9 JUNE 2001, Page 44

Bring back the artisans

Alan Powers

Modern architecture displays a s range courtship dance with the idea of craftsmanship. The presumption that modern architecture desired an irrevocable shift from the artisan to the machine can be readily absorbed from some of the most famous theoretical writings of the past century. The reality was always somewhat different, as displayed, for example, in the work of Adolf Loos, whose Villa Muller in Prague is now open to groups of visitors by appointment, after a restoration which has made its marble and timber surfaces glow again. Admittedly, Loos made his chief contribution to architectural theory by asserting that ornament was a mark of degenerate peoples, as proven by the fact that the prisons were full of tattooed criminals.

Many contemporary architects regard the melancholic Loos with awe. His ideas of subtly modelled internal space, combined with fine but discreet materials (the equivalent, he hoped, of the Englishman's anonymous dark suit), can be recognised in the work of Tony Fretton, currently on display at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, W1 (until 28 July). Fretton conforms to a pattern established by many modernists in talking about public space and democracy, while taking his building opportunities where he finds them, including a highly luxurious new house in Chelsea. This, clad in dark brown marble, is the nearest equivalent in London to an Adolf Loos villa. Although it scowls its apparent purity in a Street of jumbled eclecticism, the house is full of ideas and echoes of elsewhere, in a kind of minimalist post-modernism. As Fretton writes (and he has an engaging way with words), 'Picasso put anything he liked in his paintings. There are many alternatives within modernism, you can look to writing, visual arts and theatre as much as architecture for the underlying ideas with which to make a building that speaks for its time.'

'Materiality' is one of the current buzzwords in architecture. Our ennobled hightech architects tend not to do materiality, preferring smooth, unified surfaces and an appearance that is ever-new (at least until the rust creeps up). The exhibition Making Buildings (at the Crafts Council, 44a Pentonville Road, Ni, until 17 June. and afterwards in Manchester and Aberystwyth) involves plenty of materiality, provided that it does not end up looking too much like old-fashioned building. The way buildings are made is highly diverse and contrasting approaches are demonstrated, from artists and craftspeople whose forms, perhaps slightly by accident, are in some sense habitable, to ordinary building tradesmen doing the things builders normally do. So much is left out, however, that one loses sight of the grim reality of the building industry, which is squeezing out the small amount of craftsmanship left in Britain as fast as it can. Training requirements are continually reduced, and the continuity of skills passed from one generation to another has worn down to a thread. Only the savvy self-employed who offer a unique skill like thatching have much chance of survival.

This need not be so. A few years ago, the vice-chancellor of De Montfort university insisted that his architects. Short and Ford, make their Queen's Building there as labour-intensive as possible, in order to generate new skills, but this was a rare instance. They manage these things better in Europe, while we build expensively and badly, as if the great figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, who were as much concerned with the well-being of the worker as with the beauty of their work, had lived in vain.

That their effort was not entirely wasted is proved by another exhibition in London, of the work of Laurie Baker, at the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, WC1 (until 15 June, and then at the Birmingham School of Architecture during Architecture Week, 23-30 June). Born in 1917 in Birmingham and schooled there as an architect before the war, Baker absorbed that city's love affair with the brick, which produced reticent but richly textured villas for high-minded manufacturers in Edgbaston and Four Oaks. As a conscientious objector, he worked in China and Burma in the Friends Ambulance Unit, and then settled in India, where he met and married his wife, a doctor. For 16 years they built and ran schools and hospitals in the Himalayas, before moving to Trivandrum, in Kerala. Baker has completed many buildings, from nursery schools to offices. He uses brick in the spirit of local building, often with additional fantasy of his own, as in the spiral coffee-house in Trivandrum where customers can walk up a ramp to find a sitting place of their choice. For an architect whose sayings indicate a

modernist puritanism (Discourage EXTRAVAOANCE & SNOBBERY'), the results are delightful, practical and, in a country where craftsmanship has not yet been systematically effaced, they show exactly the joy in work for the maker and the user that William Morris talked about, combined with low energy consumption in materials and running costs. Bricklayers from Trivandrum should come to Britain and remind us how to use this wonderful material.