A False Dilemna

Cover. The Bayon. Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photographer: Lisa Vaz.

Preface



This text is an extract from Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction [2004] by architects and authors, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake.



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Synopsis



This thought-provoking book presents a compelling argument for moving architecture from a part-by-part, linear approach to an integrated one that brings together technology, materials, and production methods. Using examples from several industries that have successfully made the change to an integrated component approach, these visionary authors lay the groundwork for a dramatic and much-needed change in the building industry.



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Chapter One  



The Process Engineer and the Aesthetics of Architecture



Choice often strengthens. The choice art or commodity* weakens. Why not art and commodity? Never has the distance between the two positions been so great. Never before has the practice of architecture so hardened the lines of debate between its aspiration to become an art and its acceptance as a commodity. Clients and even architects demand that we choose: art or commodity. Few buildings elevate architecture to art and so move the soul.

* commodity [n.] early 15c., 'benefit, profit, welfare;' also 'a convenient or useful product,' from Old French commodit

Architecture can be art. It can, in some circumstances, come to exist in an elevated realm – an art market beyond the general economy. Or architecture can be a commodity, an artifact of use to be bought and sold in accordance with prevailing principles of economic exchange. Only rarely, here in the twenty-first century, is architecture both art and commodity. The rest merely provide shelter with a minimum of means.

Commodity was once – and can be again – the tollgate on the way to art. Commodity was once equated with the traditions of craft present in architecture that became art. Craft itself was the web of knowledge about putting things together that one negotiated on the way to economy. New ways of assembling were continually invented and refined over time to effect higher quality and greater economy. Evolutionary change in vernacular architecture is a record of lean thought that becomes poetic by virtue of its fitness.



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'Architecture can be art. It can, in some circumstances, come to exist in an elevated realm – an art market beyond the general economy. Or architecture can be a commodity, an artifact of use to be bought and sold in accordance with prevailing principles of economic exchange. Only rarely, here in the twenty-first century, is architecture both art and commodity. The rest merely provide shelter with a minimum of means.'



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The Hand and the Machine



Making by hand was the only way we had of fabricating artifacts for most of our history. The designer was often one and the same with the maker. The barn was designed by those who raised and used it; the factory was designed by the engineer or owner who built it.

The transition from handcraft to machine-craft was a dream of modernist thought throughout the twentieth century. Many of the most significant architects of the twentieth century pursued this dream of machine production. The goal was to make architecture, especially housing, into a commodity for consumption by the masses. Handcraft is now an indulgence left over from another century.

When Le Corbusier praised grain silos and factories because their pure form had been shaped by the economic rules of production, he came down in favour of engineers. For Le Corbusier, engineers, unlike architects, are not guided by preconception about appearance.

Note 1
Known as Le Corbusier, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret [1887 - 1965] was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now regarded as modern architecture. 



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'Great architecture is today equated with art. Commodity today is generally seen as anti-art, the stuff of commerce. Commodity, most believe, is the creed of the philistine.'



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Instead, they possess a single-minded focus on purpose and economy. Le Corbusier saw great promise in the production of architecture by machines, particularly in housing where it offered a way to fulfil a social housing agenda.

It would be art because of its very lack of pretension.* Architecture as a mass-produced product would transform both access and perception; it would become a thing, a commodity, a vernacular shelter for the twentieth century. Great architecture is today equated with art. Commodity today is generally seen as anti-art, the stuff of commerce. 

* pretension [n.] mid-15c., ‘assertion, allegation; objection; intention; signification,’ from Medieval Latin pretensionem. Meaning ‘unproven claim’ is from c. 1600. The sense of ‘ostentation’ is from 1727, from the notion of ‘act of putting forth a [false] claim to merit, dignity, or importance.

Commodity, most believe, is the creed of the philistine*. It is possible, however, to see commodity instead as the crucible† of art itself and to recognise the process engineer – not the design engineer – as the high priest of this new art. It is not the engineer as a designer of artifacts that we applaud, but rather as a designer of process that show the way forward in art.

* Philistine [n,] one of the Old Testament people of coastal Palestine who made war on the Israelites, early 14c., Hence, 'a heathen enemy, an unfeeling foe' [c. 1600].

† crucible [n.] early 15c., 'vessel or melting pot for chemical purposes, so tempered as to endure extreme heat,' from Medieval Latin crucibulum 'melting pot for metals'. Used figuratively of any severe test or trial since 1640s.

The design of how we go about designing, and ultimately making, circumscribes what we make. It controls the art found in its quality, scope, or features and also the resources of time and money expended on its production. This reality is completely contrary to the artistic and contractual structure of much current architecture, which specifically excludes the architect from participation in the ‘means and methods’ of making, thus turning architects into mere stylists.



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The Law of Economy and Value



For the last 100 years, as the economy has become more ‘sophisticated and global’, one equation has governed construction:

Q[uality] x S[cope] > C[ost] x T[ime]

No matter which variable is defined as paramount to a project – quality, time, scope, or cost – the other variables must stay in balance. Want less time with a fast track schedule? Then give up quality, spend more money, or reduce the scope. Want a lower budget? Manage costs, reduce quality, and reduce scope. Want higher quality? Increase the budget proportional to your scope and likely increase time. Project after project is dominated by this equation.



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A New Client Mandate



While architecture has passively accepted this equation as universal law, as though it were a force of nature, other industries have refused to do so. Automotive, shipbuilding, and aircraft industries have moved beyond the gravitational fields of cost and time and into realms where quality and scope can increase out of all proportion to cost and time, where art transcends resources. Their output range extends from a fully-mass customised product [automobiles] to a nearly fully customised one-off product [ships]. The scale of these products on average also exceeds the complexity and scale of almost anything produced in architecture. 

It is too easy to dismiss these examples as having no relevance for architecture, which is fixed to the ground and custom-crafted in the field rather than factory produced. There are lessons that can be examined and transferred from our sister industries to architecture. These lessons are not about outward form, style, or appearance. They are about processes that have overturned the ancient equilibrium between expenditure of resources and acquisition of benefits.
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