CBE Research Portal

December 28, 2020

Building Knowledge: The Architect and the Builder with Professor Ann Huppert

Throughout history, we’ve seen shifts in how people communicate regarding design. The question of how communication happens between architect and builder is as fundamental today as it was hundreds of years ago. While the dynamics of these communication processes are nuanced, our understanding of them has been colored by a narrative of the past. One CBE faculty member is challenging the standard narrative about how buildings get made, from design to construction through design communication and knowledge exchange.

Today, we have the architect and the builder. Separate and yet when visiting St. Peter’s in Rome, or looking skyward in our own Gould Court with its intersecting brutalist concrete walkways and stairways, the final products are intrinsically linked to both professions. But, the roles weren’t always defined separately.

What changed? How did these roles communicate? College of Built Environments’ Professor Ann Huppert’s new book project, Building Knowledge: The Culture of Construction in Sixteenth-Century Rome, investigates the shift that separated the architect from the builder, and the way knowledge of the building project was shared and communicated between those two distinct realms of practice. Huppert charts how important information on the building process was passed between individuals at the project site, and employs digital humanities methods and tools to map the networks of individuals and physical locations of these material exchanges

Huppert, an architectural historian, thinks about the different roles of the architect and the builder a lot. Huppert’s background as a historian gives her a unique perspective in the realm of architecture, one where she is often thinking about people. Professor Huppert’s fascination goes beyond the professions of the 16th-century architects and builders she studies; she thinks about the materials each building was made with, she questions how those builders knew what stone to use, and how they got their building materials to work sites. Further, she ponders the mechanism of communications the architect used to relay the building information to the builder and vice versa. Huppert’s latest work explores the central question of knowledge. How was knowledge regarding the design and construction of 16th-century architecture transmitted between the architects and the builders? What did collaboration between designer and builder look like? And in asking those questions we are confronted with the question of whose hands are building cities?

“Architecture has and remains a collaborative effort. We have to recognize that if we are going to present a full picture of architecture’s realization.” Ann C Huppert

“We think today about the split between the person doing the design and those carrying out the construction,” said Huppert, “although that is shifting today with the reintegration of those two in design-build, firms, for example.” But the divergence between the designer and the builder, Huppert argues, primarily began in the 15th and 16th centuries due to the elevation of the architect, “as the ideas person, the designer who is working at a remove from the construction site.”

This represents a shift from earlier periods when the person developing the building design was the same individual who would oversee construction. This required knowledge grounded in the physical aspects of building.

In early modern Italy, the architect emerged as a separate role. Huppert notes in her project that many architects were trained in the visual arts, such as painting. While they had perfected their design and visualization skills, these designers didn’t necessarily know how a building was physically constructed. Huppert states plainly, the role of the modern architect originated in Renaissance Italy. She writes “this architect conceived of a design at a remove from its realization, eliciting a new paradigm of construction and new issues for communication and building.” This paradigm hasn’t completely changed either. There is still certainly a separation between the work of an architect and the work of a builder. 

Huppert explains, the Italian Renaissance architect conceived of a design. The cultural celebration of disegno, or drawing, “bolstered the status of the architect as an intellectual but also resulted in limited training in the technical aspects of construction” writes Huppert. The result, she explains, was a heightened reliance of the architect on craftsmen and builders. A societal emphasis on design as a higher social status, paved the way for individual architects to emerge as recognizable names while others remained unrecognized. Huppert works to break down the star architect paradigm in her book. 

[T]here has been insufficient attention to others involved in the realization of architectural projects, and to how ideas surrounding design and construction developed and were transmitted. Ann C Huppert

But how did these disparate professionals communicate the grand structure of churches and palaces? How, as architects became removed from the act of building, did they learn what they needed to know? Huppert’s research delves into specifically that mechanism of communication and investigates both the physical building sites and networks of communication and information sharing between architects and the construction of Rome during a period of huge growth for the city. By doing so, she is able to provide a broader, more inclusive understanding of Renaissance architecture, an analysis she feels is missing in her field.

Huppert has long thought that drawings were one of the main ways designs were communicated between architect and builder. But just as you need to know how to read a map to use one, you need to know how to read an architectural drawing or blueprint. She knows conversations were had, information was exchanged, but what did the design process look and sound like?

To answer these questions, Professor Huppert’s research circles back to people.

She says that it’s important not to gloss over the broad workforce, so to “expand our thinking about what architecture involves and who it involves and how it impacts people.” She notes the long history of focusing on singular individuals and pushes back on that. The architect didn’t work in isolation. Building something like Gould Hall is a complex process that takes many people. And these people hold the knowledge that it takes to get from the design on paper to a building on the skyline. 

Huppert’s research “redefines architectural authorship and challenges long-standing scholarship that identifies such knowledge as based primarily in theory and solely the purview of the architect.” For those looking back, Huppert urges us to challenge the heroic architect construct and zoom out to see all of the people involved in the building process. 

For Huppert, taking this critique and applying it to an earlier period sheds light on today. The architect as “the controlling author of a finished work” overemphasizes singular designers, when in fact, huge numbers of people are called upon to see any design into physical realization. Architects rely on engineers and builders to have their ideas realized. “Architecture has always been a collaborative endeavor,” says Huppert. And it’s looking at this relationship that will provide a fuller picture of the linkage between architect and builder, ideas and construction. 

As the narrative complicates the relationship, communication practices, and dynamics, architecture emerges as a beautiful craft that links both art and science.