Monday, September 12, 2016

The Existential Craftsman

Image courtesy of Scott Nelson
From time immemorial people have contemplated the nature of being and likewise the concept of origins or the coming into existence. Such contemplations have often coalesced into the core structure of religious systems of belief and correspondingly within the branch of philosophy known as ontology or "the study of essence". Existentialism is a relatively recent focus within ontology that centers around the human individual's concept of being and becoming. Prevalent themes are authenticity and individual creation of meaning, themes that find resonance with traditional craftsmanship. Craftsmen are typically concerned with the authenticity of their creations, whether or not the crafted objects truly retain the expression of their will, as an artifact of their touch. Similarly, there exists a trepidation that their work might be viewed as inauthentic or worse still, meaningless. I would like to consider if there is any potential for intrinsic meaning in craft, how craftsmen use symbolic meaning, and a particularly modern dilemma threatening craft, the absurd.

Intrinsic Meaning

Let's begin by an illustration of a flower. What does it mean? "Well, it doesn't mean anything, it just is!", one might reasonably reply. A flower certainly doesn't mean something else, it doesn't refer to anything. However, I wouldn't hastily conclude that a flower is meaningless. Perhaps we could consider whether a flower has inherent meaning or stated another way, the flower is its own meaning. As humans we're well adapted to this qualitative, inherent meaning of the natural world. A flower will elicit sensual responses of sight, smell, feel and sometimes even taste (with or without further hallucinogenic effect). In this way flowers are intuitively sensible to human beings, even by very young children. Contrast this naïve, direct, visceral sensibility with the literal meaning of a flower as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: "The reproductive structure of angiosperms, characteristically having either specialized male or female organs or both male and female organs, such as stamens and a pistil, enclosed in an outer envelope of petals and sepals."

So the "literal" meaning of flower becomes quite complicated and contingent on other literal meanings whilst our direct experience of a flower remains simple and accessible. Would a botanical that is to say scientific analysis of a flower reveal further or perhaps deeper meaning? We've been at the classification of flowers in general and particular for some centuries now with infinitely greater means of dissection from the cellular, to the DNA, to the now subatomic level with promising theories to take us even further. So it is that a single flower is now classified amongst the most complex things in the universe composed of levels of complexity ad infinitum. We lament the  complexity of the material world losing sight of that fact that we're the ones who keep cutting it to pieces. Flowers are simple yet rich in meaning. However, ascribing meaning to them in artificial, closed, conventional systems of literal and scientific terms has made them unintelligible to the point of absurdity. How does one ever feel at home in a world like that?

Hundisburg, Saxony-Anhalt
Last summer I had opportunity to work on a project of traditional masonry in the small village of Hundisburg, Germany. What do traditional, handcrafted villages like this and others mean? They don't refer to anything outside of themselves yet you just feel that the village itself is rich in meaning, it's authentic. What is physically embodied in my Hundisburg example is successive generations of human intention and attention, humans being humane. The oaks of the timber framing from adjacent fields cleared for cultivation. The stone from the local quarry now the summer swimming hole. The bricks and terra cotta tiles from a clay deposit up on the hill. Crafting a community with our neighbors from materials readily available around us is an eminently human activity, nothing absurd about it.

Symbolic Meaning

There is of course meaning that refers to something outside of itself. In fact, that this is how the term "meaning" is most often used and understood. One way for a craftsman to express symbolic meaning is with ornament, alternatively called enrichment. There are a number of methods for achieving this: carving, scratching, moulding, painting to name a few.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
We appreciate that artistic representation is only a symbol, a reference of something else. Ornament's power lies in human sympathy. The craftsman draws upon the fractal attributes of say, a flower to select a handful of attributes, the essence of the thing to convey in the selected medium. And so when you or I look upon the ornament we "get it", otherwise stated we sympathize with the process. If we have familiarity with the medium we might even begin to imagine ourselves doing the carving, painting or what have you. Likely it heightens our appreciation for the craftsman's imagination and skill. Yet just having fulfilled human beings as embodied in the example of the craftsman are of tremendous benefit to a community. Furthermore, when these investments in intrinsic and symbolic meaning are made in the shared public realm (church, high street, piazza, etc.) as they customarily were, than an inheritance is established for everyone, an enriched community that loves itself, that feels at home.

The Absurd

The kind of life that established traditional villages around the world, many of which still remain for our enjoyment, seem like an impossibility today, a eutopian fantasy. What is the absurd? How has meaning been undermined by civilized society?


In its most virulent forms we find enslavement and serfdom. Great works of beauty like the Parthenon celebrate idealized human perfection, overlooking a city that was the birthplace of democracy. And yet much of this was built on a foundation of war, misery and exploitation. There is an unresolved tension between the rich symbolic meaning of many such cities and monuments of antiquity and the inhumane treatment, the destruction of the intrinsic meaning and worth of the individual. The skilled craftsman reduced to a tool himself to express the will of monsters.


Nothing corrupts meaning like a lie. The McMansion puts its dishonesty on display like a proud peacock. It pretends to use local, traditional materials; all materials are industrial from a factory far away. It pretends to be finely crafted; it extracts the cheapest labor from the most vulnerable in society. It promises you health and status; it delivers toxicity, debt and mediocrity.


A very visible manifestation of subversion is irony, typical of  so-called Postmodernism. Often a form is taken an exemplar of tradition and hand crafted refinement. The proportions are changed,  the function inverted, traditional materials and methods are replaced with the latest in construction tech. To its credit Postmodernism doesn't lie. Rather, it ridicules intrinsic meaning as an impossible joke.

