Monday, October 31, 2011

WHY WE QUIT GETTING PLASTERED

Perhaps the most singular trait of American homes is the hollow, cardboardy thud of our gypsum-board walls.  No one else has anything quite like them.  Mind you, if it weren’t for World War II, our walls might not sound quite so hollow.  

Before the war, American homes were routinely plastered inside--a painstaking process that first required nailing thousands of feet of wooden strips known as lath to the ceiling and walls of every room.  

The lath was covered with a coarse layer of plaster called the “scratch coat”.  The wet plaster squeezed through the gaps in the lath, locking it to the walls and ceiling.  Days later, when the scratch coat was dry, a second “brown coat” was applied to make the surfaces roughly flat.  This, too, had to dry for several days.  Last came the “skim coat”, a thin layer of pure white plaster that produced a smooth finished surface, something like the cream cheese topping does on a cheesecake.  

Depending on the weather, this process could take days or weeks, during which no other trade could work inside the house.  This was how plasterwork had been done for centuries, and there seemed no reason to change.  

Then came World War II, and with it an urgent need for military structures ranging from barracks to whole bases.  Faced with shortages of both labor and material, Uncle Sam was desperate to find faster and cheaper ways to build.  And since beauty was not much of an issue, eliminating plaster was an obvious starting point.

Enter the United States Gypsum Company, which way back in 1916 had invented a building board made of gypsum sandwiched between sheets of tough paper.  After more than two decades, the product they called Sheetrock still hadn’t really caught on.  Even its successful use in most of the buildings at the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1933-34 didn’t do much for sales.  But the urgencies of wartime construction changed all that.  

As the government soon came to appreciate, Sheetrock did away with the need for wood lath, multiple plaster coats, and days and days of drying time (hence its generic name, “drywall”).  Installation was simple:  After the 4x8 sheets were nailed up, the nail holes were filled, paper tape was used to cover the joints, and a textured coating was troweled on to help disguise the defects.

Of course, all this was only meant as a stopgap replacement for plaster, but as you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t turn out that way.  By the war’s end, many builders who’d gotten used to slapping up drywall were suddenly reluctant to go back to the trouble and expense of plastering. 

What’s more, Sheetrock’s arrival coincided with the rise of modern architecture, which preferred plain, flat surfaces to the fussy moldings and reveals of prewar styles.  To Modernist tastes, the fact that Sheetrock couldn’t be molded the way wet plaster could was hardly a drawback.  People seemed more dismayed by the flimsy cardboardish sound of the walls in their postwar homes, but they soon got used to it.

Flimsy or not, there’s no doubt that Sheetrock proved a huge boon to the postwar housing industry.  Prior to the war, the typical American developer built about four houses a year.  By the late Forties, a developer like the legendary Bill Levitt was able to churn out 17,000 tract homes at Long Island’s Levittown, sell them for $7,990 , and still make a thousand dollars profit on each.  Mass production was the key to the postwar housing boom, and Sheetrock helped make it happen.  

Just something to bear in mind next time your kids smash a doorknob through the bedroom wall.

Monday, October 24, 2011

THE QUALITY KILLERS

A few years back, at the height of the dot-com boom, I  came across a bronze plaque outside the headquarters of one of those instant internet giants. In consummate public-relations prose, its text declared the company’s absolute commitment to quality and excellence at every level, invoking all the usual corporate buzzwords of the era.  What really fixed the plaque in my memory, though, was that one of its most mundane phrases was mispunctuated, reading “it’s ideals” instead of “its ideals”.  

Given the firm’s purported obsession with quality, you’d think they’d have given their mantra a quick proofread or two before committing it to bronze. 

This incident reminded me that a commitment to quality demands tangible final results, not just a lot of high-flying babble.  It requires vigilance down to the very last detail--even to a lowly apostrophe.

Quality relates to architecture and construction in much the same way:  The last little details can make the difference.  Hence, a project that’s going along swimmingly can still become shark bait in the last few days, because that’s when many of the parts you really notice are completed. The trouble is, this is just about the time the owner, the contractor, and yes, even the architect are tired, impatient, and rushing to get things buttoned up. 

Too often, this means that the most conspicuous details get the least effort and attention.
Here are some notorious quality killers that can sabotage a project at the last minute:

•  Moldings such as baseboard, door trim, and ceiling cove are often treated as last-minute frou-frou by harried contractors, even though they’re among the most obvious finish items.  Quality killers include inaccurate or open miters, ragged or splintered cuts, and gaps between moldings and floors, walls, or ceilings.  All standing moldings (such as door trim) should be installed plumb and square.  Running moldings (such as baseboard) should align properly and have clean, tight miters, or in the case of internal corners, coped butt cuts.  Gaps should be neatly caulked.  The last step, mind you, is seldom carried out but is a must for any quality installation.  

