The Landscape Guide

2.2 Pre-modern design methods

Contents list

Apprenticeship is a system of great antiquity. The Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, required skilled craftsmen to teach the young. Books were not available, and technical knowledge was of great value. Those who possessed knowledge wished to keep it to themselves. In ancient Rome, most craftsmen were slaves. This was an effective means of retaining the ownership of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, craft guilds emerged in Western Europe, controlled by independent master craftsmen. Articles of apprenticeship bound trainees to their masters, often for seven years, to work for little or no pay. Some masons went on to become designers. This was the only way to become an "architect'. The knowledge gained in apprenticeship was practical, not theoretical. In the great cathedrals, full-size drawings and large sets of dividers were used to set out masonry. Shapes and forms developed gradually in the minds of master craftsmen. Small-scale drawings came into use at a later date.

Under the master and apprentice system, design decisions were taken on traditionalist grounds. Things were done in special ways because they had always been done in such ways. "If 'twere right for Old Bill, 'twill be right for me'. Changes came about very gradually, if at all. John Christopher Jones, who published an extensive study of Design methods (Jones, 1980), was greatly impressed by this aspect of craft evolution, and especially by George Sturt's book on The Wheelwright's Shop. He quotes Sturt's account of the waggon-builders' approach to what we call design:

The truth is, farm-waggons had been adapted, through ages, so very closely to their own environment that, to understanding eyes, they really looked almost like living organisms. They were so exact. Just as a biologist may see, in any limpet, signs of the rocky shore, the smashing breakers, so the provincial wheelwright could hardly help reading, from the waggon-lines, tales of haymaking and upland fields, of hilly roads and lonely woods and noble horses, and so on... Was it to suit the horses or the ruts, the loading or the turning, that the front wheels had to have a diameter of about four feet?


I never met a man who professed any other than an empirical acquaintance with the waggon-builder's lore. My own case was typical. I knew that the hind-wheels had to be five feet two inches high and the fore-wheels four feet two; that the "sides' must be cut from the best four-inch heart of oak, and so on. This sort of thing I knew, and in vast detail in course of time; but I seldom knew why. And that is how most other men knew. (Sturt, 1923)

Most design was done in this way, in most countries in most historical periods. It was used for carts, buildings, ships, cars, towns, gardens and every other thing. Admiration for the products of traditional design methods continues to grow.

Fig 2.2 Evolutionary craft design - from George Sturt

Cart wheels