Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. The
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Ritual requires skill; it needs to be done well.
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it seems more realistic to explore how concrete behavior might change or be regulated than to counsel a change of heart.
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In studying material culture, I’ve treated the historical record as a catalogue of experiments in making things, performed by experimenters who are not alien to us, whose experiments we can understand.
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The modern world has two recipes for arousing the desire to work hard and well. One is the moral imperative to do work for the sake of the community. The other recipe invokes competition: it supposes that competing against others stimulates the desire to perform well, and in place of communal cohesion, it promises individual rewards.
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Rather than become Japanese, this comparison asks us to think again about the triumphalism that greeted the collapse of the Soviet empire a generation ago, capitalism winning out as communism collapsed from within. A large part of the triumphalist story turned on contrasting the virtues of competition to the vices of collectivism– individual competition taken to be more likely to produce good work, competition to spur quality. Not only capitalists have subscribed to this view; in the “reform” of public services like health care, the effort has been to promote internal competition and markets to improve the quality of services. We need to look more deeply at this triumphalist view, because it obscures both the roles competition and cooperation actually play in getting good work done and, more largely, the virtues of craftsmanship.
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The landline telephone’s fixity was its defect, its virtue the clarity and security of transmission.
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Engineers, like musicians, are intensely competitive creatures; the issue for both is what happens when a compensating cooperation vanishes: the work degrades. The triumphalist story, however, has tended to be blind to this necessary balance.
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The modern era is often described as a skills economy, but what exactly is a skill? The generic answer is that skill is a trained practice.
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An infant musical prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did indeed harbor the capacity to remember large swatches of notes, but from ages five to seven Mozart learned how to train his great innate musical memory when he improvised at the keyboard. He evolved methods for seeming to produce music spontaneously. The music he later wrote down again seems spontaneous because he wrote directly on the page with relatively few corrections, but Mozart’s letters show that he went over his scores again and again in his mind before setting them in ink.
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Modern education fears repetitive learning as mind-numbing. Afraid of boring children, avid to present ever-different stimulation, the enlightened teacher may avoid routine–but thus deprives children of the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within.
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Skill development depends on how repetition is organized. This is why in music, as in sports, the length of a practice session must be carefully judged: the number of times one repeats a piece can be no more than the individual’s attention span at a given stage. As
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obvious. When practice is organized as a means to a fixed end, then the problems of the closed system reappear; the person in training will meet a fixed target but won’t progress further. The
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Yet machinery is misused when it deprives people themselves from learning through repetition.
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When CAD first entered architectural teaching, replacing drawing by hand, a young architect at MIT observed that “when you draw a site, when you put in the counter lines and the trees, it becomes ingrained in your mind. You come to know the site in a way that is not possible with the computer…. You get to know a terrain by tracing and retracing it, not by letting the computer ‘regenerate’ it for you.”26
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This is not nostalgia: her observation addresses what gets lost mentally when screen work replaces physical drawing. As in other visual practices, architectural sketches are often pictures of possibility; in the process of crystallizing and refining them by hand, the designer proceeds just as a tennis player or musician does, gets deeply involved in it, matures thinking about it. The site, as this architect observes, “becomes ingrained in the mind.”
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“This is very typical of the craftsman’s approach. You think and you do at the same time. You draw and you make. Drawing… is revisited. You do it, you redo it, and you redo it again.”28
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Pope Sixtus V remade the Piazza del Popolo in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century by describing in conversation the buildings and public space he envisioned, a verbal instruction that left much room for the mason, glazier, and engineer to work freely and adaptively on the ground.
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The tactile, the relational, and the incomplete are physical experiences that occur in the act of drawing.
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Computer-assisted design might serve as an emblem of a large challenge faced by modern society: how to think like craftsmen in making good use of technology.
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What do we mean by good-quality work? One answer is how something should be done, the other is getting it to work. This is a difference between correctness and functionality.
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To the absolutist in every craftsman, each imperfection is a failure; to the practitioner, obsession with perfection seems a prescription for failure.
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The Livre des métiers of 1268 lists about a hundred crafts organized in this way, divided into six groups: foods, jewelry, metals, textiles and clothiers, furs, and building.6
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Early Church doctrine generally viewed free time as a temptation, leisure as an invitation to sloth.
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The great worry of urban guilds was a market flooded with fresh goods the guilds had not made. Guilds of medieval London and Paris in particular mounted defensive actions against the growth of trade in northern Europe.
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Corrupt, shaved, and false coins assailed the medieval economy. The goldsmith’s role was to tell the truth about disguised substances, as well as to smelt gold from raw ore.
