Monday, May 27, 2013


Wood is a remarkable material--infinitely varied, easily workable, biodegradable, and renewable to boot. But it does have an Achilles heel: Compared to many other building materials, wood is quite perishable. Hence, using wood in architectural details subject to weather is really asking for trouble down the road. 

In spite of this, architects and builders love to lavish their designs with projecting wooden beams, brackets, and other stickwork--a practice that’s only increased with the current revival of woodsy Craftsman style architecture. But as beautiful as wood detailing looks on the day it’s installed, it’s only a matter of time before it gets walloped by Mother Nature. What’s more, since the quality of sawn lumber is not what it used to be, modern designs using wood are even more susceptible to decay than the original Craftsman buildings were. 

Still, if you feel compelled to use lots of wood detailing out of doors, here are a few ways to give it a fighting chance:

• Use generous lumber sizes for pergolas, corbels, projecting roof beams, and other exterior wood features.  Sun and rain will decay all wood eventually, but heavy timbers will look good longer than spindly ones will. And since anything smaller than a four-by-four looks like a matchstick in the scale of the outdoors, design proportions will benefit too.

• Don’t detail exterior wood structures as if they were furniture. This is a favorite technique of contemporary Craftsman fans, but a shortsighted one. A redwood pergola loaded with fancy joinery may look stunning when it’s brand new, but after a few years of exposure, all those lovingly fitted pieces will shrink, warp, twist, and generally start looking pretty tatty. Therefore, avoid miters and other joints that depend on high tolerances and fussy workmanship. Plain old butt joints, lap joints, tenons, or other beefy connections that use a simple square cut will hold up better over time.

• Don’t get too fond of the color of the wood you’re installing, because it won’t be around for very long. Heart redwood, for instance, has a beautiful pinkish tone when freshly cut, but in a few seasons will darken to a rather gloomy grayish black color. If this look isn’t your cup of tea, consider using a semitransparent or solid color stain from the outset (and where appropriate, save a little money on a lesser grade of wood). Using clear sealers or, worse yet, varnishes to try to preserve the color of fresh wood will only get you a bigger maintenance headache--you’ll be finishing and then refinishing from now until kingdom come.

• On horizontal wood surfaces such as decking, the best finish is probably none at all. Clear preservatives tend to wear out quickly in traffic areas, which then discolor in a most unsightly splotchy fashion. Once again, the only way to avoid this dog run effect is to recoat the whole deck every few years. Since most people have better things to do with their time, a more practical solution is to skip preservative treatment altogether and simply get to like the look of weathered wood. 

Monday, May 20, 2013


Today’s city planners are terrified by the prospect of a blank wall.  They, along with their micromanaging brethren on civic design review boards, would much rather see a pastiche of meaningless fakery than an honest piece of wall with nothing on it. 

The horror vacui of planners and design review boards is a well-meaning but ill-informed reaction to modern architecture of the postwar era, which has long been pilloried--often quite rightly--for its mechanistic repetition, superhuman scale, and dearth of ornament.  

True, bad modernism could be bland, overbearing, and humorless. Yet the contemporary response to these shortcomings is just as troubling: It suggests that any amount of phony two-dimensional detailing is preferable to leaving some parts of a building blessedly plain.

Ergo, with planners and design review types all clamoring for the atmosphere of a halcyon past that never was, developers and their architects dutifully whip up increasingly hammy facades to oblige them. So it is that the strange bedfellows of city planners and big developers are behind the Disneyfication of suburbs and downtowns everywhere. 

The trend reaches a pinnacle of frivolity in commercial architecture, which is especially susceptible to both commercializing silliness and bureaucratic meddling. To disguise the large, monolithic structures developers find so vital to profitablility, today’s typical shopping street borrows a technique familiar to any mallgoer and turns it inside out. Individual storefronts are appliqued to a single megastructure and dolled up with cartoonish “traditional” detailing in styrofoam and stucco. The facades march along one beside the other like rows of wallpaper samples. In the very worst offenders, color is in fact all that sets apart one purported storefront from the next:--the surfaces are simply carved up with stucco joints, Mondriaan style, and painted in the colors of the moment.

One need only experience the commercial work of architects such as Florida’s Addison Mizner or Arizona’s Josias Joesler to see that it needn’t be so. Both men created lyrically comfortable shopping plazas--Mizner in the mid-1920s and Joesler in the late 30s--without resorting to the brazen facadeism typical of today’s work. They did so by creating a host of variations within a single overarching style, and by juxtaposing occasional exquisite detail against generous areas of plain surface. Neither feared the blank wall, because both understood that such contrasts only amplified the power of their work. 

In comparison, the sort of frenetic ragbag facades now favored by planners and design review boards seem more a means of flouting modernism than any sort of quest for timelessness. As New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp put it a few years ago, 

“Horror vacui--fear of emptiness--is the driving force in contemporary American taste. Along with commercial interests that exploit this interest, it is the major factor now shaping attitudes toward public spaces, urban spaces, and even suburban sprawl.”

