On perfection

A Reading Note

In the late 1920s, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein set about designing a home for his sister in the Kundmanngasse, Vienna. It was to be “the foundation for all possible buildings,” a building so perfect that it could contain within it all other buildings. It was, of course, a failure.

During the same period, Wittgenstein met and befriended Adolf Loos, a professional architect also working in Vienna. Sennett contrasts the experiences of both Loos and Wittgenstein in their simultaneous efforts, noting that whereas the wealthy Wittgenstein had unlimited resources (to the point of electing to raise a ceiling three centimeters well after the stage in which such structural decisions could be easily accommodated), Loos was constrained by both budget and time. Loos was then forced to deal with errors in construction—to improvise—while Wittgenstein could spend his way around them. Loos’s buildings are livable, enjoyable places; Wittgenstein’s one and only venture into architecture was—by his own estimation—lifeless. From this story, Sennett draws a number of conclusions—guidelines for the craftsman that allow him to harness obsession to productive ends. These are worth quoting at length:

The good craftsman understands the importance of the sketch—that is, not quite knowing what you are about when you begin. Loos wanted the Villa Moller to be good of its kind when he began; his experience prepared him for the type-form, but he went no further until he got on site. The informal sketch is a working procedure for preventing premature closure. Wittgenstein’s generic drive expressed itself as wanting to know what he was doing, what he was going to achieve, before work on the site began. In this form of obsession, blueprint thinking prevails.

Sennett, The Craftsman, page 262

The good craftsman places positive value on contingency and constraint. Loos made use of both…[he] made metamorphosis occur in the objects by looking at problems on site as opportunities; Wittgenstein neither was minded nor understood the necessity to make use of difficulties. Obsession blinded him to possibility.

The good craftsman needs to avoid pursuing a problem relentlessly to the point that it becomes perfectly self-contained; then, like the rooms in the Kundmanngasse, it loses its relational character. Obsessing about perfect proportion was the cause of this loss of relational character in Wittgenstein’s vestibule. The positive alternative to this drive to resolve is allowing the object a measure of incompleteness, deciding to leave it unresolved.

The good craftsman avoids perfectionism that can degrade into a self-conscious demonstration—at this point the maker is bent on showing more what he or she can do than what the object does. This is the problem with the handmade hardware like the door handles in the Kundmanngasse house: they demonstrate form. The good craftsman’s remedy eschews self-consciously pointing out that something is important.

The good craftsman learns when it is time to stop. Further work is likely to degrade. Wittgenstein’s house clarifies when specifically it is time to stop: just at the moment when one is tempted to erase all traces of the work’s production in order to make it seem a pristine object.

What Sennett describes is perfectionism tempered by pragmatism—an acknowledgement that the only perfect thing—the only final solution—is death.

Related books

The Craftsman

Richard Sennet

Sennett defines craftmanship as the desire to do a job well for its own sake. In so doing, he frees it of the bounds of carpentry or metalwork and extends the work of craft to that of the programmer, the doctor, and the parent.