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22 March 2012

What is a Master Builder?

Last month, I said the architect no longer is the Master Builder. Architects still have a valuable place in construction, but that place is much diminished from what it was a hundred and fifty years ago. To appreciate the degree of change, let's look at what things were like many years ago. The following quotation uses the term "master mason", but the meaning is essentially the same as "master builder."
The master mason was in charge. He was architect and builder rolled into one. He often directed a work force numbering into hundreds. But he also worked among his people. He cut stone and installed plumbing. That puzzles us, wed as we are to the notion that academic and manual knowledge don't mix.
John H. Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History, University of Houston; my emphasis.
architect: 1550s, from M.Fr. architecte, from L. architectus, from Gk. arkhitekton "master builder, director of works," from arkhi- "chief" + tekton "builder, carpenter". An O.E. word for it was heahcræftiga "high-crafter." Online Etymology Dictionary
About 2,000 years ago, Roman military engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote De architectura, now commonly known as the Ten Books on Architecture. As I'm sure most readers will know, he said good design required three things - firmitas, utilitas, venustas, or strength, utility, and beauty.

We are less familiar with other things Vitruvius had to say about architecture. His first chapter discusses the profession of architecture and the education of the architect.
[Architecture] is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion.

It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.

…Let him be educated, skilful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens.

Translation by Morris H. Morgan, PHD, LLD, professor, Harvard University.
The ten books address a wide range of other subjects: planning, civil engineering, pavement, plaster, flooring, painting, color, aqueducts, geometry, astronomy, drainage, water mills, hoisting, building technology in general, siege engines, and more. Given the extent of his knowledge, I think we can say Vitruvius was a master builder. He wasn't the first, nor was he the last. As we will see, the profession of the master builder existed throughout much of history, until relatively recently.

How much of the education Vitruvius discusses is found in modern schools of architecture? The curriculum at my alma mater didn't match up too well with what he had in mind. I don't know what is offered at every school of architecture in the US, but I suspect they are similar. High school English, or perhaps another year in college seems to be enough for good writing. My college believed that sketching still lifes and nudes was more valuable than producing working drawings. Hard sciences were, well, too hard for architects, so we had only minimal requirements for math and physics, followed by engineering for dummies. We did have a brush with history, but only of the architectural variety, and that focused on the appearance of buildings rather than their function.

Many architecture schools spend years teaching planning and Big D design, give some attention to building systems and professional practice, and spurn construction experience as beneath the dignity of the architect. What did Vitruvius say? "…those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance." To be a master builder requires knowledge of construction materials and how they are assembled.

I haven't been around long enough to say from personal experience, but from what I have heard and read, architects were respected people well into the twentieth century, when they still were thought of as "master builders". They knew a lot about the products they used and how they were to be installed, and they probably had hands-on construction experience. And when they visited the project site, the contractors feared the words, "Take it down and do it again - right!" or "Stop the work!"

Those days are gone. Today it's more common for the visiting architect to be ignored, sometimes sneered at. Owners don't trust architects as they did in the past; they now feel the need to hire construction managers, owner's representatives, and commissioning agents, each of whom assumes some of the architect's traditional responsibilities.

Architects have, over the last few decades, given up many of the services they formerly were expected to perform. This is partly due to the enormously increased complexity of construction and building systems - it is no longer possible for an architect to be familiar with all products - but there has also been a conscious effort to avoid responsibility, to just do the fun stuff. Many schools do not prepare future architects for their jobs; they do students a disservice by encouraging their belief that one day, they all will be design architects. The reality is that, especially in large firms, few architects do Design, while the majority translate the design into drawings and specifications, or, more recently, a model.

Next, we'll look at some of the things architects have given up.

Links to other articles in this series:
What happened to the master builder?
What have architects given up?
What happened to the architect?
Are specifiers weak in faith?
How have the architect's responsibilities changed?
What lies ahead for architects?


  1. Sheldon,

    Seeing this post reminded me that I hadn't replied to the very gracious phone message you left for me after my reply to the previous post. I apologize for not calling back promptly. We've been swamped at work, for which I'm grateful, but the pace has really cut into my ability to keep up with the professional dialog.

    Regarding this post and your thoughts about architectural education, I can attest that my architectural education, at IIT in Chicago in the 1960s, was as disappointing to me as it sounds like yours was to you. They spent five years leisurely pouring Miesian aesthetic sensibility into our young impressionable heads, and neglected to teach us lots of useful things such as building codes, how to organize actual working drawings, how to detail using actual modern building materials, what factors really drive the construction industry, the legal-professional responsibilities of a registered architect, and -oh yes- specifications and bidding. It was a real relief for me to escape the academic world of architecture school at graduation in 1968 and get into an architectural office where I could start learning things that were actually useful.

    After a couple of years of working in an architectural office, I actually considered trying some sort of class-action lawsuit against architectural schools, for their failure to teach useful stuff. Fortunately I backed off that idea and got married instead, which calmed me down considerably.

    I get the impression that most architectural schools are still sadly lacking in the imparting-useful-skills department. Maybe the new architectural-design-building school being started in Chicago, the Integrated School of Building will be able to do a better job. I sure hope so. I agree with Ralph Liebing that the poor quality of architectural education is a real problem for the entire AEC industry.

    I'll be patient and look forward to your further exposition of the idea that architects have "given up" things, and that our role is "diminished", although I'm really skeptical about it. My idea is that the exponential increase in building complexity has caused all these ancillary functions to be spun off to other specialists, that it was inevitable, and that we'd be even more neurotic and exhausted if we'd tried to hold on to them.

  2. Schuyler Bartholomay, Assoc. AIA, CDT, LEED AP11 April, 2012 16:00

    I'm intrigued by your articles and would love to write a response in the local AIA Redwood Empire Newsletter. Your Master Builder series has made quite a stir in the architectural community. Please contact me as your earliest convenience. Thank you so much.
    Schuyler Bartholomay