Webb and the Zen of craft

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Ornamental plaster work on inn at Sussex, England. (alamy.com)

I have been remiss in not having shared with readers, until now, the essays of Patrick Webb, the Charleston-based plaster craftsman and classicist, whom I met a couple of years ago at a TradArch conference hosted by the American College of the Building Arts in 2015. His blog, Real Finishes, is on my blog roll, so you can see whatever he has written. It is worth a visit, bigtime.

Webb also does a monthly blog post for Traditional Building magazine.

I am opening with his latest essay, on the mentality of craftsmanship, “The Hero’s Path,” and will follow soon with his essay on Adolf Loos’s infamous 1913 book Ornament and Crime. An early passage in “The Hero’s Path” struck me as an excellent examination of how architects and craftsmen worked for centuries. Webb is more focused on the craftsman, but as with music and architecture, the parallels between craft work and architecture are implicit. He describes the work in terms of Zen philosophy, but between the lines a more basic outline of the method’s sensibility is clearly evident:

The path available to most people throughout history has been igyo-do (易行道) the “Easy Way.” This is also known as the way of tariki (他力) or “Grace.” This path is available in a culturally stable society where it is possible to simply abandon the self to the “other power” as manifest in ritual and tradition as a means of practice leading to salvation. A practice can be ostensibly religious but need not be. Almost all craftsmen of previous times and cultures followed the Way of Grace: intuition and custom guided their daily ritual of work.

If it were not possible to link to the whole essay, as I have above, I would be forced to reprint its every paragraph. Thankfully, reader, you can immerse yourself in the entire piece. A bit later, after having described “The Easy Way” (the “Way of Grace”), which is in essence the way of building or creating by tradition, he comes to “The Way of Hardship,”  the method by which most building and much craft is done today.

For our hero craftsman the Way of Hardship may be an understatement. The flame of mingei “many for many,” was snuffed out in Western society a century ago and is little more than a flicker elsewhere. The Way of Grace has been aggressively and violently supplanted by the Way of Industry, “Few with capital and mechanical means for Many.” Industry is not a participant in life, it is an extractor of life which it feeds upon as a means to an end, the accumulation of an accursed share of abstract profit. Like a mechanical monster, it is not truly alive, cannot be nurtured by experience, but instead must consume people and burn resources to keep its dreadful gears crushing ahead. Where traditional craft provided us with a deep sense of connection, industry substitutes the minimal level of manufactured “experiences” and utilitarian functions frigid with insensibility. Freedom from obstruction is replaced by demands of consumption, the needs of the many by the avarice of the few.

Patrick Webb’s essay strikes me as not just true but good, and expressed with beauty. Read the entire essay. I myself have defended methods and practices in architecture and craftsmanship that stray far from Webb’s edicts. The idea is that compromise must be embraced in order to forge a path back to real craft in a society that is not “culturally stable,” and is likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. Maybe. Maybe not. But how bracing to be so passionately reminded of the one true – and heroic – path!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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