The case for craftsmanship

Re-saturating calcimine paint on decorative plaster moulding from 1817. Reproduction rosettes at top left. Homemade traditional plasterer’s tools at bottom left. (Macdonell-Williamson House, Chute-a-Blondeau)


Romas Bubelis

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Adaptive reuse

Published Date:01 Oct 2019

Photo: Re-saturating calcimine paint on decorative plaster moulding from 1817. Reproduction rosettes at top left. Homemade traditional plasterer’s tools at bottom left. (Macdonell-Williamson House, Chute-a-Blondeau)

One of the greater pleasures of working in architectural conservation in Ontario is the opportunity it provides to work with traditional building materials: the timber frame, wood joinery, clay brick, natural stone, wrought and cast iron and various types of historical window glass. There is a tendency for these materials to be of local origin; clay for bricks, stone quarries and the proximity of local forests for timber. The materials are hand-wrought and the architectural assemblies handmade. This extends to typical 19th-century and earlier finishes, such as renders and lime-plaster, oil and distemper paints, and wallpapers and tilework imported from further afield.

Moving toward the turn of the 20th century, we encounter more synthetic, industrially produced materials of the Victorian era that are nonetheless still based on earlier Gothic or classical precedents and produced as small “building block” units. These materials are transitional and imitative in nature, usually imitating natural stone. Examples include terra cotta, cast artificial stone, terrazzo, scagliola and pressed metal.

In traditional practice, the process of transforming these raw building materials into a building is the outcome of several factors, practical and subjective. There is consideration of the nature of the material, its visual character and how it is worked. Structural properties determine that brick, stone and cast iron are used for assemblies requiring high compressive strength, while timber frame and wrought iron works well in tension. There is attention paid to the interface between materials and how they are combined – to the turning of corners and the detailing of joints. There is the influence of the builder’s customary manner of building, informed by a combination of construction conventions, design principles, stylistic sensibilities and a sense of the appropriate. Outward appearance is affected by the choice between artificial, intentionally decorative finishes (painted, printed or glazed) versus natural, uncoated, exposed surfaces subject to the development of incremental patina (copper, stone).

Leaving aside matters of architectural design and composition skill, the quality of historical building construction is directly and almost solely dependent on the skill of the artisan who worked the material. So is the quality of architectural conservation work in our time. In both cases, it is a matter of craftsmanship.

Traditional building materials and assemblies can be renewed to enjoy prolonged life through maintenance activity conducted by skilled tradespersons with knowledge of traditional materials and conservation techniques and treatments. This is labour-intensive work that canonly be done in situ, with an obvious economic benefit for local artisans and tradespeople.

But what of the deeper societal and community benefits of architectural conservation?

The British architectural historian Sir John Summerson proposed five types of buildings worthy of conservation (see Heavenly Mansions and other Essays on Architecture, The Past in the Future, John Summerson, W.W. Norton & Company, 1963). There is the work of art, created by a distinct and outstanding creative mind, or a building possessing the characteristic virtues of a school of design or architectural style, and there are buildings associated with great historic events or persons. These are the conventional monuments identified through an art history or academic history lens. But Summerson also added two more categories of age-value: a building of significant antiquity or a composition of fragmentary beauties welded together in the course of time – the building whose virtue is that surrounded by modernity; it alone gives depth in time.

Summerson’s “significant antiquity” may be relative from community to community. In the Ontario context, an 18th-century or even an early-19th-century building will possess some of the power of the ancient past. “Fragmentary beauties” suggests well-crafted architectural components, the result of human labour, executed with skill and artistic intent. “Depth in time” suggests the ethos of a touchstone – buildings that connect us with the past and make manifest the passage of time.

Heritage buildings are precisely a touchstone to an era where building was a manual exercise and an expression of craftsmanship. Products of the past made in this way act as a kind of counterpoint and antidote to standardized, industrialized mass production that has made more things, and more of them, accessible to more and more people.

What does the craftsmanship exhibited by so many heritage buildings and their conservation offer us?

In common usage, craftsmanship refers to a product, built or made, that exhibits the skill of the maker, dexterity and attention to detail, beauty and grace of execution and a quality related to human touch.

The word has an uncertain etymology but an interesting history. It derives from the Old English word “craeft,” the German “kraft” and the Norse “kraptr” all terms that connote strength, skill, virtue. By the late Old English period, it had evolved to mean trade, handicraft or employment requiring special skill of dexterity, but the term became obsolete by the 16th century. Curiously and ironically, the craftsmanship concept was revived in the mid-1950s in the United States in the service of the commercial advertising industry.

Today, the “Craftsmanship Initiative” is an online movement that promotes the philosophical idea of building a world meant to last. Gaynor Strachan Chun writes in The Craftsmanship Initiative that, “Craftsmanship, in the fullest sense of the word, is a way of life. It is about fully engaging our heads, hands, and hearts in our labors. It is about adhering to a set of values and principles that produce objects that are not only functional and beautiful but also make for a sustainable lifestyle. Today, craftsmanship is as relevant, if not more so, than ever. It is a way of thinking and doing where humanity is in tune with nature, not working against it. It leads to a world that’s built to last.”

The philosophy of the Craftsman Initiative links the material quality of historical buildings with the attitude to the work that produced them. It also ties building durability to striving for environmental harmony. In doing so, it reconciles “a passion for history and tradition with a drive to innovate” and points the way to a sustainable future.