Discourse delivered in Lisbon on November 17th, 2023
by the founders of La Table Ronde de l’Architecture,
Nadia Naty Everard & Noé Morin
translated by Patrick Webb
By way of introduction we would like to say that our Modern world is so estranged from nature that at present we are obligated to rediscover, by means of study and research, solutions that were once common knowledge. One must now rediscover the thermal inertia of the soil, the refreshing power of trees, the longevity of simply constructed walls, the practicality of pitched roofs, and the benefits of lime. Such practical wisdom, that our forefathers mastered so perfectly, is what constitutes tradition. Tradition is really nothing other than this: a body of know-how gradually acquired over the course of centuries, transmitted from parent to child, from teacher to student, from compagnon to apprentice during countless generations.
Such traditions act as a language that unites members of the same craft or of the same community and stand as a source of incontestable authority. This is why in traditional societies the holders of tradition, which is to say the elderly or at least older, are largely beneficiaries of a moral authority conferred upon them owing to their seniority and knowledge of the past. As it turns out, in Modern societies one observes the exact opposite; our societies more readily place a premium on youth, take the ageing process as a bad omen, a clear sign that we’ve abandoned any belief in the superior moral value of tradition. In the course of this presentation, we’ll return to what now characterises moral authority in Modern society but for the sake of brevity please permit us to proceed straight away to the next step of our reasoning.
Progressively from the Renaissance one sees a double phenomenon of detachment that leads, over the course of several centuries, to tradition being replaced by science as the source both of authority and of knowledge. These phenomena are initially evident with the separation of the arts into Beauty and Utility. Formerly, art and technique were bound together. Since Graeco-Roman antiquity through Medieval Christianity, Beauty and Utility went together. In like manner, even today we don’t always see a clean division between manual and intellectual professions; the manual and intellectual are often inseparable.
The initial separation of Beauty and Utility, of the intellectual and the manual, or one could even say the spirit from the body, comes in as we previously stated in the Renaissance. It was in 14th century Florence that the humanists decided to split up the liberal arts, which was comprised of three disciplines (dialectic, grammar, and rhetoric), giving pride of place to grammar and rhetoric whilst setting aside dialectic. Dialectic was, among the liberal arts, the most intellectual as it required a sense of logic, a rationality; it was by definition less artistic than either grammar or rhetoric.
A rupture is thus signalled by Italian humanism that makes the artistic character prevail over logic, unknowingly opening a historical gap that contributes to the split between Beauty and Utility. So then, art bereft of utility, the “art for art’s sake” as the 19th century Parnassians would later defend it, an art devoid of meaning, no longer in pursuit of any truth. It likewise became an art that was as free as it was insignificant (Modern art being a perfect illustration of this), whereas utility emerged as the sole prerogative of a nascent industrialism.
From the Renaissance and even more so since the triumph of the modern State, we have come to accept the following: for the pretty, meaningless things, there is art; for useful things that don’t have to be pretty, there is industry. In such a context the artisan who represented the perfect marriage of Beauty and Utility lost all reason for existence. He therefore disappeared whereas an architecture developed that more and more resembled a product of mass industry: standardised, uniform, prefabricated.
If we have temporarily taken this long historical detour, it is to show you that the world in which we now live, the architecture we construct, proceeds from the development of civilisation. We’ve reached a stage in the historical process where architecture is called upon to classify itself either among pretty, yet insignificant things or as a useful industrial product. Spurring this along was the development of the scientific mentality that in the 19th century had rapidly expanded and that progressively came to replace all former sources of knowledge. Scientific discourse had replaced God, so that at the end of the 19th century Nietzsche for the first time takes note of the demise (“God is dead”, The Gay Science, 1882); moreover, it had likewise replaced tradition. In one fell swoop tradition ceased to be passed on, youth in search of truth turned away from their forefathers; they rather paid heed to the scientists that were making extraordinary leaps in understanding man and his environment. The moral authority held by religion and tradition passed inexorably to the scientists and their followers.
This change runs through the entire society that gradually submits to the dictates of science, including domains to which it was completely foreign such as government (where the administration of things replaces a government of men) and the economy (that tends more and more to display a scientific character of absolute truth). The same effect was produced in architecture that slowly drew away from its oral and written traditions, ceasing to transmit them, instead falling in love with new technologies and big names – this is the moment that appears massive buildings and mass complexes.
