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Make the Most of It

The hacker movement celebrates tactile creation

The act of making is seemingly inescapable for an architect: The very word “architect” translates from the Greek as arkhi (“chief”) + tektōn (“builder”). This would suggest that architects build buildings, but this interpretation is not entirely accurate. As I learned during my education, architects mostly imagine buildings; it’s the builders who build them.

Over the years, architects have had a fluid and often untethered relationship to making; at times, unbuilt buildings are not only acceptable but also highly admired. During my transition into practice in the mid-1990s, the position of the architect was far closer to the act of imagining and quite distant from the act of creating. Our obsession over representation and drawing makes this clear. As Robin Evans notes in his 1986 seminal essay Translations from Drawing to Building, architects make drawings and models of buildings, not the buildings themselves. The architect’srelationship to building is one step removed from the act and is dependent on translation by others to make his or her intentions real.

For someone like me who had always taken great pleasure in making things, this realization came as a grave personal disappointment. But I have often found solace in the work of the sculptor Richard Serra. He articulated his position in an early piece, Verb List (1967–68). Simply composed on two sheets of paper, Serra’s list of action terms — to lift, to fold, to mix — exemplified his desire to make in the most direct means possible.

Now we are experiencing a repositioning in contemporary architectural practice: a return to fabrication much closer to Serra’s expressed desire. Not surprisingly, it is students and young professionals who are in the vanguard of this change. I discussed the implications of this shift (via Skype) with two recent graduates of Wentworth Institute of Technology who participated in a design/build studio I ran a year ago at the school. James Jarzyniecki, an intern architect at ikd, and Mandy Johnson, an intern architect at Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA), both share an expressed appreciation and clear facility for making and have begun to navigate their entry into practice.

For these two young designers, the process of creating is innate in what they have learned. “I see it as relating to your hands, things handmade,” says Mandy. For James, the word “make” has an immediacy that the word “think” does not. “The directness between an idea and what is made is something I really enjoy,” he says. “I try to put myself in those kinds of situations.” And, as Mandy points out, the shift extends far beyond the world of designers to encompass a broader population of tinkerers who find like-minded do-it-yourselfers in the emerging “maker culture.”

One does not need to look far for evidence of this new movement. Collaborative environments such as Somerville’s Fringe, a 7,500-square-foot incubator and collaborative workspace, is home to businesses ranging from video design and production to green-roof construction. Also in Somerville is the Artisan’s Asylum, a maker space founded in 2010 by Gui Cavalcanti and Jenn Martinez. It not only provides space to work in but also offers courses from leather carving to bike building to business and marketing. Renting at the Asylum means access to a range of traditional equipment for working with fabrics, metals, and wood.

Complementing the conventional shops are digital fabrication tools available for sharing, such as a computer numerical control machine (CNC) and a rapid prototyping lab outfitted with a uPrint SE Plus 3D printer with a WaveWash support cleaning system. (It’s hard to resist drilling down into jargon, as most discussion of tool specs eventually leads here. Knowing what is under the hood is important to makers.)

The CNC machines, adopted from the auto industry, can be used to cut the parts out for furniture, lettered signs, even whole sections of walls. Heck, If you have access to a CNC milling machine, why not use it to fabricate your own parts and — combined with the electronics available online — build your own personal CNC machine? At least a few DIY fabricators have gone this route.

Then there’s the 3D printer. With nearly 4 million views to date of the 3Doodler pen on YouTube, it is safe to say that 3D printing technology has a firm foothold in popular culture. With rapidly dropping price points, 3D printers likely will soon become as commonplace as coffeemakers. Paradoxically, the tools of the future are being used to facilitate the craftsmanship of the past.

The embrace of making begs the question, why now? For designers such as Mandy and James, the maker culture provides new opportunities. Mandy’s environment at KVA comprises two floors. The top floor is what you would expect in a design office: great light, open plan, and access to books and reference materials. The lower floor has a conventional woodworking shop as well as digital tools. For Mandy, the change goes beyond access to equipment to a shift in thinking. “The idea that you can just go downstairs and build a component that becomes a part of the building in the end is very exciting to me.”

This raises two other possible catalysts: access and will. Design offices, maker spaces, and collaborative work environments increasingly come equipped with the necessary tools for designers to “make their own.” And as Mandy notes, if it’s close by, you are more likely to use it.

More important, however, is the existence of will. With all cultural movements, desire fosters change. A necessary part of doing anything is believing you can. Designers, engineers, and business entrepreneurs are graduating from schools with a will to make — objects, opportunities — and the will to make it their own.

A quick look at the work being produced by emerging practitioners shows vast diversification, partly a result of desire to “do it all,” but clearly because the economic downturn of the past several years has forced a reinvention of practice. Architects and designers have entered territories outside conventional architecture, finding a home in exhibit design and curation, product design, and in-house fabrication, as well as traditional design-build services.

No discussion of the maker movement would be complete without considering the influence of nostalgia. For many, the movement harks back to a time when many of our possessions were made locally and by hand, even if those days no longer exist in living memory. James and Mandy both were exposed to the tinkering that took place in the basement shops of their grandfathers. The smell of linseed oil, decades-old sawdust, and the plethora of glass jars filled with nuts and bolts is forever ingrained in their psyche. They yearn for “the laying on of hands,” a return to a simpler, more tactile, less “virtual” time. As James and Mandy will attest, these kinds of powerful memories affect whom we become.