Existentialism has been interpreted by some as an individualistic philosophy, described as isolating or inward looking. However, I would contend that being an individual has no meaning independent of others any more than individuality is possible without the air you breathe. It is modern civilization that is isolating with its increasing manifestations of coercion, dishonesty and subversion: the absurd. Two main tenets of existentialism that I did not develop here were that the individual is free and is responsible. This is very empowering. We can choose to reject absurdity, instead embracing lives of intrinsic and symbolic meaning. Perhaps it is in this time of crisis for humanity that our living a life of individual meaning can have the greatest impact on intrinsic meaning for human society at large.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, September 8, 2016


"TradArch" is short for "Traditional Architecture".  In the context of this essay, it refers to a listserv hosted by the University of Miami that carries the following description:

"Prof. Richard John runs an electronic mailing list from the University of Miami devoted to discussion of the theory and practice of traditional architecture. The list is an open forum for all topics related to this topic, including the posting of images of historic buildings and photographs of list members' own work. It is affiliated with the Certificate in Classical Architecture at the University of Miami School of Architecture."

I joined about three years ago and have really benefited from the perspective of architects, academics, historians, town planners, craftsmen, preservationists, students and laymen. Here are a few of the characteristics of TradArch that I feel contribute to it's success:

Uncensored - The moderators have an extremely light hand. I've not heard as much as an admonishment let alone someone getting banned. Granted the subscribers are by and large well behaved. Naturally (and beneficially I'd add) there is disagreement but for the most part this is kept on a professional level.

Democratic - There is no agenda. Folks post about their interests and what catches the interest of others gets discussed. It might also be thought of as a back channel for members of organizations and academic institutions to be able to compare, contrast and refine their approaches to traditional architecture outside the strictures of stated missions and manifestos.

Diversity - The listserv is open to anyone interested in traditional architecture. There are those with many years of practical experience, others might have a more academic pedigree. There are members still in school or just getting started in their careers. Some members are principals of large, well established firms while others are simply concerned individuals. Participation is entirely voluntary. Whether you read all of the threads or choose to actively participate is entirely up to you.

One of the criticisms leveled against the TradArch listserv was that it was a lot of talk behind virtual closed doors and no action. There was some validity to the charge. About the same time a couple of years ago, the tone on the listserv was getting noticeably irritable. Increasingly, comments were edging closer to personal attacks. Feelings were getting hurt. It was decided something had to diffuse the tension. A Garden Party!


The intention of the organizers was to create a gathering that was a reflection of the listserv and the aforementioned characteristics that made it unique and vibrant.

TAG 2015, image courtesy of David Brussat
The inaugural TradArch Gathering was held in Charleston, SC in April 2015. It began with a cocktail reception at the College of Charleston, followed by a day of sessions at The American College of the Building Arts and concluding with a day of touring infill construction in the historic district as well as the nearby I'on suburb developed according to New Urbanist principles. Despite prognostications of doom and fears of fisticuffs, everyone seemed to have a great time. Folks that had been on the listserv for years were able to meet for the first time face to face and communication noticeably improved. 

To my surprise there was renewed interest to do it again! This year it will be held in Historic Oakwood Raleigh, NC. Members of the Oak City Preservation Alliance in particular are doing the heavy lifting in playing hosts to what we're calling TAG2. Interested in attending? Join the list, join the conversation!
TradArch listserv

Below is a description of the event:

The TradArch gathering is based on 3 simple concepts in the spirit of keeping the event a reflection of the listserv itself, essentially a democratic forum for folks either independent or closely allied to organizations:

1. Non-discriminatory: Everyone on the listserv is welcome
2. No hierarchy: We're all professionals. A meeting of equals. Inspiration
can come from any of us
3. No preconceived agenda: With open session scheduling you can bring your
own ideas. If its got popular support it will be the subject of discussion

There has been feedback for improvement for our upcoming event including:

  • 2 days of sessions
  • An area for project displays open to the public 
  • Public evening presentations
  • A more structured agenda
  • Time for strategy
We've been working to incorporate all of these suggestions. The first three were easily adopted. The question arose as to how an open, democratic spirit while accommodating a preconceived agenda. Here's what we came up with:

  • Maintaining the first morning session for spontaneous open session scheduling as previously
  • Predetermining together, on the listserv beforehand the other topics we would like to take up for Friday afternoon and Saturday morning sessions. **Individuals may lead a discussion but no lectures PPT presentations etc. without unanimous consent
  • Concluding with a strategy session Saturday afternoon where manifestos, plans of action etc. can be addressed

The schedule for October 13 - 16:

304 Oakwood Ave., Raleigh, NC 27601

Thursday , Oct 13      
4:30 PM - 6:00                
Tour of Historic Oakwood led by resident architectural historian Matthew Brown. Matthew is a historian for the state of North Carolina and extremely well informed and interesting. We will include the house that caused the ruckus.

6:00 PM - ?                     
Cocktail party/heavy hors d'oeuvres at home of Carter Skinner, local traditional residential architect. His home is in Historic Oakwood and is a great example of the architecture. He and Chapman are looking forward to having you as their guests. They actually canceled an amazing trip to host for us.

