Why I... believe architecture is a craft as well as an art

June 15, 2001

Greg Votolato. Professor of design Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, High Wycombe

In the 1948 film The Fountainhead , Gary Cooper's character, Howard Roark, defined the image of the modern architect. He was heroic, individualist, uncompromising, a social and aesthetic visionary and politically just to the right of Ivan the Terrible.

This caricature has left its mark on architects on the left of the political spectrum, as well as on the right. One of its less attractive aspects is the distance it places between the Olympian professional designer and the humble "builders", who realise the architect's vision. The separation of thinking and doing, of idea over execution, has long been associated with the condition of modern art. When applied to an art as fundamentally practical as architecture, it may translate into walk-through sculpture.

But the caricature is a myth that the Crafts Council's exhibition, Making Buildings , attempts to redress by showing how architects work with crafts people from a variety of fields to produce buildings that provide their users with a kind of added value derived as much from the finesse with which buildings are put together as from spatial sophistication or formal originality.

The exhibition spans the spectrum of building technology, from thatch and timber to the latest plastics and electronics, showing how contemporary architects and crafts people are employing ancient materials in new and challenging aesthetic directions to solve contemporary problems.

For her North London studio-house, Sarah Wigglesworth exploits the thermal and acoustic potential of straw bales, quilted canvas and sandbags to protect the interior spaces from cold and the roar and rumble of nearby high-speed trains. In contrast to this complexity, John Pawson relies on the traditional expertise of stone masons to create the seamless, minimalist interior surfaces of his home. Inspired by nature, Japanese architect Tono Mirai uses mud and straw to form the urban nests he makes in collaboration with school children or architecture students.

Simon Conder employs the materials of the do-it-yourself superstore: pre-cut timber, translucent acrylic sheet and silicone sealant, manipulated by small teams of craftspeople to achieve highly sophisticated buildings that are cost effective and unique.

Similarly, Sixteen*(makers) from the Bartlett School of Architecture, a research unit that looks at new directions for architecture, uses modern materials and methods, laser-cut steel and electronic control mechanisms to achieve interactive structures that respond through movement and light to human activity according to a variety of programmed instructions. The group shares with Mark Prizeman of the Architectural Association and many others a belief that students need direct contact with materials and fabrication methods as a fundamental part of their design education.

Alongside the architecture profession, the exhibition presents the achievements of self-builders taught through the Walter Segal System how to construct their own homes in small communities for very low cost. It therefore shows construction as an activity that anyone can pursue and demonstrates how craft adds character and meaning to buildings and can humanise our environment.

But embracing craft does not mean a return to a cosy cottage vernacular. According to Wigglesworth: "The future of architecture is soft and hairy." I agree. But it is also hard and smooth, traditional and futuristic, conventional and innovative. Some of it will roll off assembly lines like new Fords, but a percentage will be crafted by hand and, where that is done in conjunction with thoughtful design, the results will be enriching for makers, users and maker-users.

Greg Volotato is curator of Making Buildings. The exhibition is at the Crafts Council Gallery, London N1, until June 17, and then touring until the end of the year.

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