Plumbers Made the Terracotta Army Possible – The Power of Repurposing Skills

There is tremendous power in the cross-pollination of skills and their application. Mastering a skill or craft is a great achievement, but the full potential of a skill is often unrealized when it is not applied outside a specific discipline. History is full of repurposed skill sets resulting in exceptional achievements when applied to areas outside of the usual discipline.

When the Terracotta Army was discovered in 1974 and later unearthed and studied, researchers discovered unexpected similarities between the legs of the army figures and the water drain pipes created during the same period. As notes:

The restoration process revealed how the figures originally had been made … Craftsmen who knew how to make terracotta drainage pipes applied their skill to create the figures using molds and an assembly line production system of body parts. Once the figures were assembled, distinctive surface features were applied with clay.

At times, it appeared that the same molds used for pipes were repurposed directly to shape soldiers’ arms and legs. The same assembly line production system used for mass producing drainage pipes from clay was also used by the craftsmen to quickly fabric the vast number of body parts needed for the army.

Terracotta water pipe from same era as Terracotta Army fabrication.

The elevation of skill sets from functional water infrastructure systems to service for the emperor in the afterlife must have been a surprising and rewarding experience for some of history’s earliest public works crews.

In Jesolo, Greater Venice, Italy, I was able to mirror this repurposing of skills in a more modern context. Over the course of a long lunch with the mayor of Jesolo, I convinced him that the skills of the city’s public work crews were just as much an untapped asset as the physical urban assets I was there to work with.

I was given permission to pair the skills and services of the city workers who cut, bend, weld and repair street lamps and pair them with the design skills of a team of architects and designers as they set about finding new uses for a warehouse yard full of old street lamp poles.

Jesolo’s master craftsman of street lamp poles creating the Pipe City designs.

Another team who had amassed a literal truckload of broken street lights and traffic signals was matched with the chief street light engineer and electrician. Some explosive cocktails of creativity came from those sessions.

When the skills of the municipal work crews were freed from the loop of maintenance and installation and combined with the vision from the design team, their previously functional skills sets enabled exceptional new partnerships and results to take place that would not have been possible if each team had worked on its own.

A barren space transformed into a musical playground using the city’s disused street lamp poles.

It is a resourceful cross-pollination that every city and almost every discipline could benefit from. Unfortunately, specialized skill sets are seen more often than not as closed loops of knowledge and execution. Everyone loses when this is the case, as the mental and physical tools amassed in honing a craft and skill are not used to their full benefit it the application is kept in closed loops of use.

So what skills do you have that could be freed from the usual loop of execution to be applied to different disciplines? What skill sets are around you that you could put to new use to achieve exceptional results?


(Footnote: To prevent the location of the tomb from being revealed, all artisans that worked on the Terracotta army were buried along with it. This historical detail should not be replicated in future applications of skillsets.)

Title image By Maros Mraz (Maros) GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons.