Thursday, March 23, 2017

Meaning and the Space-Time Continuum

Immanuel Kant
Does your life have any meaning?
At bottom this is the question being addressed in this essay. In doing so we'll take a circuitous route through 2,500 years of philosophy, touching on religious belief.

Of Gods and Men

For as long as we're aware of, the mind of man has lay divided. On the right hand there is an awareness of the infinite, timeless and a word, the sacred. On the left the transitory, particular and mortal relentlessly imposes itself on our being. Of all life on earth, only man appears plagued by this dichotomy, around which all ancient cultures have constructed myths, dramatic narratives acknowledging the existential divide and holding out hope of a future reconciliation.

In the 4th century B.C. Plato subjected this awareness to rational scrutiny. He labeled the comparatively fragile, weak, chaotic world presented by the senses as "phenomena", literally that which reveals itself. This Plato contrasted with the ostensibly orderly, superior world of "noumena", eternally unchanging forms and ideas. The 18th century empiricist David Hume slightly expanded on this philosophy laying out dual, external and internal, sources of knowledge. The external, that gained from experience via the senses, he called "matters of fact". By contrast, logic, math, definitions and similar mental constructions he posited as "relations of ideas".

Immanuel Kant was a philosophical contemporary who was very perturbed with Hume's satisfaction that his theories claimed to account for all possible knowledge. Kant acquiesced that knowledge acquired through the senses or experience could only be "synthesised" that is to say put together "a posteriori" or after the fact. He likewise concurred that certain mental concepts Hume had referred to were "analytic", self contained knowledge that was "a priori", prior or better stated independent of human experience. However, Kant was dissatisfied that this was a proper account of the totality of human knowledge. He posited that our knowledge of time, space and causality in particular must be "transcendent", it must lay outside of experience "a priori" because it is a necessary condition for any experiences or even concepts to be possible to begin with.

"How are synthetic judgements a priori possible?" This was the challenge Friedrich Nietzsche put to Kant's claims. His conclusion was they're not, yet confessed that belief in them are somehow necessary for us. I tend to agree but I see a possible reconciliation of all their philosophies that may not have been evident at the time they were struggling with articulating them.

The Ancient One

It appears self evident that knowledge can only be gained via experience. Yet you seem to know so much that you have not personally experienced. This I would contend is based upon a misunderstanding, the self delusion that you are young. The fact of the matter is that you are inconceivably ancient. I don't mean to put this in any mystical terms, rather quite literal ones. The presupposition that your experience begins at birth or perhaps at conception is profoundly limiting and deeply flawed. You can trace your existence in an unbroken succession to the beginning of life itself. You are a very successful creature; there is no point in that chain where you did not physically exist. All the while, experience has been occurring and vital knowledge accruing. By our best estimates you and I are over 3 billion years old.

Many of the aforementioned presuppositions begin to make sense. Plato held the knowledge of the eternal ideas was innate and so equated learning with remembering. Perhaps not eternal but yes, very old. Hume's claim that knowledge was only possible through experience is justified if your experience extends back billions of years. Likewise the Kantian notion that we have put together so much knowledge prior to personal experience is defensible if the "person" is limited to the conscious manifestation of self, the exploratory further knowledge seeking ego that develops sometime after conception. Likewise, correlations begin to reveal themselves amongst mystic and religious beliefs. The Western soul as something eternal, wise, spiritual yet intimately connected to the body. The Eastern concepts associated with reincarnation, the cycle of endless rebirths parallels the transmission of knowledge in reproduction: birth, acquisition of knowledge, encoding of knowledge, rebirth. Our inherent mastery of causality, space, time, gravity and even the ability to grow ourselves and reproduce is taken for granted, we're so good at it we hardly think about it. We're too busy exploring what else there is to know and occasionally pondering what does it all mean.

The Meaning of Your Life

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” - Huineng

As humans we're so good at abstraction. Symbols, maps, language. What these things have in common is that they are referential, they point to or indicate something else. Life is not like that, flowers aren't like that, you are not like that. You're it, you don't mean something else. So the question arises then: is your life or perhaps life in general meaningless?

The claim that nothing matters, you're actions are insignificant, you're soon to perish and everything you've done or learnt will be quickly forgotten is a position that gained intellectual credibility in the 20th century. The nihilistic allure is unmistakable. You're freed from any responsibility whatsoever.

Nevertheless, after 3 billion years plus of experience I contend that position is dead wrong. I'll posit the claim that everything matters. The meaning of your life for instance, inheres to itself. The more you look, the more you see and it's a rich, complex tapestry. Furthermore, it's dynamic, on the move. Every action you take places another layer on that tapestry, it encodes more knowledge. Thoughts and actions directed outward, touch or literally pattern other lives in incomprehensible ways. How far and for how long they radiate is a mystery.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What is Plaster Anyway?

Plasterer, by John Cranch, 1807
Originally posted February 2016 on Traditional Building Magazine Online

Plaster is as old as civilization. I'll go out on a limb and proclaim that without plaster civilization was impossible! Mankind’s ability to leave the metaphorical cave, raise a shelter of stones or reeds and coat that shelter with an earthen plaster enabled him to create the cave wherever he desired. Building permanent dwellings close to fresh water, upon a fortifiable position or adjoining arable land allowed extended families to gather and the first cities to be born.

The English word plaster has a rather direct lineage from the Classical Greek ‘emplassein’ (εμπλασσειν) ‎meaning to ‘mould or form’ as well as the related term ‘emplastron’ (εμπλαστρον) conveying the sense of ‘daubing, to salve.’ So it is that our contemporary speech has effectively retained these ancient meanings more or less unaltered, the word plaster still being used to describe a range of materials for casting and for coating. Physically plaster begins as a wet, mineral slurry characterized by either a chemical set or a mechanical one, meaning that it simply dries out. Having now a general idea, let's take a closer look at what makes up a plaster.

