Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A New Resolve


It has been two years since my previous end of year post, "A New Beginning".  The resolution then was: Share, Teach, Diffuse traditional plaster trade knowledge. Since that time I've been teaming up with craftsmen to organise and conduct ongoing professional workshops. Tadelakt with Ryan Chivers, Sgrafitto and Fresco with Franco Saladino, Scagliola with Jim Gloria to name a few. I've joined education committees to study and implement further integration of craft studies into traditional architecture programs such as the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, University of Colorado and Notre Dame's respective schools of architecture. Most impactfully, I accepted a full time position as Professor of Plaster Working at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, SC. Words can scarcely convey the rewarding experience to work with motivated young men and women over a period of 4 years in the development of craft skills.

Nevertheless, I'm hardly content. In fact, I would say I'm burning with a desire to push myself harder and further. Our modern use of 'resolve' has the sense of 'complete' or as used in new year's resolutions: a determination to complete an objective. By contrast, the original Latin 'resolvere' meant to 'loosen' (solvere), 'again' (re+), to 'melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid'. That's the meaning I'm after. The next few years are about turning up the heat. Below is my kettle on the boil:

Bachelor of Applied Science in the Building Arts

What I haven't hitherto made widespread public knowledge is that I not only teach at the American College of the Building Arts but likewise have enrolled as a student. I'm now in the midst of my Junior year, on track to graduate the summer of 2016. My trade specialization is architectural stone carving. Plaster is largely an additive process. You start with nothing and with successive layers create form. Stone is the opposite. Completely subtractive, you begin with everything and reduce to the same place. Plaster is fast. Stone is slow. In many respects, a complete reversal of the approach to mass and void in architectural form. How I wish this program existed when I began my journey as a craftsman! I certainly consider myself fortunate to now have this opportunity so many years later.

Space, Time, Interconnection

My previous college experience was three years of engineering school in the University of Texas system. I was working, paying my way through, going to class mostly at nite. An unanticipated advantage of that was that my professors of math, physics and engineering were all adjuncts. Professionals working mostly in the aerospace industry, teaching for the mere joy of it. I loved the practical application of the study of math and science as well as the fundamental theories of statics, dynamics and mechanics of materials. But by my Junior year I understood the daily life of the engineer. Cubicle life, shackled to computers was not for me.

However, my passion for math has never waned. If anything it has grown exponentially. I'm only a few credits away from a bachelor degree in math and soon as I've completed my studies in the building arts, I'm going for it. Likely a Masters subsequently focused on the following:

Geometry: From the ancient Egyptians and Greeks to the medieval masons, I'm deeply enthralled by the physical manifestation of number. Not just how to manipulate the 'rules' but delving into the philosophical derivations, the fundamental understanding of space itself.

Harmony: Music theory, proportion, emanation, syncopation, composition and oscillation. Light, sound, heat, all of our senses are responses to wave energy. I'm looking to increase my metaphysical awareness to my visceral, sensory understanding of the world.

Symmetry: Translation, rotation,  reflection. Classical, Islamic, the regular division of the plane by MC Escher in the 20th century are just a few examples of thousands of years of accumulated pattern design.

Putting It All Together

Why share all this personal information? Because I have an objective with all of this, namely: the widespread reintroduction and invigoration of ornamentation into architecture.

Why work in a vacuum or single-handed when I can put it out there and establish colleagues? Why wait to get started upon completion of some studies? Let's incorporate real projects that will inform those studies!

If you are a craftsman, designer, architect, educator or student in one of those fields and would like to collaborate please feel free to contact me: patrick@realfinishes.com

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Modernism Word of the Day; 1 -10


PASTICHE

From the Latin 'pasticium', something made of paste such as pasta, pastry, pâté etc. In modern

architecture it is a philosophy of attributed plagiarism. If a design is not completely unique, unrelated to anything that came before it is at risk of receiving the negative label of pastiche.

For example, Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA resembles his previous design at the Guggenheim Bilbao leading fellow starchitect Zaha Hadid to accuse him of plagiarizing himself. How pastiche!