Nowadays, should you mention to an architect or workman of an architectural method as simple as a Roman arch, for example, he’ll regard you with a distrustful air asking you if such an ancient technique that doesn’t even appear in the ABC’s of Modernism is really to be trusted…and we’re speaking of a proven technique, one that has been successfully employed for centuries! Yet the Modernist architect trusts nothing old. From this point on, tradition disturbs whilst novelty assures. This is not merely the fruit of ignorance, rather an intuition deeply anchored in the human psyche that pushes us moderns towards unconditional belief in the superiority of the technological discovery as compared to the tired old recipes of tradition. This is a deeply held conviction by the majority of our contemporaries and for us to rid ourselves of it Modernism must be measured, subjected to a profit and loss statement, one that tabulates the true contribution of technology in our lives because, as so often is the case, technology is merely responding to the very problems it itself has engendered. However, this is not the objective of our intervention…
The goal of our intervention, after having stated that we are the fruit of a long history, is to present you with some modest solutions that we have made a point to rediscover and teach, that of traditional architecture. It’s not that we’re nostalgic or fixated on the past, rather we think that if contemporary architecture refuses to make changes influenced by such traditions, it will simply disappear.
We’ve given a lot of thought, upon the creation of our association in 2020, of appropriate means of making changes in architecture, as it appears that architecture cannot continue going the way it has. From the perspective of available resources and the pollution engendered by concrete, glass, and metals of which millions of tonnes are spread throughout the world, on a path towards depletion. As such materials become exhausted or deemed too polluting, we’ll be obliged to return to natural materials found in abundance such as earth or stone, and once again the building trades will have to be trained in their use. In such a context, tradition will become indispensable in recognising stone suitable to build with, knowing its working means and methods and where its use is appropriate. Architects and craftsmen will have to relearn that is what is sometimes good in one locale is bad in another due to variances in climate, custom, and the quality of available materials.
In the short term, the rapid obsolescence of new construction poses an even more grave threat to the construction sector which has taken on the character of a bottomless pit into which public and private authorities have thrown away immense material and financial resources in a complete loss.
Finally, owing to its appearance as a standardised commercial product, contemporary architecture appears to be at the very heart of an unprecedented crisis. If things were to continue apace, we imagine that architects are bound to disappear as their contribution to the conception of a building will become so mediocre and so minimal that they’ll be easily supplanted by artificial intelligence. It is readily apparent, despite the vigorous protests of the profession and academia against our analyses (that they wrongly interpret as personal attacks), we are working for the very survival of architects and the construction trades. We’re striving that in a century hence, architects will not have been replaced by artificial intelligence and craftsmen by robots. Yet the terms of their survival will be the relearning of a science that is unique, demanding, and irreplaceable. To survive, they must once again become competent.
You can change all the regulations, rewrite all the laws to persuade real estate developers to invest their money in traditional projects, yet if you don’t have well-trained architects and craftsmen, having mastered draughtsmanship, geometry, and the local building traditions, something essential will remain missing and the resulting architecture will never be convincing.
This is why we’ve come to understand that the most urgent task at hand is to set up a school. The history of architecture and art are the schools: from the workshops of the Compagnons to the schools of Rome that inspired the quattrocento Italians, from the l’école des Beaux-Arts de Paris to the ateliers Saint-Luc en Belgique, even the Bauhaus of Dessau, architecture is reinvigorated from a foundation, from its schools. More recently we’ve seen the flourishing throughout Europe of new architectural summer schools in the Netherlands and Belgium, in Spain and Portugal, in the United Kingdom, Poland among other places. Following their tremendous success, we’ve likewise decided to found a school: The Bruges Summer School of Architecture & Crafts.
For the time being, this remains a summer school. However, within a few years we’ve the firm intention of making it a permanent school. It is to be a place dedicated to discussion and study, liberated from the ideological blinders and stressful environment typical of academia. We want this school to be a safe haven where we learn the richness of traditions that may give birth to a new moral philosophy. If you permit us a bit of liberty with Rabelais' dictum: “Architecture without conscience is the ruin of the soul”. We want our students to understand why it is advantageous to use certain materials in a particular place, a particular process in another, and that very often style emerges from geology, the availability of resources as well as the climate.
We wish to avoid our students being drowned in the immense catalogue of styles as was the case with so many 19th century architects confronted with the exuberance of archaeological discoveries, and who fell into the trap of employing the uncovered traditions only superficially. We are making our way towards a reasonable architecture. Such a quest is full of perils; it demands a good deal of reflection and humility. Nothing could be more damaging than a mere surface approach to tradition that borrows from each era and every style without having solid reasons for doing so. Employing Egyptian symbolism in Portugal for example or transposing Scandinavian building techniques to Morocco make no sense whatsoever. One ought to exercise restraint in the face of the immense richness of the traditional vocabulary and to temper one’s enthusiasm with a measure of pragmatism and seriousness. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good”, counselled the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Thessalonians. We too subscribe to Saint Paul’s formula: nothing comes for free, nothing is without meaning, everything must have its justification.
