The Masterbuilder

The Masterbuilder

The ancient masterbuilder is a design-build professional, an artist of the built environment, who has existed for about 5,000 years. The history of this profession extends all the way back to the building of the pyramids of Egypt and the world’s first civilizations. In fact, the vast majority of the history of architecture, including a majority of its most significant works, were designed and built by the masterbuilder. The most beautiful places in the world—whether houses, villages, or cities—were done by this professional, who was responsible for the entire built environment.

Long, long ago, the Greeks gave the ancient masterbuilder the name ảpxitέktwv (architekton), from which the Romans derived the Latin name, architectus. Both words literally mean “masterbuilder”—as denoting one responsible for the design and construction of the built environment. Our modern English word “architect” derives from these Greek and Roman terms and is their phonetic equivalent, stripped of the original meaning. Even so, the centuries-old masterbuilder remains a highly respected and legendary figure in today’s architectural community. Several things have been written about him in the record of history. The 1st century BC Roman writer, Vitruvius, highly regarded among architects and architecture schools as one of history’s most preeminent architects, wrote in his De architectura about the architectus saying that, “His personal service consists in craftsmanship and theory [fabrica et ratiocinatione]. Craftsmanship is continued and familiar practice, which is carried out by the hands in such material as is necessary for the purpose of a design.” Vitruvius goes on to warn that the architectus who relies solely on theory and ignores the craftsmanship skill of building with his own hands follows “a shadow and not reality.” (Excerpts taken from Vitruvius On Architecture, trans. from the Latin by F. Granger, Loeb Library [Harvard Univ. Press, 1970], vol. I, p. 7.) As for the Greek word architekton, it was used by several ancient Greek writers. It even appears in the New Testament scriptures of the Bible, where it is translated “masterbuilder” in I Corinthians 3:10—which reads: “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” Here, as in every place among the ancients, the masterbuilder’s profession is described as one in which both design and construction reside as well as wisdom and knowledge.

Further explanation about the masterbuilder is given by architecture professor Howard Davis, in his book The Culture of Building (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006, p.108):

In traditional society, the builder combined the functions of design and construction that are now assumed by separate professionals, and the system of apprenticeship taught people to take these functions on in a way that combined thinking and doing. The word architect, when it was used up to the eighteenth century, usually referred not to an architect in the present-day sense of the word but to someone who assumed overall responsibility for design and construction. Almost invariably, [these masterbuilders] came out of the building trades, and their responsibility lay not only in the production of drawings but also in work on the building site—work that included the organization of trades and the supervision of workers. Their work was in fact an extension of the role of the craftsman.

In one person, the masterbuilder, there existed the following:

  1. Responsibility for design—encompassing deep artistic abilities; drawing skills; profound understanding about how people live and dwell; art / design knowledge for actual shaping, constructing, all elements of the built environment (including buildings / parts of buildings, interiors, exterior landscapes, urban environments). 
  2. Responsibility for construction—encompassing expert craftsmanship in the building arts; knowledge about how a beautiful building (or other environment) is built, as gained from actual construction experience; on-site project management (involving leadership, organizing / supervising workers, financial oversight, artistic discernment).
  3. Complete and total authority on the building site—authority over on-site design / construction decisions; authority over all workers; unquestioned authority over the entire construction phase from start to finish.

When considering these things, one is able to see why this highly-trained professional, the masterbuilder, was so much respected in society. He differs greatly from today’s architect or contractor, in breath, scope, and depth of responsibilities.

Now for thousands of years the ancient masterbuilder held sway as the preeminent professional responsible for the built environment. But this status began to erode in the Renaissance period, when artists such as Michaelangelo, having absolutely no understanding of the building arts, started taking on architectural commissions. This set into motion a series of events over a four-hundred-year time frame, that eventually culminated in the astonishing disappearance of the masterbuilder in the 20th century. His departure was especially brought on by the emergence in 19th century England of two very influential figures: a new kind of businessman known as “the general contractor” and a man named Sir John Soane, father of the modern architecture profession, who arrogantly insisted that the architect completely separate himself from the building activity. Soane wrote of the architect saying, “With what propriety can his situation and that of the builder, or the contractor be united?” (Spiro Kostof, ed. The Architect[Oxford Univ. Press, 1977], p.194).

Despite these developments, there were still a few prominent 20th century architects who continued to operate in a masterbuilder mode, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and the Californian, Bernard Maybeck.

