Wednesday, April 25, 2012


If you think fake finishes only go back to Z-brick and Formica, think again.  Architectural fakery has been around as long as architecture itself.  When the Egyptians began building with stone instead of plant stalks, they nevertheless carved their walls to look like reed matting and shaped their columns to mimic bundled papyrus.  Likewise, many of the details found on classical Greek temples are traditional wooden details merely copied in stone. And even after those fun-loving Romans started making walls out of concrete, they contrived to embed special slabs of fired clay in them so they’d look more like the brick walls they were used to.  

While these ancient cultures usually imitated older materials for the sake of tradition, economics soon became a more compelling force.  Craftsmen of the Middle Ages were already using plaster as a cheap stand-in for carved stone, and gossamer-thin gilding to masquerade as gold.  In the mid-eighteenth century, the Italians invented an imitation marble consisting of gypsum mixed with glue that was good enough to earn its own name--scagliola, or “little chip”.  

The Victorians were even bigger fans of fakery.  Many Victorian “marble” mantelpieces, for example, aren’t even scagliola, but merely cleverly-painted wood.  Another favorite fake of the period was Lincrusta, an embossed linoleum-like wall covering that was originally varnished in brown tones to resemble tooled leather.  Likewise, stamped metal ceilings--that ornate staple of Victorian store interiors--were simply a cheaper, faster, and lighter substitute for cast plaster.

The revivalist architecture of the 1920s used a whole host of cheaper stand-ins for the opulent originals.  Among these was cast stone, a fine cement that was cast in molds, which could imitate carved stone detail with stunning fidelity.  When more deeply modeled forms were required, architects turned to terra cotta, which could be glazed and fired to produce a spot-on imitation of granite and other stone finishes.  Building interiors of the 1920s also made spectacular use of painting techniques like graining and stencilling to mimic expensive woods and inlaid detail.  Even the humble bungalow homes of the era used graining to make cheap cabinets look like fine hardwood.

After World War II, architectural fakery relied more on advanced technology than artistry.  Various newfangled exterior finishes, from asbestos-cement shingles to aluminum, vinyl, and pressboard siding, sought to displace solid wood--though only with middling success.  Inside postwar homes, a new technique of laminating plastic sheets with photographic reproductions of wood or marble (as well as a number of weird patterns not found in nature) gave us materials like Formica and Micarta.  Later on came Corian and its successors, all of which sought to give a more convincing imitation of marble and other types of stone.

Among today’s most popular fakes are flooring materials such as Pergo (a variation on plastic laminates), as well as yet another generation of granite and marble imitations such as Silastone.  And of course, vinyl windows, with their hokey two-dimensional muntins, do their darndest to look like the pricey wooden kind.  

Ironically, some of the materials once used as cheap substitutes are now themselves being flattered by imitation:  For instance, various plastics are now commonly used to mimic cast stone or cast plaster details.  And no doubt it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing imitations of “genuine” plastic ornament. 

Monday, April 9, 2012


Positive space, negative space.  They sound like some kind of flaky New Age terms.  But actually, they’re one of the oldest and most basic concepts in design.  Nothing could be more deeply-rooted in the human psyche--yet both amateurs and architects routinely ignore their implications.

Simply put, positive space represents space that we want, while negative space is what’s left over.  To draw a simple analogy, imagine cutting out cookies from dough.  The cookies represent the positive space, and the pointy scraps left over are the negative space.  In architecture as in baking, the idea is to maximize the number of cookies and minimize the leftover scraps.  

As it happens, maximizing positive space is even more important in architecture than in baking, since you can’t ball up the leftover scraps and roll more dough out of them.  You’ve pretty much got to cut things out right the first time. To stretch the analogy even further, it also happens that architectural forms that are roughly circular--like cookies--provide a much stronger sense of comforting enclosure than do those nasty angular scraps left over from cutting them out.

As basic as this principle seems, you’d be surprised how often architects violate it.  Acute angles, with their jagged, knife-like shape, are inherently dramatic, and we architects are nothing if not suckers for drama.  But there’s a price to pay for this kind of cheap effect.  Acute angles inside buildings can’t be comfortably inhabited by anything other than gnats and spiders, and it’s not too much to say that they also have an unsettling effect on the human psyche.  Deep in our primitive brains, converging angles still give us an uneasy sense of walls closing in, of entrapment--not exactly the ambience you want for your living room.  

The Chinese design principles known as Feng Shui have long warned against acute angles--”secret daggers”--which are thought to generate malevolent forces.  It’s just another way of saying that sharp angles creep people out.
For their part, Western psychologists might allude to the womb to explain why humans gravitate toward rounded spaces and shun angular ones.  To be sure, more-or-less circular shapes are one of nature’s favorite forms, appearing in practically every living thing from the cell on up.  

Now, none of this implies that rooms should be literally round--a pretty impractical idea, what with all our relentlessly linear building materials.  But it does suggest that rooms shouldn’t contain wall or ceiling angles sharper than ninety degrees, and that they shouldn’t be more than half again as long as they are wide.  Nor should they have sharp angles intruding into them, or far-flung, dead corners with no through traffic.  This applies to outdoor rooms as well, except that here, you can use landscaping to produce a pleasingly positive space for people to inhabit.  

In short, the closer you come to approximating a circular shape--whether using architectural features, furniture arrangements, or planting--the more comfortable your rooms will be.  Whether we call the result intimate, auspicious, secure, or just plain cozy--we all know positive space when we feel it.