Monday, July 25, 2011


Halfway up one of the brick walls of my office, part of an old factory building dating from 1907, there’s a single brick that’s twisted slightly out of position.  Beneath it, a solidified ribbon of mortar hangs frozen in a drooping arc, attesting to the fact that the brick was bumped within a few minutes of the time it was placed, while the mortar was still wet.  

All told, there are about six thousand exposed bricks in the walls of my office and some half-million in the building altogether, most of them laid with ordinary accuracy.  That single brick, however, stands out both literally and figuratively.  

Why?  Because it gives an almost eerily direct temporal connection to the moment in 1907 when a mason, now long dead, placed--and then accidentally displaced--that single brick.  Perhaps he nudged it with his foot as he moved along the scaffold;  perhaps he had a few nips of whiskey with his lunch;  or perhaps it was just close to quitting time, and he was tired.  The possibilities are as vast as the likelihood of ever really knowing is small.  The brick can’t tell the story; it can only record the outcome of that moment nearly a century ago.

It may seem odd that imperfections are often the very things we find intriguing in our surroundings, but so it is.  Imperfections, which are the inevitable traces of human effort, are what put a premium on handcrafted objects over machine-made ones.  They tell us that someone--perhaps someone much like us--put heart and soul into making them.  

For this reason, architects have long admired brick, stone, carved wood, wrought iron, and other building materials that provide an obvious record of human effort.  If flaws seem like a strange thing to admire, the alternative is much worse.  Pursuing visual perfection, as some architects are wont to do, is a sure ticket to failure.  This is the inevitable flaw in the sort of frigid Minimalist work that appears ad nauseum in chic design magazines.  While such projects always look smashing in glossy photo spreads, the real test comes later, when time has inevitably begun to affect those “perfect” details and they start showing wear or simply fall to pieces.

For a time following the Industrial Revolution, machine-made objects were regarded as superior to handmade ones.  Yet eventually, social critics such as England’s John Ruskin managed to reawaken the public to the beauty of items fashioned by hand, whose innate sense of life no machine could ever match. 

The resulting counterreaction ushered in the Arts and Crafts movement in England, as well as its American counterpart, the Craftsman style. Craftsman architecture showcased coarse materials such as rough stone, clinker brick, and carved wood that were pointedly worked by hand, directly refuting the Victorian machine aesthetic. Later on in the early 20th century, Spanish, Tudor, and other period revival styles provided an even bigger canvas for hand craftsmanship.

“Every time a man puts his hand down to cut or carve or chisel or build a house,” wrote the architect William R. Yelland during the period revival era, “he must express his own self.”  It is this self-expression, a record of human passing forever condensed out of evansecent time, that is architecture’s greatest gift.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


I recently drove past a nearby business that used to call itself an architectural salvage yard.  The sign now reads, “Ecopark”.  Like the old-fashioned term “junkyard”, which over time has been upgraded to “auto wrecker”, then to “auto dismantler”, and finally to “auto recycler”, this new nomenclature strives to accord the architectural salvage yard some deserved respect.  

More importantly, thanks largely to the green architecture movement, the--um, ecoparks-- are now increasingly seen as a thinking person’s resource instead of a lumberyard for the poor.  

And more power to them.  Since World War II, vast quantities of fine building materials--much of them infinitely superior to the flimsy dreck available today--have been destroyed in the name of progress.  And in an era when anything old was anathema, it was the architectural salvage yards that offered vintage materials a second chance at life.  

While there’s little doubt that we should utilize the sundry bits and pieces of buildings that have met their maker, the wider question is whether we should be demolishing these buildings in the first place.  Many old structures represent an enormous and often irreplaceable investment of money, material, and human effort, and it’s simply bad resource management to replace them with modern-day versions that, all too often, don’t measure up.

Alas, the many impatient and shortsighted bureaucrats among us like to insist that renovating old buildings is uneconomical, since it’s often more expensive than simply building new ones.  Well--so what?  This argument doesn’t even compare apples to oranges:  it compares oranges to Orangina.  While the two must have something in common, you’d be hard-pressed to say what it is.  

In my home state of California, the sweeping 1980s-era campaign to improve seismic safety in public schools offers a good example.  A worthy goal, right? Unfortunately, state planners effected it through the wholesale destruction of superb school buildings dating from the 1920s and 30s, on the grounds that they were ”too costly to retrofit”.  Almost without exception, their replacements were bland, characterless, and generally unloved stucco boxes that may--or may not--be seismically safer according to what we’ve learned about earthquakes since.  The upshot:  a few profitable years for public school architects and contractors, a lot of feel-good press for politicians, and an enormous disservice to generations of students who’ll spend their educational careers in uninspired, second-rate surroundings.

Technical issues aside, there are less tangible reasons why preservation often deserves to trump new construction.  Some of our most susceptible structures date from the interwar era, an unstinting age when quality and permanance were a given, and when budget dollars went into actual construction, instead of  being piffled away on years of procedural wrangling.  The resulting structures unabashedly courted civic pride, not political expedience--a difference that anyone, be they sixteen or sixty, can still readily appreciate.

Kudos to architects using salvaged materials from “ecoparks”.  Yet we should also realize that, often, our forefathers’ legacies are worth a lot more intact than they are in little pieces.