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Building a Knowledge Base

By Braulio Casas

The architectural profession is going to the dogs and most architects seem to be fine with that. I for one, would not count myself in that number. In fact, I would count myself in the very few who wish to take it back from some of the vagaries that have recently plagued what used to be a most noble profession. The most recent housing bubble has allowed many of us to take a long hard look back at how the profession may have also contributed to the downward spiral. Let's face it, we are gluttons for punishment, so a look back at the architect's complicity is in keeping with our endless desire to throw ourselves upon our collective swords.

First, we conspired with developers by not charging enough for our services, and we did so with such gusto that now both developers and private clients refuse to pay even reasonable fees. Sadly we have done this to ourselves in pursuit of "easy" money – but how easy was that fee in the end when we undercut each other with such reckless abandon that it is reminiscent of vultures on a carcass? Secondly, we have done it to ourselves by not caring how our designs are actually built. Some in our profession are fine with closing the deal at the end of construction drawings and some even kiss a project out the door at the design development stage. We used to be considered masters of our trade (remember the description of the master mason in The Pillars of the Earth?), but not anymore. Insurance companies are fine with the architect not taking responsibility for building methods and materials, but who really suffers in that transaction at the end of the day? Certainly the consumer suffers, but more importantly our environment suffers both ecologically and urbanistically from the lack of care and responsibility seen in most architectural projects. The vast majority of our built work in recent decades is a testament to society's penchant for cheap building and quick returns on initial investments. Our arterial highways are littered with dead and decaying remnants of carefree, thoughtless buildings that we cannot wait to demolish to replace with more of the same.

There is hope. The hope lies in the fact that over the past few decades, an ever-increasing number of architects have begun to recover not only an architectural language, but also an appreciation – if not an obsession – for the craft of building. It used to be that architecture and building were one and the same – and the modern segregation of the two arts is slowly being diminished by both young and more seasoned traditional architects.

I am the son of a builder. I came to be an architect because of something my father said to me while on a job site at the ripe old age of 12. In response to yet another fruitless site visit where the architect could not or would not offer council on how to solve a particularly vexing ceiling condition, my father issued more or less an edict to me: "You should be an architect, but first you should learn how to build, you should know how you put a building together from the ground up, then you can draw it and then you can speak with authority." Little did I know that I would follow that command, that challenge, to university where I would partake of an abroad program that would lead me to Rome in my third year. It was Rome that spoke to me, not just of those things visible, but also of the underlying principles of building in traditional ways and how architecture was so intrinsically tied to the forms of the city – the traditional city. Seeing all of this through the lens of an eager student opened in me a door through which would pass the image of the master architect, one far removed from Ayn Rand's broken, self-indulgent, egotistical Howard Roark. Through their built works and their many achievements beyond their buildings, architects like Bramante, Borromini, Michelangelo, Bernini and Palladio demonstrated for me the role of the architect as it ought to be: the architect as master builder.

For many years traditional architects were told that you just couldn't build like you used to because the craftsmen have disappeared. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the wonderful thing about that is the craftsmen are getting younger and even more eager to continue the traditions that have been handed down to them by their fathers or their mentors. This handing down of ideas, aspirations and principles is what I like to call the "knowledge base." It is this foundation that we all need to cultivate in order to ensure that we continue to build from generation to generation in a beautiful and more sustainable manner. Paramount to building the knowledge base is its stewardship – not only by architects, but also by the many others that contribute to and are indeed themselves part of this cornerstone of ideas. The architect surrounded by the very best builders, craftspeople and consultants supports the knowledge base and elevates the profession as well as the built environment. There are other benefits as well to this way of approaching a building project, namely the value brought to the project itself and the value derived by the building process where all parties are partners rather than adversaries. The owner benefits since the builder and architect approach the project and one another with a sense of mutual respect rather than disdain and see the inherent value that each brings to the project. Not only does this make for a more pleasurable experience for all parties, it also builds the foundation for future collaboration and creates the best opportunity for more fruitful learning, which then leads to an increase in the knowledge base.

Building the knowledge base is possible, and I dare say it is necessary, in order to create better building practices based on shared knowledge and experience and that create better environments based on mutual respect for materiality and form. We foster the building of the knowledge base by supporting and learning from the many tradesmen and craftsmen who create and bring to life the ideas we as architects put on paper. Without these men and women our work is merely a set of ideas not yet living. We elevate ourselves, the profession and the environment when we work together with our builders and craftspeople rather then against them. So to my architectural brethren I issue a similar edict as my father issued to me: Be the creator of your own knowledge base, nourish it by always learning the lessons the crafts and trades have to offer and challenge the very same to reach for ever-loftier goals in the interest of our art, and for the pursuit of a better future for ourselves and the generations that follow. Lastly, avail yourself of the many learning opportunities offered in a multiplicity of allied arts because when you do that you too can speak with the humble authority necessary to becoming the master builder that our buildings and cities need us to be.  


Braulo Casas is the principal of Seaside, FL-based Braulio Casas Architects. In 2010, the firm won a Palladio Award for a new residence at Seaside.

 

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