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Make is More

Make is More

The competences and skills of architects throughout the history have been always influenced by the societal changes. Lack of hands-on experience with real construction is considered as one of the most serious concern in transition from academic to practical world today. The long-lasting and highly underpaid training beginning once after exhausting theoretical education persuades many of architectural graduates to redefine their position or leave the profession completely. What are the roots of such separation between architecture and construction and what are the alternatives for contemporary practice?

Returning back to Gothic times, the laboratories in which the cathedrals were taking shape, were the spaces of local, tangible, and messy knowledge that evolved through collective situated practice into a coherent tradition. In spite of incomplete architectural drawings that were bridging the brain with the hand, and well communicated process allowed for and encouraged on-site flexibility, full-scale prototyping and material experimentation (1).

Big figures of Renaissance such as Michelangelo and Brunelleschi were innovative architects, builders, product designers, sculptors, innovators and material scientists in the same person. They learned by doing and from the outset they learned to translate theory into form through the actions of their hands. However, the role of a master builder has been both contracted and splintered among particular disciplines long time ago.

Exclusion of architects from participation in the ‘’means and methods’’ of making, is turning architects into mere stylists (2).

What contributed immensely to shifting the architects from a building site to the drawing desks is the invention of printing press in 15th century. It allowed for architectural knowledge to disseminate through books and studies thus distancing the architects from thinking through making. The architectural bibles such as treatise of Alberti encouraged the idea that architecture is an intellectual discipline, what was later intensified by the Enlightenment and rational thought.

Diagram illustrating master builders vs architects
image 1: From a master builder to a master controller, S.Kieran, J.Timberlake: Refabricating Architecture, How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction, 2004.

The point is not to resurrect the genius personality of a master builder, but rather to find the ways to set up a contemporary version of a ”gothic laboratory” driven by a higher goal. The accelerated speed of new constructions with high demands for safety and security together with the aggregation of environmental control systems in architecture transformed architecture to a machine of enormous complexity which requires new effective collaborative tools. The rapid influx of the people to the cities cause social exclusion, inequality, gentrification and other side-effects of the current metropolis that we need to reflect.

The space where creative minds and hands meet, would be a place to experiment and make the city together by tackling the local social needs. It is a vision of highlighting the process over the final look and disrupting the common adversarial relation of architect – builder – client, in favour of physical involvement of all parties. Such utopian concept is not new. The idea of a community production centre appeared in the last centuries several times.

The need to return the craft to people’s set of skills was identified and formulated into the Arts and Crafts movement in the end of 19th century. The movement was in its core socialist and anti-industrial in direct opposition to celebration of the machines, which replaced the muscle power during the Industrial Revolution. However, high quality of hand-crafted products couldn’t compete with the rising affordability of the mass-production. The movement was soon taken over by Modernism that affected all areas of life, including the living spaces.

Black and white workshop
Image 2: Carpentry workshop at Russell & Sons Company, Broadway in Worcestershire, about 1926 (3).

In architecture, Christopher Alexander’s creation of the Builder’s Yard advocated in his work The production of Houses in 1975 offers an early example of a co-building workshop. It was an utopian vision of a ‘social institution’ located in the centre of his housing project in Mexicali, the commission from the Mexican government. The future users were welcomed to customise their houses by yourself in the process of its construction. The Yard meant to function as a centre for democratic construction, involving practical education, prototyping and experimentation with local materials.

Several factors caused the decline of the Builder’s Yard: it did not contend with the primary need for “the provision of immediate shelter”, the public resources for permanent staffing were missing, and the self-help construction proved to be inadequate to compete with the immediate availability of concrete block building components (4). However, the Builder’s Yard is the important pioneer, and its principles are being revised and re-applied in both ephemeral and permanent local interpretations of global demonstrations of the relation of making to communal environments.

Image 3: Mixing cement in the Builder’s Yard, Column blocks prototyping in Builder’s Yard (Alexander, The Production of Houses), Mexicali, Mexico, 1976 (4)

The field offices where the construction and design development happen simultaneously have long tradition in Japan. Dana Buntrock, author of Japanese Design as a Collaborative Process advocates that: ”the field office is not only a place for the liberation of the work of the architect from the world of thought, but also is a place where many people participate in the effort towards its crystallization’’ (Buntrock p.62). The concept that is not far from the gothic precedens frees-up the architect from producing much of the documentation by passing it onto the shoulders of the experts and managing them efficiently (5).

