How work could repair our broken home in the modern world
“Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many. Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.” — Maria, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)
Many conversations, with a new acquaintance for example, starts with “What do you do?” to which one habitually replies with a job description and CV highlights. Our work is an important component of who we are, our social status, and how we find our place in the world. Work is thus not just a means to sustain ourselves. Work is how we contribute to the world, how we make our lives meaningful, beyond the biological imperative. Nor is work just a paid job; any valued activity, wether raising children or engaging in a hobby, is constructive to one’s identity and place in the world. Though the ideas of work and the role it plays in our lives have changed over the course of history, it retains the quality that it describes all that one does. Work is how we—in a very literal way—make, and make sense of the world; it produces all the stuff that surrounds us and the stories that go with them. Our clothes, buildings, gadgets, phone bills and credit cards are the fruits of our labor. All our efforts contribute to making the world at large a comfortable place to live in. For better or worse, a home.
When we think of home—the memories and feelings that we associated with it—we think of comfort, familiarity, consolation, intimacy, love and warmth. You can feel at home when you see your friends, colleagues and family, when you eat a certain food, or when you engage in a certain ritual or habit. This is not to say that the sensation of home is disconnected from a place and a time. On the contrary, it is very deeply rooted in the material world, in our surroundings and physical experience, but it surely isn’t just one single place. Home reaches from the nooks and crannies of your childhood bedroom to the sighs of relief when after a long journey you see that familiar landscape again. Home can be understood as a locality. Activities, relations and experiences that belong to a wide variety of places.
Today it often feels as if our environments have become backdrops against which our lives play out. The connection we feel with our surroundings are channeled through various media and technologies of imagination. Meanings are hidden in the ether on and surface of our screens. Meanings that are often all but intrinsic to the things that surround us. It is a paradoxical realization that the completely man-made environments we have surrounded ourselves with are exactly what make us feel out of place and lost. Once I heard someone say “Home is where the laptop is,” a fitting slogan for a nomadic cosmopolite or the ideal flexible knowledge worker. Someone who supposedly finds his home on a screen, in a dematerialised and disembodied world of fleeting abstractions. But is this really true? Is this home?
Mankind’s project of progress seems to be caught on a trajectory that would see an end to a material existence, going beyond space and time. The idea of progress is in many ways a transcendental dream. It is a eutopia of abundance where there is no room for limits. This eutopian dream of abundance can be deconstructed into three other sub-dreams of overcoming certain limitation.
1. Overcoming the limitations of our social bonds. Everybody can become whoever he or she wants to be.
2. Overcoming the limitations of the body. A future devoid of toil and in which our augmented senses can engage our unbound curiosity.
3. Overcoming the limitations of space. A future in which the entire globe, or for that matter the entire universe, is the arena for the human species.
Though these dreams all strive to imagine a true home within the modern context, these dreams in fact eliminate it. In the dream of progress there is no room for limitation, consequently the narratives and imaginary of progress has no room for the tragic, no space for consolation when we fail. Locality and the notion of home are in a way the exact opposites of the modern boundless dream of progress. Without limitation, locality and home cannot exist. It is attached to a place, to the material world, to the grounds of our existence.
“How and who will feel comfortable and secure -at home- in the environments and the future that we create for ourselves?” This essay is a memorandum, a train of thought evoking memories, anecdotes from daily life, the radio and our television screen. Through recollections of today and yesterday this essay will investigate how these dreams of progress complicate and work counter to our efforts to feel at home in the modern world, and how we could perhaps fix it.
“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
— Plutarch, Theseus
“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.” Jean Luc Picard, the captain of the Starship Enterprise from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, needs only to utter these words to get his favorite drink. He stands in front of a glowing niche in the wall and gives the replicator a voice command. This is a little ritual that recurs throughout the various episodes. Out of thin air the machine creates a hot cup of tea. It is a drink that comforts the captain, far away from the familiar, traveling through the void of space. This fictional machine arranges molecules in such a way that a cup of tea materializes. There is no kettle that needs to be put on a fire, no waiting for the whistle, no tea leaves, no brewing, and no pouring. All these actions have been replaced by a simple voice instruction that is enough for the machine to know what molecular structure it needs to fetch from its database so as to sequence energy and matter so that a warm cup of Earl Grey will appear. It’s a fast and efficient process. The captain will not lose time with the mundane task of making a cup of tea, and can thus focus all his attention on the problems at hand.
