The Craft of Architecture

In 2013, it seems out-of-date to discuss architectural practices of hundreds of years ago.   But when you experience Michelangelo’s Piazza Del Campidoglio or climb Brunelleschi’s dome, anyone, not just the architecturally trained, can see that traditional architecture celebrates craft.  “To craft” is to make or manufacture an object with skill and careful attention to detail.  The traditional approach that so closely links art and craft within architecture instills the basic, but invaluable principles of form, shape, proportion, and scale that are inherent to successful design.  Incorporating these skills, through a hands-on approach to your study or practice, strengthens the understanding and appreciation for the craft of building design.

Brunelleschi’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore & Michelangelo’s Piazza Del Campidoglio <a href="
Brunelleschi’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore & Michelangelo’s Piazza Del Campidoglio

Through the study of traditional architecture, I gained a great appreciation for craft while learning the architectural principles of antiquity.  I still remember drafting the intricate volutes of the ionic columns with The American Vignola: A Guide to the Making of Classical Architecture as my guide and hand carving the fluting of a wood column in the scaled down model of the corner condition of the Parthenon in wood shop.  Although at times tedious, it took one week and several small injuries to create a single flute to the proper radius, I was absorbing greater concepts of architectural design.

5th Year, Design and Construction of Architectural Elements, Parthenon Model
5th Year, Design and Construction of Architectural Elements, Parthenon Model

In drawing that one column, I was learning the value of the relationships between the various parts in a hands-on way.  Now, I’m not advocating for ionic columns on every façade of every building.  As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Every great Architect – is necessarily- a great poet.  He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.”  Whatever the architectural style, traditional principles and the attention to craft are prevalent in every decision an architect makes, from building orientation and massing down to window fenestration and railing details.  Through the process of drawing, measuring, and carving, I began to understand form, shape, proportion, and scale.

How to bring craft into the practice of architecture

Integration of hand sketching, painting, sculpting, and various forms of art and craft into the architect’s language, inspires creativity and a better awareness of traditional design principles.  Hand drafting teaches that the pressure of your pencil can determine the depth of the wall, not simply a choice of magenta instead of cyan on your computer screen.  With this understanding of line thickness and ability to draw, the architect is able to quickly convey ideas to the client through hand sketches.  The layering technique of watercolor allows the painter great control over the softness or hardness of a shadow.  The concept of light and dark can then be translated to Photoshop rendering.  Sculpture and wood shop communicate scale and the visualization of the three dimensional world through different mediums.  An architect’s knowledge of how parts fit into the whole will only improve the perception and design of the building.  These various forms of art and skill integrated in the architect’s practice enhance the understanding of the physical, built environment.

Architecture is one of the greatest expressions of human creativity and imagination through a visual form.  Every design decision involves thoughtful purpose, attention to detail, and care.  St. Francis of Assisi said that “A man who works with his hands is a laborer, a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman, but a man who works with his hands and his brains and his heart is an artist.”  We must continue to celebrate the art and craft of architecture.