Nevertheless, by the 1900s the ancient masterbuilder was pretty much gone, to the great detriment of society. In his place was set up two inventions of the modern age: 1) the architect—responsible for design only, but having no genuine knowledge about how a building is really built; and 2) the general contractor—responsible for constructiononly, but having no genuine knowledge about design. For thousands of years prior to this, design and construction were understood as united in one and the same person and work. But the architect-contractor system did away with all of this, ushering into society a host of problems.

The plight of the modern architect is this: when building skills do not reside in the designer, then one’s designs tend to devolve to the level of mere “pretty pictures” that are vain, unrealistic, costly, way over budget, and completely unresponsive to the real needs of people’s lives. He falls prey to what Vitruvius warned against—becoming a follower of “a shadow and not reality.” The works of the most celebrated leaders of the profession—architects such as Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaus, and others—are a clear illustration of this problem. The situation is summarized by Dr. Christopher Alexander, eminent professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He writes:

I believe that the things and buildings we have come to know as “Modern Architecture”, or “Modern Design”, represent an absurd and ridiculous—often even immoral—preoccupation with a world of pretense and show, which almost no one believes in, truly, deep in themselves—but which goes on and on, year after year, as designers, architects, artists, and interior designers go on trying to impress one another, and themselves, with their new “conceptions”. I believe that there is a very simple substance to what a building is. I believe, further, that for most of human history, people have understood this substance, and have made their buildings in one version or another of this substance. But we ourselves have chosen, deliberately, to turn our backs on this substance,… and even have the frightful arrogance to try and justify our highly artificial attitude, by claiming through various transparently false arguments, that “the modern age demands something new” and other ostentatious drivel of this kind. (Christopher Alexander, The Linz Café [Oxford Univ. Press, 1981], pp. 85-86).

Furthermore, because the architect is detached from the building process, then he—in contrast to the masterbuilder—has no substantial authority on the job site. For though the contractor is required to comply with all the owner’s decisions, he is not, during the construction phase, legally or contractually required to comply with all the architect’s decisions about the building and its design. In fact, there are many occasions where you will find the architect as an employee of the general contractor. Moreover, as a consequence of turning away from the ancient masterbuilder to pursue a design-only agenda, the modern-day architect must depend predominantly on upper income clients, who make up just a small segment of the built environment’s inhabitants. Social scientist Dana Cuff explains in her award-winning research work, Architecture: The Story of Practice (The MIT Press, 1991, p.33):

While all professions depend on the power and wealth of sponsors, architecture has been unable to make use of this necessary initial condition to achieve its own autonomy. Architects, more than other professionals, remain tied to their patrons. Since doctors and lawyers, for example, have made their services indispensible to nearly all economic groups except the very poorest, they are less dependent on elite patronage. Architects, however, depend on the powerful and monied, who are likely to play a forceful role in their dealings with professionals.

This, however, was not the case with the ancient masterbuilder. Because of his design-build approach, he served a diverse populous, spanning various segments of society—including people of wealth, but also those of very modest means. Such a rich history is so well illustrated by renowned scholar Dr. Bernard Rudofsky in his book, and Museum of Modern Art exhibit of several decades ago, entitled, Architecture Without Architects (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964).

As for the general contractor himself, his plight is this: when design skills do not reside in the builder, then one’s building activities tend to devolve to the level of grim, rote operations for just making money—being completely destitute of craftsmanship skills and unresponsive to the real needs of people’s lives. During the era of the masterbuilder, it was common for a craftsman—whether carpenter, mason, or some other—to possess serious design skills in addition to expert craftsmanship abilities. The building work was understood as a work of art in its own right. Unfortunately, this has been lost. What we are left with, is an industry that has been troubled by criminal investigations, dishonesty, a lack of integrity, poor workmanship, and shady financial dealings. It is no surprise that the general contractor is held in low regard by society. The situation clearly demands an abrupt change of course.

All the issues set forth here, describe the present state of affairs that has produced confusion and a very poor built environment. Indeed, the poor state of the built environment has been much commented on by various experts, such as Christopher Alexander, Andres Duany, Jane Jacobs, and Peter Calthorpe—who writes:

There is a growing sense of frustration and placelessness in our suburban landscape; a homogeneous quality which overlays the unique nature of each place with chain-store architecture, scale less office parks, and monotonous subdivisions. (Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis [Princeton Architectural Press, 1993], p.18).

