Tuesday, August 23, 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 over 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 evanescent time, that is architecture’s greatest gift.  

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