I am a big fan of low tech. There’s something about a level of technology that ensures that you sense the human hand that has contributed to the fashioning of a thing that is deeply pleasing. Perfection is somehow imperfect. Anything so precise that it could have only been produced by machine loses something; call it an intangible, call it personality, call it soul.
We even like machines to have a ‘human dimension’. The more one senses the maker’s touch the more we seem to like it; great steam trains, the Spitfire, cars like the anthropomorphised VW Beetle, even the iPod.
For that reason I like my shaving horse. It’s a great low tech tool. I like the fact I was able to make it myself from bits and pieces that were lying around. I like the fact that it does the task it was designed for and does it well.
For the same reason I like the shooting board I built a couple of months back. A shooting board is one of those things out ancestors relied upon to get things like joinery right. It’s a simple principle. You set a piece of wood at right angles to a ‘chute’ along which you can run a plane, trap the piece of wood you want to plane at 90º against it and run the plane against it. Simple. I had to buy a low angle plane that was happy cutting across end-grain. So I bought a bog standard Stanley model. It was OK – albeit there are doubtlless better alternatives if you have more money to spend.
The results weren’t perfect, not least because the pieces of wood I was planing were rebated and wouldn’t sit wholly flat on the board but, as I said, the imperfect is perfect in its own way.
I used the mitre to make a frame for a chess board I’ve been meaning to produce for a good ten years now. I just needed the timber (rebated) as I already had the tiles for the squares. I simply measured and made the frame, used a piece of 9mm ply as the back and glued them all together and then put the tiles in with tile adhesive.
I bought the tiles not long after I’d bought the chess pieces. These are resin reproductions of some of the Lewis Chessmen. The originals sit in the British museum and are high amongst my favourite objects in a palace of beautiful objects.
They’re thought most likely to have been carved in the second half of the C11th in Trondheim. Whatever their exact provenance they capture something of the spirit of their makers and of the milieu from which they emerged. Somehow it’s fitting that these diminutive wild men should have been uncovered by a wild storm on the wild shores of the Western Isles.
Some might call the style of the Lewis pieces ‘naïve’. Naivety is something that’s difficult to fake. If you asked a great craftsman to produce a set of chess pieces today, even if you asked them to produce them with simple tools, I can’t help but wonder if he or she would not struggle to make something as inexplicably attractive as the seventy odd miniatures that wound up in the Hebrides eight hundred years and some ago.
I find myself, time and again, questioning the notion that our ancestors were somehow simpler than we. I never fail to be struck by their genius, all the more so because of the wonderful things they made with basic tools and limited technology.
Technology, of the sort we take for granted today, is a great enabler but it can also disable us. It does so much for us that we sometimes do too little ourselves. Because software or CAD or CAM, 3D printers, laser cutters, you name it – the tiny mechanical leviathans of robotsville can do it all ‘perfectly’ we no longer bother. There’s something wonderful about the way that we set about problem solving. It engages our creativity. Every step forward becomes a small victory. To quote Tom Paine completely out of context: “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. That which we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.”
What we should remember is that while it’s easy to programme a machine to do something ‘perfectly’ it’s almost impossible to programme them to turn out the sort of divine imperfections that make things truly beautiful.
And for that same reason I have my doubts about the worth of much modern architecture.
It’s not what it does well that I’m troubled by. After all great modern design produces well lit, airy spaces, ones that increasingly take account of our need to consume less energy (though the energy consumed in the construction is too rarely properly considered).
It’s what it does not do. And what modern architecture far too often seems to lack is a human dimension. More thought is given to the internal space than seems to be given to a buildings contribution to or detraction from its external environment.
We see less and less decoration, less and less evidence of the human hand at work. The lines are straight, or if curved they’re calculatingly, mechanically curving. There’s an absence of nature – by which I don’t mean that there are no plants – architects like to think that by planting a few trees inside an unnatural space you can somehow humanise it. It’s a fallacy. It simply traps nature much as a zoo traps animals. That’s not inspiring. It’s a sign of just how dispiriting our attitude to nature is becoming. The absence of nature is more profound. Every aspect of modern architecture imposes unnatural rules on its surroundings
There’s a fascist element in modern architecture we tend not to talk about but that becomes apparent when we trace the roots of modernism back to that era which gave rise to both fascism and communist totalitarianism. Both produced buildings that communicate domination, subjugation and control. A lot of major modern buildings do much the same.
The next step forward in architecture needs to be one that marries the natural and human with the advances in materials and engineering that allow us too build better, warmer, healthier buildings but at the same time make them nurturing spaces that let nature, with all it’s quirks and seeming randomness, lead and that express the quirks and apparent randomness of our humanity too. In using natural materials we need to bend our endeavours to fit around nature’s ‘imperfections’ rather than seek to erase those imperfections as we try to bend it around our endeavours.
It also needs to rediscover what our ancestors seemed to grasp instinctively – that great architecture does many other things other than provide spaces; it lifts the spirits both without and within; it allows us to make a statement about ourselves not just to our contemporaries but to those who come after us; if offers us a blank canvas, an unhewn rock, an unwritten page that cries out for our mark.
The people who carved the Lewis chessmen might not have been sophisticated to our modern eyes but I’m convinced that confronted with all that has come after them they’d have been able to weigh the worth of what we’ve made and built. I reckon I’d be rather more interested in their judgement than in that of many of our contemporary design gurus.