If the dream of abundance would come true everything would lose its value, both its monetary as well as its emotional value.
Today we have 3D printers; printing organic tissue, food, ceramics, plastics, guns, wood, etc. Scientists and engineers are experimenting with printing basically anything. The technology is still crude, and mostly used for prototyping and experiments, and its resolution is still far too low to be able to do anything as complex as a cup of Earl Grey. The dream of 3D printing was born into our popular imagination out from Star Trek’s replicator. The 3D printer proposes the ability to make any kind of object effortlessly, cheaply and anywhere. It is the embodiment of the dream of abundance, and a development that would greatly disrupt and revolutionize our entire economy. If anybody could make anything anywhere, factories as we know them become obsolete, and the only things left to trade are knowledge, data and files. If the dream of abundance would come true everything would lose its value, both its monetary as well as its emotional value.
In his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, written in 1987 and updated in 2007, Eric Drexler describes how manipulation of matter at the atomic level could create this utopian future of abundance. A future where everything could be made cheaply by using nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. A subsequent book, Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution, which Drexler co-wrote, imagines molecular level ‘assemblers’. These ‘assemblers’ would be able to manufacture any product at a cost no greater than that of cheap plastics today.
The astonishing track record of human inventiveness should cast off any and all fears or worries about the future. However, thinking about it a bit more, there is something missing. For some reason these visions of eliminating all human toil and creating a world of cheap abundance are always imagined by those in the business of creating knowledge, narratives, images, formulas, codes and other abstractions. They are never imagined or promoted by people who are in the business of making physical things. Would the visionaries of the future be as enthusiastic if these assemblers could also create outstanding works of philosophy, literature and science? It is hard to spot a craftsman in the Star Trek future, which is populated by brainy types who imagine their designs in holodecks and build them with replicators. Mind over matter, and abstraction over toil.
Perhaps a bright future for some, but what might we stand to lose? Think again of Captain Picard ordering his cup of tea from the repli5 cator. The ritual of making a cup of tea consists of a voice instruction to a machine. The act of “making” tea has become a ritual devoid of any bodily or material engagement. Think in contrast of the manual process of making a cup of tea. The tea can be made mostly through mere bodily awareness, for which no real focus is needed and one can engage in casual conversation or let the mind drift. The body knows the gestures and actions needed. The choreography of making a cup of tea needs a body, a casual conversation or some wandering thoughts. From the process of making the cup of tea we derive meaning, a story, which is not directly about making tea, but rather, provides a condition of mind and body in which it can feel at home.
When we gaze at the stars we tend to forget the ground under our feet. The ground is a limitation we tend not to see when we look up, but without it there is merely a meaningless void. The ground is much more than just soil. It is our bodies, our culture, our homes and our habits and how they are woven together in a fabric of meanings. Mankind’s techno-optimists—such as social media gurus—are all star gazers, and they have conquered today’s popular imagination. But not everybody can or wants to be a social media entrepreneur. We don’t only need the stargazers, we need to wake up those that see the horizon, and feel the ground.
There is a paradox in our want for a “home” and our need for a constant and uninterrupted succession of innovations—what we often call progress. The cup of tea represents the hope for security, comfort and meaning, what we call the home, which is increasingly lost in the imaginarium of the 3D printer. As such the search for, and preservation of, this “home” within the modern world is an effort to sew back together a world that is experienced as fragmented and torn apart. Why else would we still even need a comforting cup of Earl Grey for our mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”?
“That long old lonesome road”
Just as much as one can feel homesick, one can also feel the calling of the road. The experience of traveling is a distinctly modern experience, allowing one to detach oneself from the surroundings; to become an observer. Today one could say we got more road than bargained for. The on-the-road experience is now all around us. The central business districts, shopping malls, airports and metro stations; these so-called transient spaces or non-places make us travelers everywhere we are, and not just in the city. Outside the metropolis we find the humbling vastness of today’s sites of production: the factory halls in Asia, the harbors on our continent’s shores, the stables that produce our meat, and the mines and machines that extract our resources.
