Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin
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The view from the building site
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This chapter considers knowledge cultures on the building site. If we broaden our focus from rarefied texts of architectural theory authored by gentlemen – the customary sources used by scholars for elucidating building projects – to evidence of practice and engagement on work sites, then a very different picture of epistemologies emerges. Whereas works of architectural theory present a firm separation between the cerebral process of design and mechanical construction, records of building assessments and work on construction projects show that firm divisions between propositional and tacit knowledges were not recognised by London’s artisanal population. The evidence from the Viewers’ reports – the four master craftsmen specifically employed by the City to adjudicate upon contentious building projects – shows that evaluation of building construction, sustainability, and design was demonstrably a job for (undifferentiated) mind, body, and hand. Similarly, the citizens engaged in the major project to rebuild Goldsmiths’ Company Hall on Foster Lane in the 1630s, individually and collectively looked at the site, physically examined the building, and consulted those with specific building expertise. Artisanal knowledge was communicated on site through a range of mediums, including the spoken word, written instructions, and visual sources. ‘Plots’ (plans) composed by master mason Nicholas Stone were not definitive blueprints but works-in-progress, critically assessed by building practitioners in dialogue with the built environment. Moreover, disputes over the valuation of artisanal labour on this building site show that establishing skill and precision was not reducible to abstract theoretical principles, but subject to social negotiation between craft experts.

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Crafting identities

Artisan culture in London, c. 1550–1640


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