A. Wade Razzi, Chief Academic Officer at American College of the Building Arts, is interviewed by W. Winston Elliott III, Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative.
The American College of the Building Arts was founded in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, which did massive damage to the Charleston area in 1989. Charleston is home to one of the most significant collections of historic buildings, both public and private, in the United States and is one of the real treasures of Southern Architecture. In the aftermath of the hurricane, there was a shortage of craftsmen capable of doing the repairs that were necessary, and contractors descended on Charleston to help with rebuilding the city. Unfortunately, many of them did not understand how to properly work with historic materials, and millions of dollars more of damage was done by these repairs. It was at that point that a group of local civic-minded citizens realized a need for an institution that taught those skills. Fortunately, they had the foresight to establish something that went beyond a normal trade school and reintegrated a liberal arts curriculum alongside of the trade education. Students not only learn how to build in their various trades, but also learn the architectural history, science, math, drafting, and preservation skills necessary to work with historic materials, as well as the critical thinking and leadership skills that should be the hallmark of a liberal arts education.
Because of Hugo, Charleston arrived at this conclusion; that is, that skilled craftsmen were in short supply, ahead of the rest of the United States. Now everyone is starting to realize that this is a very serious problem, even though it was predicted by the Whitehill Report back in 1968.
WWE: What does ACBA mean to its students and how are they different?
ACBA is unique and therefore attracts unique students. There are plenty of colleges that have programs in things like Historic Preservation and Construction Management. Our students come to ACBA because those programs don’t offer enough, or in some cases any, hands-on experience. Our students want to build things and work with their hands. There are also plenty of trade and technical colleges in the United States, but those schools don’t offer the liberal arts component that we do. Our students take traditional courses like History, English, Math, Science and Foreign Language, which most technical schools don’t offer. In our case, all of these courses are geared toward their trade education, so they take Architectural History, Materials Science, and those branches of Math most geared toward the building arts: Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry. Our students are also leaders and entrepreneurs. They want the ability to start their own business or move up in the ranks of the companies for which they eventually work. Our sequence of business and leadership classes prepares them for that as well. Many of our students also have an artistic bent, and our drawing and drafting and design classes help to foster that. In general, the liberal arts education prepares them to be leaders and to think both critically and creatively, both in their designs and in cases where they need to problem solve. There is a quote that we use as a kind of guiding philosophy, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” I’ve seen it attributed to a few different people, including Saint Francis of Assisi.
WWE: What is the relation of the mission and work of ACBA to the true, the good, and the beautiful?
Three years ago, we added our first new specialization at the College, which was in Classical Architecture and Design. I asked one of the professors in that department to help me come up with a good two-minute explanation of how to describe the difference between Classical Architecture and Modern Architecture to the uninitiated. His reply was “Classical Architecture takes into consideration that human beings will occupy the buildings that are being designed.” I thought he was joking, but it turns out that his response is essentially true. We have lost something as a culture. Human beings are meant to be surrounded by beauty. That’s why we have an impulse to create. That’s why we’ve created art, music, and literature. These are things that show we have risen above mere survival. This should be reflected in our buildings. We spend most of our lives indoors. Those places that we occupy should be compelling. In the way that Gothic Cathedrals attempted to reach Heaven itself, the spaces we occupy should help to elevate us as people, to inspire us to be better. Culturally, we used to do that, but in a good example of an asymbiotic spiral, the more we built cheap easily built structures, the less we needed craftsmen; the less we needed craftsmen, the less were capable of building anything but cheap, easily built structures that provide no inspiration for the soul. Someone had to stand athwart that trend and yell “Stop!” and our students are at the vanguard of that movement.
WWE: Can graduates of ACBA bring beauty and craftsmanship to an America driven by convenience and a throw-away culture?
No, but we can try. What we do is not for everybody. In reality there is no way that American home builders are suddenly going to decide to stop using drywall and go back to plastering walls in a traditional way. It’s simply too expensive. But we will need people to preserve those structures that already exist that were built in the traditional way, and there are some designers that are trying to integrate traditional methods into modern designs. We’ve seen some other signs of hope. In 2018 the City of Seattle changed their building code to allow for taller wood frame structures and the fire at Notre Dame has made the world realize the need to train craftsmen. We’ve had several people reach out to us about satellite campuses of ACBA, so things will get better, but it will take a long time for this to become the norm again.
WWE: Is soulfulness to be found in being surrounded by works of true craftsmanship?
I think there is something inherently rewarding in possessing something that is unique. Even if it is a copy of another work, even if it is one of a hundred similar items, the fact that it was made by a human being, rather than a machine, makes it unique. There is the concept of the “Persian Flaw,” which comes to us from the world of ornate Persian rugs. Weavers were supposed to weave in an intentional mistake in the rug to signify that only God can achieve true perfection. There is something reassuring about the human element in a crafted item even if it isn’t perfect. We surround ourselves with things that provide us comfort and have sentimental value; it seems sensible that if we are going to do that anyway, the items themselves should connect us to the people that live around us. An example of craftsmanship represents thousands of hours of training and practice, hundreds of hours of work—the time it took to learn the craft, to design a particular item, and then to actually create it. When you look on it, there is an aura to it that you don’t get when you buy a mass-produced item.
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The featured image is an image of the main building of American College of the Building Arts, photographed by ProfReader, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.