Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Metaphysical Craftsman

The School of Athens by Rafael
In my second essay of the craftsman's philosophy series we leap headlong into the world of metaphysics, the study of the very nature of existence. A broad and deep branch of philosophy with many correlations to craft that we will revisit time and again. The ambitions of this essay are modest, an opening inquiry into matter, form and change; however, I would assert quite relevant to the craftsman working in applying designs and transforming materials.

Mom and Pop as Agents of Substantial Change

Sexuality is an inescapable fact of life and human existence. Well, who's looking to escape it anyway? Most if not all ancient peoples extrapolated the observations of reproduction and growth inherent in human, animal and plant sexuality to grander explanations of birth, change and death and rebirth of all things. There were underlying forces, masculine and feminine divinities in most cases attributed for everything that we sense as constituting the natural world, living or inanimate.

Greek philosophers, as early as the 5th century B.C.E., began to construct and codify explanations that continued to draw from natural observation but largely eliminated what we might call superstitious elements or appeals to the divine. Notable amongst these philosophers was Aristotle. He asserted that sensible objects consisted of form applied to matter.  Departing from his mentor Plato, he denied that form could have a distinct existence as a purely ideal concept, rather he claimed that form by necessity was embodied in and inseparable from matter, physical reality.

Aristotle established a school in the pre-existing Lyceum of Athens that was quite successful, open on and off for over 200 years before the Roman general Sulla sacked the city.  Fortunately, the Romans preserved most of Aristotle's work and the aforementioned philosophy was to take root in Roman intellectual culture. Interestingly, our English words for father and mother come directly from the Latin words pater and mater respectively. We likewise have inherited the words pattern (form) and matter from the same Latin root words. Substance, so it was purported, results from the masculine pattern imposed upon the feminine matter. This was said to occur at a primary (might I suggest quantum?) level. Most of what is identified as objects would be agglomerations or compounds of  elemental substances.

A snowflake,
hexagonal form imposed upon ice
From this imposition of pattern upon matter there arises the Latin natura, something born, the obvious analogy being of a father and mother begetting children. However, how does one account for change with this viewpoint? It almost appears as if something arises from nothing which sounds absurd. Aristotle proposed that while matter is in fact static and permanent, form has intrinsic dynamism. At the same that time form or pattern has an actuality that defines matter, there exists an inherent potentiality, the possibility of transformation.

Causation as Creation

Although the aforementioned explanation of form teases what is apparent from our senses, that change is possible, it doesn't explicitly reveal how or why it occurs. Aristotle thought that having the answers to these questions was directly tied to real, causal knowledge. In his view we can't truly know an object simply from superficial observation alone. Real knowledge comes from a deeper understanding of what causes the object of interest to be as it is. He was trying to frame all of nature, including human activities into a teleological model, that is to say having an intended end goal. So, Aristotle went on to address such inquiries through his description of the four causes of which I'll adopt and personalise his example of substantial change as illustrated by craft, in the specific case of carving an Ionic capital out of stone.

Material Cause

The material cause, as you might expect, is one of fundamental composition, meant to satisfy the question, "What is it made of?" It is the object of material permanence that foreshadows a formal change. In our craft example, you can see me at right outside of Austin inspecting an exposed bed of Texas limestone.

Formal Cause

Here we must be careful. There is a temptation to allow desires and intentions to cloud the meaning of formal cause. However, we must remember that Aristotle intends a universal system that explains natural change as well, where such intentionality is thought to be absent. Here we answer the question of "What kind of thing is it to be?" This often refers to a change in an objects spatial arrangement or shape as in our example. For the craftsman this occurs in the process of design, originally initiated as an archetypal example in his mind even if influenced by a treatise or example. Physically the formality will be often illustrated in drawings such as the layout of one of the volutes pictured here.

