Monday, September 5, 2016

THE GAZEBO: Pure Architecture

Webster defines gazebo with this one brisk phrase:  “A freestanding roofed structure usually open on the sides.”  And that’s just what makes creative types swoon at the chance to design one—a gazebo doesn’t have to do much of anything except hold itself up.  It’s as pure as architecture gets.

This gazebo/pagoda/bandstand (which was referred to as a "pagoda"
back in the day) used to grace St. Louis's Forest Park.
Built in 1876—apparently before earthquake codes—
it survived until its collapse in 1911.
Perhaps the most flamboyant gazebo of all time was built in St. Louis’ Forest Park in 1876, a huge, top-heavy confection of turrets and onion domes, all improbably supported on eighty reed-thin iron columns. This tottering extravaganza was declared unsafe in 1911, and just in time, too.  The following year it collapsed.

The late nineteenth century was the golden age of the gazebo. That’s when every self-respecting estate had one, and when every town square boasted its big brother, the bandstand. Some gazebos were built of natural tree branches, some of cast iron. Still others were supported on tall columns of river stone.

You've probably seen a thousand of those garden variety eight-sided gazebos you can order in from the back of magazines, but don't let yourself be limited by that preconception. Pretty much anything goes, and that’s what makes building a gazebo so much fun. It’s a great way to indulge your artistic and/or craftsmanly urges. You may not wish to get quite as fancy as St. Louis did. But it's one of the few projects you can really go a little nuts on.

A round gazebo: Unique, but not a DIY project for the faint-hearted.
Naturally, you need a building permit—and hence plans—to build your gazebo.  Before you put pencil to paper, though, scout out a nice location.  Consider the view from inside the gazebo, as well as how it will appear in the garden. It should harmonize with the surrounding landscape so it won’t look like it dropped out of the sky.

While most people go for octagonal gazebos, there’s no law against other shapes (not yet, anyway).  So let your imagination soar. Round, square, cruciform, polygonal, and asymmetrical gazebos have all been built to good effect. But remember:  the more sides, the more labor. This should tell you something about building a round gazebo.

Once you’ve decided on a shape, choose a design for the supporting posts. 4x4s are usually too flimsy looking.  6x6s are better, but you may want to fatten them up even more by applying 1x batts to the centers or  corners.  Or, you can build up hollow columns out of 2x stock, or use round peeler cores, or even real logs. Make sure there's a railing or some other design element to brace the posts or you may end up with the same result St. Louis did. If you can't figure out how, talk to an architect or engineer.

Rustic gazebo built of branches.
Courtesy rusticwoodcraft.net
Since a gazebo is mostly roof, think that part out carefully. Usually it’s best to use some variation of a plain hipped roof, since the small scale of the building will make a complicated roof look too fussy.  Choose a roof pitch appropriate to the building’s siting. If the gazebo is on a slope and will usually be seen from below, you’ll need to use a steeper pitch or the roof will disappear. If it’ll be seen from above, pay special attention to the material and detailing of the roof surfaces—they’ll be the most visible part.

Since a gazebo’s walls are open, it doesn’t much matter if the roof leaks; this is another reason architects love these buildings.  For roofing, you can use prefabricated lattice, self-spaced lath, or 2x2s to admit light while affording a bit of shade. Or, if you prefer, you can build a conventional solid roof and cover it with roll roofing, wood or composition shingle, or even sheet metal.


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