive balance between explicit and implicit making,  between specification and craft and in so doing, creating shifts in culture systems  that address new problems or ideas. To have a voice, architecture must challenge a value matrix, but it must do this without causing alienation between the system of communication and individuals or populations that inhabit it. (Ford)

Brunelleschi has largely been so confounding because he created shifts but did not cause alienation. Gothic architects, especially because of their sometimes itinerant nature and the large number of projects they often managed at once, were required to act in a similar fashion. I appreciate Ed’s quote, although for the issues we’re facing in the 21st century and to facilitate a more accurate comparison with Brunelleschi and the Gothic architects, I think techno-cultural leadership is more appropriate. And by adding ‘techno’ we can change strengthen ‘address’ to, ‘tackle’ or ‘solve’. In adapting his innovations to Florence for the Duomo, Brunelleschi also demonstrates that techno-cultural leadership can result in contagious innovation, higher standards of craft and tremendous community growth.

The primacy of Florence in this story of the rise of the modern artist is a comment on a society that somehow changed its view of men who traditionally had been considered lowly ‘mechanical’ craftsmen. Did this not happen because Florentines began to look at the production of these craftsmen through different eyes, and was not this new way of seeing things being conditioned by craftsmen themselves? (Goldthwaite 409)

It would be ridiculous to assert that Brunelleschi and the construction of the dome for Santa Maria della Fiore solely caused the tremendous growth in the prowess of craftsmen in Florence, their innovation, Florentine pride or the economic health of the city. That being said, it is possible to document the tremendous growth of the building trades at this time and we do know that predominantly local materials were used for the job. However, Brunelleschi, through the daring design of the Duomo and its constituent parts; his close engagement with and use of the local building trades, and materials; and as exemplar himself showed Florence what was possible. His machines, the rising Dome and Brunelleschi himself, could not have been more visible examples for the Florentines of new possibilities. This total redefinition of the Florentine sense of possibility, in terms of craft, design and career undoubtedly contributed to the creation of a culture, and economy of innovation, of continual improvement. A society in which each new innovation fuels another and demand follows commensurately; ‘new knowledge, new inventions and new fashions created a general artistic atmosphere that in itself aroused demand.’ (Goldthwaite 408). A modern analog of Florence’s culture of innovation is the creative city as espoused by Richard Florida in his book, Cities and the Creative Class. Florence, at this time meets each of Florida’s three criteria for such a city, talent, tolerance and technology. It should be noted that Florence’s relatively weak guild system established part of the foundation for a culture of invention and reinvention by encouraging Brunelleschi’s and his contemporaries to experiment in different mediums, endeavors and roles; again increasing innovation and productivity (Goldthwaite 413).

So while the modernist ideal of design (aesthetics, form and space) changing people’s lives has largely been rejected, can Brunelleschi offer a model for how the local application of design and technical innovation can help create stronger, more economically healthy and vibrant communities? One’s that are better able to weather the storm of globalization, becoming net exporters like Florence?

4- Establish places of learning and experimentation

…it should be remembered that church building represented the major technological achievement of the times, and the construction sites of the great cathedrals were effectively the engineering institutes of the Middle Ages (Klotz 53).

In order to make new ideas, technical solutions and theories, ‘local’, thus transforming them into new technologies, architects need places where this translation can occur; a place where the skills and methods of the workers can be merged with the technical innovations of the architect, the local site conditions, the given materials and programmatic intentions. Today, most jobsites are merely places of building, assemblage and execution of the architect’s intentions, in which the challenge is ‘fitting’ or applying the solution to the site. On the other hand, David Turnbull suggests that Gothic building sites were messy laboratories, hotbeds of experimentation, active learning, synthesization and thus innovation:

How the cathedrals were built becomes understandable if we recognize that the cathedrals were comparable to modem laboratories in three important ways. First, their very construction constituted a series of full-scale experiments. Close observation of the drying mortar enabled the builders to detect areas of stress in the fabric and to take appropriate remedial measures through the placement of buttresses, pinnacles, or reinforcement.’ (Intuitively, it may seem that one needs laboratories to perform experiments rather than the other way around. However, laboratories are not simply built by architects; they are constituted through the performance of experiments.) Second, laboratories are the spaces in which the local, the tacit, and the messy knowledge and practices of groups of practitioners are transformed through collective work into a coherent tradition. Third, cathedrals, just like 20th-century laboratories, are powerful loci of social transformation, absorbing large amounts of capital and concentrating resources, skills, and labor. Through this process of heterogeneous engineering, machinery, instruments, skill, techniques, theory, raw materials, and social relations are interrelated. This combination of social and material factors constitutes a manipulable system, the establishment and maintenance of which may be considered an essential function of modern laboratory (Turnbull 321-322).

