The Educational Value of Manual Work


Josef Albers



In an industrial age, when machines dominate production, it seems significant that building, considered as a key industry, depends to a large extent on work by hand. To architects and engineers alike, the prefabricated house, though promoted for decades, remains a problem. Its solution will be related to psychological conditions as well as to technical and economic conditions.

We may consider the dependence on manual work either as unfortunate and antiquated, or as unavoidable, and even fortunate; it will remain a necessity as long as individual needs in housing are recognized. It will continue until building has achieved such final development as has been reached, for example, by the bicycle. As long as we continue to experiment with new materials and new techniques, good craftsmen will be as indispensable as good designers. The more we integrate design with craftsmanship, however, the more we shall save manual effort.

Here we shall confine ourselves to the educational value of manual work and craftsmanship, particularly in architecture.

To see the value of handicraft, which persists despite increasing machine-craft, is to recognize its continuing influence. To this end, let us first compare some hand processes and machine processes of similar functions. Machine weaving has been developed from hand weaving. It follows the same principle of construction. Sewing by machine, however, is based on an entirely different technical principle from sewing by hand.

It is logical, therefore, to learn weaving, as well as textile design, first as hand weaving; for the hand loom is simpler and easier to understand. It permits a greater range of variety than the more complicated power loom. Even in sewing the manual process is the best preparation for a proper use of the machine process. Hand sewing develops more directly a feeling for different materials and different effects.

As to the quality of the products or results, we know that machine woven materials can compete with hand woven textiles, and poor materials are produced not by power looms alone. We know, too, that there are weaving techniques which are possible, thus far, only in hand weaving. It should be known also that the sewing of clothing cannot be done entirely by machine. At least some hand finishing is almost always necessary.

Both of these examples indicate the two possible technical relationships between hand process and machine process. They also show that machine production cannot be entirely substituted for hand work. More important is the fact that, historically and educationally, production by hand normally precedes machine production.

It has been observed, both here and abroad, that beginning students in design like nothing better than to select as their first problem the most complex task, namely, another new chair. We also know of design classes where plastics, as a new material, are considered to be on a higher level. There are schools where bending wood is taught without any previous experience with wood. Such a procedure is justified as a trial-and-error way of learning at the beginning when the encouragement of freedom is needed. It will mean more, however, if student and teacher do not overlook, particularly after unsatisfactory results, the more basic and perennial constructions. With practical experience and honest judgment, not being intoxicated by momentary fashions or slogans, we will agree that, technically and educationally, the old time-tested joints in wood, metal and stone still hold good.

Now we find ourselves surrounded with innumerable new materials, techniques and methods, all waiting to be mastered. Here we seem to be at the crossing of two roads, one old and one new. The old one is narrower and leads to "famous places" and security. The new and broader offers both speed and adventure in unknown lands. As modern architects, we must travel both roads.

Our long dependence upon European ideas must now give way to broader conceptions. We must consider other people and other countries significant, and offering us spiritual and material resources as great as those of Europe. There are as many new tasks as there are new materials.

Modern architecture has recognized the obligation of applying modern material and modern technique, but there still remains a question as to how much it is to the advantage of new structures or to the reputation of new materials.

More than being proud of, or enthusiastic about, new possibilities, is the achievement of better building for better living and working. Of this double task, the aims seem to be clearer than the procedure. Unfortunately new designs have often discredited good ideas. Many new constructions merely demonstrate that new planning or new materials are not, per se, better than traditional ones. Many so-called modern buildings and furniture have fed the belief that the old, or the antique, or the hand-made is better and more beautiful than the new, modern and machine-made. Further, they have spoiled the willingness of the public to try new proposals.

Future architecture, considering utility as well as appearance, will be the more accepted the more its results prove at least as satisfactory as former architectural achievements. To produce something better will be more convincing than to do something merely different. No talk about functionalism will convert people to leaking roofs, and no insulation coefficient will reconcile them to houses too hot and too cold. No economy, for long, can sell poor taste.

Such statements are made not merely to criticize. They aim at better results. Experience teaches us that the less we know about the final effect of new materials and techniques, the more careful we must be in using them. Before assigning failures to material, we should reexamine the planning and execution — or review the education of designers and architects.

In our efforts to promote higher quality and sounder construction, we must commit ourselves anew to better design, to better craftsmanship. To the problem of how to reach such a goal historians and traditionalists continue to offer their remedy — to follow the past. Besides admiring former achievements, however, we must remember that they were not repetitions nor imitations. Important architecture, exterior or interior, past or present, represents self-confidence. It is discovery and invention. It proves awareness of new tasks and the will and the ability to solve them. It looks forward rather than backward. To continue tradition is to create, not to revive.

