Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BAD TRAD: Designing With Traditional Details

Traditional, or a grab-bag of cliches?
Ironically, one of the downfalls of modern architecture was its very simplicity.  The designs of brilliant architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were rational, austere, and carefully calculated down to the last detail. These deceptively simple works made it seem as if anyone could design a Modernist building.

As a result, just about every bozo tried. A lot of architects, contractors, and homeowners copied the superficial elements of Modernism—stark white walls,  flat roofs, and acres of glass—but flunked out on the rest.  The resulting phalanx of “Modern” designs, some merely mediocre and some exquisitely horrible, was largely to blame for Modernism’s decline during the 1970s.

No classical column in history was ever
piled up in this manner.
Unfortunately, much of today’s co-called “traditional architecture” is going the same route. People are propping some Roman columns here and there, tossing in a couple of arched windows, and calling the result “traditional”. But like good Modernism, authentic traditionalism can’t be randomly culled from a grab-bag of cliches. All the columns, arches and urns in Tuscany won’t ensure a successful design unless they’re arranged in a meaningful way.

And this, alas, demands a little homework. If you don’t want to hire an architect to sort out the fine points for you, try the next best thing: before you undertake your project, comb the internet, or even—gasp—look in a book, to find as many authentic examples of your favorite style as you can (by "authentic" I mean actual historic examples, not some real estate promoter's wet dream). Make a note of your special favorites.

Or proportioned like this.
Now comes the homework part. Rather than simply admiring the examples, be more analytical. Ask yourself exactly what you like about the style. Is it the building’s lightness or its mass?  Its width or its height?  The shape of the roof, or perhaps the breadth of its overhang?  

Look a bit closer yet.  Do the walls of your favorite examples look thick or thin? Are the windows deep-set, or flush with the surface of the wall? Are the railings open or solid? Is the chimney tapered or straight? Are the stucco corners sharp or softly rounded?  Is the color uniform or mottled?  Such characteristics are can be crucial to recreating an authentic traditional design. If it’s authenticity you’re after, these little details are the key to re an authentic traditional design.

This is what happens to "traditional" design
when you skimp on the details.
Pay special attention to design features such as columns, brackets, quoins and the like—they’re notorious boobytraps for casual designers. Note where they’re used and, just as importantly, where they aren’t. Note the spacing and relative proportion of such elements too—if you cut corners on these elements, your design may look "watered down".

Isn’t this just copycat architecture?  In a word, yes. And there are legions of architects out there anxious to provide more innovative design solutions. But if hiring an architect or other design professional is out of the question, there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by authentic examples of traditional architecture.  Being guided by the past is, after all, what tradition is all about.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BRICK: One Solid Subject

Frank Lloyd Wright preferred the long, low proportions
of Roman brick, as famously found in his Robie House
in Chicago (1909).
Brick goes back a long, long way. One reason for brick’s popularity is its timelessness.  It was used as early as 3000 BC in settlements of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, although back then it was simply baked in the sun rather than fired in a kiln.

Later, the Romans kept their brickworks running overtime to supply materials for their burgeoning empire. They preferred an unusually long, flat brick which, two thousand years later,  Frank Lloyd Wright decided was the cat’s meow for his Prairie houses. We still refer to that shape as Roman brick.

Victorian era polychrome brickwork in England.
(Courtesy @tuckpointer)
In the sixth century AD, those fun-lovin’ Byzantines got really creative, using brick laid in decorative patterns to form their charismatic architecture. And during the late nineteenth century, the Victorians used both elaborate patterning and color in their brickwork. They were the undisputed Brickmeisters.

Brick is still available in a huge range of colors, and quite a few shapes as well. It’s also more durable than ever—properly fired, brick will actually outlast many kinds of stone, because its surface is harder and less porous.