Plaster Ingredients  

The most important component of a plaster is its binder. As the name implies, it’s the component that binds or holds the plaster together. Think of it as a kind of mineral glue. Lime and gypsum are very common heritage binders and plasters that exclusively use one or the other are commonly referred to as lime plasters or gypsum plasters respectively.  Aggregates are typically the ingredient that physically constitute the bulk of a plaster. Materials such as silica sand act mostly as filler, something relatively inexpensive for the binder to cement together. Aside from sand many other aggregates have been used that impart very distinct properties to a given plaster. We’ll address several of these in a subsequent essay.  Plaster has to be wet to be ductile, spreadable enough to use. The proper level of moisture also makes a plaster sticky so that it can form a good bond or adhesion. Potable water is almost exclusively the material of choice to provide a fluidizing agent, being both inexpensive, readily available and safe. Sometimes the water will have additions that either ‘accelerate,’ speed up the set of the plaster or ‘retard’ it, slowing it down. On occasion loose fibers such as hair, cow dung or even woven fabrics such as burlap might be added to a plaster to increase its tensile strength if applied in a system that subjects it to unusual shear forces.

Types of Plaster  

There is a surprisingly varied range of vocabulary used to describe and subdivide types of plaster. Many of these are regionally specific and vigorously defended. You might hear terms such as render, coating, grout, mud, dash, harling, parging, daub, to name a few. I’ll describe the three most common divisions for describing plaster that have come into widespread use in the United States and Canada.

Plaster – plaster used as a coating in interiors, for moldings or for ornamental casting

Stucco – plaster used as a coating in exteriors

Mortar – plaster used to bond masonry units or rubble

I have definitely heard exceptions to these generalizations here in North America. Some masons would vehemently deny that mortars are plasters whereas others are more accommodating. Furthermore, I would say that all of the aforementioned descriptions are practically meaningless throughout the United Kingdom and Europe where local tradition and terminology predominates. Perhaps that is only to be expected in places where folks have had their own way of doing things for centuries. For thousands of years until as recent as the 19th century only a small handful of binders, that is to say unique minerals, were used to make plasters, stuccoes and mortars: clay, gypsum and an entire family of limes. In my next essay in the series, I'll introduce these amazing minerals including an overview of the physical properties that make them so special and useful for plaster.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Failed Project of Civilization

Originally posted October 2016 on The TradArch Blog

Ruins of Tlos, ancient Lycia
This essay is really addressing ethical questions pertaining to the built environment, that's to say how society might organize itself architecturally: How ought we to live? What models help us best to flourish as human beings?

I observe that for many that question has been put to rest. The city is the best model for human flourishing and all energies should be directed to refining it. I don't take the aforementioned position as a given and contend that there may very well be value in revisiting the few basic structures of societal self organization, some ancient, others more recent. Brace yourself for the anecdotes, here they come!

The Ascetic - either the hermit or perhaps the solitary frontiersman who lives in near isolation, living off the land so to speak. The monastery creates a brotherhood of ascetics who though sharing certain tasks in common, reserve much time for isolation and quiet contemplation.

A pilgrimage to the Sea of Galilee during my Aliyah

Alright, where to begin? Well, not at the beginning but in my twenties. For 7 years I took a vow of poverty and lived as an ascetic, my daily concerns being studies of linguistics, ethics and aesthetics. Particularly the latter being my personal interest, I could be rightly called an aesthetic ascetic as it were. As a young man I was relieved of the pressures of raising a family, acquiring debt, managing property, climbing a corporate ladder, building a business or otherwise establishing my turf in a commercial enterprise. Yes, there were rules and obligations; however, my experience of the monastic was that this conformist aspect of the life was light, just enough for cohesion of the brethren. I've never since had as much time to simply think and personally develop. As I'm always pressed to answer: how did you not have sex for 7 years? Don't know, couldn't do it now. Likewise reintegrating into the so-called "real" world of civilization was a bitch.

The Tribe - Nomadic by nature not 'cause they hate cha. Hunter gatherers and foragers are the oldest form of society and continue to persist, though to an ever shrinking degree, to the present day.

Civilization hates the tribe, plain and simple. As is well recorded, Europeans flooded the planet from the 15th thru 18th centuries, conducting an unrelenting pogrom of improvement. They encountered pre-existing cultures along the way: Islam, Incas, Chinese, Indian, etc. They didn't care for them much with their pagan and primitive ways but at least they could respect them at some level as proto-civilized, they had cities and rules of law after all. However, when they reached Africa, North America and Australia were they in for a shock: bloody tribes! These people lived and died leaving virtually no mark on the land. The human being living as an animal, how unbecoming. For the enlightened adherents of Cogito Ergo Sum, this just did not compute.

I was born in Manhattan, the heart of arguably the world's first megaregion stretching from Boston down to Washington DC. Nevertheless, I spent my summers at my family's property in Jamaica, W.I. Millbank was a little place deep in the tropical rain forest at the end of the road leading up from Kingston into the Blue Mountains. No phone, no electricity, no plumbing, no problem man. It was a village but retaining many characteristics of tribal life. One bathed in the river, cast nets for fish, caught rock shrimps too, foraged for produce and game in the bush as well as for medicinal leaves and roots. The local folk would go off into the jungle for days on end. Little use for money. No law, no codes and consequently no criminals. Your only responsibilities were to one another, simple and free. That way of life is over, like a fading dream. The 4G service there is better than Charleston. Millbank has been transformed into a distant, impoverished outpost of a civilization upon which its denizens now passively depend.

The Village - A sedentary development of the tribe. Familial groups who stay put by establishing agricultural and husbandry practices.

I recently returned from a traditional plasterer's gathering in the village of Llangors, Wales. Flying over the Welsh countryside en route to landing in Cardiff one can't help but notice the lovely plots of land set aside for cultivation and grazing, interspersed with forest as well as small villages connected by country lanes. Not at all unlike a neural network, you get the palpable feeling the fabric of this society is quite literally sentient and very much a thriving living organism.

