When Raleigh, N.C., architect Frank Harmon, FAIA, was designing a low-country residence in Charleston, S.C., a few years ago, he needed metal screens that would not only shade the house but also resist 140-mile-per-hour winds. So he turned to a local metalsmith (and former student) named Christian Karkow. Working with a structural engineer, Karkow fabricated and installed 10 upward-pivoting, perforated-metal panels that span 80 feet on the west side of the house. “I knew that if I made a detailed drawing and gave it to the contractor, he would have charged $200,000,” Harmon says. “I got it done for a fraction of that.” Another happy outcome: The architectural detail went on to win an award in residential architect's 2006 design competition.

Ask a contractor to make a functional, yet distinctive object from a sketch and he most likely will tell you it's going to be impossible—or really expensive. But a skilled artisan knows otherwise. Artists are comfortable with the unfamiliar; their work is all about trying out something new, and they know instinctively how to solve a problem. That takes some of the pressure off of architects, while leaving it up to them to make a whole out of the parts. “We talk about a concept and the artists take it from there,” Harmon says. “I love that, because it means I don't have to work out everything myself. I can share the creative process with them. You know they'll do something straightforward that works, and that's pretty much the aesthetic behind my practice.”

As someone whose work includes walls and ceilings that move, Tom Kundig, FAIA, is also enthusiastic about the symbiotic relationship between architect, artisan, and materials. Having grown up around artists, for Kundig it's simply second nature. But he's also come to realize that when architects have too much control over a project, it can become one-dimensional. Architecture, he believes, should be a “tumult of voices” working toward one end. “When I look at an old building like Chartres Cathedral, I can almost see the different personalities of the stoneworkers in the parts and pieces,” Kundig explains. “Someone did all the heads, someone the other work. There's the subtle but powerful undertone of the people who made it. It makes the building less of a commodity and gives it more soul.”

Architectural craftsmanship has re-emerged in recent years as an expression not only of refinement but also of the human touch—something even today's modernist-leaning architects can embrace. To them, fabrication is a form of ornament, not so much a distraction for the eye as something compelling and original. It's about manipulating basic materials in new ways and adding visual interest while revealing how things are made.

Kevin Alter, principal of Alterstudio in Austin, Texas, values a Japanese aesthetic in which abstract minimalism allows simply crafted natural materials to take center stage. “One of the problems with modernism—and I consider myself a modern architect—is that the baby was thrown out with the bath water,” says Alter, who is associate dean for graduate programs at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. “That baby was craft, in the sense that you might make things really well or be interested in how they're made. It's not part of the way modernism was taught, and none of the great architects talked about it.” That thinking is due for a change, not only among modernist firms but as architecture evolves as an interdisciplinary endeavor alongside new tools, materials, and craft.

exploratory design

Kundig's choir metaphor is apt, but he admits that it's a little too conceptually perfect. In reality, conducting all the voices can be hit or miss. Collaboration can happen at all stages of a project, and timing is everything: Bring the artisans in too early, and it's confusing to everyone (including the clients). Too late, and the idea might not develop to its full potential. “It goes back to the old adage that architecture is an older person's game,” Kundig says. “You begin to understand when the appropriate time is to bring in the craftspeople, depending on the type of craft and personality, and have them flower on the project.”

In the design jujitsu that occurs around an idea, an architect's hands-on experience comes in handy too—knowing when to insist on building a certain way and when to defer to the expert. An example is the 26-foot-long table on steamroller wheels Kundig designed for an artist's studio. He'd built the design in his head, having mulled it over for possible use in his own home. So when the time came to build it for the client, he turned his sketch into a very simple construction document and handed it to a fabricator. “He didn't think the table would be heavy enough to track in the bearings,” Kundig recalls. “He wanted to have clips and washers and a bunch of things that would have made it much fussier and expected. I wanted to push the fact that no physical attachment was needed, that the weight of the table would keep it on a round shape. And ultimately, it did work.”

Custom fabrication does raise safety and practical issues, however—especially when massive moving parts are involved. “You want to make darn sure this stuff works,” Kundig adds. “Imagine how horrible it would have been if that 500-pound table didn't move, when it looks like it's supposed to move. That would have gone over well.” At his award-winning Chicken Point Cabin, where a flywheel raises six tons of glass with the ease of a crank-out casement window, it was the fabricator who devised the safety features, though Kundig cleaned up his design.

Harmon, who often subs out work to artists at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, N.C., is also comfortable with these give-and-take relationships. “You don't design it for them: then they become the worker,” he says. “You make a sketch and enroll them in a concept. They take it from there and usually make it better.”

Communication is the sticking point in getting from concept to craft. Architects with shop experience understand how to work efficiently with craftspeople. In Dallas, Dan Shipley, FAIA, of Shipley Architects, routinely uses his design/build background to make drawings for details such as hardware. “There's a learning curve to understanding how things get built,” he says, “but communicating the ideas is a big deal. You learn to make drawings that are succinct.” Still, architects are trained to work on paper, and artisans typically work full-scale. That means frequent trips to the shop to make adjustments and being able to draw on a piece of plywood or metal.