112 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh, NC 27601

Friday, Oct 14            
8:30                               Breakfast in hall, provided by OCPA

9:00 - noon                    Closed sessions

10:30 - 11:30                 Andy Petesch

noon - 1:30                     Lunch

1:30 - 5:00                     Closed sessions

6:00                                Public evening sessions:

Dan Morales  
"A Gift to the Street: How to Speak about the Importance of Architectural Beauty"  

Tom Low  
"City Transformations"

Saturday, Oct 15        
8:30                                Breakfast in hall, provided by OCPA 
9:00 - noon                     Closed sessions
noon - 1:30                     Lunch
1:30 - 5:00                      Closed sessions
6:00                                Public evening sessions:
Nir Buras
"The Pleasure of Beauty and the Pain of its Absence"  

Anthony James (panel)
"Additions to Historic Buildings and New Design in Historic Districts"

Sunday, Oct 16          
12:00                              Tour of Duke Chapel

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Pattern Design in Architecture

Spaceship Earth
As a traditional craftsman, particularly in my experience as an ornamental plasterer, I often find my work lies at the intersection of two distinct approaches to design: pattern and architectural. I've observed that in contemporary architecture there is a great deal of confusion as to how the two different thought processes can be brought to bear on an unified architectural scheme. Today they are very often simply conflated, an effect quite detrimental to architecture as I will seek to illustrate.

Pattern Design

With three centuries of advances in industrial printing and weaving processes and the late 20th century move from analog to digital graphic technology, pattern design has asserted a dominance unmatched at any previous time in human history. Nevertheless, the fundamental basis for pattern design has remained unchanged: the articulation of space. By space I mean to imply that which is free, unbounded, infinite, spiritual, heavenly...Space.

The Singularity

The point: in concept, location without dimension. By extension from the source, the origin we have emanation, expansion. The germinating seed, an all encompassing unity. In ornamental design, this has been traditionally represented in imitation of nature: the flower, the star, the all seeing eye.

Private Residence
In much of modern architecture we can see this tendency to apply pattern design to the entirety of the building itself, the building as a giant ornament or manifestation of pattern. The geodesic dome pictured above provides an example of a deliberate intention to create a sense of something from space. Both the shape and choice of highly refined metallic cladding convey a perfect yet alien quality. In more pedestrian contexts spheres are expensive to construct, difficult to live or work in so more often we see built the hyper-rectilinear equivalent, the cube or orthotope. A spatially isolated, unbounded, self-contained unity situated in a 3D Cartesian matrix. 
The Ray

The line introduces concepts of dimension, direction, polarity, duality, separation. Left/right, above/below, inside and out. With the line comes the potentiality of repetition, whereas carried to an extreme results in monotony. Much commercial architecture today takes on this graphically linear aspect not unlike ruled paper, horizontal lines suspended in space, unbounded and framing nothing, the eye seeking in vain for resolution.

The Plane

With surface comes the ability to manifest texture, interlace and interlock becomes most evident and  a second dimension allows the formation of webs and nets. The plane is the bread and butter of graphic design: wallcoverings, rugs, textiles, tiles, wrapping papers to name a few. For decades we were subjected to the most boring, unrelenting glass boxes of government and commerce. We didn't know how good we had it. Today's buildings are typically "jazzed up", pushing windows in and out, switching up sizes and orientations, or spacing them randomly. The façade is viewed as nothing more than a canvas for various decontextualized textures constrained within a rectilinear grid wallpapered onto the same old boxes.

The Tessellation

For pattern design, the third dimension represents the pinnacle of spatial mastery. A clear comprehension of mass and void, light and shadow as well as the ability to fill three dimensions volumetrically with regular pattern is undeniably special. It's understandable to imagine applications in the field of architecture. Modern architecture has taken this in two basic directions. There is the undefined mass that actually rejects overall pattern, lacks any definable boundaries and features only a minuscule, localized surface pattern that will morph to any contour. Also common is the mash up of all the previously mentioned misapplications of pattern design to architecture. Extruded orthotopes are piled up seemingly at random, a mercilessly incessant tangle of lines and grids.

For all of the faux pas' of the recent past, I would contend that pattern design is both compatible with architectural design and has much to contribute. To do so we should consider how architectural design differs and how pattern design has and can continue to perform a very successful supporting role.

Architectural Design

The tectonic or constructive aspect of architectural design has been for millennia and ought to remain primarily about gravity. Secondarily, limits are set while possibilities encouraged by climate (temperature), weather (humidity and precipitation) and terroir (local soil and materials). Granted we're crisscrossing the globe with materials nowadays so perhaps we can temporarily ignore the use of local materials (to our increasing peril). Yet gravity is unrelenting, she imposes and restricts form and structure so that architecture must be grounded in the material and quite literally in the Earth. Attempts to circumvent this are only an affected style, one that is incongruent with reality and thus disturbing. Pattern design ought always be subordinate, not in extreme and defiant aesthetic conflict with the gravitational, earthbound nature of architectural design.

Mondoñedo Cathedral
Points, circles and spheres inevitably become concentrated areas of focus. They draw us to the center. It's only fair that the viewer should be rewarded upon arrival. The rose windows of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals provide stunning examples of placing the finest handwork, most delicate arrangements of carving and color right where we're most apt to look. Notwithstanding, they're not overly insistent. The gaze can easily withdraw and the window will comfortably fit into the overall architectural composition.

The Lincoln Memorial is a Classic example of the mastery of linear pattern applied to architecture. The repetition of vertical lines of the columns gives a clear indication of stability and support. The incised flutes only serve to bolster the feeling. Between stylobate and the capitals the lines of the columns are clearly bounded. Richly ornamented, the horzontal bands of the entablature and attic hold visual interest; however, they are also contained within a series of bounded frames that permit the eyes to rest and once again establish a unified composition.

