15/11/2016
Exploring Craft in Architecture

Through their work, craftsmen provide a link between culture, identity, & how craft pieces are imbued with value. Every article made embodies everything related to its making – in contemplation of an article, all things about the article are carried within the article.

This is the philosophy of Allan Schwarz, architect, journeyman, craftsman, artist and environmentalist. Having taught and practised in South Africa and later at M.I.T. in Boston, Schwarz founded the Mezimbite Forest Centre in 1994 after the Mozambican Civil War. The Centre’s purpose is twofold – to train people in the community in the creation of beautifully-crafted products, primarily for the benefit of the people who live near the natural resources that are used; while restoring forests and using their resources in an entirely sustainable manner.

From a one-man show with a couple of local apprentices, the Centre has grown to involve over 150 people in its formal apprentice programme for a number of crafts using timber and forest related products. And, in the last twenty years, just over a million trees have been planted at Mezimbite. Of those, about one third survive; the rest are lost due to forest management practices and natural predation. As Mozambique loses about 120 million trees a year for fuel wood, Schwarz’s intention is also to save sufficient genetic material for future plantations.

“As a carpenter, one is concerned with the origin of raw material, and the re-growing and sustainability of that material,” Schwarz says. “The approach is a holistic one, and the core of the idea is ‘conservation by design’ through tying the natural resource of an area to its appropriate use, for export markets and for yourself. Using stuff locally for yourself is essential to being socially responsible and to benefitting your community. So our products are not only designed for expensive markets, but for the people who make them.

“Architecture is a very big user of raw materials and craft, and the process of making is always embodied in the end product. We have fantastic traditions of architecture in Africa all based on the appropriate use of what’s in front of you. When you look at things holistically, it’s a good idea to use existing craft as a starting point. It allows you to link to the culture of a place, and to make sense of that place because craft is always adapted and localised. It’s a nice place to get your information. It also relates very much to day-to-day life far more than the big ideas of modern ‘iconic’ architecture.

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“Nowadays, we have to adapt craft in line with more modern technologies and methods of use. But if you start at the same point of consciousness, you will get a higher quality product because you are imbuing the piece with the human touch.”

Schwarz adds that, with responsible craft, one is always aware of where products came from and what the effect is. The same principle applies to architecture. “A building is the filter that provides the transition between the activities it contains, and its external environment. If a building does not go back to first principles, then all is in the service of vanity. The building will not be an efficient filter; it will use too much material and too many resources; and it will be culturally disrespectful, expensive, and environmentally inappropriate.

“Africa is a resource base for the bling architecture of the planet. The best timber in the world in terms of structure, performance and image, can be found in Africa, as can the best building stone. Yet this is almost all exported in its raw state, and the finished products are then imported back into Africa. Or local architects specify expensive imports rather than our fantastic local stuff.

“Most architects are completely disconnected from craft, while local craftsmen can be quite conscious of the effects of what they do. If you add them to a team of building professionals and treat architecture as a craft by going back to first principles, then we have the capacity to produce excellent architecture while being responsible about the process.”

Looking at cultural identity in stone masonry outside Africa, Schwarz cites the example of Jerusalem stone which, as it has become rarer, has inspired changes in technologies and application. So a tradition that is 4500 years old is still inspiring tremendous respect.

One of Schwarz’s more recent projects is the Sant Antonio Coconut School, a building and craft programme developed on a defunct coconut plantation in 2013. The school building itself was constructed from moribund coconut trees that were cleared to make way for new trees needed to revitalise the plantation. In addition to its craft programme, the initiative has developed two new materials from coconut that are currently being scientifically tested for performance – structural insulation and coconut glue lam.

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“The building developed from first principles – what are we building, and what do we have to build it from. If you throw in some science for longevity and to create a filter between the designed and real environment, you come up with unique and innovative solutions. With some scientific analysis, you can get your material to do almost any job you need.

“In my practice, we don’t differentiate between the design of buildings, furniture and household goods. Waste is not a permissible concept in today’s society of over-stretched resources. So, at Mezimbite for example, we sawed the rebates for the doors and windows and then used the leftover timber for making chopsticks, which are used for the restaurant on site instead of cheap disposable chopsticks.”

Value adding is an important part of the craft-and-conservation process. “By adding value on site, it is possible to make enough money to look after the resource that’s there. The neo-colonial model of treating people as units of production is counter-productive. Rather treat people as you would want to be treated by offering them the opportunity to enjoy life. At Mezimbite, our craftsmen earn enough to own the furniture and products they make, while enjoying the process of making it and the setting they are in. So the crafts are made for a high paying market, but the people who make them also own them.”

Another key holistic aspect of the programme is the incorporation of food production. Schwarz observes that one of the problems of colonisation is that food became fuel rather than part of a daily ritual which improves life. Agriculture at Mezimbite is therefore based on traditional food production. Also, as the single biggest cause of deforestation is the conversion of forest land to agriculture, the intention is to create a sustainable agricultural base that does not replace forests by using traditional farming techniques combined with scientific methods such as permaculture.

Thus, by looking at food production as a design process, tying the means of food production to the place through first principles, and employing more people to grow good, healthy food for all, the centre now makes more money from agricultural products than forest products – because, as Schwarz puts it, “organic produce surpluses can be sold at high prices to spoilt people in other places.”

So the fundamentals of craft, sustainable architecture, and sustainable food production are simply to be aware of the consequences of these processes, and of the fact that those consequences are carried in the object. Making, therefore, becomes a conscious process directly related to place and humanity.

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