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Historical records show that many guilds privileged the biological sons of masters, but blood sons did not enjoy this privilege securely. Durable family businesses were the exception rather than the rule. By one large estimate, in the 1400s only about half of family businesses passed from generation to generation in the dense European belt of workshops from Bruges to Venice. By the end of the 1600s, only a tenth of artisan sons took their father’s place.17
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The line between craft and art may seem to separate technique and expression, but as the poet James Merrill once told me, “If this line does exist, the poet himself shouldn’t draw it; he should focus only on making the poem happen.”
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In the Autobiography he recounts the struggle to extract gold, real gold and lots of it, from masses of raw ore–whereas even his richest patrons would have been content with the illusion of surface gilding. In carpenter’s terms, Cellini hated veneers. He wanted “honest gold” and held to this same standard of truthfulness in the other materials he worked with, even in cheap metals like brass. It had to be pure, so that things would look like what they are.
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Originality is a marker of time; it denotes the sudden appearance of something where before there was nothing,
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For instance, the immense Salisbury Cathedral began, in 1220–1225, as a set of stone posts and beams that established the Lady Chapel at one end of the future cathedral.24 The builders had a general idea of the cathedral’s eventual size, but no more. However, the proportions of the beams in the Lady Chapel suggested a larger building’s engineering DNA and were articulated in the big nave and two transepts built from 1225 to about 1250. From 1250 to 1280, this DNA then generated the cloister, treasury, and chapter house; in the chapter house the original geometries, meant for a square structure, were now adapted to an octagon, in the treasury to a six-sided vault. How did the builders achieve this astonishing construction?
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Each event in building practice became absorbed in the fabric of instructing and regulating the next generation.
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He sent Philip II of Spain the sculpture of a naked Christ in marble, to which the king rather wickedly added a fig leaf made of gold. Cellini protested that the distinctive character of the Christ was spoiled, to which Philip II replied, “It’s mine.”
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Renaissance artists discovered that originality does not provide a solid social foundation of autonomy.
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Unmotivated workers like the Soviet construction workers, depressed workers like the British doctors and nurses suffer not so much from the work they do as by how it is organized. This
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In the famous Class 19 conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1950s and 1960s, the great cellist used all manner of weapons–novels, jokes, and vodka, as well as strict musical analysis–to bludgeon his pupils into becoming themselves more individually expressive.27 Yet
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Inside, the workshop of Stradivari also looked back in that, like that of other luthiers, the physical house was both a place of work and a home, filled with Stradivari’s family and many young male apprentices and journeymen lodgers. Labor dominated all waking hours. The workshop operated from dawn to dusk, with the work team literally rooted to the benches, since the unmarried apprentices slept underneath them on bags of straw.
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For nearly three centuries luthiers have struggled to revive this corpse in order to recover the secrets of Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù that died with them.
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The most significant fact we know about Stradivari’s workshop was that he was all over it, popping up unexpectedly everywhere, gathering in and processing those thousands of bits of information that could not signify in the same way to assistants who were doing just one part. The
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Étienne de La Boétie was one of the first to question submission to higher authority through either admiration or imitation. In his view, people are more capable of freedom. In the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, he wrote: “So many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has not other power than the power they give; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him…. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or rather, bring about their own servitude.”34 Servitude
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The enriched world of objects prompted intense theological worry in both Reformation and Counter-Reformation circles about material seduction; beneath the theological horizon, this fear attached even to such innocuous objects of daily life as children’s toys. In the late sixteenth
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Workshop work of course continued in various forms, in the arts, in everyday commerce, as in the sciences, but the workshop seemed increasingly merely the means to establishing another institution: the workshop as a way station to the factory.
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Soon after, Vaucanson created his Shitting Duck, a mechanical creature that appeared to ingest grains with its mouth and defecate in short order at its anus. The Shitting Duck proved to be a fraud (the anus was stuffed), though an interesting one; the Flute Player was genuine.6
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Louis XV, though not scientifically minded, suspected that Vaucanson’s talents could be put to better use than making an intriguing toy. In 1741 he gave the inventor charge of French silk manufacturing. The silk produced in early-eighteenth-century France, particularly in Lyon, was not of uniformly good quality: the tools were poor, the weavers poorly paid and often on strike. Drawing on his knowledge of the replicant, Vaucanson sought to produce a robot that would eliminate the human problem.
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The greatest statement of this passionate conviction came from Immanuel Kant, who wrote in the September 30 issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift of 1784: “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Self-incurred is this inability, if its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but rather in the lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of enlightenment.”8 The
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The pages of the Encyclopedia then look more particularly at usefulness and uselessness. In one telling plate, a maid appears industriously at work on a lady’s coiffure. The maid radiates purpose and energy while her mistress languishes in ennui; the skilled servant and her bored mistress compose a parable of vitality and decadence.
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Diderot likened the pleasures of craftsmanship more to marital sex than to the excitements of an affair.
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“Among a thousand one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use, and the things they produce with any clarity.”
