Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A DOOR DICTIONARY

Dutch door in a classic Hugh Comstock-
designed cottage in Carmel, California

A door seems like a simple enough thing. Yet visit your local door showroom, and you may think the salesperson is speaking a foreign language. In a way, he is: it’s the arcane terminology of doors. 

Most of us are familiar with that old residential standby, the hinged door. But other doors have less obvious names. The ones that slide into a hollow space in the wall are called pocket doors (not, as you might think, sliding doors). Paired doors that slide past each other--often used for closets--aren’t called sliding doors either; they’re called bypassing doors. As a matter of fact, the only sliding door that’s actually called a sliding door is the glass kind that leads out to your patio.

Each individual door is called a leaf. Hence double doors are said to have two leaves; with the one that’s usually opened being called the active leaf. Those narrow pairs of doors that are hinged together in the middle--also common for closets--are called bifold doors. Doors that are split in half horizontally are called Dutch doors. Doors that swing in two directions are called double acting doors. 

Doors with glass in them, which most of us call French doors, are more properly called glazed doors. Each pane in a glazed door is called a lite, and the wooden bars dividing the lites are called muntins. Hence, the typical glazed door having one vertical muntin and four horizontal ones is called a ten-lite door.

The doorknob is the part you see;
the lockset is the part that does
the work.
Broadly speaking, there are two styles of doors. The first, known as panel doors, were common from pre-Victorian times through the Depression, and were built of solid lumber enclosing varying numbers of recessed wo
oden panels. Designs ranged from six panels in Colonial-era homes to four in Victorian ones to a single large panel in homes of the inter war era. Panel doors made a big comeback in the 1980s, though most are now just one-piece moldings made to miimic the real thing.

Go on, get your butts out of here.
Modernist-era homes such as California Ranchers, on the other hand, typically had doors with completely plain, flat surfaces. These are known as flush doors, and they can further be classed as hollow core or solid core, the latter being more durable and also more expensive.

Door hardware has its own arcane terminology. What most of us just call a doorknob is properly referred to as a lockset (the knob is just the visible part that turns). The direction a door opens is said to determines the “hand” of the lock: a door that’s hinged on the right and swings away from you, for example, is said to have a right hand lock. 

As for what you and I call hinges, door professionals rather inelegantly refer to them as “butts”. To make things more confusing, butts are counted by pairs, not by the piece. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while a heavier door that requires three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs of butts. 

Listen, I  just pass this stuff along--I don’t make it up.

Monday, December 1, 2014

NIGHTMARE ON PALM STREET


A while back, driving through an old and well-to-do suburb of San Francisco, I came upon a charming street flanked by swaying palm trees and lined with classic Craftsman bungalows. Practically all of them had stout columns of river rock, massive beamed porches, and lovely leaded glass windows--in short, all the attributes today’s bungalow connoisseurs covet.

Classic bungalow in Alameda, California, circa 1911.
There was just one problem: Although the original architecture of those homes had been remarkably consistent, at least half of the them had been badly mauled by inept modernizations or ham-handed expansions that had taken place in earlier years--erstwhile ”improvements” that in the long run destroyed their architectural value.


By far the most common transgression was the replacement of the original wooden windows with clumsy, glaring white vinyl windows ones. These windows are today’s equivalent of the cheap aluminum sliders that defaced so many fine old Victorians during the postwar era. Regardless of what vinyl window sellers may claim, and regardless of what kind of “historical” muntin patterns they may offer, these windows are not suitable for installation in any vintage home style--least of all the emphatically woodsy bungalow. 

Another great bungalow, this one with not-so-classic
vinyl replacement windows.
But a nasty outbreak of tacky windows wasn’t all that had gone wrong on this erstwhile remarkable little street. Some homeowners had apparently found their premises a little too cramped and, lacking enough property to add to the back of their homes, instead built enormous, looming second story additions that were the visual equivalent of a jackboot stomping on Bambi.

Other less egregious but equally irreversible damage was done by owners who, in an apparent attempt to keep up with some color fad or other, had painted over their bungalows’ natural river rock on columns and chimneys.

The sad thing about these various desecrations is that they were all unnecessary. Old wood windows, for example, can generally be repaired for less money than it costs to install second-rate vinyl replacements. Moreover, the energy savings gleaned by switching to double glazing--the motivation for many replacement projects using vinyl windows--is trivial compared to the same investment made in a more efficient furnace or higher insulation levels.

