Craft and Dialogue – Richard Sennett comes to town…

*** The published version of this post can be found here ***

Last night I attended a lecture by Richard Sennett, given as the annual address at Sheffield University’s Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences (ICOSS). I’ve followed Sennett’s work since heavily referencing his book ‘The Craftsman’ as the basis for an undergraduate dissertation in which I was interested in looking closely at the practice of architecture as a craft.

In hindsight, that study was perhaps limited by a pre-occupation with the idea of architecture as a technical craft. At the time, I’d been seduced by the raw, hands on experience of building, having attended the innovative ‘Studio in the Woods’ programme and its less frantic cousin, the Spatial Structures workshop at the Dartmoor Arts Project Summer School. Simultaneously, my then school of architecture was experiencing a renewed interest in the act of making, particularly utilising its extensive array of computer-controlled fabrication equipment. I was interested in how – through the application of these digital tools – we might, as designers and digital craftsmen, become more directly involved in the production of our buildings and the translation of our creative intentions into final physical form.

However, writing generally about labour, culture and capitalist society rather than specifically about architecture, Sennett explores the notion of craftsmanship further and defines it simply as ‘doing a good job for its own sake’. A craft, he argues, is fundamentally a skilled negotiation between the craftsman and their medium, using tools and technique, and celebrating the ‘happy accidents’ of lateral thinking that feed creativity and innovation.

Whilst this might be more recognisable to practitioners as part of their craft, what is also certain also is that ‘design’ is rarely an individual task. Moreover, it is one that involves skilled social negotiation alongside those creative and technical aspects more commonly associated with it. It is this notion of co-operation that Sennett addressed at ICOSS, expressing the difference between dialectic co-operation, which assumes a common goal of consensus, and that of dialogical co-operation which recognises the natural capability of human beings to acknowledge and negotiate complex difference without necessarily understanding it. It is this capability, Sennett argues, that we develop by the age of five, and is then progressively devalued by our (western) culture, economics and technology. Dialogical conversation, says Sennett, affords creativity and innovation through ‘happy accidents’, whereas dialectical process stifles it by requiring the adhesion to a common denominator  – to use Sennett’s own term, the ‘brutal simplifier’.

The question I wanted to ask, unfortunately denied by pressures of time and enthusiastic academics, was how – in a discipline such as architectural design, which depends upon dialogical conversation between stakeholders in conception and development, but remains rooted firmly in a dialectic realm of production by consensus – can we truly create and innovate in our profession as craftspeople?

As a student currently at a school of architecture located within a Faculty of Social Sciences and one having also studied within a Faculty of Art & Design, the consideration of architecture as both a technical and social craft seems to be fundamental to its successful practice. I therefore firmly recommend both ‘The Craftsman’, and Sennett’s forthcoming work on co-operation, for those who recognise the necessity of being able to work well with those who differ, as well as those we do not necessarily understand.

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