How can we create new art to develop the culture of our age without copying?
The answer is to start by copying.

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.

Art, Craft and Design

I first realised I was destined to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright very early. That was clear because I liked his work. I could draw and I understood physics which would be useful for the structure of those cantilevers. It followed that my stuff would be like his stuff, and my most beautiful works would surely be better looking than his worst ones, and so one day coffee-table books would have to be dedicated to my buildings. And sure enough, in good time, I arrived at the School of Architecture. Now – I just had to learn the skills of building design.

So we learnt about bricks and steel, and concrete and glass, about hot and cold water systems and structural calculations and about the difference between cesspools and septic tanks. We learnt about contracts and specifications, about quantity surveying and the terms of agreement between architects and clients. We learnt about how one decomposed snail in a bottle of ginger beer had opened the branch of law that allows architects to get sued by people who aren’t their clients. We learnt about the history and philosophy of building design – ancient, modern and postmodern, we learnt how to create drawings to seduce clients (and our assessors) and how to make the drawings that described what would be built. We went out to study villages and towns and cities and vernacular farm buildings. We learnt about Planning Control and Building Control, and about the Cement and Concrete Association and about the Building Research Establishment. We learnt ergonomics, the requirement for pram stores and ventilated food cupboards in postwar housing, about traffic, and psychology, about determinism and the difference between front doors and back doors, about wayfinding and ecology, about trees and what kind of shrubs you plant to stop people taking shortcuts across flower beds. Interestingly in those days, although I remember one tutor mentioning the ‘sequence of trades,’ we never learnt either project management nor health and safety. The world has moved on since then. 

And one day we sat in the lecture hall in a course named ‘Design Factors and Methods.’ As the lights dimmed we waited to learn how to design buildings. The lecture was rubbish. I didn’t understand it then and looking at the notes now, it wouldn’t have made a jot of difference if I had done.

For example, our lecturer gave us this diagram.

He explained, ‘The design process has three stages – the exploration of options, known as brainstorming or divergence, the working out of how it all fits together – and the coming together of solutions as you converge on the result.’ I recall that I was naive enough to copy the diagram and to try to use it in my next student project. 

It didn’t work of course, but what did work to some extent was thinking about all that other stuff we were learning about, then fiddling with everything in more or less random ways over and again until I got something I liked. 

What I discovered by experience could have been put into its own academic gobbedygook. I could say that ‘design is a non-linear process’ it progresses in a strange geometrical path composed of circles and dead ends. It uses a lot of paper and even more erasers. It takes place in two stages. The first stage takes several weeks. It is known as the displacement-activity phase and comprises days of chatting, scribbling, and late nights partying. The second stage comprises no more or fewer than exactly two all-night sessions preparing the presentation, and it is known as the panic phase. This process produces symptoms in the student combining those of hangovers and jet lag at the precise moment when the work is to be criticised by rather disappointed tutors.

Design, I discovered, could be identified as an activity which needed one week more than it got.

So in a nutshell. I spent six years as a student of architecture practising building design without having any idea of how I was doing it. In case you have missed my name on your coffee table books, don’t be surprised. I won an RIBA award for the design of one small building early in my career, the next twenty years trying unsuccessfully to copy the recipe for that design again, and the third and most enjoyable part, learning how to manage people and construction sites.

And surrounding us all as students was the insecurity of knowing that architecture as a creative profession had a bad reputation in the public eye. That still surrounds architects now and has been the water that the profession has swum in since the mid 19th century.  Whatever age we live in, it seems that old stuff is generally accepted and the modern is decried. A contemporary account of the nineteenth century redevelopment of Paris for example mentioned the speaker’s reaction to its newly-redeveloped imperial boulevards,“We weep with our eyes full of tears for the old Paris, the Paris of Voltaire… when we see the grand and intolerable new buildings.” and meanwhile the British Palace of Westminster aka the Houses of Parliament were being rebuilt in a sham mediaeval style in what we might now call a populist response against the modern architecture of the day.