Students of architecture and design must be trained to study material, old and new, as to capacity and appearance. They must learn, with material, to produce, as well as to understand, space for shelter. Basic studies in construction (related to capacity of materials), as well as studies in combination (concerning appearance), should precede any specialized industrial or architectural design.  They should be accompanied by manual work, preferably with simple implements. They should be followed by a thorough, practical experience in handicraft. Fundamental studies in General Design, preceding the study of handicraft, avoid a mechanical taking over of settled methods. They provide critical and creative selection, thus encourage inventiveness.

Unfortunately, the so-called crafts in schools rarely are any preparation for present and future architectural and industrial tasks. The method of trying first many materials and tools is good for a general orientation. But continuing unlimited exploration in later grades, in colleges or art schools, namely, trying "some" pottery and jewelry, "some" metal work and weaving, wastes time and energy. It spoils respect and taste. One thing done well, one construction understood and applied properly, is educationally far better than many things started or poorly understood and executed.

Laissez-faire learning and premature specialization have led in the latter direction. Both are superficial and inefficient, lacking either aim or foundation. Their results reassure us that the three R’s must come before playwriting or banking, as well as before physics and philosophy.

This is often forgotten today, particularly in the learning and the teaching of craft and art. Thus self-expression and mass production appear as the immediate concern. More and more we feel the drawbacks of such trends. Dilettantism, justified and desirable at the beginning, unfortunately continues until it becomes the end. The more we succeed in eliminating the current “arty-crafty” trends in schools and the "modern-istic” and "functional-istic" miscarriages in construction and production, the more we can hope for practical and sound professional education.

Present war needs and those of future reconstruction demand from schools more than scholarship and research. They require practical experience as well as academic standards. Many schools already follow the example of those modern institutions that consider manual work as an essential part of the curriculum; many others will follow. Through obligatory manual work in schools, we shall not only recognize the manual and the visual types of student, but also shall learn that they are just as valuable as the intellectual type. Thus, general education will become not only more just and democratic, but will also break down the European tradition of over-intellectualization. It will demonstrate that practical thinking is as necessary as abstract thinking and good workers as valuable as good administrators. Skillful hands, observing eyes, and taste will count again more than a good memory.

More manual work in all schools and more handicraft for all designers and constructors will give a new impulse to modern planning and construction. It will develop judgment and connect intellectual and manual work as well as workers, and thus improve cultural and social conditions. Even if a student, in manual work, should learn only to do nailing well, it will be worthwhile. He will realize that it develops coordination within himself and with others, and that skill depends on observation and thought. If an architect, in handicraft, learns only to apply the main constructions of cabinet making properly, it will improve all his designing.

As to premature specialization: normally, craft and art teachers are not experts on new plastics. The use of these materials, as in- adequate panels for oil paintings, for example, does not prove competence. Moreover, no school workshop can afford much of the equipment which the industry of almost innumerable plastics is continually developing. This, and the fact that sawing, turning, and casting of more common and less expensive materials prepare for plastics, as well as for other materials, show that design in plastics cannot be a first task of schools. This case will also explain that the manipulation of the materials most often applied, wood, metal, and stone, provides the most fundamental study in handicraft.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, it should be made clear that the so-called old materials are emphasized here in discussing handicraft. Serious studies in handicraft will not interfere with the encouragement to try and to study contemporary material and construction equally. As mentioned above, the interest in new possibilities and inventiveness should be developed in General Design, which precedes the study in handicraft. Handicraft, then, should lead to craftsmanship, as craftsmanship is a requisite for proper application of new materials and new construction. It may seem old-fashioned, in these times, to lay so much stress on manual work and handicraft, particularly in connection with new architecture. It can be expected that some people will consider such emphasis as unprogressive.

Progress depends on recognition of failures as well as of achievements. Mistakes demand correction and change as long as we seek improvement. Change and correction are often uncomfortable; but, as long as criticism means help, we should accept it.

Repeated failures and mistakes force us to look for reasons of basic character. Our previous observations, based on experience in design and building, as well as in teaching, show that a loss of craftsmanship is one of the main reasons for our shortcomings. We concluded that experiments must be guided by experience, and that this calls for a change in educational method. In order to regain lost ground, to gain more practical thinking, general and professional education must turn to more practical work. If these conclusions are correct, we can expect that other fields of study and work will disclose equal needs. There are already many signs of such a change.

One thing seems sure, the more new architecture gains the quality of old handicraft, the more it will fulfil its task, the more it will contribute and lead to better living.


Originally a talk at the New Architecture and City Planning symposium and published in: New Architecture and City Planning: A Symposium. Ed. Paul Zucker. Philosophical Library: New York, New York, 1944. With thanks to the Albers Foundation.




DESIGN FOR LIVING by Norman Foster