Traditional Stone Carver
Nathan Hunt
Efficient Cause

"By what means does the transformation occur?" At this point we engage with technique, the steps required to apply form to matter, resulting in formal not material change. Technique is a specifically applied knowledge, it is where practise departs from theory. In our particular case it is the applied knowledge of mallet and chisel as exerted upon the "matter" of limestone to impose the "form" of a volute.

Final Cause

There is certainly considered to be by Aristotle a primacy among causes. The final causes answers, "What is the raison d'être? Essentially, what is the purpose?" For the purposes of nature his arguments are interesting. Some of his examples of final causation of nature can be definitively shown to be false and ill conceived, yet others are quite compelling. I'll leave those aside for the moment and consider the craftsman's condition.

Courtesy of Hunt Studios

Certainly, the "end product", in our case the Ionic capital, is an external manifestation of human expression or intention which Aristotle does not preclude. In fact, the desire for final outcomes in art, craft and architecture is acknowledged as generative in the development of formal and efficient causes. With purposes in mind beforehand, humans will create new forms and new techniques to realise them.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Book Review: Architecture Choice or Fate

Architecture Choice or Fate
by Léon Krier

So, I'll confess to being a voracious reader and I've been offering book recommendations for years; however, I thought it time to offer a little more insight into why I find these resources valuable beyond the brief blurb with the addition of proper book reviews on this blog.

Initially, a word on the author Léon Krier. Curiously we've never met although I've been one degree of separation via dozens of colleagues. He is a very accomplished traditional urban planner and architect in his own right. However, I believe his legacy is being defined by his insightful books, lectures, essays. Along with Christopher Alexander, I firmly believe Léon will be remembered as the most accomplished architectural theorist of the 20th century (Sorry Le Corbusier, your ideas might have spread like a Utopian plague across the developed world but I'm only considering agents of positive change). If there is one advantage that I would tilt in Léon's favour is that his ideas are simply explained, accessible even to the architectural novice. Architecture Choice or Fate is laid out in this easy to understand language accompanied with humorous illustrations that effectively convey the spirit of his message.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to laying out how traditional architecture and town planning is entirely compatible and more importantly socially beneficial in the modern world. I would like to focus on two chapters of particular personal interest treating with a critique of Modernism and his appeal for traditional craft.

Critique of a Modernist Ideology

The "Zeitgeist", literally translated from German as the "time ghost", more or less understood as the "spirit of an age" has been from the outset a guiding principle of Modernism. Implicit in this idea is the principle of obsolescence, in the author's description "Architecture that claims to be exclusively of its age...has its sell-by date engraved into it." And what is the interpretation of the spirit of our "Modern" age? Mass production, revolution and continuous warfare? Must our architecture embody industrial uniformity or alternatively reflect fear and uncertainty? Krier's informed opinion humanises the matter: "Authentic architecture is not the incarnation of the spirit of an age but of the spirit, full stop."

The Universal Usefulness of a Modern Craft Industry or the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The mere fact that Léon concludes his book with a chapter of the inherent value and necessity of traditional craft for any architecture that would be considered worthwhile, that recognition gives him high marks from me. Very few architects, even so-called traditional or classical architects, will acknowledge the material value or embrace the moral responsibility of an architecture that uplifts the human spirit not just in its appearance or use but in the vast multitudes physically tasked with its creation. Here he chastises two establishments who have suppressed traditional craft skills. First, the academically led institution of Historic Preservation that treats traditional architecture as an irreplaceable relic and in cultist adherence to the precepts of the Modernist principles laid out in the Venice Charter wastes funds and energy fetishising over ruins falling to dust. Léon offers a humane counter-perspective: "The value of ancient monuments does not reside in their material age but essentially in the quality of the ideas that they embody. An identical reconstruction with the same quality materials, forms and techniques that were used in the original has more value that an original in ruins...Unlike a painting by one irreplacable artist, a building is not usually a totally personal creation."