It is important to add that these jobsites were often part of or associated with cathedral schools, further enriching them as places of learning and experimentation in the Gothic era; the process of making architecture being directly influenced by theory and vice-versa. Again, a far cry from the sites of assemblage and confrontation to which we are accustomed today.

What are the key aspects that allowed for these design laboratories to exist and be so successful?

  • Incomplete architectural drawings allowed for and encouraged on-site flexibility, experimentation and adaptation.
  • Frequent or constant presence of the architect or a design representative such as the appareileur, including the close proximity or on-site location of a lodge house.
  • Tools for representation that encouraged full scale mocking-up, making the design visible and comprehensible to all: tracing floors, templates, the inscribing of designs in fields or on building floors/ walls.
  • A generally skilled workforce that understood the common methods and language of design.
  • A shared awareness of an aesthetic, theoretical and structural agenda, one that demanded/ encouraged innovation.
  • A design and building problem that demanded the associated innovation and invention of supplementary tools, machines and systems of organization.
  • The proximity to or integration with academic and theological centers of learning.
  • The transient nature of half of the workforce and discontinuous construction meant new ideas and skills were constantly filtering through the site.
  • The concurrent building boom across much of northern Europe meant that both a condition of one-upmanship and general culture of building innovation was prevalent.
  • Truly useful mathematical modeling did not yet fully exist and thus experience, intuition and trial and error were integral to the design process.
  • The building sites were in highly visible locations, naturally focusing attention and interest.

Is this an outdated model of working that has little application today? No. Many architecture firms such as Sharples Holden Pasquerelli, Williams and Tsien, Ole Lundberg and FACE have physical workshops as a part of their offices;

FACE-‘ In-house fabrication allows us to quickly see the limitations of a design and the complexities of its construction.’

SHoP- ‘Our workshop is not just for models and representation, it is a design tool.’

While workshops allow these architecture firms to better design and detail their buildings for increased build-ability, at the very least, their isolation from the place of production and application, means that they fail to embody the full potential of the Gothic building site. More accurate parallels can be found if these workshops are compared to the tracing and template rooms of lodges or Gothic architectural offices. Christopher Alexander’s creation of the Builder’s Yard as a part of his house building in Mexicali, Mexico offers a much closer analogy to the Gothic building site. Devised as a place of communication, gathering, design, experimentation and fabrication, the Builder’s Yard was the center of the community and Alexander’s primary design tool. Although weak in regards to David Turnbull’s third point (it’s isolation and lack of funding prevented it from becoming a true nexus), it was very much a laboratory for design, building and social innovation. An even better modern day example demonstrating the validity of the Gothic building ‘works’ as a tool for design and technological innovation is the Japanese design and construction industry; in fact, the similarities between the two are striking.