Llangorse Lake

Hundisburg, Saxony-Anhalt
Similarly, I had the experience last summer of working in Hundisburg, literally "village of the hound", in the middle of nowhere Germany. Hundisburg was situated in a similar pattern of concentrated village development with adjoining agricultural lands and forest that had slowly accreted over millennia. As these villages would grow to a state of maturity, they would divide like a cell and form a new largely self sufficient familial group at a distance away no more than a two hour walk. And so around Hundisburg you have in a radial fan: Ackendorf, Rottmersleben, Nordgermersleben, Bebertal and Süplingen each with its own distinctive, if related character, culture and history. Modernity has pressed upon them all, imposing for good or ill the legal and transportation infrastructure of contemporary life. Nevertheless, I admired the persistence of the locals to live off the land, eat from their gardens and with the seasons, continue to make their own building materials then build according to their traditions, refuse credit cards and avoid even cash when possible in lieu of barter. For the kids, the next generation being English speakers as beneficiaries of a standardized education courtesy of the E.U., these are just nostalgic fetishes of their cute but backwards parents. They're all European now.

The City - Something altogether different from the village. The city is characterized by strict hierarchies, rules of law, property rights and division of labors. Most towns share these characteristics and can be classified as small cities.

The city is a rather recent phenomenon among human society, perhaps dating back at the most some eight to nine thousand years. For sure villages go back much further. However, as I've been enlightened by a colleague who is writing a book on city planning, a city is most definitely not an overgrown village. Ancient cities weren't grown at all, rather they were manufactured whole cloth with religious, legal and economic infrastructure accompanied by a rationalized plan that is to say an urban layout.

Who made these first cities? The best I can tell, tyrants. The city is possible because of institutionalized systems of coercion, by force of violence enforcing a culture of subjugation, dependence and passivity maintained in successive generations by indoctrination of rule of law and respect for authority. In a word slavery.

Rebellious Slave, Michelangelo
Admittedly there have been these intractable problems from the inception of the city but the case is continually made that the city is a worthwhile project after all. Look how much culture it has brought humanity. You don't get opera in a tribe or Michelangelo in a village. The highest of highs, such pinnacles of human achievement. Inspiring values worth almost any sacrifice...but from whom?

Democratic Athens struggled with this question. By Athenian democracy I mean property owning males, about 10%. Women, foreigners and slaves, you know the folks who actually did all of the work didn't count because after all work is demeaning, subhuman. A group of the citizens felt democracy was all wrong, the enfranchisement of 10% was already too broad. The unlearned it gave voice to interfered with the realization of the ideal polis where the good, the just and the beautiful were recognized as three expressions of a single guiding universal ideal. The beautiful city is a just city. A just city is a good city. A good city is a beautiful city.

If you are committed to the city project as your model of human flourishing I guess it's perfection is perhaps a reasonable quest; you're committed after all and that's the nature of commitment. However, from someone like myself who makes no such commitment, it reeks of Romanticism. No not the 19th century aesthetic movement but hearkening all the way back to Classical Greece & Rome: Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. When has the West or anyone else for that matter ever produced anything even approaching a good, just and beautiful city? Athens? Rome? Paris? London? New York? It's a delusion, a fantasy.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the ideals of the good, just and beautiful as among the guiding lights for human flourishing. I just observe that the city has never been the appropriate societal vehicle for such development, rather an impediment.

The Megaregion - The absorption of cities into huge swaths of development, forming blocs that are in fierce economic competition with one another in a single global market.

Cities were horrible places for most people. Running them required armies that acquired and policed slaves, serfs or similar peasant rabble; the only "volunteers" being the most vulnerable and desperate outside populations who, otherwise facing starvation, were compelled to prostitute themselves as "metics" or indentured servants. Unsurprisingly, the city was the minority form of societal organization. Up until as late as 1800 less than 3% of the world's population lived in cities, although it must be admitted that the outstretched influence of the city was already vigorously on the rise. Today, over half the world's population lives in cities, a startling 75% in the West. Who doesn't physically live in the city, lives according to the prescriptions of the larger megaregion.

The megaregion is the metastasis of the city, spreading everywhere like cancer. It is militarily intolerant of any independent form of societal self organization. Totalizing, the megaregion reaches out into the most far flung reaches of desert, tundra  and jungle, to the most isolated tribe and village, "civilizing" them, excising conformity and dependence by rule of law.

When I was a child I had a vision for world unity. I thought how wonderful it will be when everyone has electricity, everyone has a car, everyone speaks English...everyone becomes the same because they're just like me! I think I can be forgiven for that; it was the thinking of an undeveloped, immature child. As humanity faces impending ecological crisis, the depletion economies and nihilistic behavior of the megaregions are stamping out remaining solutions embedded in thousands of years of accumulated tradition, culture and language, literally humanity's collective ability to think, in favor of an imposed universality. The fact that megaregions such as Toronto, Dubai and Peking are converging in the ways they look and function is not evidence of progress, it's evidence of tremendous loss resulting from infantile thinking.

So the questions arise: Is this state of affairs inevitable? Is this human evolution, progress toward some yet undetermined end? Who's to say for sure, maybe it is. I have my biases but I'm not insisting that the tribe and village are better than the city. Personally though, I don't like having all my "evolutionary" eggs placed in the megaregional basket without my consent. Just as we make room for national parks, protected species, there may be some wisdom in making a place for other forms of human society, uncivilized as they may be. Civilization can afford this and the price our species may have to pay for not doing so might be too much to bear.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Hero's Path

Why can't we build things the way we used to?

This is a question that has been put to me often. I find it notable that the word "can" is most often used. Of course, we "can" conceivably build a certain way in the sense of possibility. Nevertheless, I believe that by using "can't" instead of "won't" or "don't", a deep frustration is betrayed, a profound sense of loss and more poignantly a feeling of disempowerment and insurmountable obstruction to regaining that which connected us to something greater than ourselves. In summary, we have become a people in existential crisis. Traditional craftsmen are not immune. We find ourselves almost as lost as society at large, holding on by a frayed tether to our corroded traditions which are under relentless attack.

So how did we arrive at this state of disorientation, where we quite literally don't know what to do? Likewise, is there a way back or maybe just out? I believe there is. From the Zen perspective there have been recognised two paths to enlightenment: the common path under the general condition of normalcy or the special path born of crisis.

