Chief Carpenter

500-odd years ago, Leon Alberti published On the Art of Building, a series of ten pamphlets on the then-fledgling (formal) field of architecture. Mr. Alberti was writing about design, but called it building.

As I am apt to do, I tugged on this thread a bit, and it led me down an internet rabbit hole. The etymology of architecture, and architect, derives from the Greek arkhitekton. 

Arkhi- : chief

Arch- : principal, extreme, ultra, early, primitive

Tekton - : builder, carpenter

An architect, then, is a master builder. Today, an architect is certainly a chief, a director of works, and a builder of the virtual (drawings, models, plans), but not a builder, in the physical sense. Centuries of evolutionary specialization have codified the role of the architect into a remarkably narrow scope of responsibility. 


Considering it for my first tat.

The same winnowing down has affected the building trades. We no longer have carpenters, in a general sense, but framers, roofers, drywallers, floorers, and so forth -- successive waves of workmen cresting over the building, depositing built layers like the ocean laying sand on a beach. 

As buildings, and construction processes become ever-more complex, it is harder and harder to have any sort of comprehensive view of the process of making. A modern skyscraper, for instance, requires many thousands of hands in just the engineering of the structure, not to mention all of the designing all the sub-systems and developing the sexy renderings that sell units.

Specialization revolutionized the building industry, allowing experts to invade every nook and cranny of the field, executing a single core competency with speed and efficiency. It has also balkanized the process, both practically and legally, providing circuitous routes for mistakes to travel until blame dissipates into a sort of general scheduling and budgetary malaise.

I am currently working on the design and managing the build-out of small cafe and restaurant on the south side of Chicago. I worked up the basic drawings; contracted and helped with demolition; and am now engaged in the simultaneous design and construction of a small but highly complex two-level space. Almost a dozen folks collaborate with me, as carpenters, designers, apprentices, and food folks. The project evolves daily, in response to changing programatic needs, economic realities, and scheduling issues. It is an improvisatory process, in the best sense of that word. Skilled craftsmen circle and retreat, handing off lines and picking up on cues, hammering out a built narrative. 

Next door, a building has just been completed. I was over there today for a meeting, and a fella was fixing the door. Two other guys were installing rubber stair treads. Their trucks told their story: specialists, consigned to tiny, discrete tasks, endlessly repeated, a Sisyphean nightmare reenacted in building after building. Building, an individual, site-specific task, is being stripped of context and forced into assembly-line production. 

On these long, cold days, chewing my gums, I have a lot of time to think. One article, in particular, has been gnawing at me. Richard Olsen, a writer and editor, posted an entry on his blog recently lamenting the invisible craftsman, the builder who is subsumed by the blinding light of some starchitect. Some of his commentary is devoted to stabbing my sacred cows -- the mid-century architects I've spent years studying -- but he makes a number of valid points about the contributions of the craftsman. 

I know not every building can be made this way -- contemplative, contextual, careful. But I do know that the result of this process will be more than a product. It is an artifact-in-the-making, forged with human hands.

I will install the doors. I will build the stair treads. I will build the bookshelves, the bar, the kitchen. I will proudly call myself a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades, a master builder