CONTRAST & JUXTAPOSITION

'Juxta' from the Latin root meaning to 'approach, join together', in the sense of violent conflict,
"jousting" or rape, "jostle". So the prevailing theory goes that by placing aggressive contrasts together of Modern and traditional architecture it helps the traditional to 'pop' visually so we can appreciate it more. 
ZEITGEIST


From the Geman 'zeit', time and 'geist', ghost. Translated the 'spirit of the times', a prevailing theory that architecture can not possibly be a leading factor of human culture rather it should only strive to reflect the times. Anxiety, aggression and collision anyone?  




CLEAN

The specific use of this otherwise common word seems to have been appropriated from the field of fluid dynamics where unbroken lines and untextured planes are critical engineering concepts to minimize turbulence.

Ironically, much of the architecture designed according to these precepts is challenging to keep clean in the conventional sense.
  



CURTAIN WALL

The basic definition is a thin, non-structural exterior wall that acts as a rain screen. Most curtain walls are proprietary, high embodied energy extruded aluminum systems with glass panel infill. They have a working R-value of around 3 and let a ton of solar gain into the building. Windows are typically inoperable resulting in a hermetically sealed building wholly dependent on mechanical systems and caulk which must be replaced every 10 years.
 



TECHNOLOGY

= God




ANACHRONISTIC

From the Greek ἀνά, ana meaning "against" and χρόνος, khronos meaning "time". Time is a very,
very important tenet of Modernism. Much more so than place or culture.

Built in 2006, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center would be considered in denial or fighting time, thrice wise in fact. It revives Renaissance forms, which in turn revived Roman forms, which in turn revived Greek forms. I suppose it is considered a kind of zombie architecture.  

MODERN

Anti-traditional.
Commonly held amongst our various architectural traditions, man had always been held as the subject of architectural design, the building was to be the objective reality, an outward expression reflecting his inner, spiritual nature. In stark contrast, Modern architecture enforces the complete extinguishment of any lingering artifacts of human culture, employing a complete reversal of the traditional thought process of design. The new doctrine dictates that "Form" was to follow only practical "Functions". The building and the attendant practical efficiencies of construction usurp the position of subject, placing people as just one amongst many objects such as chairs, toilets, stairs etc. populating the structure.


 
PUNCHED OPENING

A fixed window, door or portal penetrating the building skin and surrounded by cladding. Maintenance free (or unmaintainable), the thermal multiple-paned units are replaced as the seals begin to fail, a 15 to 20 year life cycle for the higher end commercial models.
 



USONIAN

The maturation of Frank Lloyd Wright's earlier work as part of the Prairie Style movement; middle class homes situated in a natural landscape characterized by flat, cantilevered roofs, 90 degree angles and clerestory windows.

Many Usonian homes retained a significant amount of craft, utilized local materials while significant design effort was made to utilize natural cooling and light as well as passive solar gain combined with radiant floors for heating. This almost makes up for the fact that they all leak like a sieve.
 





Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Modernist Ideology: Theses XI - XX

Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it,  the following theses will be put forth for public discussion:
  

Thesis XI
 
Craft, the decorative and applied arts are condescended as strictly technique driven, practical, functional works. By contrast, the so-called fine arts are distinguished by creativity, uselessness and a conceptual nature. This is an entirely arbitrary distinction out of context with thousands of years of precedent and common sense.
 
Thesis XII
 
Machined art is an oxymoron. More than lifeless it is pointless. What beauty we can extract from art is the interpretation of life by the human mind passed through the human hand. There is no sympathetic conversational narrative with a computer or a machine.
 
Thesis XIII
 
Traditional architecture holds man as subject, the center of design realized according to objective principles, a communally shared understanding. Modern architecture has reversed the balance of the subject/object relationship. The modern architect designs according to his individual, subjective whim. The occupant is reduced to just another object populating the structure among canned lighting, punched openings and toilets.
 
Thesis XIV
 
An inherent challenge in the practice of building is the time lag between design actions and negative consequences such as structural failure, redundancy and urban decay. Modernism rejects the traditional approach of addressing this difficulty: deliberate, empirical, generational improvement. Rather it promotes the perpetually new and highly conceptual widespread implementation of experimental designs using proprietary technologies, systems and materials.
 
Thesis XV
 
The modern imperative to waterproof the building envelope with polymer, cement and other impermeable materials is ineffective and deleterious to indoor air quality. Water is both generated from occupants within and inevitably finds a way inside from the exterior making modern buildings entirely dependent on mechanical systems for air exchange.
 
Thesis XVI
 
Man is not separate from nature. Man is of nature. Therefore nature is the only universal basis of design of which we can be assured everyone can understand. 
 
Thesis XVII
 
The International Style of early Modernism promoted an aesthetic stripped of all narrative symbolism and cultural reference. Its lingering legacy is an increasingly global, indistinct Utopia of no place in particular.
 
Thesis XVIII
 
Urbanism is a 20th century theoretical ideology of imposing an highly engineered, eutopic master plan from a centralized authority. The rapid developments of Urbanism bear scant resemblance to traditional town planning developed generationally by members of a local community. Thesis XIX The imperative to automate seeks with religious fervour to establish a technological nirvana, a misguided determination to liberate mankind from the pain and pleasure of physical, intellectual and creative toil.
 
Thesis XX

Modernism dismisses Beauty, Truth and Goodness as unknowable or relegates them to relative, subjective viewpoints. This results from a hyper-rational imperative which rejects sense and transcendence in our understanding of the world. Concepts that cannot be completely understood or explained through pure reason alone are rejected.


Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 111 - 120


CROCKET, CROPSE

The regularly spaced buds or bunched foliage along the arrises of a Gothic pinnacle or gable. The blossoming crown terminating the peak is called a cropse.
  


PINNACLE

In Gothic architecture, pinnacles occur as groups of shafts at or above the roof line most often terminated with a pyramid, frequently but not universally enriched.
 

VOLUTE

A logarithmic spiral scroll, inspired by the unfurling of fauna as well as the growth patterns of horns and shells. This Art Deco example provides quite simply an embarrassment of riches!
 


SPIRE, BROACH

A slender, typically octagonal pyramid set atop a square tower. In church architecture it stands as the crowning element of the steeple.

The pyramidal transition between the spire and the tower is called the broach.


BOLSTER, PULVINUS

The roll resembling a cushion that connects the front and rear volutes of an Ionic capital. The Romans used the term"Pulvinus" because of the resemblance to the swelling of the stem at the base of a leaf.

The detailed hand tooling on this limestone example is quite amazing. 30 feet below the texture it creates with the refraction of light endows the work with depth and life.


TEMPUS FUGIT

"But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail." - Virgil
 


ORIEL

A bay window or, as in this example, a turret that is corbeled and projecting from the main structure. Its of old French origin thought to derive from the medieval Latin "oriolum" meaning porch, gallery.
 














Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Modernist Ideology: Theses I - X


Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it,  the following theses will be put forth for public discussion:




Thesis I

Architectural form does not "follow", it is not a "result"; rather, for good
or ill, form is the physical manifestation of desire, thought and emotion
proceeding from the human mind.

Thesis II

The art of building must be primarily a locational phenomenon, not a
temporal one. Architecture should strive to be first and foremost "of its
place", utilizing locally available materials, considerate of local customs,
in harmony with the local climate and ecology.

Thesis III

It is clear evidence of a lost, amoral society in utter cultural decay that
designs and constructs homes to last for a single generation only.

Thesis IV

The minimalist mantra of "less is more" together with a reductionist,
"efficient" machine aesthetic has resulted in a sterile, cold, unfeeling
built environment. Intelligible it may be, yet devoid of sense it is only
capable of producing stillborn, lifeless work.

Thesis V

There is a misconception that modern industry and technology are the
"avant-garde", progressive future of architecture. Yet industry and
technology are responsible for our present urban environment, having
achieved dominance in the Western world well over a century ago.