Easy Does It

The path available to most people throughout history has been igyo-do (易行道) the "Easy Way". This is also known as the way of tariki (他力) or "Grace". This path is available in a culturally stable society where it is possible to simply abandon the self to the "other power" as manifest in ritual and tradition as a means of practise leading to salvation. A practise can be ostensibly religious but need not be. Almost all craftsmen of previous times and cultures followed the Way of Grace: intuition and custom guided their daily ritual of work. Since this is not the state craft finds itself in today, it may be helpful to point out a few key characteristics of this Way of Grace.

The hand-crafted art of ordinary people or mingei for short (民衆的な工芸) is an expression representative of our history wherein many people engaged in providing useful, durable, inexpensive items or homes for many other people. Many for many, at it's heart a very communal, social activity. Whereas modern education focuses almost exclusively on literacy and the arithmetic component of numeracy for reasoning on abstract concepts, former societies instead prioritised raising children with efficacy, practical skills for doing and making.

In traditional handcrafts much emphasis is placed on repetition. For good reason. With repetition there is muge (無礙) or "no obstruction" between oneself and material. Unobstructed hand craft is thus an unfiltered experience of direct seeing, hearing, touching. There develops a mindlessness mushin (無心), one could even say free or participatory mastery between craftsman and his material not unlike a dance. The dance takes a life of its own; it is in fact what we call tradition. Generations come and go yet the tradition endures; it transcends individual experience and the beat goes on.

Yet what happens when the music comes to a screeching halt? Just as individuals can fall from grace so too can entire societies. In a period of cultural drought and broken tradition there may be no easy way.

Show Me a Hero and I'll Write You a Tragedy
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Just as a seed can grow in the tiniest bit of soil with a mere drop of water, so too can handcraft germinate from sheer inner strength of will even with reduced opportunity for experience under the most unfavourable conditions. Or as traditional potter Bernard Leach so eloquently put it, "Even in bad periods art does emerge, even as the lotus blossoms in the mud."

As the aforementioned illustration would suggest this is a very isolated, individual path known in Zen as jiriki-do (自力道), the "Way of Self-Reliance" or alternatively as the Way of "Hardship", nangyo (難行). When there is no master, there is no ritual, there is no tradition, what then? For the lone craftsman here below a representative sliver of what must be self-instructed:
  • sense of beauty
  • technical methods
  • scientific understanding
  • virtuoso creativity
What does it take to accomplish this? Genius, incredible discipline and a lifetime of effort. And what kind of person devotes his life to healing society with his accomplishments? A Hero.

Of course, such full manifestations of genius are exceedingly rare. Perhaps a handful of occurrences in a generation. How much more infrequently are individual genius and personal salvation coupled with generosity and self sacrifice? The hero's rise is therefore not an egotistical endeavour. In point of fact he is likely to be unaware, as it is not the hero that creates the role as such, rather circumstances. For a virtuous society, there is no need for a hero and no reason for the individual to stand out. The calling of the hero therefore arises thus from society itself, born of a state of deep dissatisfaction within.

For our hero craftsman the Way of Hardship may be an understatement. The flame of mingei "many for many", was snuffed out in Western society a century ago and is little more than a flicker elsewhere. The Way of Grace has been aggressively and violently supplanted by the Way of Industry, "Few with capital and mechanical means for Many". Industry is not a participant in life, it is an extractor of life which it feeds upon as a means to an end, the accumulation of an accursed share of abstract profit. Like a mechanical monster, it is not truly alive, cannot be nurtured by experience, but instead must consume people and burn resources to keep its dreadful gears crushing ahead. Where traditional craft provided us with a deep sense of connection, industry substitutes the minimal level of manufactured "experiences" and utilitarian functions frigid with insensibility. Freedom from obstruction is replaced by demands of consumption, the needs of the many by the avarice of the few.

Simply put our craftsman hero is here confronted with his Kraken, his trial to overcome: the material world and human society placed under intellectual control. Sensible quality is reduced to quantitative analysis. Human beings, life and the bounty of the earth is cut to a million pieces and measured against money, a mere concept. Yet upon the slightest examination industry is revealed to be far more feeble whilst less advanced than it claims. Is drywall superior to plaster? Does stick frame outperform timber framing? Is a CMU wall better than stone masonry? Are asphalt shingles more desirable than a thatched roof? Do any to the products of industry provide deep, enduring satisfaction? We have been sold, and cheaply. The meaningful traditions that provided direct experience of life have been ripped from our rightful possession and we've been handed in turn a plate of sawdust and poison. Oh no, it's not a gift either; Industry will take your check when you're ready.

The Hero's Path

Image modified for NDA Compliance
The hero sees clearly. He does not bend his knee before false idols. His clear vision is his gift to the many. However, if there is no longer mingei what is his path? The only refuge available that remains for practise: the artist's path, the Few for the Few, a difficult path unsuitable for his temperament. The artist's path as old as civilisation itself is patronage, commissions from the few to create unique and costly works of exquisite refinement or ostentation. The most social, communal of these are monumental and sacred spaces that are bequeathed to the many and so contribute to the civic life. Almost exclusively today they take the form of private commissions of works having little utility, rather serving as symbols of status rather than for any direct enjoyment. Increasingly, craftsmen are obligated to work under NDA's (non-disclosure agreements), forced to acknowledge that the work of their hands is the intellectual property of the one who bought them.

There is another path of the Few for the Few, the independent artist. His works are characterised by uniqueness, novelty and impossibility of replication. They are unlike the drawing from tradition or developing a method of use to be shared. They are signature works bound and forever associated to the individual severed from society. In place of direct seeing there is the interposition of intellect. Exchanged for the inherent meaning that points to something outside of itself typical of traditional craft, a work of fine art is the personal expression of the artist, loaded with self-contained explicit meaning, begging for interpretation. So as not to be considered a fool, saying the same thing over and over, the artist is pushed to perpetual novelty and creation, bound hand and foot by his willful pursuit of freedom. The path of genius is exhausting but for the hero there is no igyo-do, there is no easy way.