Drawing on long established vernacular traditions, Arts & Crafts homes such as the Red House designed by Philip Webb for William Morris avoid rationalizing the exterior and naturally arrive at a façade filled with variety and visual interest. The surface is not reliant on any jarring tricks to stimulate the senses. Rather the restrained aesthetic is filled with similar details at a range of scales. Even the materials selected are textured and lively, notably the bricks laid in common bond with English corners.

Saint Petersburg Mosque
I think the absolute mastery of tessellation applied to architecture without contest belongs to Islamic architecture. The muqarnas of palaces and mosques are simply breathtaking. Islamic architecture in general is rich in color and pattern. The underlying philosophy purposefully utilizes point, line, plane and 3D tessellations to express the infinitude of the divine. It is important to note that what makes all of this exuberance coherent and comprehensible is Islamic architecture's expert use of framing and boundaries. Even this apparent superabundance of pattern remains subordinate to the architectural design.

Despite having a great love for pattern design and using it extensively in my own work, I believe architectural design taught essentially as a rationalized discipline of the articulation of space has been very damaging. We don't live in space. Our collective architectural heritage is clear evidence that pattern and architectural design are not necessarily antagonistic. Quite to the contrary, we need architectural design to reassert its position at the forefront of design in our built environment. An architecture rooted in nature and the earth that pattern loving craftsmen like myself can support with our hands and our hearts.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Center for Traditional Craft

Image courtesy of Savannah Tech
The future of trades education has been the main topic of debate and concentrated focus among highly skilled traditional craftsmen the past few years. The interest in traditional crafts and demand for qualified tradesmen has been increasing steadily alongside a parallel resurgence in traditional architecture and urbanism. While there are good paying jobs available in the traditional building trades that contribute in a constructive way to our economy and built environment, the educational infrastructure needed to produce capable tradesmen lags far behind. This gulf between demand and supply of skilled craftsmen translates into opportunity.

Currently, there are only a handful of accredited higher education programs in the US that include even a component of hands on traditional craft education. Many of these are dependent on a single instructor. None of them are integrated into a larger program of Historic Preservation or of Architecture. What we need is a model, a replicable model for craft education. I'm encouraged by what I've personally seen under development recently at Savannah Technical College.

Department of Historic Preservation & Restoration

Savannah Tech offers an Associates of Arts in Historic Preservation & Restoration. It's an extraordinarily practical program, 57 of the 69 required credit hours are dedicated to occupational courses. The program was founded in 2009 and is accredited by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Students learn to work with a variety of traditional building materials including wood, glass, iron, brick, stone, ceramics, plaster and gilding. The department is looking to expand its degree program beginning with masonry in 2017 followed by a plaster program in 2018. Beyond the aforementioned, here's what really excites me about the program:

Former student, current employee of the
Coastal Heritage Society
*Students can and are entering the marketplace debt free!
Grants are available that will pay for 100% of tuition and books for in state residents qualifying for financial aid that do not yet hold a bachelor's degree.

*Savannah Tech is part of the Technical College System of Georgia which has already established learning objectives for their students and clear benchmarks for determining learning outcomes.
*Interning students and graduates being placed in their field due to determined collaboration between the administration, the department head and partners in the private sector.

The immediate success of the program and evident benefits to young people and the local community led to interest from the private sector to support a plan that would both enhance the impact of the state program and expand educational opportunity to professionals and the general public. That plan became The Center for Traditional Craft.

The Center for Traditional Craft

Officially founded in 2014, the primary objective for The Center for Traditional Craft is to underwrite educational opportunities that enrich the curricula and extend educational opportunities to the professional community and general public through private endowment. Additionally, the Center in conjunction with Savannah Tech has been host to recent gatherings of the National Council for Preservation Education in 2014 and the International Trades Education Symposium in 2015. Below are a couple of the programs the Center has instituted and is in the process of developing further:

Visiting Artist Series
The series funds highly skilled craftsmen, experts in fields as diverse as glass blowing, ornamental plastering, timber framing, brick making and dry stack masonry to spend a week or more of intensive instructions with students. 

Historic Homeowners Academy
In addition to the many locals in Savannah interested in caring for their beautiful homes, traditional craft workshops have been well attended by professionals such as architects, preservationists, contractors and tradesmen. A long term program is currently being considered for lectures, drawing and hands on study of Classical Architecture, a certificate granting program for students that would qualify for continued education units for architects and designers.

Historic Homeowners Academy - Plaster Workshop

One of the Center's goals is to have a privately funded independent brick and mortar building (perhaps quite literally) for the Center, a state of the art facility dedicated to traditional craft education. More information on Savannah Tech's Historic Preservation Program and The Center for Traditional Craft can be found here:

The Whitehill Report on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation

Image courtesy of Savannah Tech
Although today largely forgotten, the Whitehill Report was a very important document for historic preservation. The committee was formed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation shortly after the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted into law in 1967. Among its findings was that there was a need to fund both schools of historic preservation as well as restoration, i.e. hands on traditional craft skills. Historic preservation schools were to be associated with established architecture programs. The importance of a living tradition of craft and architecture was repeatedly stressed. Preservationists were essentially to be architects who received training that would qualify them to sensitively work with historic buildings as well as design new traditional buildings.

Although academic preservation programs did and continue to receive government funding as a result of the report, the particular suggestions of the report were not closely implemented. Certainly comparable funding for traditional craft and restoration training never came through. Nevertheless, I see the findings of the report itself well thought out and mostly valid even almost 50 years later. They  outline a necessary level of support that would help programs like Historic Preservation and Restoration at Savannah Tech and the handful of other similar programs to flourish and spread, providing meaningful, well paid work for an entire generation of young people. It's high time for a revised report on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation!