In recoiling from the long shadow of modernist failures, too many planners and design review officials are simply rushing blindly in the opposite direction. They’ve lost sight of the fact that something--anything!--isn’t always better than nothing.   

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


There’s only one cardinal sin in architecture, and that is not thinking. Though it’s seldom recognized, thoughtful architecture has little to do with style, taste, or the sort of inane aesthetic minutae that small-minded design review boards like to busy themselves with. 

Over the centuries, there have been hundreds of architectural works that offended contemporariy eyes, but are now seen as works of brilliance. That’s the point: Thoughtful architecture has nothing to do with the fashions of its time. Rather, what every great work has had in common--what all great architecture has in common, whether familiar or unfamiliar--is that someone has taken the time to think about it. 

But it isn’t just “great” architecture that’s worthy of thoughtful design. On the contrary, since dwellings make up the overwhelming share of architecture on earth, it’s all the more important that we think about them as carefully as we would some vast public project.  The additive impact, after all, is much greater. And what sets any dwelling apart from mediocrity is one simple quality: Its designer found it worthy of careful consideration, asking themselves not, “What style should it be?”, but rather, “Have I done everything in my power to make this a humane and comfortable place?”. 

To see what happens in the absence of such thought, you probably need only walk down your own street. Everywhere apparent is design done according to rote or reflex, blindly informed by what the neighbors down the street did, or by whatever style happened to be in the magazines at that moment. 

It doesn’t help that architects and city planners often engage in such groupthink as well, zealously advancing points of view that will inevitably fade from the professional canon in a matter of decades, just as all aesthetic ideals eventually run their course. The wholesale destruction of city cores under urban renewal during the 1950s and 60s, for example, was not an idea that came out of nowhere--it was promulgated by modernist architects and planners who sincerely believed they were carrying out the professional mandate of their time.

In contrast to the prepackaged solutions offered by groupthink, thoughtful design takes time. But in relative terms, the extra effort is minuscule. If the tangible result of your efforts will stand for the next fifty or a hundred years--perhaps more, who can say?--then a few hours, days or weeks of careful contemplation is nothing in comparison. Nevertheless, I daily come across projects being built--often at vast expense--that have, it seems, benefitted from a grand total of two minutes of thought. This window/door/siding/roofing is what everybody’s using now? Great, let’s install it.

The notions of style and taste are the great humbugs of architecture, the beloved preoccupation of architectural non-thinkers..They consume the lion’s share of attention while returning little in the way of human comfort. Yet ultimately, style is nothing more than a guarantee of imminent obsolescence, while the notion of objective good taste is simply a fallacy--what is tasteful in one place or in one era is sure to be reviled in the next. 

There’s only one absolute criterion for good design: It’s that any building we put our hands to, whether modest or monumental, this style, that style, or no style we recognize, has gotten the benefit of our utmost human insight.

Monday, May 6, 2013


If there’s one complaint I hear again and again from contractors, tradespeople, and anyone else involved in the practical end of building, it’s this: “Why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?”

My usual two-word answer is, “Excellent question.” It seems self-evident that a person entrusted with designing an entire building should have at least a passing knowledge of how that building will be put together.

Alas, this is far from the case. Unless they’re motivated enough to train themselves, architects come away from their professional educations with practically no understanding of field construction. Typically, after four to five years of academic training, they have to serve several years apprenticeship under a licensed architect, and must pass an exhaustive series of examinations before being licensed--a process which, necessary as it is, nevertheless contributes little to an architect’s practical knowledge of building. 

The American system of architectural education (and, in fairness, that of many other nations as well) not only accepts but reinforces the virtually absolute separation that currently exists between design and building. Over the past century, only a relative handful of architects--best known among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri, and Christopher Alexander--have advanced the idea that hands-on experience is integral to the competent practice of architecture. Students of Wright’s schools at Taliesin and Taliesin West, for example, were expected to dig ditches, mix concrete, and perform myriad other unglamorous chores usually left to the lowest echelon of tradespeople.  

Why would a prospective architect benefit from doing such physical construction? For one, it’s probably the only way to gain a truly tactile appreciation for building materials--both for their innate beauty, and for their innate limitations. On a computer screen, creating a complicated design in poured concrete is neat and easy. Building such a thing in the field is usually another matter. When would-be architects find themselves obliged to produce work--perhaps of their own design--that’s needlessly complex or even impossible to carry out, they quickly learn to appreciate choosing the right materials for the job and the simplest means of putting them together.

Field work also helps focus the occasional meanderings of the creative mind on the real objective of the design process, that of realizing a project in four dimensions. Coordinating different phases of the work, not to speak of simply getting materials and equipment to the site, are routine construction challenges that can cost time and money, yet which architects without field experience seldom take into account.

Lastly, enduring the physical and mental demands of construction also brings an appreciation for plain hard work, and an understanding of just how much human effort is involved in raising a building. Whether for the laborers down in the ditches, or the contractor trying to juggle a dozen different scheduling requirements, practically nothing in construction comes easily.

Learning all these things firsthand might earn architects something we don’t always have in our profession--the genuine respect of those entrusted with building our creations. Now, once again, why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?
Excellent question.