The way of the hero craftsman then is not at all tariki-do, the Way of Grace. Rather his path is nangyo-do, the Way of Hardship, self-reliance and suffering.  In the West we have come to associate pleasure with the good and suffering with the evil, carrying a sense of opposition between the two. The hero does not succumb to such intellectual dualism. This frees him to directly experience and thus learn from suffering, an able teacher. The lifelong burden of the hero craftsman is to prepare the Way of Grace for others. He does this not by example; as we have considered his example is fraught with difficulty. Rather he lays out a return path by direct pointing: by writing, speaking, demonstrating, teaching. A culture in balance does not need to be told, shown or taught what to do. It already knows and in fact knows nothing else. So it is that the appearance and life of sage, prophet, healer, the hero is not the path itself, rather an incarnate manifestation of the society's desire to return to a balanced condition.

Courtesy of Patrick Webb

Friday, January 6, 2017

Book Review: Ornament and Crime

Ornament and Crime
I should start by saying that Ornament and Crime was first presented as the title of a lecture in 1910 by the Viennese interior designer, architect and most notably, critic Adolph Loos. The lecture subsequently was published as a stand alone essay. Nevertheless, easily recognisable as a consistent theme in Loos' writing, Ornament and Crime by extension refers to a collection of his essays spanning a period of over 30 years.

Loos' writings are clearly polemical, positively hyperbolic in their criticisms, particularly of architecture, the decorative and applied arts. As an early member of the "Vienna Secession", a group of artists and architects who broke away from the established and conservative Vienna Künstlerhaus, his affiliation was not to endure long. Adolf seceded from the secession, pursuing an initially very individual course in search of the "Modern" aesthetic. The impact of his writings can not be understated. At a time of utter confusion in the arts in the face of industrial ascendance, entropy of culture and loss of traditions, Loos was articulating a crystal clear message, what at the time must have seemed to some as a potential way out if not a way forward.

Despite the fact that I disagree entirely with many of his conclusions, I find myself obligated to concur with many of his observations. Adolf Loos was not a ninny. If one cares to understand how and why the state of art and architecture are as they are today, being so distinctly different from what came before, why traditional craft lies in such a impoverished condition, then I might suggest reading his essays as a point of departure.

Advocacy for the Handwerker, 
Criticism for the Architect

It comes as a surprise to many that Adolf Loos apprenticed in the family business as a stone mason and carver. Although he began studies both in engineering and architecture he never completed them, opting instead to travel abroad to America where he supported himself, among other things as a brick mason for which he received a certificate. His support for the independence of the handicraftsman, particularly from the academies of art and architecture, is a central theme in his writings, a position that never wavered.

Medieval Griechengasse Straße, Vienna
Adolph notes that a century earlier to his time Vienna and Austria had a style, both organic and traditional. One bought shoes from the cobbler, trousers from the tailor, rooms from the cabinet maker. No one was telling the varied craftsmen what to do, yet everything was well made and matched just fine. Nevertheless, over the course of the 19th century "profound minds immersed themselves in another age and found happiness as an ancient Greek, a medieval symbolist, or a renaissance man." The craftsman was pressed into service, forced to abandon his long cultivated traditions to adopt all at once the pinnacles of artistic achievements of Classical Greece and Rome, Romanesque and Gothic, Moorish and the Baroque, in fact "everything that had been made throughout history in all nations and produce new inventions as well." The traditional craftsman lacked the scholarly proficiency of an aesthetic polyglot, the academic archeologist who exposed him as naive, provincial and stupid.

So everything of value save his back was wrested from the materialistic craftsman now placed under the alien authority of the man of ideas, forms, books and drawing, the architect who"has learned draftsmanship, and since that is all he has learnt, he is good at it. The craftsman is not...The architect has reduced the noble art of building to a graphic art. The one who receives the most commissions is not the one who can build best but the one whose work looks best on paper. There is a world of difference between the two."

Majolica House, Vienna
Interestingly, he took specific aim at Otto Wagner, the most accomplished architect of Vienna, who fit this description to a tee. He accused Wagner of designing every minute detail of his projects, leaving no contribution for the craftsman., even whilst confessing that due to Wagner's virtuoso ability he manages to pull it off. Genius acknowledged, Loos made his stand against architecture that draws attention to itself as a testament of singular, artistic ability. Loos was less impressed by the aesthetic accomplishment of Wagner's work as much as he was disconcerted by the trend he represented: the approach to architecture as a fine art, especially considering Otto Wagner's position as Professor of Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Loos called for an end to the academic abomination, for revolution:

“It is high time our craftworkers tried to throw off this uncalled for tutelage and started to rely on their own good sense.  Anyone who wants to  collaborate is welcome. All credit to anyone who is willing to don an apron and take his place at the humming potter's wheel, or strip to the waist and  help at the furnace. But those dilettantes who want to dictate their designs to the creative artist from the comfort of their studios should stick to their own  field, namely graphic art...if you want craftsmen in touch with the style of the times, poison the architects.”

Hmm...I've yet to try that last suggestion.

The Pogrom against Ornament

The multi-pronged attacks on ornament lack the coherence of some of his other arguments but were the ones to be most revered by the coming Modernist movement. He repeatedly makes a point that is largely verifiable: there was far more ornament applied to everyday items and architecture in the 19th century than at any previous point in Viennese and European culture more generally. 1800's Europe was dripping ears to arse in ornament, much of it shoddily conceived, near all of it culturally foreign.

Some of the appetite for ornament he attributes to the presentation of archeological discoveries as well as artefacts of the aristocracy to the public, particularly under interpretive curation at museums. Out of the tremendous cache collected, what was selected for display was typically the most enriched, bejeweled of items. Loos attributes their survival to being preserved as art objects, ceremonial showcases of ostentation and power. Utilising them as models for practical use therefore would be to miss the original intention completely. Unless of course the intention was to emulate the aristocracy or nobility of former times, an envious pathology that seemed to have infected the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. He thus describes a life lived amongst hallowed relics:

"The lives we lead are at variance with the objects with which we surround ourselves. We forget we need a living room as well as a throne room, and we are quite happy to let ourselves be physically abused by these pieces of furniture in antique styles. We bash our knees, and etch complete ornaments into our backs...our bowls, jugs, and vases has given us in turn renaissance, baroque, and rococo calluses on our hands."

Le Sacre de Napoléon, Jacques-Louis David 1808

Basically, the argument was that the bourgeoisie was not attracted to ornamentation because of their  cultivated taste nor because it gave them any pleasure whatsoever, rather it was that they thought by having it others would think they had taste. Being a purely instrumental, shallow desire there was no qualms about selecting a cheap fake which only served to degrade craft further. By contrast Loos advocates for domestic architecture that the rooms of a house should have the mark of the owner and be comfortable for the family, also cultivating and reflecting their true tastes for good or ill. The one concession he makes to the aforementioned approach is perhaps for the parlour or a similar room for receiving guests where a specific outward presentation might be desired upon which he cautions, "rest assured that everyone will find the designer he deserves."

Courtesy of The Original Morris and Co.
Having fully imbibed the Hegelian nectar of the inexorable progress of civilisation, Loos strikes out into far more questionable territory claiming that "the less advanced a nation, the more extravagant its ornament." He offers no justification for his argument instead providing the highly ornamented Paupans and the highly ornamenting Red Indians as examples of the primitive and culturally poor contrasted with the pragmatic, restrained, eminently civilised English, the culturally rich who are lavishly praised as guardians of the true Germanic spirit. Although quite natural for the primitive Paupan or Indian to tattoo themselves or adorn their canoes he argues that, "a person of our times who gives way to the urge to daub the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or degenerate." He urges the Viennese to thus overcome the "Red Indian" within themselves and emulate the English. Racism aside, I have to question whether or not Adolf was simply completely unaware of what William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement was really up to in England?

This line of argument equating appreciation of ornament with ignorance and dirtiness, unfit for the clean modern man has stuck. It has been very damaging to architecture, culture and inadvertently yet undeniably damaging to traditional  handcraft. Although there is some recovery, the aesthetic cleansing sprung from his polemic has yet a long way from being fully extricated. Not to end on a sour note I have to say there is much more to recommend of Adolf Loos' essays than that last bit of nonsense above such as his genuine concern for the physical and psychological working conditions of craftsmen and advocacy for the respect as well as equal treatment and rights for women. Finally, his additional essay simply entitled "Architektur" is one of the best expositions I've read on how architecture ought to relate to the landscape (natural and urban) and how architecture is not an art. In the spirit of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, I recommend Adolf Loos' collected essays Ornament and Crime as an important reading for the contemporary craftsman.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Race and Racism

Lord Ganesha getting his groove on
Happy New Year!
Time to ring it in by discussing something we can't agree on. In fact, something we can't even seem to agree to disagree on. The white elephant in the room (I know, why does it have to be 'white'?): Race

Of which I will provide the following personal definition:

"The widely held, persistent, self-propagating, socially constructed delusion of significant and meaningful physiological differences in human beings that is the proper object of rational scrutiny and categorization."

Stated in simpler terms: Race = Delusion

What Exactly are we Talking About?

There are many ways that people choose to differentiate themselves that lie outside of physiological classification. Religious or political belief, nationality, language, and culture are but some examples. Gender differences are of course physiological although not considered racial by most. Nevertheless, perceived commonalities and differences of family, blood, heredity, physiology, etc. seem to be the key to the concept of race.

As applied to physiological commonalities among people, 'race' enters the English lexicon rather recently (16th century), being derived from the Italian 'razza', holding related meanings such as 'common stock, lineage, breed, family, etc.' Familial correspondence, commonality: sounds harmless enough, downright warm and friendly even. For example I look like mom and dad, no denying me! (Although they may wish to after this latest post)

Of course many of the concepts that the word 'race' seems to frequently elicit, extend much further back in time and are hardly limited to Italy and England. An extreme interpretation would be the early 20th century German 'Herrenrasse' or 'Master Race' campaign that prompted the coining of 'racism' in our own English vocabulary to aptly describe the Nazi ideology of purported Aryan and Nordic commonality and brotherhood which in reality exercised a far greater and violent emphasis on human physiological differentiation.

Don't Deny Difference!

There are people who have dark skin, there are people with light skin. There are people with straight hair, there are others with curly hair. On and on it goes. Sure, even children pick up on these types of superficial differences pretty soon even without prompting.  So how can I deny these and others as real, physiological differences?

Short answer: I don't

In fact, I would put forward that individual human differences are quite real and extend far beyond the limited concept of race with its broad categorizations. Upon a moment's reflection it becomes quite apparent that we are all different from each other; every one of us is physiologically particular. Furthermore, internally every one of us, our literal bodies are in a state of constant physiological change. We are quite literally not the same person we have been. Therefore, continual change and difference is applicable to every one and every when. This dynamism is really at the heart of what life is all about.

I suppose I could contrast this with the myriad of meaningful commonalities healthy humans all share. Two arms, two legs, dexterity, ability to reason, love of donuts, innate perception of space and time, blah, blah, blah. I don't have time, it's practically endless. You can reflect on it though. It's one of our shared abilities.

Doubling Down on our Delusions

Ah yes, speaking of shared abilities...delusion. A couple of examples from an especially American fixation:

Black Lives Matter
What does it mean to be black?

White Silence is Violence
What does it mean to be white?

I'm yet to hear a rational explanation for either. Not that folks haven't tried. After all, race is a matter of skin color, as simple as black and white, right?

Wrong it would seem. Apparently, it is much 'deeper' than that. Such as the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the way I talk, yada yada ad infinitum.

So if I exhibit those and other behaviours I will be black or white? Or if I don't exhibit those behaviours I can't be black or white? Is grey an option? How about just Patrick Webb, is that an option? What happens if you call me Peter by mistake?

Any deep consideration of 'race' reveals the utter absurdity of the concept. Yet, folks will contend that racism and its corollary racial discrimination are real. Yes, they are. However, not as an ontologically objective reality in the world, that is to say there is no physical thing you can touch or point to. Racism is 'real' as a social pathology, a psychosis out of harmony with physiological realities. The continuance of this collective mental illness requires massive, voluntary participation from almost everyone. Not just individuals either. Churches, social movements, educational institutions and governments by their rhetoric and policies perpetuate racial difference; all affirming a nebulous absurdity that defies definition. One pathetic example from the federal government:

This amounts to a circular problem, a snake eating its own tail. By acknowledging racial differences so you can combat racism, you affirm the fallacy that is the root of the discrimination in the first place. Better to diagnose it as the pathology it is and get treatment. So, why do we do this to ourselves?