That’s all dandy.  But in many parts of the country—like mine—there's that nasty earthquake thing, right? Not necessarily. Brick is too fine a material to be ruled out by seismic worries alone. In residential design, the trick is to avoid using it for structural walls, which require costly reinforcement, and to use it as a nonstructural veneer instead.

Veneer brick: some looks real, some not so real. This project
looks pretty promising.
There are two ways to go here. A veneer wall of full-sized brick can be secured to the structural wall behind it using ties. Or, special thin-brick veneer units can be adhered over structural wood framing. The latter is simpler, cheaper, and much lighter. Most of the big brick manufacturers make thin-brick veneer units in the same range of colors they make full-sized brick. A number of companies that make artificial stone veneers also produce thin-brick products of varying authenticity.

Four basic kinds of brick bond.
Brick’s greatest design property is its modularity.  It’s a small unit, so it can be used to produce arches, curved walls, and all kinds of unusual shapes. And because it’s produced in so many colors and types, it has limitless potential for creating decorative patterns. Speaking of which, here’s some bricklaying terminology you can bore your friends with:

Flemish bond utilizing two colors of
brick (John W. Bush House,
Buffalo, New York.
Architects: Lansing & Beierl, 1903)
In a brick wall, each layer of brick is called a “course”. A brick laid with its long side exposed is called a “stretcher.  When the short side is exposed, it’s called a “header”.  The arrangement of headers and stretchers is called “bond”.  There are a number of traditional bonds, to wit:
   
A wall of stretchers staggered in the normal fashion is called “running bond”.  When there’s a row of headers in every sixth course, it’s called “common bond”. Alternating courses of headers and stretchers are called “English bond”.  Staggered courses of alternating headers and stretchers are called Flemish bond, and when used in combination with two or more colors, can produce various lovely patterns.

The strangest of all bonds is called “stack bond”, and predictably, it’s a Moderrnist invention: it has all the bricks stacked one above the other rather than staggered, so the wall has an ultra-rational gridded look, but much less strength than running bond. Even in 3000 BC, bricklayers knew better than that.   







Monday, May 15, 2017

ARCHITECT SHOP TALK: Here's What Your Architect Is Trying To Say

A while back I wrote a piece about the colorful and often impolite terms used by building contractors. Well, architects have some strange jargon of their own. Ours is duller, but it does have more syllables.  


Sydney Opera House: It's extremely architectonic.
It also cost $102 million, rather than the $7 million
first projected—a factor of fourteen.
(Architect: Jorn Utzon; completed 1973)
Like most people, architects use jargon for two reasons: One, it’s the most precise expression of what we want to say, and two, it makes us sound like we know what we’re talking about. As someone who not only practices architecture, but is twisted enough to write about it as well, I’m probably guiltier than most people of using such arcane language.  

Truth be told, most architectural jargon masks fairly simple-minded concepts. I’ll let you in on a few favorites below, but don’t tell my colleagues you heard it here:

•  Architectonic.  This term always perplexed me when I heard it with numbing frequency in architecture school. Well, guess what?  It means something that's done in an architectural manner.  

Yup.  That’s it. Ergo, a building that’s architectonic has the sort of features only an architect could bring to it—a highly articulated (oops, see next entry) roofline, or an imaginative window. A massive cost overrun would probably qualify too.


This skyscraper architect has been having fun
with fenestration.
•  Articulated.  A rather grammatical-sounding word that actually refers to the way the parts of a building relate. If the exterior of a building is highly articulated, for example, it has lots of distinct parts. So is a building that’s just one big clumsy block known as “inarticulate”?  No. Architects call that “tightly organized”.

•  Contextual. The environment surrounding a building is known as the context. An architect who feels his or her work must blend into that environment is known as a contextualist. So when a strict contextualist designs a house in a neighborhood full of mediocre claptrap, at least the result is predictable: It will be diluted mediocre claptrap. 


