The medieval architect/master-builder used relatively few models and drawings, and relied heavily on direct verbal communication and on-site, full-scale layout. This direct process supported a relatively seamless pooling of knowledge between the architect and craftsmen at all phases of the project.
Direct verbal communication required the master builder to be continuously present on site and, typically, limited his practice to one major project at a time.
The Renaissance Transformation
In the 15th century, things started to change. Leon Battista Alberti wrote that architecture had nothing to do with construction. I believe he made this claim to elevate the status of the architect by differentiation from the craftsman-guild master-builder.
Alberti also claimed that intellectual training and travel, typically to view the classical antiquities of Rome, gave the emerging artist-designer-architect superiority over the traditional master-builder.
The master-builder's predominance gradually diminished during the Renaissance (1450-1650 A.D.). The early Renaissance birthed the concept that theory provided the essence of architecture, rather than practical technical knowledge or construction skills and experience.
A major building patron of the period would often employ and closely supervise a tripartite collaborative team for design and construction. Such owner-driven architectural teams were responsible for many of the great buildings of the Renaissance.
The tripartite team would include, for creativity, an artist (goldsmith, sculpture, painter) with limited knowledge of construction; for technology, a practicing architect who offered technical knowledge and on-site supervision; and for construction, a master-builder trained in the craftsman guild workshop.
The master-builder was privy to a tradition of "secret" geometric principles and proportions and retained direct contact with the informal knowledge network of fellow craftsmen.
By the Late Renaissance, the technological development of perspective representation and improved orthographic drawings allowed an architect to describe a building design remotely. Architects could withdraw from day-to-day construction supervision and do multiple projects concurrently.
As I see it, the evolution of drawing techniques, and the shift from direct verbal communication to indirect communications through drawings, contributed to the growing barrier between the designer and the builder-craftsman. This became a critical factor in the evolution of architecture.
Although the master-builder guild workshop system began to dissolve around 1450, it took another 400 years for the general contractor and professional engineer to emerge. This occurred in England in the mid-19th century.
In my view, the general contractor came about as a response to the need for military dormitories. The concept of the design-bid-build "lump-sum" contracts has its roots in commodity architecture.
The craftsmen, in order to gain employment or a subcontract in a low-bid environment, were inherently devalued in knowledge and skill. The subcontractor had to be loyal to the general contractor because this was usually his only means of regular employment. The traditional informal knowledge network of communication between designer and craftsman was severed.
The general contractor's relation to the architect was, in general, strictly financial. We see the "drawings" of the earlier period become "contract documents." The very name of the instruments of communication suggests architecture evolving into an adversarial, legalistic, rigid process.
Design-bid-build general contracting dominated architecture in the industrial era. Conflicts and liabilities between the disparate parties, inherent in this process, are well documented up to today.
The Modern Architect
In the early 20th century, new materials, methods, and manufacturing technology transformed architecture.
The 20th century saw an increase in specialization with the emergence of various types of engineers and design consultants for interiors, lighting, acoustics, fire prevention, code compliance, sustainability, etc.
As building design and construction increased in complexity, with multiple materials, products, and project participants to coordinate, design was also often expected to be accomplished within shorter time frames. The challenges of integrative project leadership became more demanding.
Today, many architects seem to be focused on the product of architecture instead of the process. In many cases they make limited use of new technology for design representation, typically in the form of 2D CAD for production and 3D visual design representation.
However, we now see IT emerging as the core component of dynamic, digital knowledge networks which are resulting in new products and processes such as project extranets.
During the late 20th century, intermediary project and construction managers emerged, and many of them are using information-age management techniques, often replacing the architect as the project leader and "integrator" for the owner.
Many of these "integrators" were early adopters of technology for communication and management techniques. Generally, we now see a migration toward design specialization by many architectural firms and a loss of project leadership to building and engineering firms that excel at project (process) management.
Implications for Information Technology
During the 5000-year evolution of architecture, the guild-trained architect/ master-builder, who was the comprehensive integrator, transformed into a modern architect who is one member of a team of specialists. At the same time, communications evolved from verbal exchanges to paper drawings to digital media.
Currently, we are experiencing a disruptive period which should be viewed in the larger evolutionary spectrum. We may be able to draw parallels with the disruption of process, roles, and organizational relationships that occurred during the Renaissance.
The master-builder may be re-emerging in the form of a dynamically networked team of design and construction specialists. Who will lead and manage this transformation? Bi-directional knowledge exchange, enhanced with emerging communications technology, is occurring between owners, architects, engineers, builders and machines.
As I see it, rapidly evolving technology is affecting architecture by driving increasing specialization and compressing time frames. These developments may require reevaluation of the role of the architect as project-leader/ integrative generalist, or design specialist.
Drawings facilitated the fission of the master-builder into the modern designer/ manager/ builder/ engineer team. Is it possible that the next major transformation in architecture will be the fusion of multiple specialists, to include computer-controlled machines, in a sophisticated, integrated cybernetic team?
A digital renaissance is occurring and will continue over the next few decades. How well we understand our history of communications may determine how well we can understand the effects on teams and processes for building design and construction.
Larry R. Barrow, DDes, AIA, NCARB, is an associate professor at Mississippi State University where he is director of the Graduate Program and Digital Research & Imaging Lab. This article is Part II of a series drawn from his doctoral dissertation "Cybernetic Architecture — Process and Form — The Impact of Information Technology," Harvard Design School, 2000. Part I was Practicing Information Technology.