Nineteenth-century architect Gottfried Semper fervently associated “ancient crafts” with his anthropological view of architecture, relating masonry to mound, ceramics and metallurgy to hearth, carpentry to roof, and weaving to enclosure. Although his theories have evolved considerably since then, Semper may still have something to say to us today. In particular, Semper identified the construction detail as the most primitive tectonic device that expresses how a building comes together1 and takes its form from the artisan’s hands. In recent decades, Edward Ford ascribed the end of craftsmanship to the Industrial Revolution,2 claiming the detail became less about the craftsman’s skill and more about resolving physical connections between machine-made products and materials, such as iron and glass. Even so, detailing was still used to articulate design ideas in material joinery, as in the prototypical Case Study Houses, each being unique while using standardized industrial parts, thus showing design wisdom.
Today, digitally infused design methods have altered the way we think about details. Design schools and architectural firms commonly use BIM (building information modeling), engineering, and other 3-D modeling software programs equipped with readily available manufactured products, building components, and preconfigured assemblies that can be “dropped into a building” during the design process. These preconfigured elements promote certain industries over others, diminish the need for custom solutions, and create ease in copying details as “data” from one project to another. As a result, the design student or practicing architect doesn’t have to think through particular building connections as actual design problems. But our current design generation is also governed by a prolific “making culture,” where “file to product” craft practices are trying to reclaim the architect-designer as master builder. This shift seems to promise a renewed meshing of design and industry amidst transmuting fabrication technologies, yet it also makes us wonder, as Semper did, whether tectonics belonged more to the conceptual realm or the savvy maker?3 Is the priority of the design idea being compromised or dictated by technique, and can design details still be instrumental as an element that unifies the two?4
These concerns about “thinking through craft” in design appear to be fittingly investigated at Milan’s Twenty-First International Triennale, Twenty-First Century: Design after Design. Responding to the Triennale’s long-standing postwar mission, “to stimulate the relationship between industry, art and society at large,” the exhibition Sempering—Process and Pattern in Architecture and Design gathers artifacts from the last decade that point to a resurgence of craft-driven ideologies. Curated by Milan’s School of Design Dean, Luisa Collina, and local Italian architect Cino Zucchi, this exhibition looks at industry’s role in idea-forming relationships of form, matter, and production by uncovering copious fabrication approaches and systematically structuring them around eight modes of making: stacking, weaving, folding, connecting, molding, blowing, engraving, and tiling. Deciphering Semper’s numerous classifications, Collina and Zucchi conjured up this explicit set of “operations,” imagining how Semper might have looked at craft techniques in the twenty-first century. They asked: “Which classification would Gottfried Semper adopt to interpret the plethora of artifacts … [and] sort through the multitude of ways through which ‘form takes shape’ in contemporary design?”5 As a hypothesis, the curators seem to have staged their findings through two lenses: first, by looking for concepts conveyed through each “act of making” across design fields, regardless of scale, function, material, trade, tool, or end product, and second, by bringing into focus the relevance of Semper’s cross-examination of techniques through selected artifacts employing hybrid design processes.
The show opened with clippings from Semper’s manuscript, along with descriptions and diagrams elucidating underlying themes. Four “cabinets of curiosity” filled with early to mid-twentieth-century photographed case studies featured mainly building enclosures that exposed the detail as a generator for a building’s character,6 such as Bauhaus design fundamentals composition exercises, vernacular building façade cladding options, and various brick-stacking patterns. In addition, the rhythmic modulation in Miguel Fisac’s undulating fabric-formed concrete building skin celebrated the architectural detail as a formal trace from formwork cables. Surrounding these displays were a rich assortment of form-finding models from recent design studios led by architects such as Adam Caruso and Riccardo Blumer. Each set of iterations used only material, which included an overall palette of leather, wood, glass, acrylic, and even variegated figures generated from elegantly molded Jell-O. Also displayed was a comprehensive series of welded brass models focused on design and structure from Italian architects and product designers Michele De Lucchi and Michele Reginaldi. Rather than mini representations of buildings, these models associated technique with ideas about skin, form, or construction rather than typology. Interestingly, each model could be read at multiple scales and seemed to easily transform into a furnishing, room, or building. This prelude was perhaps one of the most compelling parts of the show, demonstrating the potency of concept explored through craft.
Further in, Semper-inspired “woven” partitions separated eight identical U-shaped alcoves, one per mode. Each was filled with a lavish array of products, such as tables, chairs, lamps, soap dishes, cutting boards, and a few abstract material manipulations. As one-offs, or a series, these works emphasized how multiple morphed shapes can be identified with a single conceptualized technique. For example, in Blowing, Margaux Keller’s Venetian Murano glass pendant lamps were generated to depict versions of “Venice Sinking,” and in Molding, Annika Frye’s plaster vessels were made from improvised gestures to yield familiar yet unique geometries. In contrast to these full-scale prototypes, architectural projects were mostly represented in photos and drawings. Although distinct building components were clearly depicted, the lack of actual constructed fragments limited the visitor from any firsthand sensory experience with the made work. A couple of highly detailed models came close, such as Kengo Kuma’s SunnyHills wooden veiled structure evoking traditional bamboo weaving.