So what was it and what is it that great architects have that they didn’t teach me? At the time I probably would have said ‘an ego the size of a planet,’ and now I might say ‘some vision that they had the need to express.’ It comes to the same thing. Most of the iconic buildings designed in the early twentieth century seemed pretty ugly when I was a student and I still think of them as inelegant today. But there’s no doubt that those early modern masters were inspired by a vast creative vision and purpose. Each of them described in their own way what they cared about in terms of the function of buildings, their proportions and their expression of materials as serving the population of the modern age. Between them, they changed the face of the world. For the better? Yes, I think so.  

I found myself walking around Paris last week. That’s the main reason why this essay is late. I find that the endless magnificence of those classical facades, whether wrapped around the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre Museum or wallpapering the blocks that line any Parisian boulevard, say nothing to me other than shouting the power of wealth. Whereas the Centre Georges Pompidou literally (yes literally) took my breath away. Its expression of structure, and mechanical services as the voice of a new language touches me in a way that makes me see all buildings both ancient and modern with new eyes.

And I think that’s what allows some architecture to transcend into art. I don’t think that’s about design at all and it’s certainly not about choice of style, I think it is the difference between art and craft. What distinguishes all art from craftsmanship, is that craftsmanship may express skill and refinement and beauty, and it may be functional and ergonomic, but its purpose is not to express any cultural meaning. Craftsmanship probably has style, but it doesn’t have language, because it doesn’t say anything except ‘I have been well made’. 

Art on the other hand sets itself apart because it communicates whatever the artist feels passionate about, and with its message, it offers a way for us all to see not just the object itself but the whole world differently. In that context, I have never really understood why singers are referred to as artists, whereas any decent comedian ticks that box the moment they open their mouth.

As Picasso famously once said or perhaps didn’t, ‘The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’ So long as it does that, art can be ugly and it can be devoid of craftsmanship. I’m not saying that the world is better because it contains Tracy Emin’s bed or Marcel DuChamp’s urinal. But I do think it’s better because of the emotions and conversations that surround those things. Such reactions challenge our own creativity and prompt us all to do something more than turn up and live.

So that’s my distinction between art and craftsmanship. What of the interaction between art and design?  

As students we were taught by the more pompous of our tutors that if our creations weren’t art then what we were doing wasn’t architecture. Later when I was an expat in the Middle East, I discovered that the practice of building design was known as engineering and architects were only one of a dozen professions who contributed to the effort, no more creative or ‘artistic’ than any of the others.

Personally I believe that the smartphone (ok as Samsung owner I must begrudgingly admit I’m actually talking about the iPhone) expresses craftsmanship, inspired design and in its ability to influence a large part of our culture is probably for better or worse the highest art of our age, replacing the motor car and the steam engine as the cultural icons of the preceding ages. An item as complex as a building, a steam engine, a car or a smartphone, can’t just be picked up off a rubbish heap and put in a show. It has to be designed. Design is the activity that collects all the relevant bits of technology and technique and synthesises them into the functional result. 

Design is a goal-centred activity. It’s goal may or may not be a work of art, but with all that creative effort, why not put in a bit more to make it beautifully crafted too?

Craft, art and design are at their best when they all come together. Apart from those great technological advances I have mentioned, I believe movie screenwriting is the richest culture of this age. The TV was supposed to spell doom for the cinema but it didn’t. The mixture of story and spectacle is a potent one for all sorts of deep reasons, I don’t have space for here. The opportunity for artistic expression from the writer through the audience to a wider culture is enormous, the complexities of time and three-dimensional space as shown on a big screen certainly require design and there are also endless ways in which fine-honed craftsmanship adds depth to the mixture of sound and vision. 

