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The Craftsman (part 1)

July 16, 2009

Adventures in Linux:  The PC is in the shop, but I was pleased to discover that I could, using the Ubuntu boot CD, get on the Internet via my cable modem, so the local area connection was plug-and-play.  My hard drive disappeared from the operating system’s view when I tried to create a Windows boot CD – attempting to copy one of the three files required (NTsomething) did the job.  But at least I was able to access it long enough to back everything up. 

Just underway in Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman.  It’s interesting, though some of the examples seem either a stretch or inappropriate to the argument, such as his dislike of CAD.  A student of Hannah Arendt, Sennett opens with her two images of people at work:  Animal laborans is in her world view the lower form, and incorporates not only drudgework but any work that leaves the worker “absorbed in a task that shuts out the world.”  (Oddly, Sennett’s book doesn’t reference the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or his idea of “flow,” which deals with the joy and satisfaction that can come from such a state of absorption.)  The problem with this absorption, in Arendt’s view, is that it can lead just as easily to Oppenheimers and Eichmanns as to Beethovens and Einsteins – people who become absorbed in a “cool” technical problem with no sense of or concern for the consequences of its solution.  What Csikszentmihalyi called the “autotelic experience,” a thing worth doing as an end in itself, is in contrast in this view to Arendt’s other image, that of “Homo Faber,” literally “Man as Maker.”

Thus, in her view, we human beings live in two dimensions.  In one we make things; in this condition we are amoral, absorbed in a task.  We also harbor another, higher way of life in which we stop producing and start discussing and judging together.  Whereas Animal laborens is fixated on the question “How?” Homo faber asks “Why?”

But Sennett differs from Arendt by making the case that it’s not the thinker who will save us from the worker, but the worker who, if we understand the process of “the making of things,” will help us understand the “why” more thoroughly than any abstract analysis performed from above and outside.

Craftsmanship, as defined by Sennett, is “the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”  This implies a moral sense that’s required to be “absorbed in a task” in this manner, a belief that a thing should be done right.  So you could make the case that a scientist or researcher may get lost inside the intellectual feast (remember Bork?) of elegant solutions and end up producing a neutron bomb or nerve-disruptor beam or “crowd control innovation” without having experienced the sense of craftsmanship.  What Sennett calls “the intimate connection between hand and head” is necessary to bridge the gap between a state of work that’s conscious of the work’s place in the world and one that cares only about “working on cool problems.”

Craftsmen have been knocked around for millennia, treated as mere executors of the will of the Master Planner.  Sennett cites Aristotle, who said

We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons of the things which are done.

What comes to my mind are the dueling images of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs – Moses the “architect” who steamrolled communities to make way for freeways and high rises, vs. Jacobs the craftsman of communities, who argued for livable cities with trees and sidewalk cafes and easily accessible services.  Fifty years later, it’s Jacobs’s vision that is triumphing, as swathes of Broadway in NYC are turned into pedestrian zones.  Sennett uses Atlanta’s Peachtree Center as an example of head divorced from hand, with sidewalk cafes unusable in the Georgia heat and hotel rooms with commanding views of parking lots, where poorly lit garages and their stabby bumpers were clearly saved from disaster only from the unscripted actions of painters who added white lines where the light was poor or steel grinders who sanded down the pointy metal bits that could have otherwise taken chunks of paint or flesh out of anything that encountered them. 

He makes the case that CAD is responsible for this divorced-from-reality approach, because it removes the tactile requirement of “being there” from the design process.  He does have a point that having to draw lines by hand again and again reinforces the spatial sense of the designer, a reinforced learning and connection to the facts on the ground that disappears when CAD redraws and recalculates distances with a number typed in a window, and gives you renderings in which the depressing vista of the parking lot is absent.  But Moses (Robert) didn’t have CAD when he rammed freeways through cities, and as anyone who’s ever worked at an architectural firm can tell you (as I did long ago), 9 times out of 10 a bad design decision is the client’s will in the matter. 

He makes the case against “overdetermined design,” in which “forms are resolved in advance of their use.”  He says that

The tactile, the relational and the incomplete are physical experiences that occur in the act of drawing.  Drawing stands for a larger range of experiences, such as the way of writing that embraces editing and rewriting, or of playing music to explore again and again the puzzling qualities of a particular chord.

But architecture and its construction aren’t the same as writing or playing music – you can write a book or compose a symphony and still be able to tear it down when it appears finished and recompose its structure (especially if you have such computer aids as a word processor or composition software), whereas the form of the building has to be “set in stone” so to speak before the foundation is poured.

Out of time; more in the next post.

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