Assembling the Architect
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Assembling the Architect

The History and Theory of Professional Practice

George Barnett Johnston

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eBook - ePub

Assembling the Architect

The History and Theory of Professional Practice

George Barnett Johnston

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About This Book

Assembling the Architect explores the origins and history of architectural practice. It unravels the competing interests that historically have structured the field and cultivates a deeper understanding of the contemporary profession. Focusing on the period 1870 to 1920 when the foundations were being laid for the U.S. architectural profession that we recognize today, this study traces the formation and standardization of the fundamental relationships among architects, owners, and builders, as codified in the American Institute of Architects' very first Handbook of Architectural Practice. It reveals how these archetypal roles have always been fluid, each successfully redefining their own agency with respect to the others in the constantly-shifting political economy of building. Far from being a purely historical study, the book also sheds light on today's digitally-enabled profession. Contemporary architectural tools and disciplinary ideals continue to be shaped by the same fundamental tensions, and emergent modes of practice such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) and IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) represent the realization of programs and agendas that have been over a century in play. Essential reading for professional practice courses as a contextual and historical companion to the Handbook, Assembling the Architect provides a critical perspective of the profession that is fundamental to understanding current architectural practice.

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CHAPTER ONE
Seeing Double: Histories of Architectural Practice
A predominant historical assumption about the transplantation of the European concept of architecture to North America uncritically accepts an old-world/new-world dialectic about the origins of culture and the trajectory of civilizing taste. We need not subscribe to reactionary doctrines of American exceptionalism in order to counter that trope; rather, it is possible to recognize that within the mechanisms of colonialism, practices as well as theories are transformed when they travel. Their meanings and practical implications can and do change when transplanted to new soils.1 The “break” in continuity of architecture culture and practice from the old world to the new embodied both political and ideological differences despite any apparent continuities with European formal stylistic traditions. In many respects, architectural practice had to be reinvented in the new colonial context, but it emerged in turn with its own colonizing tendencies that acted back upon the source.
Instruments of architectural practice such as contracts and change orders, shop drawings and specifications did not just spring forth from nowhere; rather, they developed over time as functional equivalents on the social plane of the material-specific tools that mediate any craft or trade. They rationalized and formalized the social and material interactions bred by increasingly complex building tasks. As such, they served as structuring mechanisms both shaped by and shaping practice, both enabling and constraining human agency. Such tools were forged in response to indigenous needs to mediate differentiated local building cultures.
Even while local conventions held sway, architectural practice in the United States became increasingly nationalized following the Civil War. Legal precedents, business tactics, and building materials and techniques migrated across state boundaries; dialog and debate about the uniform terms of contractual relations were propagated by professional organizations and trade publications; the education of architects became increasingly institutionalized. When Frank Miles Day set himself the task in 1917 of soliciting, sifting, and distilling “best practices” from professional colleagues from across the country, he hit upon a novel device that seems only in retrospect to have been an obvious or inevitable form. The drafting and ongoing revision of Day’s Handbook of Architectural Practice made the nationalization—and rationalization—of architectural practice an explicit process. Once published, it established a baseline of shared experience and common wisdom that redounded to the standardization of previously tacit, locally differentiated practices.
Owners and builders, their umpires and agents
Before we can even begin to imagine an architect on-the-scene as owner’s agent or master builder, we must first envision a relationship far more fundamental, the one that obtains between owners and builders themselves. According to a late-nineteenth-century treatise on construction law, “The relation between the builder and the owner is formed exclusively by the contract.”2 From this we might wonder, which came first, the architect or the contract? While Vitruvius posited the existence of the architect as an historical fait accompli already deeply embedded in Greco-Roman culture from ancient times, the raison d’être of the architect in America cannot be so quickly assumed. The necessity for and presence of the architect in the settlement of North America were neither functionally nor historically preordained; rather, the role of architect on this continent had to be reestablished in its own right, within an endemic culture of practice.
