Craft + Context:
Connecting Architecture to Place and Time
by Mark Sofield

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Guest Editorial


Shaker meetinghouse in New Lebanon, New York
A Shaker meetinghouse in New Lebanon, New York, constructed in 1824.
Photo source Historic American Buildings Survey, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.
The essential meaning of craft in architecture lies in the nature of the connections a building or space creates—both internally, between its constituent parts, and externally, through its relationship to its place. These connections can be physical, temporal, or even spiritual. Ideally, all three are integrated into one effort.

Shinto shrines, Gothic cathedrals, and Shaker meetinghouses are touchstone works for so many architects because of the way, in each building type, these three realms of intent harmonize. Each structure combines a masterful command of the materials from which it is assembled, a profound understanding of its relationship to both time and space, and a transparent embrace of its role in connecting the worshipers it shelters with the ineffable worlds it evokes.

Due to the lack of historical perspective, there is less consensus among architects and urbanists regarding contemporary examples of buildings, especially secular ones, that successfully establish similar connections. Two admirable recent examples, though, are Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Amateur Architecture Studio’s Ningbo History Museum. Both buildings, which share similar functions but are located in vastly differing urban settings, transcend their contextual and programmatic imperatives through their exquisite control of the corporeal, historical, and metaphysical connections they embody.

Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago
Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Photo by John Faier.

The Modern Wing gently but definitively asserts its connection to place through its link to Millennium Park across the Monroe Street bridge, and by means of its skyline views to the larger city. Its temporal link to Chicago’s built history is achieved through material and constructional choices: limestone cladding to match the existing Art Institute buildings and a glass and steel curtain wall echoing the seminal skyscrapers of the Loop, which are visible through that very window wall. The luminous association of the Wing’s contents—the Museum’s European Modernism collection displayed in the north light in which the art was originally produced, accomplished by means of its “flying carpet” daylighting roof—reinforces the transcendent power of the art.

In the absence of a meaningful urban context, and as an implicit critique of China’s infatuation with First World development, the Ningbo History Museum’s hulking, patchwork massing evokes a connection to the mountainous landforms so central to Chinese cosmology. The accretive, sedimentary arrangement of recycled bricks in its facades, some of which date back 1,200 years to the Tang Dynasty, register geologic as well as human time. Those walls, which enclose a thoroughly modern building, are assembled using pre-modern, indigenous methods for reconstruction after the region’s frequent typhoons. While its rough appearance presents a stark contrast to the Modern Wing’s exquisitely refined detailing, here again is a building whose constructional techniques, temporal references, and spiritual associations function in concert to imbue the structure with connective strengths that elevate it to the status of true craft.

Ningbo History Museum
The Ningbo History Musuem.
Photo by Iwan Baan.

Both buildings also display another attribute common to works of great craftsmanship, which is a certain self-awareness, a knowingness about their effect on their users. I will always remember the sensation I experienced, in visiting Aalto’s Villa Mairea and also Green and Greene’s Gamble House, of feeling as if I had entered the psyches of the architects—that the spaces themselves had assumed the intelligence of their creators. The ability of a well-crafted building to project the thought and effort of its architects and the craftsmen who constructed it is what lifts it above the commonplace. The elevation of spirit we all feel in the presence of true craft is a natural consequence of the quality of effort that created the work.

This phenomenon is as often the result of an accumulation of small decisions or acts as it is the result of a single, revelatory insight. There is a point of inflection at which we all recognize that what is inalterably right about an object, building, or place is proportionally so much greater than what might still be lacking, that we concede to it the status of craft. That tipping point—at which the prosaic becomes poetic—exists for work across many scales in the built environment.

There are, naturally, differing technical and logistical concerns between those scales. A construction detailer and a city planner‘s workdays are entirely dissimilar. However, each faces the same basic problem regarding craft: how to extract the maximum utility and meaning from the least amount of material, be it physical or sociological or both. Each is also remarkably dependent on the other for the success of their efforts, and both are utterly dependent on the trades that will execute their plans.

Modern Wing
Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Photo by John Faier.

That interdependence (another form of connection) is one of the most compelling aspects of the building arts. A well-ordered collaborative design process involving all of a project’s stakeholders will invariably result in a product that provides the maximum meaning and utility for its end users. The quality of the architect’s documentation is so critical to this process that it is best approached as a form of craft in itself, and should seek to establish the same sorts of connections that the architect hopes to instill in the final, constructed product.

Some of the most fulfilling moments of my career have come when an unforeseen constructional problem has been solved by a tradesman based on the parameters established by the drawings, models, or patterns I furnished him—because he has understood the larger intent which that documentation conveys. More satisfying still are those instances when that solution has strengthened the meaning of the building in a way that I could not have accomplished alone. The necessity of a building’s advance representation to legibly and directly connect intention to end result is even more critical now, in this age of digital representation and fabrication, when the potential for miscommunication is compounded by the remoteness of the mediums of communication and production.

Ningbo History Museum
The Ningbo History Musuem.
Photo by Iwan Baan.

A final point about the connective nature of craft in the context of urban design concerns the relationship between part and whole. As I noted above, every participant in the creation of an urban space carries the potential to ennoble the efforts of their fellow placemakers through the quality of their own product. The stronger the working relationship they establish, the better the chance they will create a place whose elements will continue speaking to each other long after their creators have quit the scene. The connections established by that dialogue occur across the spectrum of design scales. A building’s detailing syntax should support its larger conceptual language, but these individual constructional elements should also relate across a group of buildings defining an urban space, so that each part furthers the meaning of the whole, and vice versa. This is especially true when the functions of the public space’s buildings differ. While it is natural to privilege certain building types (civic, for example) it is important to modulate the spatial and syntactical associations between the buildings that form a place in such a way that the more prominent types do not overpower the relationship.

The objective of craft in placemaking, then, is to deepen the purpose of constructed environments through the type and quality of the connections those environments embody and enable. These connections can be either intrinsic or extrinsic to the place or its elements. Intrinsic connections might be literal, as in the way components are assembled; or symbolic, as when a contextual association is registered in the space. While intrinsic connections internalize those associations, extrinsic connections are characterized instead by their projection of an object, building, or place’s intent and meaning into the larger physical or cultural landscape beyond its physical boundaries. Great buildings and places, like the Art Institute of Chicago Modern Wing and Ningbo History Museum, manage to weave together most or all of these types of connections into a multivalent assembly of constructional, relational, and analogical references and functions. It is no coincidence that the Greene brothers and Aalto were—and Piano and Shu are—as intimately familiar with the process of construction, and the physical and climatic forces acting upon their buildings, as with the societal effects of their work.



Mark SofieldMark Sofield is an architect in Longmont, Colorado. His firm works across a range of specialties from furniture and exhibition design to institutional architecture and planning. Since 1998 he has also been the town architect for Prospect New Town, a new urbanist development in Longmont (and one of the case studies in the new Unsprawl book). His design work has been published in numerous books and periodicals, including Dwell Magazine and The New York Times, and has been widely exhibited, most notably in the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, and Smithsonian Institution Design Triennial.

Header and home page photo of the Ningbo History Museum by Lv Hengzhong, courtesy the Pritzker Foundation. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.