He further continues to unveil his criticisms against industrial ideology and their influence on public education policy in the Western world: "Neither the state nor industry will in future provide enough jobs to employ the utterly dependent, disoriented and confused masses released for work after fifteen years of obligatory theoretical and impractical general schooling. Ideally the goal of obligatory schooling should be to make people independent and reliant on their individual gifts and vocations rather than transforming them into dependent, passive and depressed masses...The supression of traditional craft skills represents a catastrophic impoverishment of human self-expression, a limitation of human capacity for independence and liberty."

There are of course several other chapters regarding town and city planning as well as traditional architecture that offer comparable insights. The entire work is characterised by a concern for the human spirit. In conclusion I would heartily recommend Architecture Choice or Fate as a masterfully organised, beautifully illustrated, and at under 200 pages an easy and manageable read that should be an obligatory addition for every craftsman's personal library.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Architectural Word of the Day; 201 - 210


A doorway having the jamb inclined inwards from the threshold to the top. A common feature of Mycenaean, Incan and Roman architecture it made its way back prominently into classical architecture as an Egyptian Revival style.


The particularly Moroccan tradition of geometric tile mosaic. Each of the myriad terra cotta pieces are cut by hand, glazed and fired. Layouts are made according to sacred geometric principles, in tri-, quatre- and cinque-fold arrangements.

Typical of zellige geometric layout is an infinite web that could extend infinitely beyond the border. This is a visible symbol of the infinite, uncentralized, nature of the universe, a implication of deep, underlying spiritual order without iconography.


With the introduction of radial arches, vaults and domes came the structural necessity for buttresses, attached supportive masses built along the lines of introduced lateral thrust through which the load is transferred to the ground.


A dome of ogee profile in section that turns back upon itself on the bottom, thus giving a bulbous character to the dome which terminates at a point. Ubiquitously associated with the Russian Orthodox church such domes can also be found in Mughal and Islamic architecture.


The more or less triangular arrangement of support for a gabled roof, traditionally a combination of timber members form the rigid framework.


An Arabic word for "garden", the Riad has come to describe an urban villa prominently featuring an interior, open courtyard with a pool or fountain and often mosaic floors. This Domus Italica tradition was established in North Africa during the days of Imperial Rome.

The inward facing design features thick adobe walls with little to no outside windows. Private rooms open off of colonnaded galleries with communal spaces in the courtyard below and a rooftop terrace above. The design is ideal for hot, dry climates providing privacy, security and comfort.


Primarily applied to windows but also terminology applicable to doors and portals. The MULLION forms the primary vertical divisions and support for the opening whereas the TRANSOM provides the secondary horizontal structural support and is also a term used for the bar separating a door below from a window above.

The MUNTINS are smaller members that secure the individual lights or panes of glass and may have any orientation.

"Rycharde Dale carpeder made thies windovs by the grac of God"
Awesome quote!!


A shared community of taste. A subjective yet universal judgement of what ought to be considered beautiful or sublime. Not an aesthetic that can be legislated or fully determined by reason it occurs naturally in a society where experience and feeling are valued and cultivated.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Craftsman's Philosophy

Projekt CHARME
This past summer I had the singular opportunity of taking a working sabbatical in Germany. For ten weeks I participated in an historic masonry reconstruction on the grounds of Schloss Hundisburg, a largely Baroque era castle situated in the countryside of Saxony-Anhalt.  Learning building traditions alongside local German craftsmen was both instructive and deeply rewarding. I've found there is nothing quite like participation in traditional craft to help inform you about a people and their place, a far more profound experience than that of being a tourist.

There was ample time in peaceful isolation to pour myself into voracious reading in the evenings and soaking up as much surrounding German culture as was possible on the weekends. In Wittenburg I enjoyed a moment of quiet reflection at the entrance door of All Saint's cathedral where reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses almost 500 years ago. On a subsequent trip I listened transfixed at a concert and choir performance of Johannes Sebastian Bach at St. Nicholas Church where he taught, composed and performed as cantor for the city of Leipzig in the 18th century. Repeated visits were made to beautiful Weimar, home of Classical German humanism as was so eloquently expressed by friends, poets, playwrights, philosophers Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.