Thesis VI

The contemporary architectural community leads the conversation in energy
efficiency whilst continuing to promote materials and systems that require
anywhere from dozens to thousands of times more energy than the traditional
solutions they supplant.

Thesis VII

The baby boomers of the 60's and 70's generally lack a true philosophical
understanding of "radical", as in "having roots" i.e. "radish" or a return
to origins as used mathematically.

Likewise they misinterpret the fundamental meaning of "revolution", the
concept of "rolling back". The idea of continuous upheaval as a positive
vehicle for progressive change is a failed product of Modernist thought.

Thesis VIII

Our industrialized society is wholly dependent on hundreds of millions of
years of accumulated energy that are being squandered in a matter of
decades. Once that precious, potentially enduring resource has been
exhausted, traditional solutions will reemerge.

Thesis IX

Clean is code for a sparse, minimalist design bereft of craft, cleansed of
ornament, devoid of the polluting evidence of the human touch. A product of
industry, possible only with the precision of the machine.

Thesis X

Contemporary architectural education is heavily reliant on computer assisted
calculation leaving practitioners largely innumerate, with little practical
understanding of number in space (geometry), number in time (harmony) or
point, line, plane and 3D symmetries.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Lamp of Memory


God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December” ― J.M. Barrie

Boston City Hall
Perhaps the greatest lament I have about the architecture of our last generations is that it has absolutely nothing to say. Nowhere is this more evident than in the challenge of preservationists to get the public excited about mid-century Modern architecture. Who can blame them. The "50 year rule" is hardly a compelling argument. The vast majority of these homes and buildings were never designed in such a way as to last very long in the first place. Nevertheless, I imagine we might yet find a way to save or at least extend their useful life if they held any cultural meaning for us, if there existed a worthy narrative to share with our descendants of our accomplishments, of our humanity. The dilemma is that dialogue rarely exists. Consequently, our society is burdened with what to do with a growing inventory of industrially produced architecture.

John Ruskin devotes his sixth essay to memory, to the vital importance of creating places worth caring about and to protecting those worth remembering.

Civic Memory

Ruskin saw that there were "but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality." Our forefathers knew how to create memorable places. The great ideals embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were thankfully imbued in our earliest architecture. Not just in federal and state capitols but virtually all public buildings: museums, churches, train stations, libraries, universities; these were all held up as monuments, memorials to communally held values. These bear witness "not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld." Architecture is every bit the record of our civic culture as the written word and potentially far more enduring.


Domestic Memory

"I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only." By Ruskin's day the Industrial Revolution was already in full swing in England, supplanting the former craft economy. Craftsmen were obliged to abandon ancestral homes in their towns and villages to seek work in the factories of the cities. Tenement and row housing was being hastily erected to accommodate the influx of labour. Indistinct and impersonal, there was little to distinguish one unit from the next. The incredible damage this wrought upon the individual's sense of identity as well as the collective memory of England as a people still reverberates today.

In essence, this was the period when architecture entirely loses its sense of the sacred, wholly parts ways with humanity, "when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt." So today we continually plod down this soulless path of building homes never meant to last, mundane and impersonal, the concept of the home as a commodity, an asset to be liquidated at a moments notice.



"I believe that good men would generally feel this; and that having spent their lives happily and honourably, they would be grieved, at the close of them, to think that the place of their earthly abode, which had seen, and seemed almost to sympathize in, all their honour, their gladness, or their suffering,—­that this, with all the record it bare of them, and of all material things that they had loved and ruled over, and set the stamp of themselves upon—­was to be swept away, as soon as there was room made for them in the grave; that no respect was to be shown to it, no affection felt for it, no good to be drawn from it by their children; that though there was a monument in the church, there was no warm monument in the hearth and house to them; that all that they ever treasured was despised, and the places that had sheltered and comforted them were dragged down to the dust.  I say that a good man would fear this; and that, far more, a good son, a noble descendant, would fear doing it to his father’s house.  I say that if men lived like men indeed, their
Casa Pigfletta, circa 1440

"IL NEST ROSE SANS ESPINE"
houses would be temples—­temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honour, or that our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only."