•  Indifferent painting is the surest way to destroy a quality job.  Ironically, although paint is the predominant finish on most houses, the painting phase is often cursed from being carried out late in the project, when money and patience are at low ebb.  Hence, workmanship suffers either because the job is rushed or because incompetent painters are hired in a misguided attempt to save money.  The quality killers:  Excessively thick or thin application, drips and runs, ragged or wavy brushwork along edges, and paint on fixtures, finish hardware, masonry, or glass.  None of these shortcomings should be tolerated.

•  Highly conspicuous finish hardware items such as door locksets, cabinet pulls, towel bars, grilles, and the like usually get hasty treatment because they’re among the very last items installed.  The quality killers include mismatched finishes (polished brass mixed with satin brass, for instance), off-plumb or misaligned pulls or trim plates, crooked towel bars, and locks and catches that don’t engage properly.  Insist that such items are neatly installed and are placed perfectly plumb, level, or square, as appropriate.

And in case you think fussing over such details is obsessive, one last remark about that would-be internet giant with the big bronze plaque:  “its” gone out of business.

Monday, October 17, 2011

AIRPORT ARCHITECTURE: Same Old Approach

Flying isn’t what it used to be. The fact that air travel has become overly familiar, even routine, is one reason. The more recent equation of airplanes with doom and destruction is another. Yet there’s a more concrete reason that flying has lost much of its romance:  The modern urban airport just isn’t the sort of place we’d like to spend time in.  

The mechanics of travel weren’t always something merely to be endured. During the heyday of the passenger railroads, arriving, departing, or even just hanging around in one of the great major terminals--whether Portland, Cincinatti, or Washington DC--was an experience to remember. A first-time visitor couldn’t help but feel thrilled in such a temple of travel. 

Approaching an unfamiliar airport, on the other hand, more often elicits a rising sense of dread. Even the most architecturally celebrated of them are maddeningly difficult to navigate. For example, after an eternity of construction bedlam, San Francisco’s airport finally boasts a magnificent new International Terminal. Yet reaching it from either the highway or from public transportation remains a nightmare for any first-time visitor.  

Most of us navigate airports by one of three methods, the only reliable one of which involves already knowing the way. Failing that, we walk around slack-jawed, trying to figure out directional signs that ought to be obvious, or else we simply follow the crowd and eventually stumble onto our objective.

With all this confusion within, don’t even ask about what airports look like from the outside. What with changing technologies and endless reconstruction, architects long ago gave up trying to give airport exteriors a unified appearance.

Of course, there was a time when airports, like railroad terminals, were designed to look all-of-a-piece. Among the few that survive more-or-less intact are the modest but remarkable Spanish Revival gem in Santa Barbara, California. 

When Modernism hit town, though, it became fashionable for airports to be inspired by the objects they served:  aircraft.  This was a refreshing concept back in the early 1960s, when Eero Saarinen completed his famously swoopy TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy (then Idlewild) Airport.  Alas, architects have drunk from the same well countless times since--albeit without Saarinen’s audacity--thereby turning the concept into a well-worn cliche.

In the ensuing decades, it’s become acceptable for airports to be disjointed aesthetic jumbles so long as they vaguely resemble airplanes, with lots of shiny metal, curvy plastic panels, and carpeting on the walls.  Never mind that there’s no intrinsic reason why an airport lounge should look like the cabin of a 747, any more than your garage should look like the inside of a Toyota.

Today, with the growing despair over security, overcrowding of terminals and airplanes, and the shaky financial shape of the airline industry, airport architecture seems likely to remain stuck in the plastic-and-stainless steel rut it has occupied for decades. 

Rail travel never did regain its cachet after World War II, and the palatial terminals of railroading’s golden age sadly gave way to mundane structures that could barely compete with the local Greyhound station.  Likewise, perhaps, the airport’s day as a romantic portal to other worlds has been doomed by the very ordinary thing that air travel has become.  Short of rocket rides to the moon, I wonder what can replace it.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

MAKING LIGHT

Next time you head for the bathroom in the middle of the night, consider what the casual act of lighting your way would’ve entailed just over a century ago: If you were lucky enough to have a house with piped-in gas, you could strike a match to the nearest gas mantle to get a blinding white flame. Otherwise, you’d have to stumble your way to the john by the light of a guttering candle. No wonder so many Victorian houses burned to the ground.

Although nowadays it’s hard to imagine a world without electric lighting, it's been with us for a relative wink of an eye. Thomas Edison perfected his incandescent bulb in 1879, after trying out hundreds of filament materials ranging from bamboo to hair to paper (he finally settled on tungsten). Not so well known is that Edison also had to invent a way to evacuate the air from the bulbs--no mean task using Victorian technology.  

Even so, it took another twenty years or so before electric lights had largely replaced gas mantles in American homes. As late as the early 1900s, older houses with gaslight were still being retrofitted for electricity. These transitional houses are easy to spot: the wires leading to the electric fixtures were often run inside the old gas pipes. 