I'm not entirely sure but I have some thoughts. For an individual to deny their own particularity, to essentially annihilate part of themselves to conform to an arbitrary group seems odd, yet we do it all the time. It may be at least partly attributable to a coping mechanism for having to operate socially in a world larger than we're comfortable with. It is impossible to truly know or be known by the many, many people we inevitably come into contact with in a city e.g. If humans have existed as familial groups in small tribes or in villages for millennia, how are we to now cope with the thousands of interactions pressed upon us annually in the civilised world? How do we assess the potential threats that arise from unfamiliarity and present an image of ourselves that others can quickly identify? Perhaps by willfully placing ourselves in artificial categories, so-called 'race' prominent among them.

At bottom, I think we might be terribly afraid to truly be ourselves, how lonely that might really be.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Tuscan Order

Villa Giulia, Rome
In many of the 'canons', that is to say the widely accepted treatises of Renaissance architecture, there are given five 'orders' of Classical architecture, the Tuscan order typically presented first among them. The very adoption of the term 'Classical' itself in referencing all things of Greco-Roman antiquity appears to be a 17th century French approbation of the Latin classis that historically referred to things 'called out' or 'set aside', with notable reference to the orders or divisions of taxation established by the pre-Republican Roman monarchy. Today we have the common use of the related word 'class' as a division of students set aside for specific education and again 'classical' in the setting apart of things generally recognised as truly excellent, Greco-Roman or otherwise.

In architectural academia there has persisted controversy over whether or not the Tuscan should really be regarded as a distinct order or if it is nothing more than a stripped down or simpler version of the Doric order. A similar argument is made regarding the Composite or so-called Roman order, that has conversely been claimed as just a more elaborate version of the Corinthian order. Certainly all of the Roman orders share a familial resemblance and of course are referential to the Greek orders from which they were developed. However, I'll take the position here that there are in fact enough differences to justify a separate classification of the Tuscan order beginning with a brief historical overview.

The Etruscans

The Tuscan order is ostensibly referential to the architecture of the Etruscan people who dominated the Italic peninsula until Rome was finally able to overcome them in the 4th century B.C. Temples presented the highest expression of Etruscan architectural refinement. As temple foundations were built in stone we have a very good understanding of how they were organised in plan. The precise composition of the elevations is less clear although some idea can be gleaned from pictorial depictions such as found on ostraca (decorated potshards), sarcophagi as well as frescoes.
Etruscan temple at Orvieto

A few Etruscan tectonic characteristics were definitely distinct from the Greeks and would be adopted by the Romans for all of their architectural orders. Whereas the single cella or inner sanctum of a typical Greek temple was surrounded by a stylobate (series of steps) and peripteral colonnade (the columns being present along the entire perimeter of the building), the Etruscans lifted their temples upon a podium with a stair leading to the entrances of three cellae. Columns were only used at this entrance, placed in a double row underneath a large portico whilst the cellae walls extended to the exterior. Timber members for the entablature allowed for greater intercolumniation (spacing of the columns) than was feasible for the stone architecture of Greece.

Model courtesy of Istituto di Etruscologia e di Antichita Italiche, Universita di Roma

Tuscan capital? Colosseum
However, the Tuscan order as presented in the treatises of the Renaissance and arguably expressed in Roman architecture itself is not precisely antique Etruscan. Additionally, there are certainly commonalities between the Renaissance Tuscan and Roman Doric orders. So how might one make a distinction? Following are three tools, lenses or perspectives that might prove useful when used in conjunction with one another.

A System of Proportion

Elevation of the Five Orders of Architecture
Claude Perrault, 1683
One characteristic of all of the Renaissance treatises was that the orders were presented as highly rationalised systems whose fundamental unit of measurement was derived from the base radius or diametre (the module) of the given order. The elevations of the column, entablature, optional pedestal etc., as well as intercolumniation were all  proportional relationships derived from this base module. Whereas some authors leaned heavily upon the Roman architectural treatise of Vitruvius, others drew their justification on more archeological grounds either from what they considered an archetypal exemplar or a weighted average of various examples. All of these authors seemed to temper such authority from antiquity with their own judgement and reason. What they generally concluded was that the orders progressed proportionally in attenuation from the rather solid (if not squat) Tuscan to the comparatively slender Composite.

Granted, even in theory there was a wide range of interpretation available and more so in practise. The various authors were not always in agreement. In arguably the first major treatise of the Renaissance containing engraved plates, Sebastiano Serlio presents a very squat Tuscan order whose base diameter to column height ratio was 1:6. Vincenzo Scamozzi and Claude Perrault would subsequently present comparatively slender Tuscan orders at a ratio of 1:7½. Likewise a wide variety is seen in proportions of entablatures and pedestals in relation to the module. What remained consistent was that as the orders progressed they would become proportionally more attenuated with the Tuscan order always being the most solid amongst them.

Comparitive Tuscan Orders. Robert Chitham, 1985

An Anthropomorphic Model

Jacques-François Blondel
circa 1771
Another way to imagine an architectural order is anthropomorphically, that is to say attributing human qualities to inanimate objects. The 1st century B.C. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius certainly did this by offering origin myths and relating column to human proportions to indicate their appropriateness for temples dedicated to a particular god or goddess. The Doric order was to express a robust masculinity, reflecting the proportions of a warrior or demi-god such as Hercules. At the other extreme, the Corinthian being considerably slender was to reflect the figure of a young maiden.

Palazzo Davia Bargellini, Bologna

Rather than seeking anatomical precision, these myths and comparisons continue to serve as entertaining and helpful memory aids regarding the character and proportions of the various orders. Architects of the Renaissance, the Baroque, all the way into the Beaux Artes period picked up and expanded upon these anthropomorphic associations. What interpretation remained for the Tuscan? Rough and tumble for sure. That of a Titan, an Atlas who carries the burden of the building quite literally on his back!

