“Quality, deeply rooted in respect and appreciation for skill and craftsmanship”. This is my answer to the question what typically drives my work as an architect. I’ve been asked this question quite a lot lately, and my answer often disappoints the interviewer. They go on to comment: “Well, yes, we can assume this given the type of architecture you and your firm produce” and then they try to find a different, more interesting topic to pursue.
This has given me pause for thought. Why the dismissal? Why do we no longer recognize and, as a matter of course, value quality? Might there be something awry with the connotations of the word?
The origins of the word quality lie in the Latin qualitas, which refers to unity or capacity, or possessing a certain character. Around 1573, according to Van Dalen’s Etymological Dictionary, the meaning shifted to having a degree of soundness, the extent to which something is considered suitable for a particular purpose. Therefore, to appreciate the word quality, we must know when something is sound and when it is suited for its purpose. This is precisely the sticking point. For a very long time, architecture stood in direct relation to understanding this very thing. An end product or building needed to stand erect, serve the purpose for which it was built, and do so for as long as possible. Comfort, beauty and ornamentation were an inextricable part of the equation. No builder would entertain the idea of using materials or techniques that were merely useful in the short term unless scarcity or poverty necessitated it.
We see things differently now. Our products – and so also our buildings – are consciously made to serve a short lifespan, after which they will be replaced. The whole notion of soundness, and therefore quality, has acquired a different connotation. Durability, in the sense of being robust enough to withstand the effects of time, has ceased to be of any value. Once there is no need for making sound, quality products, craftsmanship loses its status and respect, and artisanal skill slowly vanishes. What inevitably follows is that quality is no longer a natural part of our daily environment, and then there comes a time when we no longer recognize it, other than from a picture.
Of the human senses, our eyes are the most used and most valued – and strongly connected to the culture of imagery all around the world. Dezeen and Instagram show us the most beautiful images but omit two essential aspects: materiality and context. This may seem trivial, and to some extent it is if you are used to coupling images with your memory bank of experiences. In doing this, you know that the pattern you see on the floor is called parquet; you can hear the sound of your footsteps over the floor; you can recall the smell of the wax rubbed into the wood, and you can feel the uneven patches where the floor has worn out. This tells a story, one with a history, a present and a future. Without these experiences, the picture is just a picture: it won’t help you learn to distinguish between solid parquet, laminate or even a vinyl print. Something similar happens when an image is presented in isolation and without scale. The real value in the picture is elusive without the context.
Our frame of reference evaporates when soundness and wholeness do not form an inherent part of our daily environment and when craftsmanship is not visible because it is taught and practised by fewer and fewer people. So it isn’t surprising that a word like quality is in danger of becoming meaningless. This would be a great pity because there is unbelievably more depth to the concept of quality than that found in images alone.
Let’s continue to promote sustainability as building for the long term, as an endeavour that employs solid materials, sound design and execution, skills and craftsmanship. That is not to say that we will always succeed, but let’s keep trying at least. Quality as an attitude, so to speak.
Prof. Dikkie Scipio
for De Architect
2nd Quarter, 2020
Translated from Dutch by Dianna Beaufort (Words On The Run)