Protection of Ancient Buildings

Thus far we have discussed the building of new places worth remembering; however, when an exisiting place that harbours the living memory of an entire community is taken away, the effect can be devastating. This might happen by war, natural disaster or for our generation more frequently by corrupt municipal bureaucracy. A recent poignant example being the Eglise Saint-Jacques in Western France that survived two world wars that destroyed 80% of Abbeville, a surviving monument to hope and resilience, a repository of craftsmanship forever lost to us and subsequent generations. 

Most heritage buildings are constructed far better than anything today, by far the reason so many remain with us. It is not extensive, costly restoration that is continually needed to protect them but a reasonable degree of attention to maintenance, "a few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves and sticks swept in time out of the water-courses, will save both roof and walls from ruin." Such protection was willfully hindered in the aforementioned example, a deliberate effort to degrade the building carried out by a handful of bureaucrats, "a mob it is, and must be always; it matters not whether enraged, or in deliberate folly; whether countless, or sitting in committees; the people who destroy anything causelessly are a mob, and Architecture is always destroyed causelessly."

John Ruskin's essay was hardly hopeless or fatalistic. By revealing the painful disconnect we have created in our built environment he laid out a vision, a strong emotional appeal for creating lovable places taking precedent from the memorable monuments of our forefathers that we should take every care to protect.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 101 - 110


AEGICRANIUMA sculpted ornamental skull or more often head of a ram often utilized with the Corinthian and Composite orders. This exquisite example I chanced upon in downtown Charleston.


CORINTHIAN

The most lavish, beautiful and the last of the 'Orders' developed by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C.E. It can typically be identified by its capital which often has a height greater than the diametre of the shaft and is highly enriched.

HELICES

Thrusting up from the acanthus leaves and spiraling underneath the abacus are typically 16 or 8 as in this example “helices”, delicate volutes, much more diminutive then those of the Ionic order.

TOWER OF THE WINDS

A 2nd century Athenian clocktower had a unique, simplified treatment of the Corinthian capital where a single base row of acanthus leave sits underneath a row palmette leaves that reveal the curvature of the bell. This has become a very popular version of the Corinthian order in the United States.

FLEURON

Your might recognize the similarity of 'Fleuron' to the French word for 'flower', 'fleur'. In fact, 'Fleuron' is the Old French augmentative form of flower. Often you'll find a fleuron crowning each of the four pairs of inner helices of the Corinthian capital such as this one at the Getty museum which has a really over-sized version.

If you are going to draw that much attention to yourself, you should be worth the spectacle. Fortunately, this one is quite beautiful.

FASCES

The cartouche/escutcheon is the crowning centrepiece of the main stairwell of the Vanderbilt estate in Newport. The stairwell itself is a focal point of the main room and its every detail symbolically conveyed the power of the family. Notice how the scroll of the cartouche resolves itself into a menacing lion's roar, powerful imagery!

However, I'd like to draw attention to the band of oak leaves running just above. This motif called a 'fasces', Latin for 'bundle' that has its origin in the Etruscan civilization and was adopted by the Romans. PER UNITATEM VIS or 'strength in unity' was represented by a bundle of rods held together by leather bindings. The implication was that though a single rod may be easily snapped a bundle was almost impossible to break. Here rods are replaced by the leaved branches of the Vanderbilt family symbol, the mighty oak, itself further transmitting the underlying message of power.

In Roman times a literal fasces had an axe head incorporated into the binding and was present as a symbol of the power of the Roman magistrate. The rods and leather symbolized his power to mete out corporal punishment whereas the axe represented his power of life and death. This symbolism was adopted by the 'Fascist' regime of Mussolini and likewise has been used extensively as emblems of the US government and military.