What these striking photographs consistently revealed was the profuse meshing of cladding and structure. Exterior shells explored patterning and process with a tendency toward seamless, graphically mesmerizing surfaces rather than an eye for details of joinery. For example, in Weaving, the EXPO Shanghai Spanish Pavilion’s wicker textile achieved rhythmic patterns by mixing different tones of textured fibers, while study models showed its shape actually supported it. In Tiling, an urban wall’s cast ceramic honeycomb block erection used color motifs embedded in the thickness, rather than typical stuck-on decorative tiles. The dual nature of today’s “skinned-structures,” or “structured-skins,” brings sustained legitimacy to Semper’s ambivalence between a building’s formal and tectonic reading from rhythm found in structural systems or, rather, from ornamental cladding materials.7 Explicit descriptions of assembly systems or illustrations of works “in the making” would have explained to visitors how detailing is tackled. Somehow, we are left wondering whether desired effects are post-rationalized as ideas about technique? Advanced digital technologies are demanding a new way of “thinking through making.” Hybridity and combining of “operations” facilitated by software programming tools and parametric calculations seem to be what is guiding variant conceptual possibilities. While Semper broke down his taxonomies into techniques that transform material, relate to its assembly, or create arrangements,8 he also noted ways of combining them.9 Several examples from the show exposed this complexity, leaving the visitor to deliberate on how details from technique are to be interpreted. Paul Smith’s storefront cast iron panels and David Adjaye’s densely patterned bronze screens were placed in Engraving but could belong to Molding, while their composition relates to Tiling but could also fit into Stacking.
Interplay of hand and machine was also addressed. For instance, in Molding, Zaha Hadid’s fluted, folded plywood structure and patterned vase was achieved through manual and robotic production yet assembled and finished by hand. CODesignLab/Cascone’s ceramic columns were 3-D printed but playfully recall form and gesture from hand-braided fibers. Other works successfully “scaled-up” experiential qualities across design fields. For example, the buoyant essence in Margaux Keller’s hand-blown lamps was re-encountered in Monica Forster’s inflated Cloud Room Divider, and then again in Plastique Fantastique’s 60-foot-diameter bubble building, in the common ephemeral boundaries created by semitranslucent circular forms. While each form finds its outer limits by means of expansion, it is not made the same way. Thus, these form-making investigations suggest that the substance of an idea supersedes that of technique.10
Ultimately, this collection revealed that contemporary design works seem to place an emphasis on ideas about how artifacts are made, rather than symbolic, mimetic, or figurative allusions to something other. This suggests designers are quite ravished about their own inventions through custom fabrication, delighting in a craft research-driven design process. Yet paradoxically, it seemed to also convey universality about craft today: the idea behind design lies in figuring out which variables to play with, and which options to choose from among the outcomes. These current design attitudes, when understood through the lens of technique, reveal that recurring patterns among artifacts do not connote a particular style but come from commonalities in approach, despite divergent processes.11 Despite the curators’ correlation of modes to trades that inspired the eight sections, for instance, stacking to bricklayer, and folding to tinsmith, the show actually culminates in a grouping of artifacts that eradicates singular categorization.12 Rendered works for each mode hung along the peripheral walls of the gallery seemed to powerfully coalesce this contradictory issue of ordering among craft processes. Arrayed projects depicted as pixelated, abstract, homologous images appeared to blur boundaries between scale, construction type, fabrication method, material, and discipline—prioritizing concept over technique.
Admitting its ambitious theoretical underpinning, Sempering did not document a historical account on how craft arrived at this point. Rather, this impressive compilation brought to the surface a kind of future archaeological survey of what artifacts we might expect to find as twentieth- and twenty-first-century design works that bridge new modes of craft and industry. Moving into what the president of the Trienalle, Claudio De Albertis, calls the third industrial revolution, this new breed of design—incessantly testing ideas through processes with unyielding curiosity—reinforces reinvention divorced from strict associations with trades or materials, in favor of clever combinations of technique when decoding ideas into form. Thus, Sempering seems to make a convincing case that craft-based ideas dictating our tectonic culture are very much alive. They permeate our design world, at times, irrespective of symbolic reference or geographical context, pointing to the endurance of craft as a primary generator of design innovation, which just may be what the detail has become today—the actual act of making the craft itself.
Sempering is currently showing, until September 12, 2016, at the Museum of Culture (MUDEC) in Milan, Italy.