You can find a copy of the original Whitehill report in its entirety below:

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, August 12, 2016

Classicism's Status Quo

The Fire of Rome, Hubert Robert - 1765
I want to begin by saying that the use of 'status quo' is not meant to be pejorative, rather a literal recall to the Latin meaning: 'the state of which' Classicism, the contemporary related ideologies based upon Greco-Roman and Western Classical traditions and specifically Classicism as applied to architecture, currently finds itself.

With that clarification in order, I want to use this essay to address a historical question, a contemporary question as well as open a dialogue around the possible future, even resurgence of the Classical tradition, namely:

What became of Classicism's dominance?
What is the status quo of Classicism?
What are the preconditions for a future Classical Renaissance?

The Coup de Grâce

By 476 A.D. the physical city of Rome had decayed into little more than a desiccated husk of its former glory. The sack at the hands of the barbarians was simply a 'coup de grâce', a merciful stroke to end the miserable sufferings of an imploded civilization. Still, Classical traditions simmered in the Eastern empire, among the conquering barbarians, with the church. For a thousand years this was expressed architecturally through broad styles manifesting Classical influences that we now call Romanesque, Gothic and even Islamic. And so, in the 15th century long stirrings began to fluoresce into the recognizable period of Classical Renaissance. The death stroke didn't take.

For four centuries, from the 15th thru the 19th, Classicism again dominated the culture and architecture of Western civilization. However, by the early 20th century she had given out. There was no dramatic finale, no violent conflagration. She had simply collapsed from exhaustion.

What happened? In a word, Industrialization. I know that some of you will protest that Industrialization is inseparable from the progress of science, capitalism, revolution and the philosophies that gave rise to them. I don't dispute that; however, I maintain the position that these and other developments all coalesce into the physical transformation of our world and human culture that is Industrialization. The great intellects of Classical antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Vitruvius; none of them could have foreseen or prepared us for the havoc that industry would and continues to wreak with human culture. It is completely unprecedented.

The Status Quo

Architectural Classicism, that is to say the contemporary ideologies based on the building traditions of Classical antiquity and the Renaissance, continues to lean heavily for its intellectual underpinnings upon the writings of Vitruvius, Alberti and a handful of other theorists from the Beaux Arts up until the present. Virtually all of them have operated within the tripartite maxim of firmness, commodity and delight. Classicism concerns itself almost exclusively with the formal articulation and refinement of the built environment. That is hardly a criticism, yet at the same time it is no longer sufficient.

For the ancients and Renaissance men, materials and craftsmen were more or less taken for granted. Wood, stone, bricks, plaster and to a lesser degree glass and iron were the materials of architecture and armies of skilled craftsmen supplied them. Similarly, social structures were fixed around a craft or maker economy. The concept of consumable goods applied mostly to food. Architecture was certainly not a consumable even for the very wealthy. There was simply little thought to write about either materials, the craftsmen making them or how their work might contribute to their personal happiness or a better society. It was tradition, it was just how things were and had always been.

However, by the 19th century it became evident that was not how things were to remain. John Ruskin, William Morris and other leading thinkers of the Arts & Crafts movement fiercely campaigned for the constraint of industry to protect the joy that humans experienced in making and the intrinsic social value embedded in traditions. In stark contrast Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and other leaders of emergent Modernism fully embraced industry and a progressive consumer economy whose surpluses would eliminate what they stigmatized as useless toil. During the same period Classicists largely ignored the social questions and the material qualities of their work, continuing to focus on its formal qualities and further refinements. An examination of period literature reveals that as a collective intelligentsia Classicists had completely missed participation let alone leadership through the most significant transition in human civilization and by the 20th century had become intellectually irrelevant. All that remained were the industrial war efforts to destroy by violence the Arts and Crafts movement, severely diminish Classicism, and lift Modernism to ascendancy in academia and practice as industry's sole hand maiden.

The social, tectonic, ecological and increasingly economical failings of a built environment, now dominated for 70 years by Industrial Modernism, has begun to open up narrow opportunities for at least the consideration of revisiting traditional architectural solutions. Lifted on the crest of Post-Modernism, Classicism has made a small but significant resurgence, particularly in the luxury residential market and likewise has made minor inroads to claiming some presence in academia. Yet, after a couple of decades of growth Classicism has seemed to more or less plateau as a stable if minority participant in the contemporary built environment. What gives?

The Dialogue 

I contend that collectively, as a movement contemporary Classicism still has her head in the sand as far as addressing in an organized fashion the ethical, social, economic, ecology and material questions raised by Industrialization with anything resembling the vigor and coherence of the traditional formal arguments. That being said many individual Classicists are very agitated about the lack of dialogue on some or all of these issues and the stagnation of growth. We cannot look to Vitruvius or Palladio for answers to this current dilemma. Industrialization is unique to our time and we have to address the broad issues it raises on our own. We have to create our own Renaissance.

There are a few, really considered at the fringe of Classicism, that are leading this conversation. Among them I would count myself, bringing a perspective picking up and expanding upon the work developed by the Arts and Crafts movement. Also, I would reference Christopher Alexander and Léon Krier with their respective colleagues. Basically, at these early stages of development I see at least two distinct approaches developing.