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Inarticulate does not mean stupid; indeed, what we can say in words may be more limited than what we can do with things.
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Zen counsels that to understand the craft of archery you need not become an archer; instead, silently compose its decisive moments in your mind.
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The enlightened way to use a machine is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine’s potential. We should not compete against the machine. A machine, like any model, ought to propose rather than command, and humankind should certainly walk away from command to imitate perfection.
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Skilled operatives live with and through machines but rarely create them in modern industry. Technological advance comes in this way to seem inseparable from domination by others.
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the fewer things we display, the more we care about each one.
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“I want to explode printing; and gunpowder–the two great curses of the age–I begin to think that abominable art of printing is the root of all mischief–it makes people used to have everything of the same shape.” Ruskin
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machines break down when they lose control, whereas people make discoveries, stumble on happy accidents.
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By the 1850s the musical virtuoso appeared to be someone whose technical skill had developed to such perfection that amateur players in an audience felt small, almost worthless in comparison. The rise of the virtuoso on stage coincided with silence and immobility in the concert hall, the audience paying fealty to the artist through its passivity. The virtuoso shocks and awes. In exchange, the virtuoso unleashed in listeners passions they could not produce using their own skills.36
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we become particularly interested in the things we can change.
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The desire for something more sustainable than decomposing materials is one of the sources in Western civilization for the supposed superiority of the head over the hand, the theorist better than the craftsman because ideas last. This conviction makes philosophers happy, but shouldn
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positive embrace of synthesis. Clearing the tint in medieval glass required the glassmaker
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metamorphosis lay in the internal development of a typeform;
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short length of warp,” the historian Hesiod counseled.
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locked together, the end of one cut into the side
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cut obliquely so that no pin is needed. The mortise-and-tenon
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Older grid-plans had connected individual buildings, but the Greek city of Selinous, for instance, founded in Sicily in 627 bce, was pure warp and woof; the corner itself was emphasized as the major design element. The image of an “urban fabric” was not here a casual metaphor, rather a direct description; similarly, Selinous had the tightness and compactness of a ship.
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emphasized as the major design element. The image of an “urban fabric” was not here a casual metaphor, rather a direct description; similarly, Selinous had the tightness
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He presents change as a culinary triangle, in his words, a “triangular semantic field whose three points correspond respectively to the categories of the raw, the cooked, and the rotted.”13 The raw is the realm of nature, as human beings find it; cooking creates the realm of culture, nature metamorphosed. In cultural production, Lévi-Strauss famously declares, food is both good to eat (bonne à manger) and good to think with (bonne à penser). He means this literally: cooking food begets the idea of heating for other purposes; people who share parts of a cooked deer begin to think they can share parts of a heated house; the abstraction “he is a warm person” (in the sense of “sociable”) then becomes possible to think.
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The calluses developed by people who use their hands professionally constitute a particular case of localized touch. In principle the thickened layer of skin should deaden touch; in practice, the reverse occurs. By protecting the nerve endings in the hand, the callus makes the act of probing less hesitant. Although the physiology of this process is not yet well understood, the result is: the callus both sensitizes the hand to minute physical spaces and stimulates the sensation at the fingertips. We could imagine the callus doing the same thing for the hand as the zoom lens does for the camera.
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As in love, so in technique; innocent confidence is weak.
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What could motivate a child to pursue such a demanding path? One school of psychology says that the motivation is lodged in an experience fundamental to all human development: the primal event of separation can teach the young human to become curious. This
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In developing technique, we resolve transitional objects into definitions, and we make decisions based on such definitions.
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Both composers and performers are said to hear with the “inner ear,” but that immaterial metaphor is misleading–famously for composers like Arnold Schoenberg, shocked by the actual sounds of what they’ve written on the page, equally for the performer whose study of scores is necessary but not sufficient preparation for putting bow to string or lips to reed.
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I have a standard for what should be, but my truthfulness resides in the simple recognition that I make mistakes. Sometimes in discussions of science this recognition is reduced to the cliché of “learning from one’s mistakes.” Musical technique shows that the matter is not so simple. I have to be willing to commit error, to play wrong notes, in order eventually to get them right. This is the commitment to truthfulness that the young musician makes by removing the Suzuki tapes.
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The digits of the hands are of unequal strength and flexibility, impeding equal coordination. This is true even of the two thumbs, whose capabilities depend on whether one is right- or left-handed. When hand skills develop to a high level, these inequalities can be compensated; fingers and thumbs will do work that other digits cannot perform for themselves.
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The Chinese craftsman’s problem was how to deliver food that could be consumed with the peaceable chopsticks rather than the barbaric knife.
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The cleaver chef in China, from the Chou dynasty up to recent times, prided himself on using the cleaver as an all-purpose tool, cutting meat into parts, slices, or mince (hsiao, tsu, or hui), whereas less skillful cooks resorted to several knives.
