I had the great pleasure last week of working on a fascinating project that I believe may benefit New Orleans for a lifetime. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (PFBE) is spearheading a craft apprentice training program in cooperation with the Preservation Resource Center, Delgado Community College, Operation Comeback, the Louisiana Carpenters Union, their Regional Council Apprenticeship and Training Center, and other partners.
Participants in the program were hand-selected from New Orleans’ carpenters, millworkers, metalworkers, plasterers, and masons. Malcolm Harding, with me in the photo above, is a millworker. I’ll be blogging more about Malcolm and each of his colleagues over the next few weeks.
Ben Bolgar heads up the program for the Prince’s Foundation alongside Edith Platten. The three week introductory session is still ongoing, with Ray Gindroz in town this week and others next week. The program will then continue with eight months of in-the-field restoration work in New Orleans.
Ben and I had hatched the idea for my part of the program late one night at CNU17 in Denver this past summer. Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the importance it places on the creation of new living traditions. Prince Charles is the world’s most notable advocate for the idea of living traditions, and is also a staunch supporter of craft in construction. We decided that night that we should pool our living tradition ideas and experience and try something new.
We laid out last week’s basic framework, but then changed it each morning and through each day, literally figuring it out as we went along. We decided that one of the most deadening things we could do would be to teach the apprentices a bunch of rules of historical styles. So instead, we focused on three things:
It was essential to begin by re-learning how to see. We introduced them to the idea of patterns, which are simply things that happen again and again in a particular place. Things that repeated over and over before the days of the big developers and the volume builders often had very good reasons for doing so that the people understood. But today, things are repeated most often because they simply represent the most efficient way for the builder and developer to make more money... nothing more. And so we set out in small teams across the streets of the Bywater neighborhood, looking for things that happen again and again. We spent the morning photographing. Each team presented their photos for analysis all through the afternoon.
My friend Ann Daigle, who is from Louisiana, was attending the sessions as an observer. I told her on the morning of the first day that I would be delighted if the apprentices found one new pattern. After all, I’ve taken probably tens of thousands of photos of the architecture of this city over many years, and have even written a pattern book detailing the architecture, so I thought I understood it fairly well. Imagine my astonishment when they found several on the very first day! Clearly, this seemed to be headed the right direction.
The next step was to try to make sense of what they had seen. So the second day, we identified some of the more important patterns. We then re-mixed the teams to keep a fresh flow of ideas and set out to identify and photograph as many examples of the patterns as possible. We made it back to the union hall mid-afternoon and spent the rest of the day sorting the images into simple-median-refined categories.
Friday morning was spent looking at each team’s analysis, and then figuring out why those patterns kept occurring. Because it isn’t enough just to observe patterns. Rather, it’s essential to know why we do this, because if there’s no reason, then we need to discard the pattern and come up with something new.
There’s one interesting angle to this: Our “we do this because...” doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as our ancestors’ “we do this because...” The same pattern can be useful for varying things over time. If we have a reason for doing it, then our reason makes the pattern our own.
There’s much more... far too much for one blog post... so expect to see news repeatedly over the upcoming weeks concerning the program and the people making it happen.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - 05:21 PM
Rudy R. Christian
Steve - It's great to see this program getting off the ground. I'm personally familiar with how much work went into development and realize the challenges involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans all too well. Your use of the 'pattern language" approach to understanding the architecture of New Orleans is interesting and commendable. I would hope that the intent to teach traditional trades and the value of understanding the value of traditional materials remains a focus of the program as well. Without an understanding the context of why those materials were used to build the historic architecture of New Orleans it is unlikely students will have the appreciation of their suitability and durability. This was the foundation of the disaster that followed Katrina when immeasurable amounts of durable historic fabric were lost to "gutting" instead of preserved by educating the volunteers before they were deployed. I would hope we won't repeat that mistake in the programming of efforts to educate the future craftsman whose job it will be to conserve what is left of New Orleans.
Rudy R. Christian
Preservation Trades Network