The logic of building practice in the United States can be best understood in terms of gradual shifts in the political economy of building which issued from colonial times and outward, advancing toward an imaginary frontier into which displaced native peoples had retreated. Over three centuries of settlement, pioneers and ostensibly self-sufficient settlers became a symbiotic society, both widely dispersed across the landscape and tightly concentrated in cities. They were composed of property owners unable to simply build for themselves; and of crafts people building for others, whether for trade or through involuntary servitude, plying their skill in wood, brick, iron, and stone. The notion of an architect could issue from either side of that equation, but each formulation carried embedded relations of class and power.3
On the one hand, we might imagine royally entitled owners of landed estates possessing—along with scores of enslaved individuals whose skilled labor they could direct toward ambitious building goals—some knowledge in science and mathematics, a set of fine drawing instruments, and a personal library with European architectural folios, perhaps of Palladian plates.4 In this instance, the colonial grantee would serve in effect as both developer and their own architect following a model of English aristocracy. The gentlemanly architect supplied a vision and the necessary resources, guiding craft laborers either directly or organizing them through skilled intermediaries, in the day-to-day execution of their tasks. The second or third sons of those estates, foreclosed as legatees by the customs of primogeniture, might find for themselves a calling as building designer and adviser, an “architect” to others of their same social class.
On the other hand, and in contrast to agrarian narratives, we might envision a flourishing city, still fresh within recent memory as a mere settlement, expanding and being subdivided into land lots assigned for private, commercial, or public uses now awaiting their requisite structures. By commission on contract, or increasingly on speculation for profit, loose companies of masons and carpenters, journeymen and apprentices guided by the experience of their contracting masters—and their sometime sketches adapted from pattern books of classical detail—could infill with ample facility the surveyor’s grid with a serviceable building fabric. With increasing acumen, such builders’ draftsmen might provide plans as a service to their commercial or other clientele, or they might separate from their builder colleagues altogether and distinguish themselves independently with a self-anointed title, “architect.” They might also strive in their dealings with clients, some with more and some with less success, to attain the social status and position of gentleman.
Then, moving into the nineteenth century, in a familiar trope of westward expansion, we might conjure up the figure of the pioneer settler, hewing shelter out of the forest or out on the prairie.5 We imagine the triad of actors that defines the contemporary construction industry springing forth from some primary unity where the roles of owner, architect, and builder were all performed by one-and-the-same, rugged individuals fulfilling their basic dwelling needs with just the means at hand. As the scope and complexity of projects expanded, then a reservoir of labor stood ready at hand but in need of direction. The various trades—carpenters and masons, masters and apprentices—at first could construe and construct designs verbally conveyed to them by their clients, owners acting in effect if not in fact as their own architects. Over time and as the scale and complexity of building grew, enterprising builders managed, through the intermediary of drafters and their drawings, to supply to the owner ever more differentiated designs to satisfy increasingly exacting requirements.6
These three versions of the same story illustrate the hybrid genealogy of a nascent profession. Construction customs and building design practices migrated to North America along with embedded architectural traditions, but they adapted to local conditions. They were shaped by, and in turn shaped, the diverse interests and expectations of building instigators, all of whom operated within regionally differentiated notions of commerce and trade.7 In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, even as the field of architecture was being formalized within a still maturing framework of American business and law, journal editorialists and convention speakers strove to chart the degree of change in the social standing of the profession. While such accounts might vary in objectivity by virtue of the vagaries of memory, their degree of historical proximity, or polemics of progress and decline, they nonetheless present a composite narrative of an emergent idea, the American architect.
“Fifty years ago”
In his role as editor at the fledgling Boston-based journal American Architect and Building News, William Rotch Ware (1848–1917) reminisced from his perspective of 1876 upon the state of the profession as compared to the 1820s:
Fifty years ago, … [t]he men who designed buildings were, ordinarily, the men who built them; and it was only in rare cases, and for structures of unusual importance, that the two or three men in the country who made a profession of designing were called upon. The position of these men was anomalous and individual: most people had nothing to do with it, knew and thought nothing about it. As towns grew, and building increased, architects became more common; but their position and influence were for a long time determined in each case only by the success and action of the individual. It was but slowly that they were accepted as a class, or that any defined usages grew up in their relations to the public or their clients.8
Ware was sanguine about the progress achieved in the public standing of the architecture profession in the intervening decades since the founding of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1857. He argued, “… the first reason why they have gained is that they have become a body; that is to say, they are now a class of men, fulfilling a special function in a somewhat uniform way, and with more or less of common understanding among them.” Ware cautioned, nonetheless, that “even now those relations and usages are far from being universally determined and recognized.” Future progress in establishing architects’ professional authority as “arbiters in all matters of design” still depended, he insisted, upon professional unity in the establishment of consistent standards of practice, style, and taste in order to gain broad public approbation and support.9
“Fifty years ago” was a recurrent frame of reference for succeeding generations of architects striving to stake their own progress against fading memories of a receding past. In a speech at the 1887 AIA convention, architect William W. Boyington (1839–1898) noted the virtual absence of the profession of architecture from Chicago at the beginning of his career in the 1850s. Addressing methods of practice that prevailed “fifty years ago,” Boyington described the direct relationship that then obtained between owners and builders and the gradual emergence and recognition of the profession as he had observed over the course of his career10:
Fifty years ago, and even less, architects were largely supported by contractors. Now and for years past the owners have found it for their interest to deal directly with architects. Still there are many impecunious persons who think it is so much money wasted to employ an architect except for partial service, through their contractor, although, by such a course, they, as a usual thing, indirectly pay three prices for the designs. …
When I came to Chicago, thirty-four years ago, I found the architects then in practice were recent master builders or contractors. Chicago and the West at that time could hardly be said to require the services of architects separately as such. At that time the structures were just simple buildings. But the builders soon found it would be better for them to have plans made for them, than to spend their time in making plans, so they clubbed together, and induced one of the most apt in drawing plans, to give up contracting and devote his whole time to Architecture, and guaranteed him a compensation of two dollars per day, which should be paid to him, if he did not get business enough to aggregate that amount. … It was not uncommon to be asked in what the business of an architect consisted. This simply shows that as a profession it was not understood.11
Echoing each other from Boston to Chicago, these recollections suggest that the architect arose only slowly out of the ranks of master craftsmen, a situation matched in Philadelphia which, Boyington claimed, “in proportion to the number of its inhabitants, put up, in the last fifty years, more buildings without employment of architects on them, than any city in the country.”12 The changing scope and variety of building within these urbanizing milieus, the changing materials and building systems, called forth a new class of construction intermediary to satisfy dual and sometimes competing demands—accommodating and representing the interests owners; coordinating and supervising the work of builders.
Near the turn of the century, Frank E. Kidder (1859–1905), the architect and civil engineer best known as the author of an essential handbook for his respective disciplines, charted a similar vocational genealogy from the mid-nineteenth century when the field of architecture was typically recognized as being descended from the craft of building. He expressed his frustration, however, that despite the increasing technical complexity of building projects over intervening years, architects of the present seemed ever more apt to align themselves with the art of architecture. Rather than staking a claim on the science and mechanics of building, they relegated those concerns and delegated much authority to so many engineers and consultants. While never negating the importance of artistically inspired design, Kidder questioned the wisdom of this cognitive, disciplinary divorce.
Forty years ago nearly all of those persons who were engaged in the business of preparing plans for buildings had first been carpenters, and were better educated in building than in the art of architecture. Today, the case is reversed, and, except in the smaller towns and cities, there are but few architects who have worked at the bench, and comparatively few who have had a scientific training in the mechanics of construction. …
That an architect must have considerable artistic feeling and creative ability is not only generally recognized, but...

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