Movies have typically been classed in genres – humour, drama, action etc. But the profession of movie making has become so sophisticated and multilayered that many of our most successful films now transcend and combine all those genres into one. Yes I am thinking of course of Marvel which follows in the groove first ploughed by Diehard by setting internally conflicted and fallible heroes against intelligent villains in a rich complex of humour, action and special effects.

With so much effort and of course money invested to make movies like this, there follows the complaint that they become too safe – too centred on craft and not enough art, but in such a rich landscape there is more than enough space for all these creative streams to flourish.  Deadpool and Spiderman have each taken new creative directions in the Marvel Universe as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda did in the realm of CGI. All of these movies have in their way changed the culture, not just of Hollywood but of everyone in the Western World.

Anyway, there is nothing wrong with crafting and following traditions, even new ones. In 2017, acknowledging that I never really had any mind-blowing message to transmit in architectural design I rebooted my own creative journey, almost from scratch. This time, I wasn’t really so interested in design as in creativity generally. Encouraged by my wife, I started to draw again. So as someone who understood craftsmanship and technique more than creative messaging I tried something maybe I should have done half a century earlier. I studied and copied examples of the work of artists I admired, line for line. 

It would be easy and wrong to say that such time spent would be stealing time from the budget I had available for my own creative drawings. But time doesn’t work like that at all. Time expands or contracts to fit around the activities that we care about. When I spend more time with the works I love, I budget more of my own time to follow up with my own creative work. 

There are specific ways in which copying the drawings of my heroes actually saved me time too. Copying reminds me what reads as a beautiful line and what doesn’t. It reduces the time I waste trying to achieve specific effects by trial and error. When I am copying with my hands, my head is simultaneously considering how that exercise relates to whatever struggles I am going through in my own creative work. The result is that my own drawings become easier, faster and better. I have demonstrated all this to myself numerous times.   

There is also the temptation to think that copying is always dilution. If I am treading in my hero’s footsteps, then I will never overtake him. Now maybe this is rubbish or maybe it’s true, but it doesn’t really matter. Why be shy to say that my heroes are better at drawing the way they draw than I am? That really would be a pointless argument to deny. 

But copying still has a bad reputation, and we might blame the education system which forbids it in exams and assessments. But in my own anecdotal experience it seems to be deeper than that. I have consistently encouraged my twins to copy the best of each other’s work and that of everyone else too. They have been one hundred percent homeschooled after only three years at a very liberally minded school, but their refusal to share authorship is solid, so this ownership of ideas thing seems to be pretty hardwired.

I’m not alone in believing that copying is useful and a mind expanding creative tool. Kirby Ferguson has made more and better arguments for it than I could. His video Everything is a Remix (2) is a beautiful piece of creativity in its own right. Gosh he’s even done a TED talk.

But there has to be more to finding our way in creativity than copying.  Yes of course. Copying is an exercise. It has to be balanced with original work too. I can appreciate with the vast wisdom of age, even I would never have become the next Frank Lloyd Wright by imitating the forms of his buildings. Some of the saddest things I have seen are the Beginner Books published under the imprint set up by Dr Suess and written after his death by those deliberately trying to imitate his style. Wright’s architecture was itself carried on by a generation of Prairie School disciples who copied stylistic traits, and certainly with more flair and creativity than I would have done, but I doubt anyone remembers the names of its practitioners.

So what is the balance? Is there a right amount to copy before the artist is shouted down as being derivative or a plagiarist? Why was Terminator 2 so much better than the original and Hotel Transylvania 2 so much worse?

My take on this is if you have a fresh message, one that springs from your values, your ‘whys’ and your vision, then copy away; sample; be inspired by, and then create your own work in your own mould. On the other hand, if you don’t have your own message to shout, or if you haven’t invented your own language yet, then copy even more. Enjoy bathing in the glow of real genius. Maybe you’ll find yours while leaning on the shoulders of your heroes.

Nick James      Posted in:



March 2024, Paris France

Header Image:

Centre Pompidou – by Piano and Rogers