So that was my trip. My days spent experiencing the world directly, viscerally, physically. My nights and weekends contemplating the nature of existence, the limits of human knowledge and what constitutes a meaningful life. An epiphany occurred to me one evening that summer: This pattern didn't commence with my time in Germany. The vacillation between the experiential and the intellectual had typified my entire life. For the first time though, I was beginning to reflect on it formally.

However, please permit me to digress for a moment with a few personal observations on nomenclature, as its power to influence (and perhaps limit) how we think of ourselves as a species has suppressed the very opportunity to explore a philosophy based on craft.

Homo Sapien
Systema Naturae - 1758
Sometime back in the 18th century an awful mistake was made that continues to haunt humanity, especially Western civilization. During the so-called "Age of Discovery" wealthy European aristocrats were busy scouring the globe, seeking in good Aristotelian fashion, to categorize everything they could lay their hands on. Finally one of them, Sweden's Carl Linnaeus, had the audacity and poor sense to classify human beings. At first he unceremoniously grouped us together with apes and monkeys. Unsurprisingly, this got Linnaeus into hot water with the church. In his defense, he claimed he couldn't tell the difference. Personally, I'm sympathetic to his perspective but the religious authorities of the time would have none of it. So, in a subsequent edition of Systema Naturae he clearly overcompensated in making his correction by applying a name that was to stick: Homo Sapiens, the "wise people" or alternatively "the judicious, discreet, discerning people." Good heavens, that obviously was laying it on a bit thick even for the Enlightenment! Was Carl being spiteful and ironic? I guess we're left only to speculate.

Homo Faber

To be fair, it's not as if humans are incapable of wisdom or discretion. It's just that as the defining characteristics of the species that might be pushing it. Well then, are there any other good contenders for an expression that might better capture the essence of what makes us human? Actually, one stands out to me and so happens to have a much older pedigree: Homo Faber, the "people who make" or alternatively, the "people as craftsmen"

Via Appia
The original use of the expression Homo Faber can be attributed within the context of a statement by the retired Roman censor and consul Appius Claudius of the 3rd century B.C.E. At that time, Rome was at the dawn of its glory, expanding its territory by subjugating its neighbors. This soon brought Rome into conflict with the preeminent power of the Mediterranean, Greece. A costly war broke out between Greece and Rome. After a particularly savage battle Greece sent an envoy to Rome asking the Senate for their capitulation while offering favorable terms of peace. The elder statesman Appius, now old and blind, roused himself to make an impassioned plea to reject Greece's terms famously stating, "homo faber est suae quisque fortunae" or "every man is the craftsman of his destiny".

Appius Claudius knew of what he spoke. Upon his appointment as censor a generation previously, he immediately began massive building projects: the Aqua Appia, Rome's first aqueduct and the initial phase of the Appian Way, superhighway of the ancient world. He understood Rome's destiny as a people lay as much with their skill in making, their ability as craftspeople, as with any military prowess. His appeal was persuasive. The Romans never looked back, building a culture both literally and figuratively, that in many respects endures to this day over two millennia later.

The Future of Philosophy

The possibility for a reconciling dialogue working towards a greater synthesis of experiential, empirical and intellectual knowledge is possible and well underway. Comparing what a craftsman experiences in his art with some of the more profound insights of history's greatest philosophers might yield an entertaining and enlightening beginning. The canon of philosophical thought is hardly complete. There is ample opportunity for us to expand human knowledge particularly in the domain of experiential learning. The contribution of the craftsman might yet prove surprisingly beneficial in this regard. With great enthusiasm therefore, I'll attempt to establish the contemporary basis for man as maker to reengage fully with the intellectual life, to realize his full potential as the thoughtful craftsman!

Contributed by Patrick Webb