Craft in the digital age

As Joseph Conrad said in his 1920 memoir “A personal Record”, the world rests on a few simple ideas….it rests notably on the idea of fidelity.”

In our time of technology, advancing artificial intelligence (AI), social media, “click bait”, “fake news” and the search to find something true to believe in, Jeffery M. McCarthy (environmental-studies professor at the University of Utah) gets it right. In his recent article, “Literary Currents: Joseph Conrad” (Sail magazine, volume 49, Number 4, April 2018)

Reflecting on life aboard his 42’ sail boat, the life of Joseph Conrad and his writings in the Age of Sail. McCarthy writes about the skills and inherent benefits of “honoring hard work, striving for fidelity and leaning toward craft,” especially while existing in fluid environments.  This resonated with me as an architect, and sailor. In architecture (as with sailing) “honoring hard work, striving for fidelity and leaning toward craft” are essential goals to help keep you focused and keep you safe in our very fluid, dynamic environments. When you don’t, with architecture and sailboats, it is bound to expose weakness.

Honoring hard work.

In this fast-paced age it is tempting to be impatient, to do it faster, find a cheaper way. In our new digital world, everything is getting easier. We long for hard things to do, to challenge and test us. We were meant to do hard work. It is very rewarding and it gives our life meaning. It is also a requirement for reaching our goals, for continuous improvement, for learning new skills and training to do your job well.

In architecture, good design decisions are founded on the hard work of understanding your client. Careful reconnaissance of the existing site conditions. Researching the building type. Imaging the possibilities, and having a thorough understanding of all the building code requirements. Armed with this base knowledge of the design environment, you are in position to develop creative solutions to the design prompt.

There is simply no substitute for doing hard work before you start to design.

Striving for fidelity

As literally everything in our world is questioned, re-thought, disrupted and reimagined in our new digital world, what are our permanent values? What are our unchangeable truths? What are the rules we as individuals and as a society are to live by? Few seem to know anymore. Most have forgotten our specie’s rich history and powerful story of ever evolving toward a better more just world.

It may sound old fashioned but there does exist time tested, core truths that govern the way we treat each other, conduct business, live in our families and communities and take care of the less fortunate. We even know what they are. We learned most of them in kindergarten.

We must be true to our clients, partners, staff, the ultimate users of our work and the laws of nature. In our architectural practice, we believe in the power of good design to change and improve people and business’s. In order to do this, we listen and engage with our clients in a true collaboration. In order for this to work best, we both must be transparent. Meaning, we both have to be open and honest in our communications about styles, design goals, budgets, expectations and what we can realistically deliver and when.  When we are both striving for fidelity to the project, we can develop the synergy to meet and exceed our design goals.

Leaning toward craft

Anything worth doing is worth doing correctly. If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, when will you ever have time to do it again or repair it?  Completing any task with craftsmanship takes technique, expertise and mastery of a distinct set of skills. It takes time to develop these skills. Time on Task. This used to happen in an apprenticeship, over time with careful tutoring by a master of her/ his profession. It seems today it is in danger of falling out of favor.

Architecture is the art and science of making buildings and places. As architects were taught that there are three (3) critical elements that separate a work of architecture from utility buildings:

From the ancient architect Vitruvius (between 30 and 15 BC.) firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis, or firmness, utility and beauty. It must be of sound construction (to resist gravity, weather and disaster) it must be useful for the intended and future uses and occupants, and it must be beautiful, speak to the soul, have meaning, and improve the quality of your life and business.

We still need and appreciate works of architecture. Now we need them to be more energy efficient, and robust enough to stand up to extreme weather. We all have the human capacity to be touched emotionally by good design in the built environment.

This is difficult in our new world of faster, cheaper, low bid, lowest first cost disposable buildings. It is exactly the opposite of what we should be promoting in the design and construction industry. We all need to be promoting higher performance, well built, energy efficient, robust, architecture that will stand up to adversity. It will come and we need to be ready.

We all need to promote “honoring hard work, striving for fidelity and leaning toward craft” as worthy aspirational goals to continuously improve our process and products.

This rang so true to me in our architectural firm’s practice and mission. With every client and every project, we aspire to these goals. We love the hard work of embracing our client’s design goals, being true to their, business model and budget, and the craft of conjuring robust, orderly and meaningful architecture out of the chaos.

-Richard Peterson