First, Classicism's complete embrace of industry, simply displacing Modernism as the preeminent formal language of our built environment without any vigorous attempt at addressing the aforementioned issues, at least for the time being. Emergent advances in automated algorithmic design and robotic production including various 3D technologies are pointed to as means to convert Classicism to the favored consumable architectural product of a global industrial market. Personally I do not favor this approach, at all, not even a little bit as it relegates Classicism to a mere affected style of a rationalized constructed environment, an abandonment of the deeply humanistic germinating power of growth at it's core.

Instead I see Classicism as reasserting its traditional nature. Traditions only pertain to humans, the placing of knowledge in the commons to be shared with successive generations. Local materials and building customs were embedded in the 'genus loci', the Classical 'spirit of the place'. With cheap, proprietary industrial alternatives and construction systems, materials can no longer be taken for granted. Classicism today must build a philosophy around material qualities in addition to formal ones. Furthermore, it is time for Classicism to take the lead in reconciling the seemingly opposite terms of 'ecology' and 'economy'. The Classical Greek root 'eco', 'oikos' (οῖκος) conveyed the sense of home but more than that also of an extended family and estate. Therefore, ecology (logia, λογία) concerns itself with the knowledge of the familial estate needed for the economy (nómos, νόμος), the sustainable management of our living environment, natural and built. This familial consideration concerns itself not just with what things are built but how they are built, who is building them and how that process or hopefully tradition contributes to their happiness as a contributing individual as well as the collective good of human society taking its place in the greater order of the natural world.

Whichever perspective you lean towards or perhaps independently bring to the dialogue the most important thing for Classicism now is that we start talking.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, July 25, 2016


Courtesy of The World of Chinese
What is Zen? By its own premises, as we will subsequently consider, words are an inadequate means
of description. Yet, the following brief may start us along the path: an awakening from the dream state of convention, a liberation into direct experience.

Humankind's capacity for convention is one of the marvels of our genetic endowment. The primary manifestation of convention making ability is spoken language. We categorize or group together subjects, objects and actions with verbal utterances serving as symbols. This of course extends to the written word as well as other manifestations of symbol such as mathematical, musical and chemical notation. Our ability to express ourselves thru various forms of convention and be understood by others is more than remarkable, it's undeniably powerful, often intoxicating and potentially perilous. How so?

Western intellectual society since the so-called Enlightenment has sought, with a great deal of success I might add, to restrict the totality of human knowledge within a virtual straight jacket of convention. Laws, standards, codes combine to dictate human behavior more invasively than anytime in human history. We have conflated an artificial system of abstract, generalizing symbols for our infinitely particular reality. For example, it remains obvious that neither the conventional word "water" nor the chemical notation "H2O" will quench your thirst any more than the musical symbol "" will ring in your ears. This level of commitment to abstraction by society at large requires years of investment in undermining the natural human capacity for direct experience. I'll commence with a few comments on the all too familiar: Western society's modern philosophical commitment to a rational education, or perhaps more appropriately expressed as an hyper-rational indoctrination. This will serve as a prelude to contrast with what is the wholly natural and human yet now seemingly remote concept of Zen.

Indoctrination vs Education

Common Core K-Prep
Words are such funny creatures. In any thesaurus you'll find that 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' are synonyms. Yet, we instinctively know better don't we? The "heart" of their long displaced origins still throbs. How about you, would you prefer indoctrination to education?

The English word 'indoctrination' comes from the Latin root 'doctrine', meaning 'teaching'. Similarly the original sense of 'doctor' simply referred to a 'teacher', notably one who had undergone some recognized academic training to thus qualify for said title. We have the legacy of this meaning in the 'doctorate' awarded to someone who is recognized for achieving the highest level of instruction, e.g. a 'Doctor' of Philosophy. The prefix 'in-' maintains the same meaning, to put into or inside. Indoctrination thus means to put 'teaching inside of'. It starts with a premise: that the student is ignorant, knows nothing, is an empty vessel to be filled. From this foundation the typical child in Western society is subjected to a minimum of13 years in the public school system and up to 20+ years of unrelenting indoctrination if they go on to pursue university studies. Indoctrination is the shaping, molding, construction of the individual.

Courtesy of Kelly Anne Photography

'Education' likewise finds its etymological roots in Latin. It originates from 'ducare' meaning 'to lead' not in the sense of 'lording over', rather 'to draw' or 'to pull'. The prefix 'ex-' meaning 'out' combines to give 'educate' the sense of 'drawing out'. The flavor of the words 'indoctrinate' and 'educate' could not be more different. 'Educate' begins from the premise that the student is wise, knows everything. The role of the teacher is akin to that of a spirit guide who simply 'draws out', brings to the students awareness the knowledge that already exists inside of them. This tradition of 'education' marked the pre-Enlightenment liberal arts of the West that focused on critical thinking, liberating the student to later pursue their own interests, a process that was typically achieved in 4 or 5 years. Education is the cultivation of conditions that encourage personal growth. An Eastern Zen master therefore is somewhat akin to our own traditional Western educator from this point of view.


