Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An architect falls from his Ivory Tower

(First published in The Globe & Mail)

In a suitably rustic frame, hanging in the hall of our old farmhouse, is a photograph of the raising of our barn, “July, 1904.”  It is a black-and-white shot of remarkable clarity, composed with beginner’s luck and peopled with farm neighbours from a distant past, men posing gleefully on narrow beams without safety harnesses or fear.  It is an artifact from another era, a glimpse of community spirit, collaboration and helpfulness.
                Things like that don’t often happen now.  We live in a world of specialists and professionals, of liability and regulation, of isolation.  And although some communities, notably the Mennonites, have kept the flame of community building alive, the days of such a neighbourly concept seem numbered.
                And just as well, I thought.  I looked at it all through my well-polished, one-way glass – leave the work to the specialists; let the pros do their job.  From my white-collar perch above the dust and noise of the work site, I was content to go by the book.
                And then my father had a stroke.
                He, a carpenter, had been building his retirement home, the crowning personal achievement of his career.  More out of a sense of good humour than necessity, he glanced every so often at a set of drawings with my name on them:  the plans.
                But he built with his heart and carpenter’s eye and his adjustments and variations on them were never wrong, often improving upon my initial vision.  Haphazard piles of yellow lumber went together like musical notes into a jigsaw orchestration.
                When his stroke came, work ground to a halt.  It was a discouraging and devastating time for everyone.
                The phone started ringing.  There were usually two questions:  How is he? and How can we help?
                Carpenters and builders, roofers and electricians called.  “Let’s put your dad’s house up,” they said, and their enthusiasm was genuine relentless and contagious.
                I wanted to react with flow charts, more drawings, specifications and detailed timetables.  I wanted to schedule the outpouring of generosity; tailor and enhance it, put some order to it.  But a farming neighbour shook his head.
                “What we’ve got here is a barn-raising,” he said matter-of-factly, sweeping my approach aside with his words.  “I think you’d best look at it that way.”
                And so, through my filter of construction protocol, I tried.  But I’d never been to a barn-raising before and I’d certainly never organized one.
                Work began at 15 minutes to 7 in the morning.  Within seconds, air hammers and power saws filled the silent morning with the ferocious music of productivity.  I left things in the hands of the skilled and took to the role of a labourer, pausing every once in a while to explain the plans.
                It proved to be a nerve-wracking business:  at one moment taking orders and the next, as designer, giving them.  Sometime around the 10 o’clock coffee break, it hit me between the eyes:   I was not the Renaissance man I had believed I was.
                I had become, like many of my colleagues in the design business, a specialist.  I could talk shop to the builders on site only to a point.  Invariably there would be a parting of ways on some detail:  they would pursue it to completion; I would look in the other direction on a tangent of theory.
                The ivory tower of the university had not prepared me for this.  There was nothing remotely resembling a hands-on course in building when I took my degree from one of the country’s pre-eminent architecture schools.  There was talk of nuts and bolts, but it was often of the esoteric variety:  the beautiful detail employed in some Miesian skyscraper, the earthy wonder of a tribal mud-on-mud technique or the high-tech, cutting edge intricacy of a micro-chip building system.
                Many of my fellow students graduated without ever having held a hammer.  They had certainly never been in the position of having to build from their own blueprints. 
                Contrasted with the medical profession for example, architects and related members of the design professions often dwell in a never-never land of white-collared detachment.  Surgeons at the top of their form still make incisions with a scalpel and deal intimately with the subject matter they have studied so long:  they may talk technicalities, postulate theories, and speak a scientific dialect but at the end of the day there will be real blood on their surgical gloves.  We designers, on the other hand, chisel out our constructions on paper miles from the job site, months from reality.
                We do so at our peril, and although we should not be jacks of all trades and masters of none, there are basic skills that we would do well to hang onto, relearn or acquire.
                “A HUMAN being,” wrote Robert A. Heilen, “should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.  Specialization is for insects.”
                Overspecialization in any profession can ultimately lead to a stifling of the creative spark.  There is great potential for intellectual cross-pollination and invention when architects and engineers roll their sleeves up and work on-site.  The designers of the physical spaces that shape our daily lives, give us shelter and add rich dimension to our existence, should, of all people, be able to at once both see the bigger picture and pick up a hammer with confidence.  Successful collaboration, which in some cases means dirt under the fingernails and sweat on the brow, can often separate great buildings from merely great ideas.  The ancient master builders knew it, and the people at my father’s house raising knew it.
                And by the time I’d carried my 15th bundle of shingles up the shaky ladder, the architect on the rooftop had begun to learn it, too.  In the process, I’d become a little less insect-like and a touch more human.  And it felt good to sweat again.

First published:  The Globe and Mail    June 1, 1992

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