Since the beginning, the Modern Project, in all its diverse and consecutive manifestations, has evoked as much enthusiasm as it has resistance.
The forces that shape the landscape of modernity are out of sight; playing out on an arena beyond the scale of humans, and one could even be mistaken in thinking that the machinery that shapes our world does not involve any humans at all. Why are office blocks erected that are known to stand empty for years on end? Why do our agricultural lands feed countries overseas instead of nearby cities? Why does every main street look the same?
Since the beginning, the Modern Project, in all its diverse and consecutive manifestations, has evoked as much enthusiasm as it has resistance. Its advocates say that a rational truth has brought us longer and more comfortable lives, while its antagonists lament the lack of meaning within this efficiency and material accumulation based society. Especially in the arts this dialectic has been foundational in how artists have positioned themselves. While mankind’s dominion expands and disenchants the world, the unknown and unimaginable are displaced by a scientific imaginary. The various avant-garde movements sway back and forth between positivist enlightened thinking and the romantic search for originality and authorship.
In 1983 Kenneth Frampton wrote the essay ‘Towards a Criticial Regionalism. Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.’ Frampton describes how necessities of efficiency and maximization are dictated by the globalizing market and are creating a universal but also meaningless placelessness. He calls on architects to resist the homogenizing forces of globalization and to maintain a critical attitude. To be critical of enlightenment thinking and the Modern Project, but without returning to forms of romantic nostalgia or decorative kitsch. He argues for a critical arriere-garde to envision an architecture with a more sensitive attitude that deals intelligently with local circumstances like climate, tactility, atmosphere, and tectonics, and embedding these in a regional sensibility without becoming traditionalist or populist.
In his essay, Frampton makes a classical distinction between the culture and the civilization of a society; civilization as organizer, and culture as the expression of meaning. With today’s do-it-yourself zeitgeist this distinction seems to have disappeared. Culture seems to be understood in the broadest, most anthropological, sense of the word. Meaning flows from gestures, actions, words, imaginations and products made by everybody. The disappearance of this distinction is very relevant. Urban gardening becomes art, becomes resistance, and eventually becomes policy; often being meaningless.
Through the notion of critical regionalism, Frampton searches for the possibility of an architecture that resists the forces of globalization and its universalist logic. But, because he only considers architecture as a cultural practice and does not connect architecture to its systems of production, his advocated Architecture of Resistance does not escape from being, to use Frampton’s own words, a compensatory facade—a proposal for an aesthetics that seems to cover up the harsh reality of our universal system.
When Frampton talks of the universal system of production he only addresses efficient material systems, that generate the generic aesthetic of the built environment. Beneath the engineering of materials lies the more fundamental engineering of labor. Today’s universal systems of production are dictated by a globalized system of the division and specialisation of labor. This Taylorist rationale fragments the labor of man and machine along functional lines into variables that can perform in formulas and spreadsheets. Making something, like a chair, is reduced and deconstructed into a mechanical choreography. The choreography of production and consumption that once took place in a craftsman’s workshop, can just as easily be reconfigured to become a dance across global supply chains and franchises. It is a choreography that can have its steps changed as easily as its dancers can be replaced; all in order to optimize its variables so that a formula will output the most effective number.
“You can be anything you want to be”
About a year ago on a camp-site, during our family day, I talked with my uncle. He had brought a magazine with him. Published in it, which he eagerly pointed out, was a project that he was working on. It was a big ship for off-shore operations. He explained that he had worked on that ship for three or four months, installing the electricity, piping and other infrastructural systems. He was clearly proud of the fruits of his labor. Each morning he would get up around five, a colleague would pick him up at home and together they would drive to a shipyard somewhere in the North of the Netherlands. He explained to me that the steel hull was made somewhere in Eastern Europe, and that they, with a team of about eight men, installed the entire interior, machinery and internal systems into the hull. I told him that working together with a relatively small group on a project like that, and with a clear and tangible result, had to be rare these days. These days many people are working on tiny parts of a project without any clear notion of the whole. My uncle didn’t reply. Later he also told me that when he was studying in the late seventies, everybody was saying ‘you should do an education that will get you a white-collar job.’ Blue-collar jobs, were supposedly a bad career choice, and surely not the work of the future.