VENETIAN ARCH

A semi-circular arched opening containing two smaller semi-circular openings (or in this case a window) separated by a small column or colonnette.

ROUNDEL

A circular form, either in the form of a plate, disc or an astragal type profile such as the foil opening above the center column of this example.
GIBBS SURROUND

This is a particular form of the architrave or frame surrounding a door, rusticated with large blocks and surmounted by a keystone. Although this particular treatment has existed for millennia, it was popularized through distribution of a pattern book by 18th century English architect James Gibbs, hence the name. 

PODIUM

The raised platform on which a classical building occasionally rests. The term comes from the Greek 'πόδι' or 'podia', meaning 'foot' (think podia-try). The Romans in particular favoured podiums, which can often serve as a basement storey.




Contributed by Patrick Webb


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sacred Geometry


Courtesy of Gary Callahan
Sacred Geometry, what an irksome name. Certainly, many atheists will find the descriptor 'sacred' troubling, the stain of an unacceptable supernatural patina. By contrast, the deeply religious are likely to reject the subject as potentially blasphemous, bordering on the occult. For the vast majority of us, it is probably the 'geometry' part that brings back bad memories of high school...wait, what's the difference again between a postulate and a theorem? As for me, Sacred Geometry is a subject I love to study and I very much enjoy teaching. It's just as well; one can not get far in the mastery of any traditional craft of architecture without it.

Of course there exists many sacred geometry traditions that developed independently around the world. However, it is interesting to discover how incredibly connected they all appear to be. This can largely be explained by the understanding that sacred geometry is an empirical study, the observed object being Nature, the observing subject, Man. I'll focus briefly on the Western tradition having its origins in Ancient Egypt and Greece, expanded upon by the Romans, Medieval Europe and Islam.

The Quadrivium

During the Medieval period the classical education was apportioned into seven 'artes liberales' the studies that would prepare a freeman to be a beneficial contributor to society. The first three, called the Trivium, were as follows:

Grammar - the mechanics of language


Logic/Dialectic - the mechanics of thought

Rhetoric - the use of grammar and logic to instruct or persuade

The Trivium were the lesser studies, 'trivial' is you prefer, that were to prepare one for the serious studies of the Quadrivium:


Arithmetic- number in concept

Geometry - number in space

Harmony - number in time or sequence

Cosmology - the dynamic study of number in time and space
 
In our modern, hyper-rational educational system a disproportionate emphasis is placed on the purely conceptual approach to number, the least instinctive and humanistic of the four and why most students dread math in my opinion (Polynomial long division anyone?) Sacred geometry encompasses all aspects of number in a balanced way. Where to begin in such a potentially all encompassing subject? Simply, at the beginning, by encompassing everything...

Oneness - Unity

The Universe, literally 'Uni' one, 'verso' turn of the divine compass that creates everything. It is the big bang, the pebble in the pond, the point of singularity that expands ever outward. It is also gravity that pulls us ever inward. Geometrically it is fundamentally represented by the point. Now a pencil 'point' really is, under a magnifying glass, a little mountain of graphite in three dimensional space. However, if you give it some thought, a true point does not physically exist. It is location without dimension, a metaphysical concept. It represents the center of the emanation, the outward manifestations of which are the circle and the sphere.

Twoness - Division

Significantly, for ancient peoples numbers were not just abstract 'integers' used for crunching numbers. Number was deeply imbued with meaning. For example, there certainly was a concept of twoness. Not just 'how much' was two but rather, what does two mean? If one already represents everything, two could not possibly be a multiple of oneness. Rather, the solution was that two represented a division of unity. Cell division is a clear example of the division of unity. For example, a fertilized human cell contains all the information needed to generate another human. 

Often this twoness manifests itself in difference, polar opposition. Light/darkness; heat/cold; good/evil. Yet duality has an inherent sense of incompleteness and tension, an underlying desire to return to Unity that generates attraction: positive/negative; body/mind; male/female. One of its geometrical representations is the line, the connection of two points, the concept of distance, a metaphysical separation from Unity, the source of the emanation.