Enfilade. French royalty loved it.
The peasantry was less impressed.
City planning departments love contextualists, since hardly anyone bothers objecting to good, old-fashioned mediocrity. On occasion, however, city planners will run into an architect who’s not a contextualist, and who wants his building to look like, let's say, a whale. They don’t mind this at all as long as the architect is already famous.

•  Enfilade. Although it sounds like something you spread on toast, enfilade refers to a linear arrangement of rooms whose doorways are aligned to allow an unobstructed line of sight through the interior.  Ten points for drama; zero for privacy. 

Blame this concept on seventeenth-century French architects, who were obsessed with enfilade’s dramatic effect and were only too happy to dazzle their royal clients with it. While their clients still had heads, that is.  


Architect Richard Norman Shaw
1831-1912:
Don't call my stuff Shawish.
•  Fenestration. This word refers to the arrangement, proportion, and design of openings in a wall. It comes from the Latin fenestra, which means window. So when your architect says, “I’d like to continue exploring the fenestration,” it means he wants to move the windows around some more. This is probably the only fun thing he gets to do all day, so go ahead and let him. 

• -ian, -esque.  Academic architects love to classify buildings by their resemblance to the styles of famous dead architects—e.g., Miesian, Wrightian, Corbusian—you get the idea. Except for Louis Sullivan, whose style is inexplicably not Sullivanian, but Sullivanesque, and Richard Norman Shaw, whose style isn’t Shawesque nor even Shawish, but Shavian. 

No, I’m not making this up.

Monday, May 8, 2017

VICTORIAN DESIGN WAS FAR FROM HAND-CRAFTED

Forerunner of the punch card, Jacquard looms were the
first machines to be automatically controlled
to produce complex patterns. Automated woodworking
machines were not far behind.
I always hear people waxing nostalgic about the hand craftsmanship found in Victorian houses. But the truth is practically the opposite: Victorians, with their incredibly ornate detailing, were largely made possible by technical advances that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Far from being showcases of hand craftsmanship, they represented the stylistic leading edge of the machine age.   

By the mid-1800s, steam-powered machines, some controlled by rudimentary punch-card systems much like those found in player-pianos, were already being used to mass-produce many consumer items cheaply. Among those products was what we nowadays call “gingerbread”—architectural ornament such as moldings, brackets, and balusters.  

"Hand-carved" Victorian ornament?
Not likely. Everything on this
Victorian millwork catalog
was cranked out by machine.
In the past, only the very wealthy had been able to afford such ornament, since its manufacture demanded a great deal of skill and hand craftsmanship. Mass production suddenly put ornament within reach of the middle class as well, spurring the Victorian mania for decorated surfaces. 
  
We’re entering a similar architectural zeitgeist today.  A number of manufacturing innovations, both high-tech and otherwise, are making ornament both more available and more affordable than it has been for decades.  

Not coincidentally, these developments dovetail with the current trend toward traditional architecture.  As a result, we’re seeing a lot more ornament both outside and inside buildings. Here are a few examples:

•  Architectural features such as columns, balusters, and urns are now widely available again, not only in traditional cast-stone form but also in high-tech materials such as glass-fiber reinforced concrete and fiber glass. The latter are often used to replace original cast-stone detailing where seismic considerations make the weight of the real thing impractical.     
Victorian gable ornament.
After 1840 or so, you could
buy them by the boxful.
•  New kinds of wood-based composite materials are replacing expensive exterior trim materials such as redwood and cedar.  Most of these new materials are more stable than solid wood, and are free of defects such as knots and warpage. And because they’re cheaper than high-quality solid wood, builders often use them more generously for cornices and the like. 

•  Highly ornate hardwood floor inlays are now manufactured using lasers, making inlaid borders and decorations—once astronomically expensive—much more affordable.  They’re available as stock items, and can simply be integrated with standard hardwood flooring for a custom look. 

•  Victorian interior moldings such as cornices, medallions, and brackets are now being reproduced in plastics and other composite materials.  They’re cheaper than plaster, and also much lighter and hence more earthquake-safe. They can frequently pass for the real thing once they’re painted.  

