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