Luis Eduardo Boza, Assistant Professor, The Catholic University of America, School of Architecture and Planning

Click here to be directed to the gallery for the “Digital Craft” project described in the following paper.



Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) fabrication machinery is changing the way we design and build. These technologies have increased productivity through greater efficiency and have helped to create new forms of practice, including increased specializations and broader collaborative approaches[1]  Some argue, however, that these technologies can have a de-humanizing effect, stripping the human touch away from the production of objects and redistributing the associated skills to machines.[2]   The (Digital) Craft studio explored notions of technology and craft to understand how designers can begin to reintroduce the hand into the mechanized process of CNC fabrication.


1    Introduction

“As educators and students, we should get back to what originally inspired us to become architects ourselves… Ultimately, it is the intimate connection to the process of making.” [3]

– Christiano Ceccato

As the computer has evolved over the last few decades, critical discourses have begun to question the computer’s “controlling” nature. Malcolm McCullough suggested in Abstracting Craft (1996), that the design process had become “less a matter of putting oneself in the job and more about getting the most out of the machine.”[4] 

Today, CNC fabrication technologies have given architects new and powerful ways to shape the design and construction processes. CNC provides an expanded range of possibilities and performs in ways the hand cannot. As far back as 1948, Sigfried Giedion stated that “in its very way of performing movement, the hand is ill-fitted to work with mathematical precision and without pause…It cannot continue movement in endless rotation.”[5]

E.F. Schumacher eloquently elaborated on this point by stating in Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (1973),

The type of work which modern technology is most successful in reducing…is skillful, productive work of human hands, in touch with real materials…A great part of the modern neurosis may be due to this very fact; for a human being, defined by Thomas Aquinas as a being with brains and hands, enjoys nothing more that to be creatively, usefully, and productively engaged with both his hands and brains.[6]

Although CNC technologies have brought us closer to a more direct and seamless connection with the final construct, CNC fabrication only mimics the actions of the hand and lacks the intuition and spontaneity which the hand/brain coordination affords.[7] As most commonly used, CNC technologies disassociate the hand from the direct act of making and marginalize it to merely assist in the labor of assembly. This is an issue that goes to the heart of the tension between technology and craft.

To engage both the brains and the hand” is analogous to the engagement of technology and craft. Technology (from the Greek, tekhno and logia) refers to the “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique.[8]  Its output is not an object but an abstraction of information to be processed by a tool (or in this case, the brain.)  To craft is “to make or produce with care, skill, or ingenuity,” a “manual dexterity or artistic skill.[9]  Craft relies on a tacit and haptic knowledge of tools and materials to give it form. It is associated with a personal or individually produced artifact. Ultimately, craft is dependent on a close association between the hand, the brain and the material.

Furthermore, technology and craft as described by David Pye in The Nature of Art and Workmanship (1968) involve two distinct notions of workmanship: the workmanship of certainty and the workmanship of risk.[10]

The workmanship of certainty has to do with a mass or serial production in which design, prototyping and manufacturing aim to achieve 100 percent certainty through a system of distributed knowledge.[11] The workmanship of risk, on the other hand, involves the ability of individuals, not systems, to determine the level of success.[12]  A single skilled person or each person in a group of skilled individuals, at any moment along the process hold the key to its success. The workmanship of risk relies on a personal creative knowledge of the tools, materials and techniques; one must understand each and its role in the process in order to be called upon when the need arises.

Today, most of the discussions surrounding CNC technologies revolve around its ability to produce a consistent quality with exact results from that which was digitally modeled.[13]  The workmanship of risk rarely enters the discussions. Risk and the critical creative role of the craftsman/artisan, are taken out of the equation.

The (Digital) Craft studio, a graduate level studio at The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning, investigated the notions of the workmanships of “certainty” and “risk” and speculated on the changing nature of craft resulting from CNC fabrication technologies. Can digital design and fabrication technologies help to re-connect the hand with making? Can CNC technologies teach us about materiality and methods of construction and assembly? And, how might one begin to craft a design/fabrication/assembly process that considers both “certainty” and “risk” as an integrated whole?

2     Project & Process

These issues were explored through the design, fabrication and assembly of a large, space-making device that serves as both office and lounge space for the student body and organizations in the school of architecture.

Sixteen students worked collaboratively to develop a design proposal and a fabrication/assembly process that required similar and consistent involvement from all students. This ensured that the process and aesthetic outcome would be influenced by the development of a systemized approach, as well as each student’s intuitive responses.

