Tag Archives: craftsmanship

BIM and the Human Condition

Craft is the pride one takes in making – making things – with one’s hands, mind and imagination. Two books that address craft – one recent and one published 50 years ago – help make clear the predicament architects find themselves in today as they face an uncertain future.

In The­_Craftsman, author and sociologist Prof. Richard Sennett asks what the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves – what people can learn about themselves from the things they make. Craftsmanship here is defined as an enduring, basic human impulse, the skill of making things well. The pride one takes in work – whether making a wood model or a computer model – requires focusing on the intimate connection between head and hand, establishing effective, sustainable habits and a rhythm between problem finding and problem solving. It is an internal dialogue every craftsman – and architect – conducts in practice.

Craftsmanship, by combining skill, commitment and judgment, establishes a close relationship between head and hand, man and machine that Sennett asserts is vital to physical, mental and societal well-being. Combining a “material consciousness” with a willingness to put in years of practice (a common estimate of the time required to master a craft is 10,000 hours) and an acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism, should be familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Dean Simonton’s Greatness and readers of this blog. Sennett asks whether our commitment to work – our craftsmanship – is merely about money, or about something deeper and more human. His answer implies that commitment – the skill, care, late nights, problem solving and pride that goes into our work – is about something greater.

Sennett does not think that craftsmanship has vanished from our world. On the contrary, as another critic noted, it has merely migrated to other regions of human enterprise, “so that the delicate form of skilled cooperation that once produced a cathedral now produces the Linux software system” – or, in the case of architects who take part in integrated practice, their work in BIM. The subject of craft has been all but excluded to date from discussions about building information modeling (BIM) and this poses a liability and potential hazard for architects – for therein resides our dedication, passion and resolve.

Hannah Arendt’s book, The_Human_Condition, published 50 years ago, distinguishes between labor, work, and action, explores the implications of these distinctions and affirms the value of human beings speaking openly and candidly to each other. In the book Arendt (1906-1975) famously distinguishes between Animal laborans and Homo faber, between labor and work. Labor is, according to Arendt, those human activities whose main aim is to allow men to survive, belong to the private sphere, and while the human being strives painstakingly to perform them, is not free. As Sennett – Arendt’s student in the 60’s – points out Animal laborans is akin to the beast of burden, “a drudge condemned to routine.” Here the derogatory term “CAD-jockey” comes to mind, one who envisions spending their working lives in front of a monitor churning out construction documents. Animal laborans: they’re the ones who, working alone, take the work as an end in itself.

With Homo faber, on the other hand, one imagines men and women doing work together and in doing so making a life in common. This is the public sphere, where men, after having provided for themselves and their families what was needed to continue, can at last be free. The name according to Sennett implies a higher way of life, one in which we stop producing and start discussing and judging together. It is in this word – together – that we find the seeds for collaboration and for integrated practice.

BIM is More Artifact than Fact, More Art than Artifact

Look around your office – it is easy to spot those who see themselves as Animal laborans and conversely those who see their role as Homo faber. You can sense it in their attitudes toward their work, their mindset in the way they tackle the challenge of learning –or familiarizing themselves with – new technologies and workflows. If you observe carefully, you can even detect it in their posture, in the way they approach their work and each other. As Sennett argues, as with Gladwell and Geoff_Colvin, motivation matters more than talent. The architect must imagine herself engaged with the model, the input of information no less an act of the imagination than the shaping of clay into new worlds for others to engage in and be inspired by. The architect has to find her inner, intelligent craftsman. If it can be reduced to a formula, as Arendt would have it,

bim = Animal laborans

BIM = Homo faber

where BIM enables integrated practice. The combination of speech and action the book calls for is the perfect prescription for integrated practice or IPD: architects working together with others, collaborating toward a common goal.

Sennett sees it differently and challenges his teacher’s definition of Labor as being too limited, slighting the practical man and woman at work, and offers a more balanced view – where thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making. Such is the student’s prerogative. Some architects complain that BIM – in being so fact-based and answer-hungry – makes them less creative, describing their work as “feeding the beast.” Here again we find Arendt’s Animal laborans, for whom the mind engages once the labor is done, and Sennett is right to push further.

When Sennett writes “leaving the public to ‘sort out the problem’ after the work is done means confronting people with usually irreversible facts,” and “engagement must start earlier, requires a fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things,” he could have been describing BIM, and IPD, the process it enables. IPD fulfills the promise and dictates of BIM just as Homo faber provides something for Animal laborans to aspire to.  

One of Arendt’s great themes is her sense of the decline of the public realm, the realm where action takes place. With the growing use of BIM, and through it integrated practice, architects once again have an opportunity to find themselves working in – and positively influencing if not creating – the public realm.

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