Several academic programs are aware of the need to maintain the traditional on-site experience among young spatial designers, as for example the Rural Studio, a part of Auburn University in US. More poetic form of remoted self-build community is The Open City in Ritoque, Chile that functions as a part of Catholic University’s Valparaiso campus. The ecoMOD is an university extension that produces real scale sustainable solutions of houses.

Apart from American makerspaces and community workshops that occurs almost in every bigger city nowadays, many other design studios and non-for-profits in Europe such as Hellowood, Bellastock or Nod Makerspace, that offer practical trainings are having physical workshop as a part of their workplace. Critical Concrete is closing the gap in architectural education by its practical Summer school. The goal is not only to make, but tackle the urban poverty through social and sustainable action.

Contemporary interest in making has raised from the revolt of the DIY culture. Do-it-yourself ethic refers to the ethic of self-sufficiency that promotes the idea, that everyone is capable of self-help fabrication of commercial products, home improvements and other tasks without relying on paid experts. The DIY ethic is sometimes associated with the punk subculture that in opposition to consumerism use existing systems or existing processes to foster dependence on established societal structures.

Another face of the same coin is represented by the Maker Movement formed around MAKE magazine launched in 2005 in US. Instead of refusing the technological innovation, the followers of the Maker Movement finds their power in hacking the neo-liberal economic system by its own means. It encourages innovation by democratizing sophisticated technology, empowering people to produce complex designs or create rapid prototypes across all scales of the hardware.

In fact, the Maker Movement calls for the third industrial revolution, while promising to bring about a newer and fairer economy (6). It does not only offers the access to high quality digital fabrication facilities, but it shares the knowledge through online platforms and open source channels. The community can finance its innovations through mutual crowdfunding campaigns, what seems to be very powerful.

The network of the creative places scattered around the city could form a whole districts as the Rotterdam Makers District formed in the former shipyard proves. The site is a melting pot of all kinds of creative disciplines combining traditional wood workshops with the advanced robotic technologies, 3D printers and other technologies (7).

Modern workshop
Image 4: Buurman’s workshop at Maker’s District in Rotterdam, https://onthegrid.city/rotterdam/west/keilewerf

Both DIY culture and Maker Movement are made by and for revolutionaries with the vision to de-institutionalize society and empower the individual. The network of makerspaces and fablabs in the cities are able to provide supplementary education that help students pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, the access to tools on its own is not enough to bring about political and social change. The new generation of architects-makers has to clearly define their position and act according to actual social and environmental needs in respect to the planet. Otherwise the makerspaces as potential shrines of contemporary knowledge will be sidelined as an ”irrelevant therapeutic escape for the affluent”.


[1] Public Workshop (2010).“5 Steps for Rebuilding the Profession of Architecture”. [Online] available at: http://publicworkshop.us/blog/2010/02/07/writing-5-steps-for-rebuilding-the-profession-of-architecture/

[2] Kieran S. and Timberlake J. (2004). Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction. McGraw Hill Companies: New York City.

[3] Ernst Gimson (n.d.). “Handiwork versus Machine Production”. [Online] available at: https://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/ernest-gimson/gimson-as-a-maker/handiwork-versus-machine-production/.

[4] Hailey C. (2005). “Re-viewing the Builder’s Yard as a Place for Design Visualization”
, School of Architecture – University of Florida, article presented at the Association of Community Design Annual Conference, New York.

[5] Buntrock, D. (2014). Japanese Architecture as a Collaborative Process: Opportunities in a Flexible Construction Culture. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group: New York.

[6] Morozov, E. (2015).Making it!, Pick up a spot welder and join the revolution”. A Critic at large blog, The New Yorker. [Online] available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/making-it-2.

[7] CNN (n.d.). “A community of makers”. [Online] available at: http://edition.cnn.com/videos/living/2017/12/14/makers-community.cnn.


Image 2: “Carpentry workshop at Russell & Sons Company, Broadway in Worcestershire, about 1926”. [Online] taken from: http://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/ernest-gimson/gimson-as-a-maker/handiwork-versus-machine-production/.

Image 3: Mixing cement in the Builder’s Yard, Column blocks prototyping in Builder’s Yard (Alexander, The Production of Houses), Mexicali, Mexico, 1976. [Online] taken from: http://plaza.ufl.edu/clhailey/pdf/Hailey_BuildersYard_ACD.pdf.

Image 4: “Buurman’s workshop at Maker’s District in Rotterdam”. [Online] taken from: https://onthegrid.city/rotterdam/west/keilewerf.

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