The course began with a rigorous examination of materials and techniques which subsequently informed the design process. Research was conducted through an iterative process of testing hypothesis, learning from mistakes and identifying opportunities. Neither the hand nor the computer was the dominant tool in the process; rather, they were considered one tool. Students were asked to produce a series of sample panels that exploited both CNC fabrication and traditional hand-working techniques (i.e., sanding, etching, and carving) with the hopes of creating new material expressions in terms of workability, tactility and form. 

Students evaluated the samples by comparing various techniques of production (e.g., casting, bending, perforating) and their associated methods of workmanship. Through this repetitive feedback loop, they were informed by a series of “discoveries,” whether intended or not.

Examined in a digital model, a veil-like, undulating screen was derived from an analysis of the sectional relationships of the site. (Figure 4).The resulting form was a complexly curved surface that required the geometry to be simplified into a series of developable surfaces that could be fabricated from a planar material.  Given the previous material investigations, it was determined that sheets of plywood would be used. As both a natural and engineered product, it embodied the humanity of the craftsperson and the technology of production. A gradient perforation pattern was created from the surface’s curvature analysis. (Figure 5) In order to increase the pliability of the material, the perforations were subtracted from the surface in the computer model. Each layer was digitally unrolled producing two-dimensional cut templates. Exploiting the repetitive and precise capabilities of the CNC milling machine, each uniquely dimensioned layer was cut. The four layers were then laminated to one another and secured onto a fabricated buck, or form to attain their required curvature. 

Once removed from the buck, each panel was inspected. Inaccuracies and flaws, including misalignments in the layers, incorrect orientations of the grain and panels formed in reverse, were identified. Each student determined the appropriate level of response given the initial flaw. The misalignments of the layers were erased through a formal manipulation of the panel edge through sanding. (Figure 9,10) Incorrect grain orientations were accepted and eventually exaggerated prior to milling, as it was seen as an opportunity to reinforce the quilt-like nature of the surface. In some cases, it was necessary to remake inversely formed panels, since they would not conform to the intended surface form.        

During this process, it was noted that the use of digital tools did not always lead to accurate results, nor did the use of the hand insure a well “crafted” object. What was originally virtually modeled and visible on the computer screen was only a perception of the “ideal” —perfectly smooth edges, joinery that met with exactly specified tolerances and bends in the exact areas desired. . What resulted revealed the inherent properties of the material and the varying qualities inherent in each of the student’s work. . As a result, the design/fabrication/assembly process expanded and exploited the findings from the intended and unintended discoveries. Ultimately, this process was informed through a physical contact with the material itself.

3     Conclusion

It was the studio’s contention that one should consider craft in the context of a society that must focus not only on innovation and efficiency, but also on intuition and creativity. Indeed, due to the coupling of a systematically defined process of design/fabrication that utilized CNC technologies (the workmanship of certainty) with an intuitively responsive process informed by the hand’s physical contact with the material (the workmanship of risk), the final construct ultimately revealed a condition which was only evident once the full-scale construction was complete. The surface communicated its integrated processes and methods of fabrication at multiple scales, fluctuating somewhere between a digitally produced object and a finely crafted piece of furniture. For the students, the result was a comprehensive understanding of their design proposal, of the materials employed and of the methodologies/techniques necessary for the two to coalesce into one. (Figure 11-12)

As a designer and/or craftsperson gains experience and evolves, a more refined knowledge of material manipulation and tool usage emerges. Craft is a result of knowledge, invention, uniqueness and risk. While craft relies on a predefined, yet intuitive process, technology can become the catalyst for humanizing opportunities to occur, rather an end to the means.



[1] Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, Refabricating Architecture  (McGraw-Hill: New York, 2003) p. 31.

[2] Peter Dormer, The Culture of Craft (Manchester University Press: Manchester, UK, 1997) p. 103.

[3] Christiano Ceccato, Evolving Tools: Digital Fabrication in Architectural Education, Proceedings from the 2004 AIA/ACADIA Conference, p. 38.

[4] Malcom McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1996) p. 16.

[5] Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (Oxford University Press, Inc.: Oxford UK,1948) p. 47.

[6] E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. (Harper and Row: New York, 1973) p.141.

[7]  Dormer, p.165.

[8] Miriam-Webster Dictionary viewed April 10, 2006. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/technology

[9] Miriam-Webster Dictionary viewed April 10, 2006. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/craft

[10] David Pye, The Nature of Art and Workmanship (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1968) p. 7.

[11] Pye, p.7

[12] Pye, p.7.

[13] Branko Kolarevic, Architecture in the Digital Age: Design and Manufacturing (Spon Press: New York, 2003) p. 78.

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