While there is separation between the builder and the architect, the builder is often involved in the project before design even begins. This team will often sit down before or during the initial stages of the design process, establishing technological and aesthetic goals, such as Sendai Mediatheque’s ‘today’s technology plus alpha’; clearly demonstrating an interest in complete innovation (Buntrock 41). Architectural documentation, like that of their Gothic counterparts, is cursory by American standards with design and documentation continuing throughout the building process. This ‘just in time’ method of design minimizes waste in time, labor and material. Instead of the lodge house or nearby office, Japanese architects will set up an office on site. Instead of dreading visits to the field office, architects such as Fuhihiko Maki often think of the site as a refuge, ‘The field office is not only a place for the liberation of the work of the architect from the world of thought, but also is a place where many people participate in the effort towards its crystallization.’(Buntrock 62). Gaps in design documentation are filled in by the contractor and sub-contractors, with coherence maintained amongst the constituent parts by the architect who will often set goals with descriptive words. An example of this might be the architect telling the sub-contractor that this element should be, ‘thin’ (Buntrock 42). The sub-contractor will then design a solution and draw the assemblage for review with the architect; the weight of documentation and ownership of the problem is placed on the subcontractor’s shoulders. Dana Buntrock, author of Japanese Design as a Collaborative Process notes that by passing much of the documentation onto the shoulders of the experts, not only is this more efficient but it means that the architect has more time to manage the overall ‘works’ of the project. This can enable architects to have the breadth of influence and engagement similar to that of Brunelleschi, in spite of the increased complexity of today’s larger buildings. In this capacity the architect can also facilitate the development of new technologies, helping corral disparate ideas or innovations and bring them together to solve the local problem at hand,

Companies can provide a lot of knowledge and technology. We meet with them constantly throughout the project and learn from experiments. Everybody involved is specialized in a particular field. The glass producer has no knowledge of the possibilities in steel production, and vice versa. But the architect is the one who connects the different fields in order to come up with new solutions (Buntrock 57).

Many design problems whether structural, spatial or even systems based, are explored through full scale on-site mock-ups. The extensive use of these mock-ups encourages proportional design decisions, especially as they are typically arranged directly adjacent to the growing building (Buntrock 69). While allowing for comparison and easier visualization, this relationship also presents the mock-ups as a public record of the design language and methods that are integral to the building, for builder, designer and the general public. Given the degree of innovation that occurs at many of these sites, much like their Gothic building brethren, visitors are frequent during construction with the Sendai Mediatheque site receiving over 3500 people (Buntrock 41).

To be able to best address the most pressing issues of our time it is necessary to redesign the ‘works’ to meet these needs. The building sites of the Gothic cathedrals, the Duomo and the Japanese building industry demonstrate that more can be had from these spaces than just assemblage or material storage. Likewise, they show that our current means of design and production In fact, by re-conceiving of our building sites as laboratories, places for experimentation and the continuation of the design process, these precedents indicate that greater innovation, quality and efficiency may be attained.

5- Speak clearly, draw less

In 1350 Agostino di Giovanni drew a design for the Sansedoni family’s new palace in Siena. Unlike today’s construction documents, consisting of four separate sections and as many pages, it was only comprised of one drawing (an elevation) and text. It did have measurements but lacked window and any other significant detail (Toker 84-85). The palace was built to the family’s satisfaction and is still standing today. At Chartres Cathedral, there were nine different architects who worked on the building for 25-30 years a piece, working in 30 different building campaigns (Turnbull 318). Today, Chartres Cathedral is still standing and is considered one of the finest examples in France of Gothic architecture. How was it possible to build these enduring, inventive (Chartres) and cohesive structures with the given discontinuities, or lack of instruction? As was mentioned in the previous section, the design of the works, perhaps summed up by the initial imperative, ‘draw less’, plays an essential role in the process. However, it was the embedded cultural knowledge of design and the employment of a variety of means of communicating intent that ensured these buildings were successes. How is it that we produce so many drawings for a building and yet so often are frustrated by the results?