Elements and Enrichment

As a general rule the Tuscan exhibits less refinement than the other orders. Although there are superficial differences between the Tuscan and Doric, an often distinguishing feature are the shafts of the columns. Tuscan columns are always either smooth or rusticated whereas the Doric are typically fluted. Likewise the Tuscan tends to have less elemental subdivisions and has proportionally chunkier elements in the pedestal, base, capital, and entablature. Also, a fully expressed Doric will have geometrically ornamented elements throughout the frieze and richly sculpted enrichments in the metopes between tryglyphs. By contrast the Tuscan is almost always plain profile throughout its entablature. Modillions or brackets are seldom utilised in the cornice and if so they are very simply wrought.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
If ornament is applied, typically it will be carved in high relief to be placed in the spandrels of an arcade or the the tympanum of the pediment, in notable contrast to the sparse or even rough character of the façade. It is very common to find the Tuscan order highly rusticated. Often times the Tuscan is solely implied at the ground storey by its relative proportion and heavy rustication (without the use of columns) in buildings where ashlar masonry and more refined orders are used above.

Although the Tuscan often gets berated as being a 'made up' order or just a stripped Doric, it really has its own distinct character and bears more consideration and study, particularly as it continues to be the most commonly specified of the Classical orders in residential architecture today.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Sensual Experience of Lovers

Pygmalion and Galatea - Jean-Léon Gérôme
This essay at its heart is about knowing and being known. As a younger man I would create distance between myself and those who made gestures of intimacy towards me generally, if not outright sexual advances. "You already have access to the most interesting aspect of my being, my mind", was my defence. As it turns out that was very likely not the case.

Seeing and Being Seen

To undress one with the eyes. Well okay, there is that obvious low hanging fruit. However, I would say sight is the most untrustworthy of the senses when it comes to matters of love. We lie as a matter of course in the visual presentations we offer. How we choose to dress, walk, smile, run our hands through our hair are so often charades, little lies and false constructions that we hope will deceive, often effective because we're all playing the same silly games. Nevertheless, the eyes may very well be the window into the soul. Maintain eye contact with someone for even a relatively brief moment and then extend it. You're likely to initiate a deep connection, to see and be seen. It can be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, comforting as much as it is unnerving.

Please Listen to Me

Speech is almost as untrustworthy as one's appearance. Certainly we're sensitive to the cant and tone of those we speak with. However, there are other, perhaps more revealing sounds to be heard: swoons, moans, the soft parting of moistened lips. Closer intimacy affords a heartbeat, the breath and the gurgling of the innards. In these respects your lover can begin to know you in ways more intimate then you can know yourself. My personal favourite is the giggle. Laughter can be affected, it's hard to fake a giggle.

I'm Touched

It's one thing to be seen and heard, quite another to be felt. The first touches are electric. Layers of isolation are peeled away like skins of an onion as one maps out every curve, every texture of their lover. The pressing of the soft breast, the roughness of a day old beard. Comfort, warmth, relief. Unlike the visual presentation or the spoken word, touch is less effective at carrying symbolic meaning. What you feel is most often what there is, an approach to intrinsic knowledge of the other and a revelation of yourself in turn. These tactile sensations are visceral, primal and not easily forgotten.

You Taste as Good as You Smell

Full disclosure. Mutual intoxication with only a tether to conscious thought. Smell and taste generate reflexes as unavoidable as striking your knee with a rubber mallet. They are the most intimate form of sharing, a literal transfer of oneself to another. They betray and confess the deeply irrational nature of love itself. We encounter the truth: there is no reason to love.

Mamma Mia

Madonna and Child - Pompeo Batoni
Lest you think the aforementioned is merely an exploration of sexual fantasy, I'll contend that it widely describes the intimacy of all lovers, including that of mother and child, one that most of us have personally experienced at a very profond level. As the intellectually undeveloped infant we drew comfort from being sensually known. The concentrated attention of mother watching over us, staring into our eyes, singing to us, giggling with us, embracing us, holding us dear to her bosom, showering us with kisses, tasting us, smelling us as we breathed her in. Make no mistake mother and child are the deepest of lovers.

The very best of life, the things most human are not be apprehended or understood rationally. They just have to be experienced to be known and that is especially true of love.   

"A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge." - Thomas Carlyle

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sparta Ascendant over Athens

"So it was that Liberty succame to slumber and the whole world fell to ruin..."

The embers of revolution are long extinguished. We have been exchanging liberty for comfort and security for some time now. No longer an active citizenry engaged in all areas of civic life and the struggle for democracy. Rather, we have become languid, passive and dependent; we have become quite literally the gross domesticated product.


I hear people softly complain about "the government", focusing their complaints on the only remaining civic institution that retains a vestige of democracy. Our other institutions: banking, academic and commercial e.g. are unvarnished autocracies and oligarchies. Unapologetic tyrannies under which our will, our youth and our bodily strength are wholly subjugated while they dictate the development of our mind and how we might live. No, you don't get a vote. You don't imagine you even have a right to expect one. This is now it happens, how enlightenment succumbs to darkness, how men cease to be men, perpetually kept in a state of immaturity. 

Athens vs Sparta

This temperament of violence and subjugation that has grabbed onto us by a choke hold be it physical, psychological or economic is what I would describe as Spartan. A hard people like their hard god of war, Ares, all too willing to make the tough decisions. Fear, terror and discord are the progeny of Ares and the values of a Spartan people.

There is another opposing temperament, the Athenian temperament of plurality, democracy and civic engagement. It would appear the Athenian ideal has fallen in retrograde, the Spartan temperament ascends and a former citizenry is reduced to intimidated helots. What is oft forgotten was that Athena too was a goddess of war, if slow to anger, calm, just and wise.

So I say to the hard Spartans that masquerade as citizens among us that when striking out against the goddess one must be sure to land the death blow; otherwise you've only drawn out her anger and roused her people from their slumber. What I am witnessing is an awakened populace, perhaps a citizenry, just perhaps one whose temperament is Athenian whose virtues are culture, solidarity and democracy and whose goddess is also the capable warrior when called upon. Ares is not our patron. As democratic citizens we live in the pivotal moment to drive out this brutish Spartan temperament of autocracy and fear mongering from our institutions whilst reaffirming our commitment to Liberty, to reestablishing the conditions where individual engagement as citizens and true human flourishing for our fellowman are possible.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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