Courtesy of Steve Shriver
The word 'Zen' arrives to the West from Japan that was in turn received from Buddhist China with ultimate origins in India where the Sanskrit word Dhyāna ( ध्यान ) carries the meaning of 'absorption', most often translated as 'meditation' in English. Particularly with its development in China, a certain Taoist flavor was adopted so that certain schools came to develop Za-Zen, a 'seated' form of meditation that implies stillness, quiet contemplation. However, it has been acknowledged that a number of human activities might qualify so long as one approaches practice in a state of complete fixation and absorption. Particularly, in the former sense of requiring complete attentiveness, Zen practice lends itself to traditional crafts such as carving, playing music, weaving and cooking to name a few. Zen practice might also extend to what are thought of as leisure activities. Personally, I find surfing a calming medium to cultivate this attentive state. To be able to ride an ocean wave, one must literally attune completely with its frequency and amplitude. As waves of one kind of another (visible light, sound, infrared, etc.) are our window into all sensory experience, the opportunity to interface with a wave in a 1:1 ratio with your body, harmonizes one to the very fabric of reality itself. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Visceral Experience

Brick making as Zen experience
I've had the experience of being called a lecturer or professor, ostensibly teaching traditional plastering, technical draughtsmanship and other subjects. One of the first things I confess, to the shock and dismay of potential students, is that I don't expect to teach them anything; furthermore, I conceive it an impossibility. After all I don't know how I plaster. It is largely not something to be explained anymore than how I might explain how I digest a peach. I simply do plaster. Plastering like traditional handcrafts generally are experiential arts, one learns by doing. Yes, I might demonstrate while others observe, perhaps offering a comment here or there. However, these exhortations are only helpful as occasional guidance to students who are actively teaching themselves. In Zen this visceral experience is captured in the Sanskrit term Upaya ( उपाय ), which has been interpreted as direct pointing. In this way traditional handcrafts lie at the frontier of self-awareness which permits us to tap into our profound unconscious intelligence that circulates our blood, grows our brain or manages any number of other bodily functions, adjoining it with that sliver of conscious mind that may follow a particular interest.


It is purported that the practice of Zen ultimately leads to Satori ( 悟り), the Buddha nature, enlightenment, an awakening. What then might Zencraft awaken us to? Liberation from the dream of separation, division and isolation, an awareness of the deep interconnection of all things.

In the dream state one believes he or she is individual, separate and distinct, not just from others, but from everything. Yet, everyday crafts deny this as fantasy. For example, perhaps we imagine the craft of carving is our exercising our intellectual prowess upon unorganized raw material, a type of chaos typical of nature, be it stone, wood or clay. Yet is it not the nature of the material that determines how we carve? Would we even conceive of carving if these materials did not exist? Does the human create the carving out of stone or is it the stone that generates the human that carves? Wake up! The tendency to identify with this abstraction, this ego if you will, is a grasping for abstraction because abstractions are simplifications. Are you and the universe two? Hold your breath!

Human perfection is not the perfection of the equilateral triangle, neither is it to be found in the Ionic order or any other form of contrived convention. Rather it is the perfection and order of the cloud with its dynamism, spontaneity and undifferentiated borders. Zencraft is therefore not a mere symbol, a representation of nature as some 'other', rather it is the full expression of her. Seen in this way Satori, the Zen awakening is nothing exotic, just the realization of being completely human and living it.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Setting up a Plaster Shop

There are many plasterers out there who do a variety of what is called 'flatwork' or 'solid plasterworking' such as stucco, traditional lime or gypsum plaster, veneer work or various decorative plasters. Many are intrigued by plaster mouldings but might be intimidated by the work itself, visually looking so different or by the thought of setting up a plaster shop, not knowing what it entails or how much it might cost. My experience has been that plasterers take to fibrous moulding work, both shop production and field installation, very quickly. Regarding setting up a plaster shop and getting tooled up for the field, plaster is really one of the most inexpensive trades to get started in. For about $10K and a little sweat equity any plasterer can be up and running. Compared to other trades, such as smithing or millwork, that's a bargain, a fraction of the cost easily covered by one or two projects. The really good news is that plaster has been steadily making a comeback in contemporary architectural specification. The market demand is there, the work is profitable and enjoyable. At this point we just need more individual plaster shops servicing local communities. For this post I'll pull back the veil of secrecy and show at least how I've set up a plaster shop for myself and others.


This is where the sweat equity comes in. Build your own tables from off the shelf lumber from the local stockist. Your main table will be for straight runs. I like a thin long table 2' x 10' if you have the space. It should be between 37" and 39" high depending on your height. High production shops might invest in a granite top. I've found that with a bit of maintenance a high quality, smooth surface 3/4" plywood doubled up and sealed with several coats of shellac performs admirably. This running table is your bread and butter, the important thing is that it is dead flat. Don't shy away from using 2" x 4"'s to create a solid frame underneath. I always like to incorporate a shelf into all my tables down below for quick access to supplies used for repeated work on that table. For my running rail I use extruded storefront aluminum, 1" x 4", it's dead straight and won't wear out or warp, exactly what you'll depend on to keep your run mouldings straight.

The next important table is your circular for radial work. I've found an 18" radius top works well for most things. Build it to the same exact height as your running table (actually build all your tables to the same height). This will allow you to attach an arm to it when you have large radial runs. The circular table acts as the pivot point, the running table the surface. You don't want the table moving when your running a large radius so build it sturdy with a heavy duty shelf below that can hold some sand if you need the extra weight to keep it steady. I like to use a 5/8" or 3/4" threaded rod right down the middle secured to the table with nuts and washers in three places. Again, you don't want either your table to shift or your pivot point to deflect when your in the middle of running your radial piece. Depending on the size of the piece, I'll use either a 2"x 4" or 3/4" plywood for my radial arm securing it between combinations of nuts and washers above and below.