In the early days of electric lighting, fixtures intentionally flaunted naked bulbs so that no one could possibly mistake them for gas.  It was a way for people to advertise their modernity, much as hipsters of the 1990s sported conspicious cell phone antennas on their cars.

Since that time, there have been surprisingly few fundamental changes in residential lighting.  Switches and wiring were eventually hidden inside of walls instead of being mounted on top of them, but other than that, most houses continued to have lighting fixtures in the center of ceilings, much as they had in the days of gaslight. The Revivalist home styles of the 1920s brought a craze for wall sconces--another gaslight derivative--but the fashion had largely died out by the end of that decade.

The first really new development in lighting since Edison’s light bulb was neon tubing, which made a big splash in the early 1930s. It made its American debut in a sign for a Packard showroom, and was soon all the rage as signage in movie theaters and other commercial buildings. However, with its otherworldly glow, it found little use in residential design.  

Fluorescent lighting (not to be confused with neon) was introduced not long afterward.  Being diffuse and hence glare-free, and also producing much more light for a given amount of power, it quickly became the standard for commercial buildings.  Still, no matter how hard architects tried to push its use in luminous ceilings and other Modernist lighting concepts, the sickly blue-green quality of its light did not endear it to homeowners. It took another forty years of improvement, as well as laws mandating its use, before fluorescent lighting was grudgingly accepted into American homes.

In the interim, a number of other high-efficiency lighting types have been developed, including mercury vapor, sodium vapor, and metal halide, but the unnatural spectrum of light they produce has also precluded their use in domestic work. 

By contrast, halogen residential lighting, introduced during the 80s, was an instant hit with the public. Why? Halogen’s warm, yellow-white light is very close to the spectrum of sunlight. Accordingly, engineers are currently working hard to make the next big development in high efficiency lighting--light-emitting diodes, or LEDs--as warm and friendly as incandescent and halogen lamps.

Because the sun, after all, is still everyone’s favorite lighting fixture.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE

A few years years back, just before the real estate bubble burst, a housing tract inspired by mass artist Thomas Kinkade’s bucolic townscapes and happy-happy cottages opened near Vallejo, California. Many people found this idea amusing, if not horrifying. But while there’s much that can be said about Kinkade’s trademark painting style--none of which I’ll say here--there’s nothing new about architecture being influenced by art.  It’s been happening for centuries.  

During the 1600s, for instance, the dynamic forms, layering of space, and dramatic use of light found in Baroque painting enormously influenced concurrent Baroque architecture.  In the middle of the next century, the Italian G. B. Piranesi’s engravings of ancient Rome foreshadowed the rise of Romantic Classicism, an architectural style whose austere, sharply-drawn classical forms went on to dominate the 1800s.  

Piranesi’s Carceri, a volume of engravings containing eerily atmospheric depictions of imaginary ruins, was especially influential to a branch of Romantic Classicism known as the Sublime.  Set in motion in the late 1700s by the otherworldly designs of the Frenchmen C.-N. Ledoux and and L.-E. Boullee--many never built, some perhaps not even buildable--architects of the Sublime school used stark geometric forms raised to colossal scale to evoke feelings of awe bordering on apprehension.  

Meanwhile, a romantic style of landscape painting gave rise to architecture’s Picturesque movement, whose work aimed to capture the rustic charm of naturalistic art in three dimensions.  An early Picturesque landmark of 1744, the English garden of Stourhead, was in fact literally based on a landscape painting by Claude Lorrain done a century earlier.  Later Picturesque works in England, such as the thatch-roofed peasant cottages conjured up by royal architect John Nash in 1811, continued to exploit the romance of Picturesque art--perhaps the closest historical parallel to those tract homes based on Kinkade’s work.

While representational art might seem more likely to inspire architects, abstract art has had, if anything, a more powerful influence.  During the Teens, the work of the Futurists--an art movement that deified technology to an almost nauseating degree--was soon reflected in the architecture of the Russian Constructivists, whose startling mechanistic projects of the Twenties might have been widely influential had they not lost favor with Joseph Stalin soon afterward. 

The Modernist architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius had close links with both Expressionism and with the Dutch movement known as de Stijl (Corbusier himself was a painter early in his career).  The rectilinear geometries of de Stijl artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg profoundly influenced Modernist floor plans and elevations, many of which resembled abstract art in themselves.  

Unlike most of the foregoing examples, of course, Kinkade hardly represents the artistic vanguard of his era.  Still, the fact that many laypersons--not to speak of critics--consider his work banal doesn’t mean Kinkade’s influence can be dismissed.  Norman Rockwell’s paintings were long considered to be sentimental dreck;  critics pointedly referred to Rockwell as an “illustrator”, refusing to dignify his work with the label of art.  Today, in the more generous light of retrospect, Rockwell is widely considered an American original.  

Whether you love it or hate it, Kinkade’s work seems to have the same sort of mainstream appeal that Rockwell’s art once did, and his status may someday be equally enhanced by time.  Whether this bodes a coming generation of candyland cottages, their windows all aglow, we can only imagine.