The general public needs to ask the question: how many places built over the last 100 years during the era of the modern architect, can one think of, that are deeply memorable, truly beautiful, and profoundly edifying? The answer: not many. But prior to the 20th century, the era of the ancient masterbuilder, one can think of many such places. The well-known and respected writer and journalist James Howard Kunstler offers this striking commentary: “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” (James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape [Simon & Schuster, 1993], p. 10).

In the final analysis it must be concluded that the dissolution of the ancient masterbuilder has been a great loss for society. Furthermore, it is evident that the artificial architect-contractor system, intended as a substitute, is detrimental to society and ill-suited for the serious task of forming human habitation on earth. This decades-old experiment is inefficient, wasteful, and costly to maintain. It has continued to fail day after day.

In the face of these obstacles, there is at present, a segment of architects and builders who are doing positive things in the world that are clearly against the prevailing trends. These professionals have recognized something is terribly wrong, and have made attempts in their own way, to mitigate—though not eliminate—various problems, in order to do what is right. But the architect-contractor system with all its severe limitations, works against their very best efforts to achieve something that rises above the level of mediocrity, confusion, and lifelessness, so common today. These architects and builders who try to work within the system, seek to do the best that can be achieved under the present circumstances. There are things here that can be commended. But there is an alternative; a vastly better way, proven by the overwhelming evidence of 50 centuries of building history: the masterbuilder.

The current status quo is not working; and things need to change. This calls for the architect and the builder to move away from “architectural services” (design only) and “construction services” (build only), and to fully embrace the unique design-build approach of the ancient masterbuilder. (The uniqueness of this approach must be emphasized. For the masterbuilder is not today’s architect and contractor banded together side-by-side in a single person, or in a design-build joint venture. The issues involved are deeper and far more complex. Indeed, we are looking at a professional very distinct and different from anything known today in the 21st century.) As history shows in the beautiful works of the past 5,000 years, this is the way that can lead us to more humane built environments, where people’s real needs and lives truly matter, where a sense of social responsibility in building is much more common.

The only answer, the only solution to the matter of humanity’s habitation on earth, is the ancient masterbuilder—a profession tried and perfected for 5,000 years. When design and building responsibilities reside in one person—the masterbuilder—then society receives the following benefits:

  1. Superior design. This comes from the fact that knowledge about how a building is really built informs the design activity and encourages innovation.
  2. Cost control and wise financial stewardship of the project. This comes from the fact that control over both design and construction offers great flexibility to affect project expenses; such an approach limits financial risk to the client by bringing more discipline and predictability to building costs—without destroying artistic integrity. In the hands of the masterbuilder, cost control becomes a tool for making beauty.
  3. Responsiveness to the project, the client, and emerging patterns of life. This comes from the fact that control over design and construction grants real authority in the work, giving enormous freedom to respond at a moment’s notice to opportunities, unforeseen events, and changing circumstances.
  4. The return of genuine artistic craftsmanship. This comes from the fact that when design skills reside in the person doing the building, then the building process is completely transformed from one of dull, rote, mechanical installation to one of thinking, innovation, artistic skill, and craftsmanship—that is realistic and affordable.
  5. A higher standard for the built environment. This comes from the fact that control over construction and involvement in the building activity grants authority to maintain the project’s design integrity and offers freedom to continue designing through the construction phase, at no extra cost, so the building is perfected to a high standard. 

Masterbuilder Fellowship for the Built Environment, Inc is the ancient masterbuilder. We are an organization of masterbuilders—design-build professionals, and artists of the built environment. We are not a licensed architectural firm, nor licensed architects. Rather, our firm has reintroduced the ancient masterbuilder back into society, as a serious and highly developed alternative to the current architect-contractor system. We welcome you, the public, to please contact us for design-build services. Our hearts are ready to be engaged in fulfilling your life-endeavors. Also, we would like to reach out to, and encourage, those architects, builders, teachers, students, and members of the general public, who have been so supportive, and favorably inclined toward the views expressed here. Thank you with all our hearts. May this essay help in some small way toward reforming the building industry, to bring about a beautiful built environment able to profoundly touch the lives of people everywhere—rich or poor.



Essay written by

H. Robert Dinsmore, Jr.
President and Founding Partner,
Masterbuilder Fellowship for the Built Environment, Inc.