“Knowledge workers,” according to the conventional wisdom, are America’s ticket to prosperity and happiness in the 21st century. Armed with graduate degrees in obscure scientific, technological and financial subjects, these new workers will sit at computers endlessly reinventing the world as we know it, adding “value” to products and services, and generating billions in new wealth.

Why then, are so many younger people jumping off the bandwagon and starting small handicraft businesses? Why has “homemade” music entered the lexicon of popular culture? Why do many sustainability gurus advocate low tech, handmade solutions?

To those of us who deal with craftsmanship and handwork as a matter of course, the answer is simple–people need to feel connected to the things they produce. This principle guided the leaders of the Arts & Crafts movement over a century ago. It has come to mean more to today’s disaffected workers as the bubble economy fades each week amidst concerns about job security. This week’s New York Times Magazine legitimized this trend with an article by Matthew B. Crawford, a young man with a Ph.D. who works as a motorcycle mechanic and loves his job.

“The trades suffer from low prestige,” he writes, “and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.” Crawford’s positive experience is a revelation only because our society has so skewed the relationship between work and what John Dewey called “the materials of life.” As children proceed in school, their learning takes them further and further from the hands-on joys of things like gardening, woodworking, household arts, and mechanical repairs. By the time our children reach college, they have been brainwashed into believing that working with their hands is a low class option. Even when they see plumbers, stone carvers and woodworkers earning higher wages than they do, they persist in reaching for “knowledge work.”

This situation contributes to a sickness in our society. People in all walks of life are suffering from anxiety, low self esteem, despair over their future, and a general malaise in the workplace. Especially among the so-called working class and recent immigrants, the misplaced desire for betterment through “higher” education robs children of their natural intelligence when they are discouraged from working with their hands.

There is only one college in the United States devoted solely to the building trades–The American College of Building Arts in Charleston, S.C. Europe has myriad schools of this kind, and children there find alternative courses that lead to jobs in the culinary arts, handicrafts and other endeavors that do not require advanced degrees. It is time that American educators recognized the need for such avenues to self-fulfillment. Perhaps with the demise of Wall Street, we will wake up and smell the sawdust.

The opening of Renzo Piano’s new Modern Art wing at the Art Institute of Chicago has won him another rave from critics throughout the U.S. Even the New York Times’s Nicolai Ouroussoff, generally a curmudgeon when it comes to Piano’s work, granted him a positive nod. His only complaint was that the country was feeling the effects of “Renzo Piano fatigue” as a result of his slew of recent commissions  in America. Why should this be the case?

Piano is a suave, cultured and disciplined designer who engenders confidence in institutional clients, both in the U.S. and abroad. His success is  hard won and, in my view, entirely deserved. While other international starchitects like Daniel Liebeskind, Rem Koohaas, and Zaha Hadid plop their trademark works in cities, expecting adulation for ignoring their local audience and trashing the urban environment, Piano carefully knits his buildings into the fabric of the places he encounters. While there is a superficial similarity to his work–most buildings are light, glassy and structurally innovative–he tries, sometimes to a fault, to find a balance between his interventions and the character of the buildings which set the stage for the new work. This is true at the Morgan Library entrance pavilion, which must attach to three disparate urban buildings (including the greatest classical building in New York–Charles McKim’s original library of 1909). It is also true of his California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, a building that effortlessly includes an older Beaux Arts museum into a larger new facility while providing numerous sustainable systems that make the structure as contemporary as possible. His light, beautiful, and classical museum so outshines its clumsy Herzog & DeMeuron neighbor (the De Young) that visitors may wonder how the Swiss architects were ever considered for their commission at all.

There are moments when one architect achieves a pre-eminent position in the global marketplace, often because his work strikes a chord with stylemakers, critics and politicians. This was the case with Frank Gehry around the time of his Disney hall and Guggenheim Bilbao projects. It was surely the case when Louis Kahn unveiled his brilliant Kimball museum and Salk Center designs. Today’s master builder is Renzo Piano, an architect who has found a contemporary answer to the world’s need for a classical balance and assurance amidst chaos and uncertainty. He has made his mark quietly, largely without pandering to avant-garde critics, and the patronage network has responded with the best institutional commissions of the last decade. On balance, Piano has given us work that will outlast the flash-in-the-pan quasi-sculptures of Gehry, and perhaps rival the serene masterpieces of Kahn. That is an achievement worth celebrating, and Americans should be pleased with their good fortune and good judgment in choosing an architect of such gifts.

This week’s  New  York Times featured two disturbing articles that reinforce points made in earlier posts on this blogsite. Both suggest that the built environment of New York City, its wonderful urban fabric and historic neighborhoods, is not getting the attention it deserves from those who design and govern it. Santiago Calatrava’s transit hub for the World Trade Center site, years in design, has been beaten to death by bureaucrats eager to cut costs and improve anti-terrorist features. The Spanish architect works best when he is given relatively free reign, and this work shows him at his worst (as Nicolai Ouroussoff rightly points out). Give the Port Authority and the city government an “F” on this one. The WTC/Ground Zero site was the last best chance for the city to create a significant urban design with monumental features and parks. That chance is gone now.

On the other side of Manhattan, the neighborhoods that comprise an expanded South Village historic district bordering the Lower East Side, have fared no  better in the hands of the Landmark’s Preservation Commission. For two years the LPC has dragged its feet on scheduling hearings to designate the new historic district. Meanwhile, at least three of the area’s most important historic structures have either been demolished by greedy developers or renovated unsympathetically, voiding their significance. Robin Pogrebin has been following the controversy, and her story paints a depressing picture of the machinations of the one civic organization that is supposed to protect the neighborhoods of America’s greatest city. The LPC is letting the foxes in the henhouse; be afraid.