Why are we so insistent upon this point? Because we are at the dawn of an architectural renascence buoyed by courageous architects and craftsmen many of which are already present at our side. This renascence is at times as ambitious as it is fragile. We are not seeking a compromise. If we make the mistake of teaching our students to play around with styles, to blend various symbols and to employ materials according to their fancy, we risk provoking forceful, purist reprisals as we know too well from history. The advent of Modernism at the beginning of the 20th century was not possible without the contribution of what August Pugin called “a carnival of Architecture” that reigned from the beginning of the 19th century. One mustn’t ignore the powerful dynamo of purism and hatred of all abundance and decadence that is found at the very heart of Modernism. We don’t wish for our school to serve as a pretext for yet another reactionary, puritanical backlash. Our architecture isn’t a carnival parade. Likewise, our instruction ought not to be fantastical. The very best way to ensure that our teaching will not succumb to such flights of fancy is to collaborate in complete lock step with craftsmen.
Effectively, a trench has been dug separately the craftsman from the architect, pushing the latter towards abstract creativity detached from all material constraint. Behind their computer screens, plunged into a software cosmos of architectural unreality, architects are transformed into demigods making perfect geometric forms appear ex-nihilo. Such forms have neither texture nor coarseness, neither weight nor imperfection. Thanks to the magic of computers and reinforced concrete, all things are possible.
Only contact with artisans and materials is enough to wake architects up from the virtual hallucination into which they have fallen. It is for this very reason that our school is a school of both architecture and craft. Without this marriage of architecture and artisanship, it would be impossible to achieve what Viollet-Le-Duc called, “a reasonable architecture” an architecture that is grounded in materials, the practical as opposed to the theoretical.
Consequently, the curriculum of our summer school gives pride of place to handcraft. Our students are first invited to observe traditional building, to design according to its characteristics, to study its properties. This first phase of observation is fundamental. Subsequently, the students discover stone carving, carpentry, masonry, stucco and plastering among other disciplines. We put the materials in their own hands. They thus come to understand that materials possess their own will and act according to their own logic; so suddenly, the traditional vocabulary begins to seem intelligible, even self-evident. They come to learn it all: brick masonry techniques, laying courses of stone, the processes of assembly of structural timber, the role and use of lime in mortars and coatings. All that they observe during the first half of the summer school helps them understand the rational techniques offered in the second half. This is the way that they come to realise the vital connections that unite architecture and craft.
Among our students, many change their career path, choosing to abandon architecture to devote themselves to artisanship because to their eyes craft is no longer just bit of folklore found in a museum and artisans are no longer mere curiosities, dinosaurs on exhibit annually during heritage day festivals. Emerging from our summer school, craft has become for them the source of all architecture and the artisans the custodian of inestimable know-how.
Finally, and we’ll be wrapping it up here, we want the students to leave energised and determined. We aim to spare them of the 20th century authoritarian delusions, remove from before them the temptation of total control typical of Modernist urban planning, exchanging for it a taste of freedom. Such a taste of freedom they will never acquire in the brutal and competitive world of the university that they know too well, in crammed auditoriums full to overflowing, with a single professor preaching to a multitude, before humiliating juries that have become the crown jewel of academic architectural instruction. To the students at such universities, they are only taught a false liberty that consists of: “fuck the context, do whatever you want”. Yet it isn’t from yourself that you learn how freedom presupposes an order, and that order is what we call the vocabulary of tradition. If one does not correctly learn this vocabulary upon which rests architectural literacy, you’ll be incapable of coherently expressing yourself, incapable of being truly free.
For our part, we believe that freedom is acquired in close contact with one’s peers, in a caring school environment both benevolent and conducive to discussion, and by the transmission of a language that will permit each student his liberty, as opposed to finding oneself constrained to grunt in the impoverished dialect of Modernism for want of anything better.
This is precisely why the Spirit of the Compagnons accompanies us at every step of our endeavour. The Spirit of the Compagnonship above all else the solidarity of a group that collaborates in their work. Anyone who has ever carved stone or shaped wood knows that to construct a vault or assemble a timber frame, it requires that all the workers know their individual job well so that the collective effort stands firm. Artisanal work, whose success rests on the solidarity of all parties, helps compensate the solitude of the architect. By means of artisanal work, it is not the ego of any single individual that is expressed, rather the collective achievement of the group. To shine, one must let others shine. A sculptor may extract a certain amount of praise for his personal contribution to a cathedral, for example; however, once completed the cathedral will be the culminative expression of a collective genius. It is this collective genius upon which the pride of the group depends, that forms the basis for new communities.
What we’re trying to achieve, at our modest scale in our school in Bruges by means of handcraft and teaching of tradition, is to found a community. In a world ever more marked by individualism and social Darwinism, it is vital to establish these islands of solidarity and mutual aid. Beyond any teaching that we may offer them, what identifies the students that come to see us is the relief they experience at having found a secure, safe place among family. And it is this sense of family that comes closest to the Spirit of the Compagnons.