Nowadays, we use automation to create incredibly intricate
ornament., such as the laser-cut  inlay in this hardwood floor.
 But is more ornament necessarily better?
•  Molded plastic or Masonite panel doors can be cheaply produced in virtually any pattern.  The 6-panel molded door, for example, had already supplanted the flush doors of the Modernist era decades ago; it’s only a matter of time before even more elaborate styles come into favor.

Just as in Victorian times, there’s a potential danger in all these ornamental products: You may be tempted to use them simply because they’re available, not because they make for better architecture. As always, you should rely on your own taste—not trend-watchers such as design magazines—to decide how much is too much. The Victorians had a hard time knowing when to stop.  We’ll see how our own generation fares in a decade or two.

Monday, May 1, 2017

WHAT NOT TO PAINT

Ask anyone who’s restored an old house to name the most miserable part of the job, and they’re likely to tell you, “Stripping paint.” Countless hours of labor have been spent undoing the work of paintbrush-wielding maniacs from earlier eras. Those of a certain age may remember the psychedelic interiors college kids favored during the Sixties, many of them blithely painted over gorgeous old woodwork.  


If you're not old enough to remember interiors  like this,
count yourself lucky.
Sadly, a lot of us are still doing this sort of thing today. We may be using trendier colors, but the damage is just as permanent. So out of kindness to posterity, please—think twice before you paint over stained wood, brick, stone, or tile.

Older stained woodwork is probably the most frequent victim of arbitrary painting. That’s a pity, because it’s almost always integral to the style of the house. Craftsman-era homes, for example, are known for their abundance of dark-stained beams, wainscoting, and cabinets—a feature people once again appreciate today. Yet a few decades ago, many such stately interiors were permanently ruined by coats of paint to keep up with the “all-white” fad of the Eighties.


Undoing a few hours worth of ill-advised painting can take weeks.
Think twice before you paint natural finishes.
(Image courtesy doityourself.com)
The magnificent oak, mahogany and teak woodwork of many Victorian houses was likewise damaged during the Postwar years, when dark wood happened to be out of fashion and paint was an easy way to obscure it. Suffice it to say that most of the glowing woodwork you see in restored Victorian interiors required hundreds of hours of painstaking stripping to remove layer upon layer of glopped-on paint.

With environmental concerns justifiably making many species of woods costlier and harder to get, it’s unlikely that we’ll see natural wood used in home interiors as profusely as it once was. So it makes sense to preserve what woodwork you already have.
Somebody thought this was a good idea at the time.

A problem that’s thankfully less common but even harder to rectify is the practice of painting over brick, stone, and tile. Short of sandblasting, it’s almost immmm impossible to get painted brick entirely clean again. You can forget about stripping painted stone altogether. And while tiles will let go of paint fairly easily, their intervening grout lines won’t.  

The best rule of thumb for painting over originally unpainted surfaces is simple: Don’t.  

Moreover, if your house still has oil-based paint on the interior trim, there are some fair reasons to avoid painting over that too, unless it’s absolutely necessary. One is that prep work entails its own hazards—many older paints contained lead, and therefore create lead dust when scraped or sanded and lead fumes when heat-gunned. The alternative, using chemical paint strippers, is also toxic and even messier. The waste  from these procedures must also be disposed of carefully.  


Latex paint doesn't like to stick to
oil base paint, and this is
the usual result.
An even more compelling reason to avoid unnecessary repainting is that today's water-based paints, while easier on the environment, simply don’t hold up as well as their oil-based predecessors. Old oil-based finishes are generally more durable and have a higher gloss. So you may go to all the trouble of repainting, only to end up with a finish that's inferior to the one you started with.

So—if you must paint, don’t paint over surfaces that weren't painted originally.  If you already have a marginally presentable oil-based paint job on your interior trim, think twice before repainting it.
And save this column till the next time your spouse nags you about painting.