While I enjoyed seeing my family again, I often feel some sort of disconnection. Most of them are married, have kids, live in medium and small sized towns, and their education and life is quite different from mine. My cousin and I are the only ones that decided for a university education. I always notice that I, the cosmopolitan urbanite, have a hard time making casual conversation with them. It often seems that our worlds share very little, and it is hard to find any common ground for our conversations.
The awkwardness inherent in family gatherings is surely not unique. I am sure it is an experience that is near universal. While they’re awkward, they’re also a refreshing reminder that the world is bigger. That there are people with different lives, different hopes and other realities than your own daily experience. Nonetheless, society has its popular narratives about what is worth dreaming of. Our jobs and our various educations bring with them social status and certain expectations of life, but today’s popular narrative is that everybody can become what they would want to be. The only limitation is your ambition and will power. Thus, if you fail, its your own fault. You just didn’t want it enough, right? With the dream that life is a process of self-realisation, we have also fabricated a grand existential burden; one that some take lightly, but crushes others.
In the Netherlands sixty percent of the high school students are enrolled in its lowest level (VMBO). While your parents will say that they love you when you get to go to the VMBO, every VMBOstudent knows their parents had hoped for something different. Your level of education carries a stigma, that in turn is reflected in your level of self-esteem, identity and the way you position yourself in the world and towards others. This applies as much for the low as for the highly educated. A couple of years ago the term ‘Diploma Democracy’ emerged in the Dutch media and in research publications. It refers to the phenomenon that the general outlook on the world and daily life of the highly and low educated have less and less in common, and is creating a chasm, a new kind of class society on the basis of education.
The waning future perspectives of a blue-collar career and the rise of white-collar work in the late seventies that my uncle spoke of was a broad sentiment. It anticipated what was going to happen in many developed countries in the early eighties, when manufacturing bases crumbled and many industries were unable to compete with lower-wage countries. It was a decade when many shipyards, factories and coal pits closed in Western Europe. In Britain this was also the case, if not worse. Perhaps because it was one of the first nations to industrialize, it was in the British Isles that people first started thinking of alternative ways to approach the economy and the city. The result of this thinking was the creation of the Department of Cultural Industries, established by the Greater London Council, where consultants such as Charles Landry played an important role in the reinterpretation and redevelopment of old industrial cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield and much of their vacant factory halls, warehouses and workshops. In 1997 the name of the department changed from the Department of Cultural Industries to the Department of Creative Industries. A couple of years later in 2002 a new urban economic theory came to full fruition when Richard Florida published the book The Rise of the Creative Class.
From then on, the idea of the Creative City was employed around the world to make policies for cities in order to attract the frontrunners of the knowledge economy: the creative industries.
In 2004 TNO formulated what the Creative Industry is as follows:
“The creative industry is a specific form of activity that generates products and services that are the results of individual or collective creative labour and entrepreneurship. Content and symbolism are the most important elements of their products and services. These products and services are consumed because they evoke meaning, which in turn forms the basis of an experience. With this, the creative industry plays an important role in the development and maintenance of lifestyles and cultural identities in our society.”
What it boils down to is simply: here we think it up, design it, brand it and consume it. There, they make it.
The highly educated roughly coincides with the notion of the creative class, depending on whose definition you use. The notion of the creative class provides the story and imagination for a society that celebrates creativity, culture, higher education and knowledge. Take Maastricht, a city in the south of the Netherlands. After the production of ceramics had left for the low-wage countries, what remained was an area close to the city center with empty factory halls, and a harbor on the river Maas. The abandoned halls provided an ideal settlement for the creative industries, and of course a cluster of pricy apartments, culture and retail to go with it. Maastricht being a shopping city, touristic attraction, university town and cultural hub in the region is a paradise for the highly-educated.
The role of the lower educated has been cast out of view. There are no longer many jobs left, the role their labor plays in shaping the identity of the city has become negligible, and their homes are far away from the picturesque inner city.
The consequence is that contemporary creative labor today plays out in an abstract environment, and the physical act of “making” happens, there where labor is cheap. In a knowledge economy manual labor is simply too expensive. Fine arts, design, architecture, literature, journalism, programming, directing, etc. have become disciplines that are embedded in intellectual discourse; each of them requiring the capacity to think abstractly, and employing a lingo that revolves around ‘concept’.