A bungalow addition gets off to a bad start.
Note the overpowering mass, uncharacteristic hip roof,
 and the means of extending the chimney.
Additions, even on a tight site, needn’t detract from a home’s architecture. Even second story additions can be designed to minimize their visual presence, with detailing that blends in with the original architecture rather than clashing with it.

Neither should the foregoing suggest that it takes a big budget to thoroughly wreck a vintage house--all it really takes is one trendoid fool with a paint brush. While painting a house solely in to keep up with color trends is merely a waste of time and money, painting over natural stone or brick for the same purpose is self-inflicted sabotage. The damage is, for practical purposes, irreversible, and the punishment is inevitably meted out when it comes time to sell.

Take that lovely little palm-lined street, for example. The very owners who refrained from “modernizing” are the ones whose homes will be valued most highly at sale time. The ones who made inadvisable and half-baked “improvements” end up the losers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

VANDALIZING REMBRANDT


A while back, I had a chance to walk through a wonderful old villa designed by one of the top California architects of the 1920s. The house was a lyrical Spanish Revival design, carefully integrated into its hillside site, and surrounded by pools, gardens, and terraces designed by an equally famed landscape architect of the era. 

I’m being coy about names and dates (and omitting actual photos) only because, when I was there, the place was in the midst of a sweeeping “renovation” that I don’t have many kind words for.

Despite an apparently vast remodeling budget, the owners turned to a “designer”--that is, a person not legally qualified to use the term architect-- to carry out their project. Now, granted, I have an obvious bias toward hiring a licensed architect, especially when tampering with the work of an acknowledged master. But judge for yourself.

How some folks remodel a beautiful old home.
The designer had gutted an entire wing of the meticulously-detailed old mansion right down to the framing. He then commenced a remodeling program that managed to include every McMansion gimmick to be found this side of Las Vegas. In the “improved” kitchen, for instance, ceilings were riddled with recessed lighting fixtures, countertops slathered with glitzy granite, and cabinets lavishly custom built from acres of This Year’s Trendy Wood. Any space that was left over was crammed full of glaring stainless steel appliances.

In place of the original home’s understated elegance and subtly patinated finishes, the remodeled wing was transformed into a showcase of conspicuous consumption.

In design circles, there’s always been a debate about how an older house should be remodeled. Some argue that any changes should remain true to the original, right down to disguising modernities such as dishwashers and refrigerators. Others believe that since we no longer live in the past, it’s silly to be bound by its aesthetic. As a colleague of mine once put it: “Saying ‘My kitchen should look old,’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I must fly to Europe on a biplane.’” 

All the latest gadgets.  For this year, anyway.
Of course, neither of these viewpoints are necessarily the right answer--they’re just the two extremes on a spectrum of choices. Despite our fondness for the good old days, there were plenty of lousy houses built back then, just as there are today. And if an old house was carelessly designed in the first place, changing its original form, even substantially, can sometimes bring dramatic improvement. 

On the other hand, when an old house is masterfully designed and lacks only the contemporary niceties of efficient heating, ample electrical outlets, and modern appliances, a much more delicate touch is in order. Gutting a perfectly good house just to accomodate the latest gadgets and fad finishes is not just unnecessary, it’s flat-out stupid. In a few years, after the momentary sugar rush of “modernization”  wears off, both the architectural and monetary worth of the house are inevitably diminished. 

As our aforementioned designer friend was seemingly unaware, it’s important to exercise some judgement on how--and how much--we choose to remodel. It’s one thing to “improve” somebody’s paint-by-numbers effort. It’s another to vandalize a Rembrandt.

Monday, October 13, 2014

PHONY BALONEY


The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye. 

“Homemade Breakfast Sandwich,” it read. “A toasted english muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs, and medium cheddar cheese.”
Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.

Breakfast, from Mrs. Monsanto to you.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps thirty seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The “fresh eggs” were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the “medium cheddar” a glossy orange square of Velveeta. So much for a “homemade” sandwich.

Now, it happens that this shop’s owners were recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that’s just a simulation of actual food? 
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy--even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better. 

The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials--the architectural equivalent of junk food--are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood. On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Mom told me if you can't say anything nice, then just shut up. 

Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind. 

Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are “hardwood” floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps “linoleum” flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be “stone” conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.

Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted,they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in theall-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes--imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples--whose price just barely undercuts the real thing, if at all. Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for genuine cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?





Monday, September 29, 2014

FASHION OBLIVION


If you’re ever up for a slightly depressing tour of yesterday’s design fads, mosey on over to your local architectural salvage yard. There you’ll find a whole galaxy of onetime architectural must-haves, from stoneware sinks, pinstriped toilets, and gold-plated faucets, to elaborate wet bar cabinets and heaven knows what else.  

At one time, somebody somewhere paid dearly for each of these moldering castoffs in order to  be at the forefront of architectural fashion. Fast forward a decade or two: Since the fads that originally impelled homeowners are now stone dead, and since there’s nothing quite as dated as a formerly hot fashion, these once-coveted items are unceremoniously ripped out and demoted to scrap.

Whirlpool tub and fireplace: Two fads in one,
now playing at your local salvage yard.
 It’s surprising how quickly a design fad can make the transition from emblem of taste to architectural albatross. Case in point: Think back to one of the popular trends of the ‘90s, concrete countertops. Made with indisputable artistry, often with sinks or lavatories beautifully integrated, these were strictly custom items commanding astronomical prices in their heyday. Yet on a recent visit to my local salvage yard, concrete countertops seemed to be lying about in every corner, complete with their six-hundred dollar faucets.

Granite countertops--ironically just about the most durable items found in the average home--often suffer an equally ignominious fate. The material itself is timeless enough, to be sure, but the favored colors of the moment aren’t. Once those mirror-polished pink slabs have joined the ranks of yesterday’s high-end kitsch, another topnotch product ends up as scrap.

Whirlpool tubs were another architectural fad with a high price tag and a short life. Like so many fashion items, architectural and otherwise, they were sold using the classic materialist ploy of selling the sizzle and not the steak--hence the romantic advertising images of couples lounging under discretely chest-high bubbles, with glasses of white wine perched beside them. Back in the day, tub makers even offered remote controls that let you turn on your tub before leaving work, ostensibly ready for a steamy rendezvous when you got home. 

Real life: Who would even think of bathing
without a candelabra nearby?
Or those pointy things?
These kinds of fads present appealing images, yet they fly in the face of how real people actually live. We may well aspire to sitting around soaking and getting plastered, yet how many of us can actually manage this in lives already harried beyond belief? The manifestly impractical whirlpool tub, like so many other architectural fads, owes its success mainly to advertising-induced fantasies of the good life and our cravings for status. Yet all this idyllic marketing is sooner or later exposed as a pipe dream, explaining why countless whirlpool tubs are ripped out and end up you-know-where. 

There are two lessons in this unending cycle of aesthetic boom and bust. First, it’s a virtual certainty that the hotter a design trend is, the less real substance there is behind it, and the harder it’s going to fall. 

Second, and perhaps more useful: Your local architectural salvage yard is a great place to pick up yesteryear’s most extravagant fads for pennies on the dollar. You just have to wait until the trendoids are done with them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

OCTOGENARIAN ARCHITECTURE (Part 2 of 2 Parts)

(Author's note: I've was in China for the summer and was unable to post the blog due to the PRC's blocking of  Google. Thanks to all for patiently awaiting this long-deferred Part 2.)
Last time, we looked at architects who--not atypically--produced some of their best work toward the end of their long careers. In architecture, at least, it seems that old age doesn’t necessarily imply an inability to grow and change. This time, we’ll look at a few architects who changed their design philosophies late in life, and found even greater success.

Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) was one of the most celebrated architects of modernism’s second generation. In his mid fifties, however, Stone became disillusioned with the movement, declaring, “Much of our modern architecture lacks (the) intangible quality of permanence, formality and dignity.  It bears more resemblance to the latest model automobile, depending upon shining, metallic finish--doomed to early obsolescence.”

Curiously, this period of uncertainty in Stone’s life--coming at an age when most people are mulling retirement--instead marked an upturn in his career. He was awarded a number of important commissions, landing him on the cover of Time magazine in 1958. His firm grew from twenty people to two hundred, and he remained at the height of commercial success when he died at 76.

The career of Philip Johnson (1906-2005) also peaked between his sixties and his eighties, when he was busily designing large numbers of more or less generic modernist skyscrapers. But even these late-life works were a mere prelude. Johnson, like Stone, eventually abandoned modernism and produced a number of postmodern works such as Manhattan’s infamous “Chippendale” AT&T building of 1984--proving that you could indeed teach an old architect new tricks. His longevity, more than anything else, accorded him the title dean of American architects when he died at 98. 

