Monday, December 13, 2010


The word “architect” is rooted in the Greek arkhi-tekton, meaning “master builder”.  And once upon a time, that’s exactly what an architect was--a person whose comprehensive knowledge of construction made him the leader of a building project.  It was the architect in the role of master builder, not merely designer, that gave the world the Parthenon, Gothic cathedrals, and countless other creative triumphs.

Even as recently as the 1920s, architects such as Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan still spent a considerable amount of time on the construction site.  Maybeck, the son of a woodcarver, delighted in working with his hands--he could often be found on his building sites gleefully experimenting with weird and wonderful new methods of construction.  

Morgan, the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s vast California estate, San Simeon, was the first woman to graduate from the prestigious Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Conquering that male bastian no doubt demanded both determination and impeccable knowledge on her part.   Hence the diminutive Morgan was especially well-versed in the nitty-gritty of construction--on building sites she was known to correct an errant worker by taking the tool from his hand and gently advising him, “Do it this way, friend.”  

Well, things have changed, and not for the better.  Today’s architects have an abundance of theoretical and aesthetic knowledge, but little practical understanding of how buildings are actually put together.  Most of an architect’s time is now spent in an office, well-insulated from the people who construct the buildings he’s designed.  For most architects, in fact, their closest encounter with the building process comes when construction problems—which are practically inevitable under this arrangement—compel him to visit the site.

There are a few maverick architects today who have tried to mend this estrangement of architects from their architecture.  Perhaps the best known is Paolo Soleri, whose Arcosanti project in Arizona has for decades struggled to offer architecture students a hands-on education integrating design and construction.  Yet such practical learning opportunities remain rare.  
One reason for this is that few modern-day architecture schools seem willing to acknowledge the historical connection between the design of a building and its construction.  Hence, the separation of design and construction processes has been institutionalized.  

The problems resulting from this policy are legion.  The success of any object, whether a vase, a violin or a building, depends on its designer’s intimate familiarity with the process of its creation.  Separate the two, and both are diminished.        

Can the architect ever return to his historic role as arkhi-tekton?  In the strict sense, perhaps not.  A cathedral, for all its aesthetic sophistication, is really just an artfully-arranged pile of stones:  it’s well within human comprehension.  A modern-day building, however, with its complex structural, mechanical, and electronic systems, is all but beyond the grasp of a single mind.
That’s not to say that architects can’t learn by doing, however.  Divorcing the design process from the building process, as so many architecture schools continue to do, can only further undermine the historic role of architect as master builder. 

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