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Architectural Craftsmanship and Public Responsibility, by Hans Teerds

It does not need much explanation that buildings represent ideas. Like all other artifacts, ideas shape buildings. Or at least, ideas are part of the ambitions of both the commissioner and the designer that somehow affects the design. Sometimes this representation is the very the aim of the project: a city that wants to ‘brand’ its mark, a bank that needs to express grandeur, an emperor aiming to impress citizens. Buildings are powerful instruments of impression and expression. Nevertheless, buildings cannot be completely controlled by the commissioner, nor by the designer. Their very expression in time also depends upon its own history: how they are occupied, used and appropriated. But even if we acknowledge this loose relation between ambitions and reality (in time), the role of the designer is at stake? Where lies the responsibility for a certain choice of typology, expression, aesthetics, particularly if we understand the designer as bearing responsibility to simultaneously answer the needs of the commissioner as well as regarding the broader picture of the world-in-common? No architectural approach after all is neutral, nor is any architectural project free from value judgements.

Particularly if we acknowledge the agency of architecture as conceiving and constructing interventions in a world that is in common, to use a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt, the approach to a project should be challenged from the understanding of that common world. In other words, the architect inevitably is a figure in-between the commission and project itself on the one hand, and the world-in-common on the other. This in-between position challenges the responsibility of the designer, particularly urging for a certain freedom of critical reflection within a project: to critically discuss the assignment as well as the ambitions behind.

In order to understand this challenge, this paper will reflect upon the notion of architectural ‘craftsmanship’. This term recently has been revalued by sociologist Richard Sennett, who in his book The Craftsman presents public responsibility as essential to the idea of craftsmanship. Although Sennett presents this view as a correction on the (negative) reflections on the homo faber by Hannah Arendt, this paper will reveal how close their particular viewpoints are. Moreover, Arendt’s writings are even more valuable in order to put that responsibility in perspective, particularly if we simultaneously investigate her reflections upon the world-in-common, as being constructed by the homo faber, on the one hand, and the human faculty of judgement on the other. This paper therefore will offer a perspective upon the role of the designer in architectural projects, showing how architecture bears inherently public responsibility for the world, as well as offering a reading of the act of ‘design’ as judgment of the materials at hand. This latter aspect creates room for the critical approach to design – not only critical to the circumstances, wishes and ambitions of the client, but also self-critical, to the own pre-occupations and blind spots. Understanding architecture as a public endeavor offers a ground for architectural craftsmen to simultaneously be self-critical as well as representing the public within architectural processes, facing the ambitions of all involved in the singular architectural project.

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