These, especially the role of embedded cultural knowledge, are problematic as lessons or precedents for the present day. Unlike the Gothic builders, we don’t live in a culture that understands building. We lack figures like Suger, lesser clergy or even a unifying theory such as neo-platonism that provide a vivid image, structural/ theoretical framework and process of construction for the buildings that we are to build; permeating much of the continent’s society. Finding such singular voices and ideas in our heterogeneous and secular society today is probably unrealistic. However, the cultural transformation of Florence around the Duomo and other buildings show that a well designed, locally focused ‘works’ (a site of innovation) and a prominent project can positively transform the workforce, and the consumer. We also don’t live in an era in which there is a commonly held method of design and construction. The module, proportioning as a design process and projective geometry have largely disappeared, to be replaced by engineered lumber and measurements for construction such as 15” OC (on center) that relates only to safety, the machine that made it or the vehicle that brought it to the site; space or theory are no longer part of the equation. Resurrecting the Gothic modular system may not be appropriate but establishing an underlying framework within a design of proportion or parts to whole may be worthwhile as it is a common language in design, crossing disciplinary boundaries and stylistic movements; Chippendale furniture, stringed instruments and the current trend of emergent systems in architecture. It’s durability as a design and construction tool may be related to the most basic way we perceive things and assemble knowledge, comparing one thing to another. At the core of finding replacements for the design and construction methods of the Gothic architects is that these devices need to explain why and how. Due to the embedded methods of design and construction within building culture as presented by Roriczer or Shuttermeyer’s books, there is a common language within which both designers and builders might make a decision. And of course it extended across disciplines, allowing the various crafts associated with the making of a building to communicate. Stephen Kieran likened this method of design to ‘quilting’ in a which at the outset a general pattern or theme, aesthetic or method based, that allows fellow quilters to work individually on a project that when the constituent parts are combined, a cohesive whole is still possible. Others have suggested the comparison between a conducted orchestral piece of classical music and jazz or early music in which themes at a variety of scales might be employed instead of exact musical notation. A specific example of this is the neume, a system of musical notation used to describe the general characteristic of a rhythm or note, but not exactly how it should sound. An analogous example of this in architecture is the Japanese architect describing to a subcontractor that a wall should be, ‘thin’ or at a different scale the designers and builders of the Sendai Mediatheque jointly establishing an initial project goal that the building should be ‘today’s technology plus alpha.’. The later development of neumatic notation in the Middle Ages established a methodology of assembling neumes according to something akin to proportional relationships. Creating such frameworks allows the various people involved in the building and design process to do what they do best, to innovate, to streamline workflows, gives them greater ownership (and thus often better quality) while maintaining a cohesive whole, even over extended periods of time;

This illustrates the general principle that the modular  starting point was based on convenience or practicality -for instance, in a  large architectural project completed over many decades, the modular unit  provided the continuity between successive generations of workers. (Birket 258)

Nevertheless, language and even communicating within this framework remains a hurdle to creating good, innovative architecture.

It is striking that even in 1567 the language we use to describe our work was deemed unintelligible and it was recognized that we like to talk more than listen, ‘The bad architect is depicted without eyes, hands, ears and nose, to show that he cannot perceive truth, execute nothing, cannot listen to the advice of others and cannot even sense what is good. He does have a mouth, however, ‘with which he can babble and speak evil.’’ (Hill 54). Creating innovative architecture and innovative solutions to many of our most pressing design related problems will require us to approach communication as we approach the creation of new technologies, ‘In other words, the problem, in both science and technology, is not one of putting theory into practice but one of the transmission of practices. It is small social and technical variations in effecting that transmission that account for differences in knowledge systems.‘(Turnbull 327). In other words, communication must be site and problem specific as well. Local differences in communication may either be a wellspring of new ideas or a hurdle but it is a paramount task of architects to recognize these differences at the outset of project or collaboration. For instance, Wendy Milroy identified how Liberian carpenters created language systems that are particular to the problem, the tools they have at hand and the physical environment in which they are working to facilitate decision-making (Milroy 5). Again, many of these employ the senses rather than tools and are proportion or comparison based, such as a ‘trouser’s worth of material’ (Milroy 5). Milroy found that the results were optimal and often more accurate than stricter, measurement based systems. Obviously creating or recognizing such modes of communication can be a challenge. Regardless, it clearly requires that the architect be patient but relentless when working to establish modes of communication for a project.

Developing a cadre of builders and subcontractors to work with consistently over time eliminates many of these problems but this is often impossible. After the fiasco at the Innocenti, Filippo Brunelleschi endeavored to use every tool at his disposal- spoken word, carved turnips, small models, hand gesturing, large mock-ups, demonstration, drawings, written words- to communicate his intent to his builders. He was in effect searching for the correct technology, attempting to invent the appropriate device for communicating with his workers on a particular problem at a particular time, and clearly the needs varied. If we are to become the innovators, the leaders, the builders of the 21st century we must embody the relentless energy, innovation and practicality of  Filippo Brunellschi and his turnips.


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