Gift Work

Once we recognise that architecture can be an art, we come up against the fact that on the one hand, buildings are built by people and are homes to people. If, as commonly happens, they are excluded from the design process, the end result will neither be fully satisfactory to its users, nor be imbued with artistic quality by its makers. On the other hand, art, although it may emanate from a universal source and aspire to touch the chords of the universal in every person, is the product of an individual attunement (though sometimes by a closely knit group). There are dangers here. Projects which, while durably founded upon community, allow a situation where everyone wants a say but no one does anything - or worse, anyone can do his or her own thing - can end up in chaos. Yet those that hinge on the dynamic of a single individual can easily turn to a form which exploits the labour of others, while - excluding them from a more meaningful contribution.

A shared inspiration and commitment to work together is essential if the elusive middle road is to be found. If it can't, the results can be disastrous - perhaps even mean the demise of the initiative. Sadly, such collapses of ventures, full of good intention, happen all too often.

In every undertaking, money, energy and duration are bound together as three variables in a single equation. In contract building, energy multiplied by duration costs money. The equation can be simply resolved in solely financial terms. Aesthetics or craftsmanship can likewise be reduced to their monetary consequences and evaluated on that basis.

In a gift-work situation, energy and duration do not cost money. Released from the shackles of money, work is allowed to unfold as an artistic activity, allowed to find its rightful role in society as service meeting need, as gift. Where we have become adjusted to the norm of work sold for money, we can now stand back and see that work given is a gift to all. It can and should be both service to the recipient and fulfilment to the giver.

To fulfil these aims requires a complete reappraisal of our accepted approach to work and working relationships. This is the potential and the challenge.

But volunteer work also has a price - a price in terms of energy and duration; sweat and patience. Too easily this price can grow to destructive proportions as exhaustion and frustration.

As a job progresses, the critical limiting factor may shift between money, energy and duration. Sometimes, whatever the delays or drudgery, there is no alternative to the cheapest materials, methods and sequence: second-hand bricks, hand-mixed foundations, trickle cash-flow. At others, however, speed of completion may be so important that if it can't be attained otherwise, borrowed money has to be spent on employing contractors or on temporary buildings The savings made earlier disappear overnight, leaving only their costs: delay and drain on energies. Had changing situations been recognised in time, a little more money spent at the right times could have saved a great deal of frustration or expense. It is not easy, however, always to recognise sufficiently ahead of time how the situation will change and adjust policy accordingly. Here again, it is the foundation in shared inspiration which gives the will to overcome such potentially divisive pressures.

I began with the desire to do things with my own hands. This progressed to a realisation that to be fulfilling and meaningful, work must essentially be artistic. I eventually began to understand that to function effectively, the forces at play beneath the surface of perceived reality must be understood. In harmony, these forces can nurture the unfolding flower. Left to themselves they can tear any initiative apart.

From the experience of gift-work and the values and relationships that emerge, I have come to realise how far building work can progress from that which is normal in the work around us. This norm is aptly expressed in the phrase 'Get in, get out, and get paid'.

If work is regarded as gift, as the sowing of the seed of spiritual inspiration into the world of matter, as the redemption of material substance through art, the values of the world around us are stood on their heads. If we take time and observe the headlong rush down the slope of materialism, towards economic, ecological and social disaster, and negation of the human being, we can only conclude that the values of the materialistic world must be stood on their heads.

The process of involvement with gift-work building had led me to this realisation. It is also one way to set these opposite values in motion.

This has been my journey. I have found it exciting, demanding and sobering enough to feel the need to share it. I have the hope that my painfully earned and severely limited knowledge can become a stepping-stone for others to carry the work forward towards the true, the beautiful and the good.



* I use the definition: that which raises matter to the spiritual. A work of architecture, sculpture or painting is still only an assemblage of certain pieces of brick, timber, stone or pigment - yet their intention, given form by this assemblage, can work deep into my soul and touch my spirit so that I can recognise that in some way I will never be quite the same again -my spirit has been extended, as it were. The vibrations of music and physical movements of dance likewise remain material definitions, but can be imbued with the spirit to become art. This definition excludes much that goes under the title of art and includes much that occurs in the context of everyday life.

(c)1990 Christopher Day. All rights reserved.