Threeness - Multiplicity

Many ancient languages have a singular case, a dual case specifically referring to two people and a plural case to represent three or more. Essentially one, two...many. So it was that threeness was seen as a way to break through separation and duality that would lead to multiplicity. Father, mother...children. Interestingly, our English words for father and mother come directly from the Latin words pater and mater respectively. We likewise have inherited the words pattern and matter from the same roots and nature from natura, something born. Just as father and mother beget children so too pattern imposed upon matter gives birth to all of nature.

Three was also seen as the way through or a method to bind two polar opposites. This principle is embodied in our legal system. Where a conflict exists a plaintiff brings a complaint against a defendant. There is a provision of arbitration by a third party such as a judge or jury that allows for resolution. Geometrically, with three points we begin to conceptually enclose space. A triangle forms the metaphysical concept of the plane.

Fourness - Materialization

Finally we have moved from the conceptual to physical manifestation! With a location, length, breadth and height, volume is enclosed, a material object can exist in three dimensional space. The most efficient way to enclose three dimensional space is the tetrahedron or four-sided pyramid. This results in an extremely stable structure, the first of the Platonic solids, commonly found in nature as an organizing principle of extremely strong crystalline forms such as quartz or diamond. Likewise, associated with the square and the cube, fourness conveys a deep sense of stability and connection to the earth. Why geometry literally means metria, the measure of Gaia, mother earth! So that we divide and orient our land according to the four cardinal directions, traditionally forming quarters in our cities.

Assembling the tetrahedron and the other Platonic solids

So having journeyed from emanation to physical manifestation what could possibly be left? The most enigmatic of them all, worthy of its own consideration: Fiveness, the number of life, reproduction and regeneration.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hopes and Fears for Craft


William Morris, In Memorium
What then of hope? My hope for craft is but a personal manifestation of a greater hope for humanity. Craft is such an intrinsically humanistic endeavour that it might be considered a preeminent measure, a barometer if you will of human culture. However, the readings from the metaphorical barometer of craft are very low indeed, the immediate outlook for mankind...stormy.

The very notion of 'hope' indicates that the way forward is not assured. So for the hopeful, there accompanies trepidation and fear. A fear of loss not easily recompensed, a storm which hides in its dark clouds: war, pestilence with death following closely behind. A day when the chisel falls silent against the stone, the fires of the forge have all grown cold and the handy-work of man is but a forgotten memory.

So what is left for the hopeful to do in the face of fear? What men and women of nobility and purpose have always done. They fight...each one according to his gifts.  More than a century ago a thoughtful, sensitive human being, one very gifted craftsman would take up this fight with every ounce of his being. Thankfully, the poetry and prose of a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris* survives to us today. I'll briefly share and expand on some of his writings in this post.

The Beauty of Life

PROPTER VITAM VIVENDI PERDERE CAUSAS - Juvenal

To lose the reasons for living for the sake of life. 

The earth was more beautiful once, so very alive. At some point in the not too distant past, man arrived on the scene. Under his influence the wildness of nature was tamed and pacified to a degree; in turn the earth, it might be argued, for a time became even more beautiful and livelier still. No longer. Man who has multiplied and spread to every corner, increases in destructive power whereas the earth becomes uglier and more lifeless each and every day. Where industry and technology are most employed the destruction is swiftest and hardest to remedy. Does this state make any of us happy? I don't believe so, although too many of us are mired in complacency, acceptance or distraction.

Morris identified this inherent conflict of a burgeoning consumer society made possible by the rise of industry, against nature, expressing it thus: "The latest danger which civilisation is threatened with, a danger of her own breeding: that men in struggling towards the complete attainment of all the luxuries of life for the strongest portion of their race should deprive their whole race of all the beauty of life: a danger that the strongest and wisest of mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts"


The past few centuries have witnessed this exponentially increasing disconnect of man with his natural environment with devastating effects to the ecology. Of course, this is a suicidal trajectory, as we ourselves are nature, we are ultimately rejecting ourselves. As a craftsman Morris saw nature as the only standard of beauty, intrinsic to our humanity with the universal appeal to divert us from this mad course, "This is at the root of the whole matter, everything made by man's hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her...Now the only way in our craft of design for compelling people to understand you is to follow hard on Nature; for what else can you refer people to, or what else is there which everybody can understand?"