The last table you'll need is really just a workbench that I use for quick sketches and to mount equipment such as a scroll saw and vise. It doesn't need to be nearly as sturdy. I'll suggest a couple of additional items to construct. First a fence as you'll need a flat vertical surface to run against for certain pieces such as cornices. Again, you want this surface dead flat and straight. I attach 3/4" ply to two pieces of 2" x 4" extruded storefront aluminum the length of my running table. Height can change based on your needs, I find 18" will service most needs. Finally, a large mitre box for trimming your mouldings with one 90° slot and two 45° slots going in both directions. 

Shop Tools, Equipment and Supplies

Yes, you'll need eye, ear, hand safety equipment and basic tools like tape measures, screwdrivers, wrenches etc. However, rather than exhaustively go through every possible tool or supply you'll need, I'll focus on ones more particular to plaster shop work. 

There is a bit of carpentry work involved in plaster mouldings. I have the following cordless power tools from Makita: circular saw, drill and impact driver set, multi-tool and jigsaw. The impact driver is very important for working with plaster, especially for affixing in the field. Same goes for the variable speed multi-tool, it makes delicate cuts in plaster, slicing through like butter without risk of fracture. Add to these enough batteries to go around and a variety of clamps in various sizes.

For constructing my running moulds I use smooth quality 3/4" plywood. For the actual knife a traditional method is to use zinc, layout the pattern with a scribe and punch, bending till breaking with pliers and cutting with aviation ships respectively. I quickly switched to thin sheet aluminum. I find it still cuts and files easily but is more damage resistant and won't bend under pressure when running. I get the .032 thickness online from Metals Depot. To cut I use the inexpensive Ryobi scroll saw available at Home Depot. I tried a couple of other more expensive scroll saws and went back. It uses 5" pin blades and can rotate up to 45° for kerfing the plywood stock backing up your profile. A good supply of coarse blades for kerfing the plywood come with the saw and are available from Home Depot and other stockists. For the finer blades for delicate cutting of the aluminum I buy online from Olson. Their 25 TPI regular is recommended and I'll admit it will turn on a dime. The 18.5 TPI skip blade is a bit sturdier and is my workhorse unless the profile has a lot of detail. A word of advice of cutting sheet aluminum, to reduce vibration back the aluminum up with some 1/4" MDF. Finally, you want a set of files and a vise to hold the aluminum for cleaning up your knife.

For tables, plaster cores and other utilitarian uses I use shellac as a sealer and an oil soap for a release agent. For plaster models I use Superseal and Universal Mould Release available from Reynolds. I'll use urethane rubbers, particularly if I have a mould that needs to be very rigid, having a shore hardness of 50 or higher also available from Reynolds, distributors of SmoothOn. However, I prefer the slightly more expensive silicone rubbers working in Charleston, South Carolina as urethanes have some issues in humid environments. They can go up to a shore hardness of about 40, which is firm enough for most application before they start to lose tear strength. I get mine from Silicones Inc. Added expense but nice options to have eventually for removing bubbles from rubber are an adjustable speed, 120 volt vibrating unit available from Vibco that can be mounted to the underside of your running table (this is also great for plaster castings) and a vacuum setup for silicone rubbers (SmoothOn has good specifications). You'll also want to have clean translucent measuring buckets and paddles set aside exclusively for mixing rubbers. Some additional miscellaneous materials for the shop:

1/2" mixing drill
drywall screws ; assorted sizes 1" to 3"
1/2" foam for crating

Last but not least I should mention plaster. I prefer USG® No. 1 Moulding Plaster for running and will combine it with or exclusively use USG® Hydrocal for casting. Georgia Pacific and National Gypsum are the other moulding plaster producers.

Field Tools, Equipment and Supplies

Some of the tools of course carry over from the shop, particularly the drill and impact driver and your mitre box. For layout you'll want a good quality 6' mason's level, a chaulk line and eventually a quality self-leveling rotary laser. Let the contractor provide you with a centreline for the room and a vertical benchmark and plan on installing your mouldings straight and level unless otherwise directed in writing. Ceilings may have dips and walls bows that will force your mouldings to depart from the specified face of finish. It is the architect's and ultimately the contractor's responsibility to give you direction in writing as to how they want the mouldings installed. Just because you're a plasterer, flanking is not your automatic responsibility anymore than it would be for a millwork installer. 

Usually precast mouldings are first dry fit. A minimum nominal 1/8" off the wall and 1/4" separation between mouldings if sufficient for a good bond. Cut plywood scrap can be used for temporary support underneath and a variety of shims to get the piece situated just right. I use both the typical wedge shaped cedar and pine shims as well as the flat drywall paper shims. Keep a number of countersinks on hand, using the drill to pre-drill for attaching the moulding with drywall screws of appropriate length using the impact driver. For permanent affixing of the mouldings with plaster you'll want to have a trough or large tub onsite so you can thoroughly hydrate the mouldings. I use a blend of moulding plaster and USG® Durabond 90 to affix the mouldings. Durabond (please note USG® Easy Sand is not an appropriate substitute) is already formulated to adhere to drywall without bonding agent and contains retarder giving you time to work. 

For pointing, filling the joints, edges and any dings in plaster, you'll want to have a spray bottle for repeatedly hydrating the surface and a set of ornamental tools, available from The Compleat Sculptor. I usually will use my moulding plaster and Durabond mix for the initial pointing and finish up with just moulding plaster. The addition of plaster retarder will give your pure moulding plaster mix more time. The Compleat Sculptor also carries USG® Plaster Retarder

Finally, I'll mention a word about painting. The plaster installer is primarily responsible for providing good geometry and a finish ready for flat paint. Plaster is no different than millwork in this regard. For higher sheens the painter has the same responsibility and essentially the same process for surface preparation. 

Contributed by Patrick Webb