The creative city, and its knowledge economy, doesn’t need everyone; only people of a certain intelligence and with a certain skill. Clearly not everybody can become what they want to be, even if you would know what you would want to be.
“Write it, cut it, paste it, save it, load it, check it, quick – rewrite it”
It seems that progress is working towards a spiritual goal: to overcome the limitations of the flesh. Biological evolution is simply too slow to keep up with mankind’s curiosity and ambitions. ‘The singularity is near,’ as its prophets will have us believe, referring to the moment beyond which we cannot say anything sensible about what is to come. By passing this future landmark, the point where artificial intelligence will have reached human standards, technological development will accelerate at an unimaginable rate. We are destined to upload our consciousness into circuitry and leave our soft, vulnerable and fleshy jackets behind.
In this light, terms like “creative class” and “knowledge economy” already seem outdated in an economy that is now becoming increasingly networked and digitized. Whatever name we might give a certain economic stage of development, each of them seems to be part of the same movement towards dematerialization and disembodiment. Since the birth of mankind, we have been externalizing our thoughts with cave drawings and overcoming the limitations of memory through books. Now the mantra is that the first industrial revolution replaced our muscles and the current one will replace our nervous systems.
These transhumanist dreams are the heady fantasies of brainy nerds, but it cannot be denied that this spiritual vector is embedded deep within the Modern Project.
In the perpetual quest for efficiency and productivity we replace and extend our faculties. We are constantly creating a variety of prosthetics, in an effort to overcome the limits of our mortal flesh and body, and to eventually conquer the terrifying magnitude of the possibilities of the universe.
These transhumanist dreams are the heady fantasies of brainy nerds, but it cannot be denied that this spiritual vector is embedded deep within the Modern Project. No economist will proclaim such science fiction out loud, they’ll just keep reminding us that cycles of creative destruction are necessary for an economy to move forward, to keep growing. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, machines have replaced jobs, but new jobs have always emerged, moving the economy forward. This reassuring chime sounds increasingly like a fairy tale for adults.
While there was a time when it was easy to discard these fears, economists are now talking of a ‘jobless recovery’ from the economic crisis, and ‘the great decoupling’ of productivity and employment. Since the Second World War, the vectors of productivity and private employment have moved up in tandem, but for a decade now these vectors have been diverging. Productivity is still going up, but private employment has practically flatlined. Jared Bernstein, calls these diverging lines ‘the jaws of the snake’. One might think this snake is eating up low-skilled, repetitive manual labor, but alas, this time it is eating its way up into the domain of the knowledge worker and the highly educated. Lawyers are losing jobs to algorithms, which are faster and cheaper in searching through, and processing legal documents than they are.
Here again is another dream; the dream of discarding labor for play. When we think of the optimist’s argument we imagine that all things are replicated, nothing ever needs to be toiled for. This is the dream Constant Nieuwenhuysen had when he conceived of New Babylon, a paradise for man liberated from labor. A continuously adaptable world, where creation, and recreation of the world is celebrated by the New Babylonians. Living and entertaining oneself in a cultural landscape, a networked mega structure erected above the old world and its old cities, factories and farm lands, where robotic machinery slave away to provide mankind with sustenance. In this scenario the continuous cycles of creative destruction will eventually make us all into free and creative species; the homo ludens. To me, New Babylon sounds like the final destination of the dream of the Creative City.
But there is an intriguing side story to the cycles of creative destruction. Whenever old jobs disappear, and new ones are invented, some of these discarded occupations incarnate into another universe. The universe of the hobby. Where a certain activity would be first valued for its productivity, as a hobby activity, the value derived from the activity appreciated privately.
The universe of the hobby is not where jobs go to die, but rather it is a reservoir of the many things we find meaningful about work.
A wise man once said ‘men build boats because they cannot have babies.’ You sacrifice your time, attention and money to the activity, perhaps you sell what you do, but the motivation is all but commercial. More often than not hobbies are physical and/or social activities, like sailing boats, playing an instrument, making model airplanes or playing soccer. Isn’t it striking,that during the day we edit spreadsheets, or stand on an assembly line, and in the weekend we tinker in the garage?
