To launch this series of posts, I thought it would be useful to convene a discussion of the role of the architect and mastery.
Talking about Conceptual Architecture several years ago, Dana Bredemeyer relayed the story of the Master Butcher. It struck me forcibly as a story that speaks to mastery, and architecting. The imagery is rather gruesome, but we can take that in our stride, hopefully.
There are several translations of the story of the Master Butcher from Chaung Tzu. Here is one version:
‘Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”’
Translated by Burton Watson
(Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964)
Another version ends:
Duke Wen Hui said: “Excellent!
I listen to your words,
And learn a principle of life.”
– from Carving Up an Ox
A principle of life indeed. But let us focus on what we learn from this story as it relates to being an architect.
Debrief: Firstly, thanks to Peter, Gene and Leo for engaging in the discussion — great points all! This story and the discussion serves as a prelude to an exploration we’ll unfold in this blog, of what it means to be an architect who achieves mastery in architecting. Which saves me a books-worth of debriefing in this moment! And that in turn, picks up a key theme introduced in the story, that will sound through much to come — namely, the ongoing background consideration of “what, at this extraordinary moment is the most important thing for me to be thinking of” (Bucky Fuller, by way of Dana Bredemeyer). From this story: When we hit a complicated spot, we notice, and pay careful, concerted attention. The more experience we have with systems design, the more complexity we can take on with confidence (not bravado and arrogance, mind) because we’ve developed not just judgement, but a keen sensibility that tunes between active, self-conscious judgment and a more intuitive rhythmic flow or “dance” as we find the natural structure of the system.