With long life spans so commonplace among architects, it’s all the more tragic when brilliant talents are lost long before their time. Among these was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-18886), the all but single-handed progenitor of the Romanesque Revival of the late nineteenth century. Richardson made his mark with Boston’s Trinity Church of 1872, and had just completed Chicago’s epoch-making Marshall Field Wholesale Store of 1885--one of the seminal works of modernism--when he died of a kidney disorder at 47. One can only imagine the face of American architecture had Richardson lived.

Another premature departure was that of Addison Mizner (1872-1933), architect of many incomparably romantic Mediterranean Revival works. Mizner’s passing at 60 coincided with the close of the golden age of Revivalist architecture, and his infallibly picturesque sensibilities remain unequaled to this day. More recent but equally tragic was the loss of Pritzker prize winner James Stirling (1926-1992), architect of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and many other distinguished structures, whose best work surely still lay ahead of him.

Thankfully, these are anomalies in a profession blessed by unusually long and active careers. The likely explanation for this longevity is that one doesn’t simply fall into an architectural career. The grueling educational process--not to mention the modesty of the monetary rewards--ensures that only the fanatically dedicated will make the sacrifices involved. Architects practice architecture because there’s really nothing else on earth they’d rather do. So, even in the absence of more tangible rewards, at least we have happiness and peace of mind. We grow old because we love what we do, and we want to keep on doing it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

OCTOGENARIAN ARCHITECTURE (Part 1 of 2 Parts)

“The four stages of man,” Art Linkletter once observed, “are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence.” 

While this bromide may well describe the lives of media stars and child prodigies, I’m happy to report that it seldom applies to architects. While many may grow old, few, it seems, grow irrelevant. In fact, most great architects hadn’t even hit their stride until midlife, and many kept going strong into their nineties.

Frank Lloyd Wright, still dapper at 91
Frank Lloyd Wright is of course the poster child for architectural longevity, yet there were surely times in Wright’s life when he doubted his own relevance. He’d begun his career with a bang, devising his brilliant Prairie Houses during the first decade of the 1900s, while he was still in his thirties. But by the time he completed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1923, his commissions had tapered off considerably. By normal career standards Wright, by then in his late fifties, should have been contemplating retirement. In any case, by the mid-1930s, his organic architecture was already being eclipsed by a younger generation of modernists, whose sleek International Style creations seemed even more advanced than Wright’s work had been. 

Yet it was just at this seeming twilight in his career that Wright staged a spectacular comeback. In 1937 he completed  the Edgar Kaufmann house (Fallingwater), a lyrical conception seemingly meant to outdo the International Style modernists at their own game. It was Bauhaus modernism with a heart and soul. Acclaimed worldwide, Fallingwater relaunched Wright’s career in the seventh decade of his life, unleashing a creative flurry that continued unabated until his death at 91.

Wright’s late-life renaissance isn’t at all unusual among architects, however. The first generation of International Style architects also had lengthy careers marked by equally late triumphs. After his famous stint as director of the Bauhaus, for example, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) came to the United States and, in 1945, when he was already in his sixties, founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC). It was soon to become one of the world’s most successful and respected architecture firms. Moreover, Gropius was nearly eighty when he completed New York’s Pan Am building with Pietro Belluschi (he lived to be 86). 

Le Corbusier's astonishing chapel at Ronchamp,
one of his latest and greatest works...
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) completed New York’s Seagram Building--a work often ranked among the pinnacle achievements of modern architecture--when he was in his early seventies. 

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 18887-1965) had a long and influential career, but arguably his greatest work--the lyrical chapel he designed at Ronchamp--was completed only when he was in his late sixties.  No doubt Le Corbusier, too, might have remained productive into his eighties, had he not ignored his doctor’s orders and gone for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, where he apparently suffered a heart attack and drowned at age 77.

---and the architect in his seventies: We wish he'd listened
to his doctor.
Curiously, while the first-generation modernists recounted above held fast to their convictions for the duration of their long and distinguished careers, some of their equally venerable successors renounced modernism in their later years--refuting the idea that old age breeds inflexibility. We’ll look at some of those long careers next time, as well as a few others that were cut tragically short.