The universe of the hobby is not where jobs go to die, but rather it is a reservoir of the many things we find meaningful about work. First of all, it is using your hands and your body that is understood as being one of the most valuable. But also an involvement with an activity that is not merely about being productive in economic terms, but answers to a simple and basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake; as Richard Sennett puts it in his book The Craftsman. The domain of the hobby is also a reservoir of the knowledge of our ancestors, from recipes of our grandmothers, to mastering obscure languages. The hobby universe is where much of forgotten human knowledge is still alive, a place where we can acquaint ourselves with a relation to work that exists outside the rationale of progress, and economic growth.
“Because I no longer know where home is”
Kings of Convenience
Recently, I learned about Ray Oldenburg’s notion of ‘third place’, a social environment outside the two usual social environments of home and work. The existence of third places is crucial for a functional community, they are typically the barbershop or the neighborhood cafe. Places where regulars, newcomers, and people with various social backgrounds are welcomed, can mingle and can engage in casual conversation. It is a home away from home, a place where one feels a sense of belonging. What if we were to expand this notion, to a street, a square, a city or even a landscape? Locality as a type of third place. To be able to have a sense of belonging to a locality, to experience it as homey, it needs to be understandable and readable through daily practices. In other words it needs to be meaningful. When the potatoes in your supermarket come from the countryside around the town you live in. When the electricity from your wall socket comes from the wind turbine on the horizon. When the house you live in is designed and constructed by the company down the street. When there is a real possibility you can run into the people who feed you, sustain you and shelter you, wouldn’t that change your outlook on your surroundings, and the people that inhabit it?
What is broken is our sense of locality. Our globality ‘functions’, but overrules the logic of the local. Meaning needs a ground. Existence needs a ground. Reasoning needs a ground. We need a continuum, a stable ground on which reason can be built, as much as in our daily lives, as for our existence. There is a real need to blur boundaries, to weave together, to allow for ambivalence and to break functionalist categorizations of space and time.
What follows are two proposals, two counter imaginaries that seek to engage locality and to balance the world of the head and that of the hand.
—Proposal #1 : The Work-lodge—
“Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist!”Walter Gropius
The other day I read an interview with Pablo Tittonell, an Argentinian agricultural scientist that recently became a professor at Wageningen University. He argued for the adoption of ecological intensive agriculture that would go beyond the current agricultural paradigm, which focuses on higher yields by introducing more and increasingly complex chemicals. The current methods of architecture have their roots in the green revolution and are a modern universalist approach, the same methods are deployed independent of the specificities of local ecosystems, as if every piece of land is basically the same and is merely an engineering challenge to optimise its yields.
In the modernist conception, space is a vacuum, it is nondescript, a blank slate only subject to the rules of science and the powers of the imagination. In Tittonell’s proposal, he argues for an agriculture that integrates traditional farming knowledge of a region with knowledge of regional ecosystems. Making agricultural constellations that are specific to a region, that integrate the locally present ecosystems and traditions. As an example he talks about a project in Indonesia, where rice fields are combined with ducks, fish and the small water plant azolla. “The ducks take care that the insects stay away, the fish contain weed growth. Both animals provide fertilizer and the azolla provide the rice plant with nitrogen. It has shown that the yield of these fields are double compare to fields that weren’t set up like this. On top of that the surroundings have proven to be very suitable to banana trees. So this means you’ll have rice, eggs, meat, fish and fruit. All nutrients together on a small plot of land close to the consumers. Like this, one hectare can feed 30 people.”
Also Frampton points out how the modern tabula rasa approach of space effaces a place’s topography, its specificity with concerns to climate. But here we would seek to take his critical regionalism a step further, beyond the formal and aesthetic consideration of architecture. What if we were to imagine Tittonell’s vision for agriculture but translate it to architecture?
Today one can understand the position of the architect as a product of a long process of labor specialisation and division within building practice. A process in which the creative designer has been removed further and further away from the building site and the everyday practice of building. It is striking to see, in comparison, how local the contractor operates and how global the architect operates. Whereas Frampton feared the rise of efficient material systems that would eventually homogenize architectural aesthetics, the contrary is true. In many ways the construction of buildings is still one of the most regional industries we have. If one compares the construction of generic housing, that were not built under the pretense of architecture, each country uses distinct materials, styles and layouts. When one compares the generic housing of the Netherlands, with the Balkans, Spain, Brazil and Japan one will find that they are quite specific to their region. These difference are informed by local climate, economy, traditions of dwelling and local building regulations. While architectural discourse plays out in a global arena, the discourse of construction is one that exists within the confines of a local economy. Whereas the architect is the cosmopolite, the contractor is more grounded and attached to a region.
What if we were to imagine a new model, a model in which we collapse the various trades of the building industry into one working body. Let’s call it the Work-lodge, inspired by a time when all building trades were present on the building site and sheltered in the mason’s lodge. The Work-lodge would be a business case in which all participants operate locally, working with that what is locally present (from materials to knowledge), and each one bringing in their own expertise. What would be needed to reunite the various trades into a single body? How could each field of expertise contribute to the other? How would it change how we build? What happens when architects collaborate with plumbers, and masons with project developers? What can be learned from a sustained close proximity of these fields of knowledge? What could a commitment of such a business to a specific locality result in?
—Proposal #2 : Master of Craft—
“The hand is the window on to the mind”Immanuel Kant
Since a couple of years, interest in craft, local production, authenticity, sustainability and smaller scale operations have been on the rise in the creative sector. Naturally this trend was quickly spotted and branded as The New Artisan Economy. ‘Craft,’ is thus alive and kicking as a concept, as abstraction. But this is surely a too ironic and cynical conclusion. One could argue that there is a search to renew our engagement with the world. Perhaps a renewal that is a reaction to the increasing abstraction of labor and the meaning creating economy; i.e. advertising and branding.
Naturally craft, and artisan production tap into nostalgic and romantic sentiments—evoking the workshop of a carpenter, the smell of wood and a man that can think with his hands. But craftsmanship is about more than a memory of a way of working we’ve lost in the wake of industrialisation. As Sennett writes: “Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”
It is exactly this impulse that often conflicts with our dominant economic rationality. The division of labor does not only fragment a process over time and space, it also fragments our humanity, rupturing the connections between the head and the hand, between mind and body. Sennett’s notion of craftsmanship can unite these again.
Today’s problem is that production through craft becomes almost instantly a luxury product in the current economic rationale. The consumption cycles of products (from house to dress) have a certain rhythm. Fashion seasons, planned obsolescence, and technological innovation structure this rhythm. Perhaps a crafty table is affordable compared to an Ikea table when you use it your whole life, and when you pass it on to your children, and to your children’s children. It could decompress the generational conflicts inherent in our compressed modernity. But surely this will slow down the cycle of consumption which is bad in our current economic rationale.
Outside the creative sector the identity of craft is a very different one. Bakers, hairdressers, carpenters and car-mechanics don’t approach their craft from a conceptual legitimization, but simply from the perspective of joy, talent, or to make a living.
Today those who are skillful with their hands and bodies are often lower educated. When a higher educated person chooses for a career as baker or car-mechanic, this is at least counter-intuitive. Imagine if we could introduce an equality of education, in a sense that one can engage a discipline across the full range of educational levels, and that social, bodily and mental intelligence are appreciated equally.
You could do a Masters in plumping or a PhD in carpentry. All the Master degrees are reserved for brainy interpretations of a certain discipline. Envision a Master of Craft next to a Master of Science, and how different it would be if an architect was to graduate as a Master of Craft, instead of Design. For the lower educated, this would create perspective and room for ambition. It would suggest that fixing a car is not merely a mundane task, but can potentially be an art if you would want it to be.
Now many companies that need technically skilled people are setting up their own educational programs to train incoming graduates from the lower levels of technical schools. The level of technical education is simply too low. Couldn’t a collaboration between companies and educational institutions be the perfect basis for a new craft based curriculum? A contemporary interpretation of the classic master-apprentice workshop dynamic, graduating with a masterpiece.
The Master of Craft would provide an education that cultivates bodily intelligence, and would open up our imagination to knowledge of a different nature and innovation of another kind. Imagine a world that is not dominated by the imagination that is engendered by technology, but one where there is equal space for technique, the finesse of expression that comes with craftsmanship.