Blood, Sweat, and Proving it // Nick Kratz

5/3/2014

As the semester rapidly comes to an end, it is necessary to stop (well, pause, I have stuff to do) and reflect. When time has allowed, I meticulously study Matthew Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft; the tag line provoking a greater discussion: “an inquiry into the value of work.” This post could steal that title, or be something like“The Agency of Physical Labor: Hard Work’s Metacognitive Benefits”, or something less self-important, but regardless a question arises: why does the act of “doing” change the game? An el dorado credo that more or less reads “if you design it, build it, and install it—good will come” has held true for our studio. I think what el dorado, and Crawford are getting at is that as you cross the line from thinker to doer, some magic happens and you start to “get it”.

Crawford started as an electrician, was sidetracked by philosophy and the allure of academia, then returned to the “blue collar” yet incredibly rewarding world of servicing motorcycles. As young architects, David Dowell and the other partners at el dorado perhaps took a similar route—stale office life that allowed for much drawing and talking but not much doing gave birth to a very hands-on practice. I am interested in exploring the implications of these theories, as it were, on students and make a case for working with our hands to actually figure things out.

A case for the physical can be made from the roots of Architecture. The term “master builder” is no longer popular, but at one time it was synonymous with “architect”. These philosopher-contractors of old had both the tacit knowledge of the craftsman and the eyesight of one comfortable with reference tomes. To them, losing an argument with a contractor about best practice would be disgraceful, the public trusted them implicitly. “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Our friend Confuscious reiterates the point in this oft used proverb. Architects should execute the do part of the equation to prove that they know what they’re talking about. My guess is that most would find even the most simple task daunting to their uneducated hands—as my classmates and I did.

 

When forced to use a foreign instrument, you are forced into a state of higher responsibility for your actions—heightened awareness and care must replace muscle memory and know-how. These strange waters are a proving grounds for the conscientiousness craftsman (or journeyman). In Seaton Hall’s shop we found ourselves surrounded by tools we’d never seen before let alone ever used, and even more off-putting—they made a lot of noise and breathed fire. “Measure twice, cut once” was hence rephrased “measure 8 times, cut once, and scratch your head when it’s wrong”.

actual vs expected

grind it square

Over time we became familiar with the tolerances of the saws and grinders and discovered new techniques for marking lines. Our saw cut things at 89 degrees or so, not 90, so we had to eye-ball some extra room that we could then grind off. We created custom speed-squares for our ridiculous angles. The magic drawer in the tool box that held prick-punches and scribes allowed us to replace the clumsy, crayon-like soapstone. Precision and accuracy truly are very different, we found; the hundreds of holes we drilled look nice individually but rarely line-up perfectly when stacked.

Now we know something. We have a much better sense of how a few types and sizes of steel and wood should/can come together—it’s engraved in our split knuckles and dirty brows. This knowledge library may not stack up to seasoned professionals, but the ideas are transitive, each lesson learned speaks to a larger design issue. In Shop Class Crawford talks about “acute vision”, a type of outlook brought by repetition and experience. After flap-disc grinding 50 mitered corners, I know how the steel will react, how to blend the edges, how easy it is to take too much off (and how hard it is to put back)—and it feels good.

ugly

bad

Human’s ability to attach emotion to inanimate objects, even ones that don’t cooperate, gives us the unique ability to have pride in our work, find pleasure in a well crafted thing, and become obsessive when trying to get it just right. Those attributes aren’t universal, of course, but architects and designers are predisposed, the decision to delve in and make it a lifestyle lies with the individual. Crawford describes this as the difference between the mechanic who rashly jumps to an easy diagnosis and the one who spends 7 hours stripping the engine apart to find the root of the problem. Physically doing something, creating something, fixing something—whatever it is—ties us emotionally to the thing and assigns a type of reality that doesn’t exist in the computer or on paper. Our brains fire dusty neurons when we carve away at a block of wood, or get covered in grease. As a teenager, I finally convinced my dad to let me take the reins of the 14mm wrench and change my own oil. I made a mess, hurt my hand, but left the oil field (née driveway) with a sense of accomplishment I couldn’t get from passing a biology test.

There is little argument amongst thinkers that doing>seeing>saying>hearing; physical acts add an element of ownership that isn’t present in any of the other senses. If we take a prototypical architect, then, one who is interested in creating beautifully crafted buildings and things, we can assume that they would benefit from being intimately familiar with the processes that make said artifacts. In my mind, architecture is a marathon, not a relay race. It seems irresponsible for us to draw something, label it, and trust another—less invested, attentive, skilled, whatever the adjective—person. Our brains and bodies were created to create. Today that can be open for interpretation to some, but for designers it must be taken literally.

Written by Nick Kratz