By: Christian Roidt | BSA ‘18
A well-built piece of architecture can be beautiful purely through the art of its construction. The often underestimated responsibility for buildings with this kind of beauty falls upon the architect.
The root of the word architect, arkhitekton, meaning Master Builder in Greek, makes apparent that the profession is deeply rooted in the craft and the labor of construction. Architects were not an antecedent to construction, they were in the midst of it. As master builders, architects were in charge of coordinating the fruitful collaboration of all trades and overseeing the skillful application of craft to guarantee a successful building.
This historical precedent of the profession redefines the job of an architect away from the developer mindset, concerned with dollars and square feet, and guides its creative potential towards artisan craft.
Buildings we still admire today for their architectural value, like the great gothic cathedrals, stem from a time where raw materials were precious and labor relatively inexpensive, but nonetheless valued. The relationship of time to building, the ratio of care per stone or hours per rafter was different. A craft person’s responsibility was to make the best and most skillful use of a given material, ultimately resulting in beauty that is beyond the architectural form. This is not exclusive to projects as prestigious as cathedrals. Even the most mundane building, if built well, exudes a sense of beauty; resulting in a wealth of well thought out assemblies, built to last a long time. The intense engagement with the material assembly also impacted the design thinking. The thought and effort that went into the craft was synonymous with architecture; all originating from the same people that together labored in its execution.
Buildings built like this can be measured in the level of skill applied to a raw material in order to create space and structure from it. An evaluation rarely found today, where materials are made cheap and skilled labor is perceived as expensive. This new relationship of the builder to the built has unarguably given architecture greater freedom than ever before. The ability to build fast and big has moved architecture into a different realm where new amazing feats are possible every day. But this gift of progress has also diluted the craft in architecture. Real craftspeople are rare on most construction sites and the craft integrity of a building is often sacrificed to economic pressure, insulting in the process the art of construction. The mass assembly of standardized parts stands in opposition to the beauty of artisan craft in built form. Buildings such as Eero Saarinen’s Chapel on the MIT campus prove, that where skill of craft is valued in construction, the architecture itself is heightened. Saarinen allowed the materials and their assemblies to be a beautiful part of architecture. Such precedents remind us that architects can advocate for skillful execution of construction by making the craft of the building an integral part of their design.
Old fashioned construction methods can not reflect what is possible for architecture in the 21st century, but architects nonetheless should consider themselves in the role of master builders again. Too many architects fall into the temptation of easy and quick construction, disconnected from their design. A renewed intense engagement with the tectonic process and material properties would not only produce lasting buildings worth their effort, but could also reintroduce beauty into buildings that are currently in serious architectural neglect.