In the second of an occasional series on fundamental approaches to design, Mark Marshall and James Daykin explain how they use craft in the modern age
We see craft as the connection of making and thinking. For us it is the link between the poetic and the practical; between the idea and the artefact.
Craftsmanship seems to be the clarity of this connection; it can make sense of the artefact. Beyond any obscure narrative, specific design reference, or mode of style, one can typically discern the qualities in something that has been well crafted. Conversely, a great idea can be constructed badly, and a skilled person can make a poor artefact.
We do not see craft as traditional, in the sense of repeating what has gone before, or necessarily fabrication by hand. Craft certainly learns from historical precedent, but should be engaged in working out how to make things now. Crafting modern buildings is difficult. Architects are no longer either the master-mason or the master-carpenter. We are supposed to have knowledge of the myriad types of construction and materials for building today, and the scale of a piece of architecture necessitates the contribution of multiple craftsmen. An architect’s craft might be described as understanding these complexities and orchestrating these connections. This requires learning about the many trades and their interaction: we are in the perfect position to appreciate and listen to the craft of others and to learn this craft of transference.
On some of our first commissions, most notably the Tower House project in France, we had the opportunity to engage physically in the craft of construction. We fabricated bespoke joinery and erected a steel spiral staircase in a 15th century stairwell, like inserting a ship into a bottle. We also spent time drawing and measuring medieval masonry to make a computer model for new stone windows. Working closely with a local stone yard, we watched its huge CNC machine shaping slabs of limestone from the model. By the end of the project we understood intimately how each element of the architecture had been made. We have used these experiences to promote a closer understanding of construction in our studio.
Major alterations to a suburban house in Leicester are nearing completion on site. Our design includes a pair of symmetrical mansard roofs sitting above swept-back wings. The mansards are irregular pentagons on plan to work with the footprint of the original house. Their multi-pitch form was developed through carving wax block models, trying to reduce the scale of the roofs when viewed from the front while creating spacious bedrooms inside. This complex geometry was tested through computer drawings and folded models made from a single sheet of card. These models were used to transfer our knowledge about the form, dimensions and angles to the joiners, plasterers and metal-workers on site. The roofs are clad in pre-weathered copper shingles. The copper can be used for all flashings and junctions and the shingles are malleable enough to be folded over the mansard edge. This clear tectonic combines the aesthetic intent of the folded models with a continuous roof covering that offers an extremely long life-span.
We have researched Japanese sliding screens, joinery techniques and types of roof construction. While we marvelled at the quality and complexity of buildings dating as far back as the eighth century, it was clear that their craftsmanship was not directly transferable. However, our proposals for a single-storey pavilion wing on an estate house in Devon, for clients who have lived in Japan, borrow a traditional oriental roof form. The structure utilises an upper ‘flying’ rafter to create extensive overhanging eaves, and a lower ‘base’ rafter to define an inner canopy. Externally, this offers protection from both heavy rain and strong sunshine – often only a few minutes apart in the local climate. Internally, the canopy makes a ‘clearing’ in the surrounding trees of a mature arboretum. Its soffit will be lined with timber strips inspired by Japanese ceilings of reeds; a reworking of nature to create an attractive surface, a softened acoustic and a pleasant aroma. Through the management of the estate a number of trees of various species have just been felled. We are working with the local sawmill to prepare this timber into strips of different textures and hues, which should be seasoned by the time construction begins.
Considering these early experiences in practice, perhaps craft is also a standpoint or a mindset; a commitment to making things well and the conviction to make value judgements. This is not necessarily monetary value, but judging the value of the artefact over time.
Mark Marshall and James Daykin are founding directors of Daykin Marshall Studio