Sunday, July 15, 2012

Some Rambling Thoughts on Peter Cardew and the Meaning of Craft

I received a copy of Canadian Architect magazine in the mail the other day. It came with a special edition on Peter Cardew, recipient of the RAIC Gold Medal 2012. Peter Cardew is a Vancouver Architect who started his practice in 1980. I am reminded of a forum organized by the Craft Council of British Columbia in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s at Emily Carr College of Art. The subject of the forum was collaborations between craftspeople and architects. Peter Cardew was the architect invited to speak on the topic. I will always remember his presentation as confusing and awkward. I could not understand why of all the architects, he had been invited to speak on this topic. Reading this Canadian Architect publication all these years later gives me some ideas. Peter Cardew’s presentation at the CCBC forum consisted of showing slides of his work and making the occasional comment on the quality of work, or craft of some of the tradespersons involving in the production of his buildings. For example, he mentioned the quality of the concrete finishing on one project. Clearly there was a big difference between the craft work in his projects and the concept of collaboration between craftspeople and architects as understood by CCBC and its members. The collaborations that were the subject of the CCBC forum would involve the craftsperson being commissioned to design and produce work to compliment the architect’s design. Some examples might be a glass feature wall, ceramic lighting fixtures, wood furniture, a metal sculpture etc. For Peter Cardew, craft referred to the execution of his designs by tradespersons. The confusion involves the use of the word “craft” in the modern context. Today architecture is built by tradespersons, carpenters, joiners, masons, plumbers, electricians, etc. The word “craft” can be a verb or a noun. In each case it refers to the work of a craftsperson as in “to craft a piece of furniture” or “the potter’s craft”. The word “trade” can also be a verb or a noun but when used as a verb it does not refer to the work of a tradesperson. To trade a piece of furniture means to exchange it. Modern craftspeople have been struggling with their identity and place in our culture for decades. We no longer rely on craftspeople to make the things we need. In the modern world these things are produced by industry and distributed through stores. Craftspeople today see themselves as artists, as designers and makers of the unique things they produce. The role of the craftsperson has changed but language has not changed in step. The word “craft” is still used as it might have been centuries ago. In the production of architecture, craftspeople have been replaced with tradespersons. Rather than creating new words to describe the work of these tradespersons, the word “craft” has been retained. This I believe was the basis for the confusing presentation given by Peter Cardew at the CCBC forum. For the modern craftsperson, this confusion continues.

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