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  • Shamika Desai

Questioning Craft

In a world that is moving towards being completely digital and virtual, why are we drawn towards craft? Is it because the handmade lends some softness and a humane touch to a world that is primarily machine-made? Or is it simply the joy of working with something tactile and tangible? At its root, craft satisfies the human need to create. There is an emotional connect with an object that we either make by ourselves, or one that we see getting made in front of our eyes and contribute to its process by iterating and tweaking it till the desired result is achieved. There is a very direct link between the first thought and its manifestation as a product, between the architect and the skilled artisan, and between the artisan’s thought and the craft. The crafts provide a livelihood that isn’t isolated and far removed from the output. Unlike a lot of other manufacturing processes, here the craftsman is not just a peg in the wheel, but is directly connected to the end product and contributes to it through thought and technique. Richard Sennet writes in The Craftsman about the “intimate connection between hand and head” and further asserts that “every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking.” The craftsman is not mindlessly making, but is intuitively thinking about every small decision taken to create an object.

The discourse around craft has always been around saving and reviving it, which often leads to a constant tussle between the handmade and the machine-made. The machine gets looked down on for mass producing and homogenising everything we use and inhabit. The words 'crafted', 'artisanal' and 'handmade' start getting used very loosely and superficially. We begin to romanticize the handmade, without understanding why we give it so much value. To make craft relevant for today, the very definition of craft needs to be questioned.


By using a traditional crafted technique and applying it to a machine, does it make it less crafted? For example, a machine-made clay roof tile or a wire-cut brick. To begin to answer these questions, one must first understand the characteristics that identify a crafted object, beyond its basic definition.

terracotta Mangalore roof tiles

Machine made terracotta Mangalore roof tiles

Photo Credit : Manish Malli

The extent of human involvement in creating something is one factor. A carved wooden handle is completely handmade using hand tools. The construction of a table involves mechanised tools operated by hand. A 3D printed chair involves coding and model making after which the process is surrendered to the machine. Each of these objects are created through very different processes, with varying types of human interaction, yet for me, each is crafted. Each process respects the raw material, is carefully thought through and involves specific skills.

concrete table top in the making

A handmade concrete table top in the making

Photo Credit : Vijay Sakpal, Shamika Desai

To draw a parallel with a common debate in art - painting has always been considered ‘high art’, whereas photography is considered ‘low art’. This stems from the idea that painting is a completely skill based, hand done process whereas photography is an art expressed through a machine, the camera. The camera here is simply a medium, as are carpentry tools. The thinking involved and the coordination between the mind and the hand, the eye and the hand is equal in both. Similarly when electronically produced music became a part of popular culture in the 90s, it still wasn’t valued as much as music created by a singer/songwriter or a musician playing an instrument. Sound mixing wasn’t considered as valuable a skill because it involved creating music using electronic equipment. Over time, various disciplines have been receptive to the introduction of technology in its sphere to different degrees.

Another characteristic of a crafted object is its detail. The detail can either be in the thought process or in the end product. The meaning of craft extends beyond the scale of an object. Entire elevations, material finishes and even planning the exact shuttering joints in a form finished slab is craft!

An object that is unique and limited as opposed to being mass-produced is considered to be crafted. This can be discussed with reference to the time involved in making an object. The more the time taken, lesser the number of times it’ll be produced. Mass-production is closely linked to precision. Mechanical processes allow a level of precision and detail that the hand cannot achieve. For certain elements and objects, the machine assists a crafted process to achieve an elevated result in a shorter amount of time. On the other hand, the handmade with its imperfections and anomalies comes with its own beauty and character. The knowledge and intuition of a craftsman can’t be replaced by acquired mechanical knowledge. It involves constant learning and improvising through tactile experiences until a craft is mastered.

The above points aren’t meant to be conclusive in distinguishing one object from another as crafted or not. They are the factors that collectively contribute to our idea of craft.

Over time, we’ve seen various manifestations of craft in architecture. Through ornamentation and intricate detail, through materials and form, or more recently through parametric applications. Unique traditions of construction crafts such as Araish lime plaster, stone masonry, metal casting, terracotta filler slabs and exposed concrete have been used and revisited time and again across different contexts.

Araish' lime plaster at Amer Fort

'Araish' lime plaster at Amer Fort, Jaipur

Photo Credit : Shamika Desai

Looking back at one of our projects at SJK Architects, an Automobile Design Studio in Mumbai, one questions the meaning of craft even further. The project has an industrial aesthetic with materials used in their crude state. However, elements of the project were reinterpreted through craft, with the belief that we were using processes that were similar to the making of a car. The visual memory of stacks of car doors in an automobile assembly line led to the design of a screen of vertical fins. The profile of each fin was drawn out to create a seamless wave in elevation, and cut from MS sheets by a waterjet CNC machine. Creating a grey POP finish for the walls relied on the intuition of the artisan to judge the thickness and level of the plaster using nothing but a Thaapi or a trowel. The detail of a 26 foot corten steel wall took cues from the art of paper folding to create overlaps between sheets of metal. Although the processes involved to create these elements were mechanised, human input played a large role to problem-solve and achieve the desired finishes. Would one still associate this raw and rugged project with the term craft?

MS fins

MS fins for the Automobile Design Studio

Photo Credit : Rajesh Vora

Exposed concrete floor and staircase with grey POP walls

Exposed concrete floor and staircase with grey POP walls at the Automobile Design Studio

Photo Credit : Rajesh Vora

Craftsmanship in architecture originates from different points. At times, it comes from a deeply rooted need to express context and culture. In other practices, craft manifests itself to save energy, break scale, or add detail. Irrespective of the medium, each application of craft involves being attentive to its origin, its environment, its reason for existence and valuing it for the time and care taken to make it. The definition of craft is in a state of constant evolution and will continue to evolve. As some traditional practices remain untouched, some crafts will mutate and adapt to achieve complex geometries, finishes and forms while still embracing the spirit of craftsmanship. As methods of building change, re-purposing and elevating craft to make it relevant in contemporary society is a part of the process.

By Shamika Desai


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