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Hope in honest error: Richard Senett has written an inspiring account of the true importance of craft skills in society
Apollo. 168.556 (July-August 2008): p126+.
Full Text: 

The Craftsman


Allen Lane, 25 [pounds sterling]/Yale $27.50

ISBN 9780713998733 (UK); 9780300119091(US)


Richard Sennett, a sociologist-philosopher of pragmatic persuasion, aims in this volume and its two planned successors to explore 'what the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves'. There is something for all of us in a society that remarks on a job well done and Sennett's convincing argument is made against a world in which job satisfaction and responsibility, whether for personal error or achievement, are dissolving in a deeply disturbing fashion.

There is much of Ruskin in these pages, little of Morris, except by inference. For the sage of Denmark Hill, printing (in its mechanistic form) and gunpowder were the twin 'curses of the age' and in an entertaining passage Sennett imagines the exchange between Diderot, the Enlightenment prophet of rational but satisfactory labour, and Ruskin, the Romantic for whom the only way forward was back and for whom Brunel epitomised all that was objectionable. Diderot's achievement was to record, but also to innovate; for example, in the Encyclopedie he improved on the foul process of paper-making, pointing to transformations in production methods yet to come. In this debate Sennett (as, surely, most of us) finds himself entirely unequivocal, standing with his feet firmly on the Clifton Suspension Bridge. After all, he reminds us, even Watt's steam engine was fabricated by hand, before its manufacture too was mechanised--a perfect circle.

When he turns to the question of mastering skills, Sennett, himself a cellist, cites the Isaac Stern 'rule' that a musician's ability determines the amount of practice he or she can tolerate (try telling that to a child sawing its way towards Grade 2). Where the transmission of a particular skill is concerned, he makes an appealing comparison between three great cooks--two famous, one obscure--and their choice of language and method in conveying a recipe. Julia Child does so at great length, a meticulous step-by-step guide, Elizabeth David offers a feast of cultural references that open the mind as well as teasing the appetite, while his Persian-born tutor at American night-school conveyed each stage of the enterprise with intense physicality conveyed in a few surprising words. The crowning moment, when the sauce was poured over the cooked chicken, was, she said, the moment the bird 'put on his jewels'.

The nature of materials is of great consequence in Sennett's argument. Handmade bricks, originally of a size no bigger than the hand of the bricklayer, with their infinitely varied tones and surfaces were--are --considered 'natural' and in The Complete Body of Architecture Isaac Ware set brick against stucco, the latter a kind of admissible artifice representing 'culture'. After all, stucco gave craftsmen new freedoms, leading to all kinds of novel skills. Thus the cult of the blemished is not always to be celebrated while overcoming technological difficulties is another kind of dexterity; the adjustment of the 'wobble' on the Millennium Bridge over the Thames was in fact a triumph, rather than the failure trumpeted by the press.

Sennett is no technophobe: he is always arguing for a technology that can serve as adjunct to and enabler of craft skill. This is not the untiring machine that degraded, then displaced, the human workforce, nor the mechanistic processes of work without satisfaction, as evidenced in state housing in the USSR, where newspapers (painted over) were stuffed into the interstices of imperfect window frames, or the troubling dislocation between hand and mind that over-dependence on CAD (computer-assisted design) can bring to architectural design. There is a thrill in the movement of pen and pencil over paper in the hand of a fine architect such as Renzo Piano--evidence of a creative mind in its circular process of developing an idea 'drawing and making and then back again'. But Sennett accepts that the mindless commercial architecture of the 1960s and 1970s arose without CAD, imprisoned within the rigidities of the blueprint and at the Peachtree Project in Atlanta, Georgia, his chosen example of the dreadful, the grim result was generated by an over-determined brief.

The master craftsman may be in a class apart but the creative virtuoso inhabits a different universe. Benvenuto Cellini cannot be compared to Stradivarius, whose atelier focused upon his extraordinary skill but died with him, his secrets still only his. Sennett consciously avoids using the term 'creativity', considering that it 'carries too much Romantic baggage'. He finds little appeal in the extraordinary flash of inspiration, the isolation of the genius, and admires the subtle approach adopted by Aldo Van Eyck, whose urban playgrounds were designed to emphasise ambiguity, clutter and incident, so distant from the deterministic view of Le Corbusier. The latter prized order at all costs, preferring to ease traffic flow rather than bend with the coincidence of daily life. Sennett has a particular and wholly sympathetic fondness for error; the flaw that points to the human hand, evidence of a maker not a conceptualist.

Sennett only briefly touches on 'Japanese values'. I wish he had spent some paragraphs in discussion of the archetypal master, even now much in evidence, and how that status relates to the strength of 'family'--applied to empire or factory as the case might be. The respect for and attention to hierarchy that he notes as the clue to Japanese industrial pre-eminence is, after all, sui generis. So too was the onward path indicated to an entrant to a medieval guild, apprentice to journeyman, even perhaps journeyman to master--the latter a figure combining authority and autonomy in equal measure.

Towards the end of the book Sennett tellingly compares two ostensibly rather similar houses built in early-20th-century Vienna; one was designed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for his sister, the other by Adolf Loos for himself. In the latter, the Villa Moller, every mistake had to be absorbed by the architecture--there was no deep purse for adjustment--while in the former, all errors were erased and rebuilt, leading to a result that Wittgenstein himself judged to be a deep disappointment. There had been no 'creative dialogue between form and error'. Surely, Sennett suggests, these lessons could be widely applied? Evolution rather than instant perfection is, we must conclude with him, the one persuasive argument.

Gillian Darley's biographies of John Soane and John Evelyn are both published by Yale University Press.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Darley, Gillian. "Hope in honest error: Richard Senett has written an inspiring account of the true importance of craft skills in society." Apollo, July-Aug. 2008, p. 126+. Book Review Index Plus, Accessed 22 May 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A181463183