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The idea of minimum force as the base line of self-control is expressed in the apocryphal if perfectly logical advice given in ancient Chinese cooking: the good cook must learn first to cleave a grain of boiled rice. Before
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If the cook, like a carpenter, holds the cleaver or hammer down after striking a blow, it works against the tool’s rebound. Strain will occur all along the forearm. For physiological reasons that are still not well understood, the ability to withdraw force in the microsecond after it is applied also makes the gesture itself more precise; one’s aim improves. So in playing the piano, where the ability to release a key is an integral motion with pressing it down, finger pressure must cease at the moment of contact for the fingers to move easily and swiftly to other keys. In playing stringed instruments, as we go to a new tone, our hand can make the move cleanly only by letting go, a microsecond before, of the string it has pressed before. In the musical hand, for this reason, it is harder to produce a clear, soft sound than to belt out loud notes. Batting in cricket or baseball requires that same prowess in release. In
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Muscular tension is fatal to physical self-control.
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“When we bring down the hammer we do not feel that its handle has struck our palm but that its head has struck the nail…. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in the palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving in the nail.”34
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When I am deep into practicing the cello, I want to do a physical gesture again and again to make it better but also do it better so that I can do it again.
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Practicing has its own structure and an inherent interest.
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We do a disservice to those who suffer from attention deficit disorder by asking that they understand before they engage.
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As theologians have long pointed out, religious rituals need to be repeated to become persuasive, day after day, month after month, year upon year.
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Wilson’s therapeutic insight has suggested more broadly that bodily movement is the foundation of language.
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Their guiding idea is that the very categories of language are created by intentional hand actions, so that verbs derive from hand movements, nouns “hold” things as names, and adverbs and adjectives, like hand tools, modify movements and objects. The focus here is particularly on how experiences of touch and grip, such as were presented in our previous chapter, give language its directive power.
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in classic Persian cuisine, animals have an inner being, an anima, no less than human beings.
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Without hesitation, the flat-edged screwdriver can be described as sublime–the word sublime standing, as it does in philosophy and the arts, for the potently strange. In
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Blaise Pascal declared, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
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Electricity appeared as an English word first in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646;
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In the Symposium Plato says, “Whatever passes from not being into being is a poesis,”
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People can wonder fresh, innocent of any initial complication, about things they have not made; but about the things they make, the ground of surprise and wonder has to be prepared.
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It is an error in technical as in artistic work to deal first with the big difficulties and then clean up the details; good work often proceeds in just the opposite fashion.
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“Only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living.”10
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Most urbanists now want to foster growth in a form that echoes the transformation of medieval walls. Working with resistance means, in urbanism, converting boundaries into borders. Economics as well as liberal values drive this strategy. A city needs constantly to absorb new elements. In healthy cities, economic energy pushes outward from the center to the periphery. The problem is that we are better at building boundaries than borders, and this for a deep reason.
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We chose to locate La Marqueta in the center of Spanish Harlem and to regard 96th Street as a dead edge where little would happen. We chose wrongly. We should have treated this street itself as an important border; locating the market here would have encouraged activity that brought rich and poor into daily commercial contact.
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we need to visualize what is difficult in order to address it. This is probably the greatest challenge facing any good craftsman: to see in the mind’s eye where the difficulties lie.
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How should we then set about making matters imprecise?
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urban design, too, we can decisively plan for ambiguity by contriving places where people don’t know quite where they are, places where they feel lost.
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“Whatever Space and Time Mean, Place and Occasion Mean More.”
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Improvisation is a user’s craft.
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there are sociable ways and antisocial ways of being an expert. Sociable expertise addresses other people in their unfolding prospects just as the artisan explores material change; one’s skill of repair is exercised as a mentor; one’s guiding standards are transparent, that is, comprehensible to nonexperts. Antisocial expertise shames others, embattles or isolates the expert. Invidious
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The formally pure properties of the Villa Moller were achieved by working with many similar mistakes and impediments Loos had to take as facts on the ground; necessity stimulated his sense of form. Wittgenstein, knowing no financial necessity, had no such creative dialogue between form and error.
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Our species’ ability to make things reveals more what we share.
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Learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens.
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But for Erikson this is a two-way connection; material reality talks back, it constantly corrects projection, cautions about material truth. If
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Boredom is as important a stimulus to craftsmanship as it is in play; becoming bored, the craftsman looks for what else he can do with the tools at hand.
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Culture functions as an open system in relation to the brain and in a particular way; different sorts of environment stimulate, or fail to stimulate, the brain’s work of parallel processing in regions like the prefrontal cortex. Martha
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Make no judgments of fate; stimulate the human organism as much as possible.
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Intuitive leaps that open up a problem are impossible to test using multiple-choice questions.
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