Gregory Ronczewski leads the design of the TeamFit platform – view his profile on TeamFit
Top Image: Hōryū-ji (Temple of the Flourishing Law), The Chūmon (Inner Gate), Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, Japan.


Upon his return from Japan, Steven Forth brought me a very interesting, beautifully published book. The Building of Hōryū-ji. The Technique and Wood that Made it Possible by Tsunekazu Nishioka (a temple carpenter and Jiro Kohara an expert on wood). It is far more than the story of a Master Carpenter, who undertook the repair and maintenance of a 1,300 year-old wooden temple. The authors bring us closer to “wood culture.” For more than a thousand years, Japanese have lived in wooden homes. Wood and understanding of wood has become an essential part of life.

Here are a few sentences from Chapter 1 that inspired this post.

“Recently, in connection with the construction of modern buildings, there has been considerable talk about the destruction of the environment and the right to sunlight. Judging from what we know today, the ancients made an effort to have temple buildings blend with the surrounding mountains, rivers, and even the movement of clouds. In deciding on the height of the buildings, attention was paid to the height of mountains in the background. Izumo Grand Shrine, for instance, is only half the height of the hill seen behind it, Mt. Yakumo. (…) Looking at each building individually, we can see the care taken to ensure that one building did not fall into the shadow of another, the care exercised in working out the arrangement of buildings within the compound, their size, height, and intervening spaces. The ancients knew that creating shadows meant producing humidity, preventing dryness, and encouraging rot. This goes beyond the right to sunlight; it is an inviolable rule know by any carpenter who cares about the life of a building.”

Let’s travel from the Asuka period (c 538 – 710) Japan to Plano, Illinois and visit one of the masterpieces of modern architecture – The Farnsworth House designed by Mies van der Rohe. Here is a quote from the website:

“Designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1945 and constructed in 1951, the Farnsworth House is a vital part of American iconography, an exemplary representation of both the International Style of architecture as well as the modern movement’s desire to juxtapose the sleek, streamline design of Modern structure with the organic environment of the surrounding nature.”

A bit more from Wikipedia:

“The steel and glass house was commisioned by Dr. Edith Farnsworth, a prominent Chicago nephrologist, as a place where she could engage in her hobbies — playing the violin, translating poetry, and enjoying nature. Mies created a 1,500-square-foot (140 m2) house that is widely recognized as an iconic masterpiece of International Style of architecture. The home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, after joining the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. (…) Where the interior blends into the exterior, the gentleness of nature flows into the softness of the space, and light creates a subtle modulation within. Both aspects create an aura that solidifies sensibly where the inner and outer worlds meet. The house is in perfect harmony with nature – there is no garden architecture, no pathways, beds or flowers. A large maple tree protects the raised travertine marble terrace. The discrete white of the steel construction and the transparent glass panes make the house almost invisible.”

Here is what Miles van der Rohe himself said about the placement of his concept in the landscape: “Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the colour of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity.”

So we have two views on the idea of how to integrate architecture into the surroundings. But there is more. The property on which the Farnsworth House was build was “designed” by Miles as well. Designed so deep that it goes far beyond what one could call landscaping including the removal of native plants, replaced with an array of those that support van der Rohe concept. Here is a what I found in a book Four Walls and a Roof by Reiner de Graaf.

“In the same way in which everything about the Farnsworth House is controlled, everything around the Farnsworth House is also controlled. The surrounding landscape was designed by Mies, who manipulated the natural setting to the extent that it may be considered domestic. The property was originally cornfield and meadow. When the house was constructed, trees were planted along the original eastern property boundary to shield the site from the view, and the tall native grasses on the site were replaced with the high-mown grass. (…) The surrounding lands—and this is the key—are large. They constitute the only “nature” one sees, tempting the viewer to take it for “real” nature and creating an illusion that the rest of the world is just like the immediate vicinity: all there is, and even if we know it’s not, all there ever should be.”

It reminds me of Villa Savoye which I mentioned in my last post. When Madame Savoye expressed her deep concern related to leaks making the house unlivable, Le Corbusier while promising to fix it—by the way, it was never fixed—reminded his client that she should place a book in the hall and ask your visitors to write their names in it. “You will see how many fine autographs you will collect” he concluded. There is understanding, and there is understanding.

Now, there is nothing wrong with making sure that the context of the design supports the project, however, there is a big difference in how this context is presented. On one side, we have hundreds of years of tradition and skills passed from generation to generation. On the other, we have a concept that is calculated and presented to fit into a modernist movement.

Context is everything. When Tsunekazu Nishioka was a young man he was sent to agricultural school to study forestry. His father, a master temple carpenter himself, wanted him to understand how things grow, and especially to understand the trees that would provide the wood he would work with for the rest of his life.

How would you classify Nishioka’s different skills sets? He had studied forestry, temple architecture, Buddhism and then carpentry skills. He even new about the different techniques for forging nails and iron brackets. His skills were built on a combined experience that went back for more than a thousand years.

In our world, we have computer skills that one could start applying only 20 years ago. I was introduced to a PC in probably 1988 or 89. From 1995, I begin to use a computer daily. Photoshop 2.0 was my main tool. Photoshop has evolved so much over the years that it is hardly even the same tool, back when I began using it, it did not even have layers. I have had to evolve my skills rapidly over the course of my career. Today, we have new apps coming to our professional lives at a pace that it is hard to keep track of, let alone build proficiency in their use.

There are skills that we build throughout our entire career, but it is hard hard to document these, to show how they have evolved and how they are being applied. What I learned from my grandfather probably forms the core of my art and design skills. How to capture this? I don’t think people will appreciate questions like what was your grandfather’s occupation? What does your mother/father do for a living? Even if we have those answers, will we be able to extract any insights how the skills of previous generations contribute to our own? I think the answer lies in the classification of skills and a careful view of their context, or multiple contexts, and their evolution. There are no simple answers when it comes to skills. Perhaps that’s why the Talent Management has had a hard time to establishing itself as a source of real knowledge and performance.

Recently, there is quite a bit of interest in the so-called Generalist. In a book The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are, Richard Martin and Kenneth Mikkelsen consider the differences in the way that a generalist and a specialist can stay relevant. Another article on Medium by Zat Rana
The Expert Generalist: Why the Future Belongs to Polymaths. “Polymaths see the world differently. The make connections that are otherwise ignored, and  have the advantage of a unique perspective. In a world increasingly dominated by machines, this approach is going to become increasingly valuable.”

I think there the ability to make connections between skills or group of skills in the context of a type of work will offer the most compelling view of human potential. It will need to support a timeline to truly understand the extent of knowledge supporting a single skill. In this post, I was able to connect an ancient temple from Japan with a Modernist structure in North America. Does this make me a generalist? I would like that. I always had a hard time to explain what I do. Martin and Mikkelsen put this on top of their book description. I will leave it to my skill map to decide.