A true artist embraces nature and life with all its troubles, struggles and pains rather than this culture of mechanization and death, though the latter be accepted, easy and peaceful.

The Art of the People

There is a persistent delusion that industry and technology has liberated mankind. Historians seem only to record war, pestilence and suffering as if there only existed fear and terror without respite, not one whit of joy in life. Are we to to believe only the written history and discount the reality embodied in the surviving architecture and craft objects of everyday life?

"Once men sat under grinding tyrannies, amidst violence and fear so great, that nowadays we wonder how they lived through twenty-four hours of it, till we remember that then, as now, their daily labour was the main part of their lives, and that that daily labour was sweetened by the daily creation of Art; and shall we who are delivered from the evils they bore, live drearier days than they did,...choose to sit down and labour for ever amidst grim ugliness?

There was much going on to make life endurable in those times. Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult, though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam, and never without some beauty and invention being born of it, and consequently some human happiness.

Westminster Abbey
When men say popes, kings, and emperors built such and such buildings, it is a mere way of speaking. You look in your history books to see who built Westminster Abbey, who built St. Sophia at Constantinople, and they tell you Henry III., Justinian the Emperor. Did they? or, rather, men like you and me, handicraftsmen, who have left no names behind them, nothing but their work?

History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered the people, because they created."

Therein lies another great service of craft to humanity, the social dimension, the capacity to give joy and meaning to work, that which occupies the greatest part of our waking hours. Yet, the 'developed' world has transformed itself from being a maker society into a consumer economy, industrially producing a million things that no one really wants. Mere distractions from a monotonous life lacking imagination and meaning. There would be little need to 'get away' or 'live for the weekend' if your everyday life was filled with beauty, creativity and purpose, if it improved your community, if it brought pleasure to your neighbors.

Courtesy of the
 American College of the Building Arts
"Real art is the expression by man of his pleasure in labour", so that "If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect." Yet empty existence is not an inevitability. There was a time not long ago when everyone shared in art, when "everything that the hand of man touched was more or less beautiful" so that one either participated in the making of beautiful things or in using the things made, more often still, making and using both, so that everyone shared in art. "To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce USE, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce MAKE, that is the other use of it."

"What is an artist but a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent?" Are we giving ourselves that opportunity? What of our children and grandchildren? Or are we propping up a world built on consumption, greed and profit? "How can we bear to pay a price for a piece of goods which will help to trouble one man, to ruin another, and starve a third? Or, still more, I think, how can we bear to use, how can we enjoy something which has been a pain and a grief for the maker to make?...That evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion."

Might we continue to place our hope in industry and technology to save us from this seemingly intractable morass? What remedy can there be for the blunders of technology but further technology? No, the modernized production of the needs of life: food, clothes and shelter have devolved into a highly organized injustice, an instrument of oppression that poisons our planet, strips beauty from our daily lives and stands in opposition to the human spirit. Industry is past the point of reform, it needs be overthrown...humanity needs a post-Industrial revolution. I don't think we are ready though, our life is still not ugly enough. It is almost as if we must complete the full cycle, the complete ecological and social collapse of society. Perhaps facing our own extinction will be enough to shake us from our languid complacency.

The Prospects of Craft in Civilization

"I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

Even if we acknowledge that the ecological and social costs of industry are too heavy to bear for much longer, who can pay for craft but the wealthy, as a pretext of luxury? How can we possibly afford craft again? Simplicity.

Mr. Morris reminds us, "Art was not born in the palace; rather she fell sick there, and it will take more...than that of rich men's houses to heal her again. If she is ever to be strong enough to help mankind once more, she must gather strength in simple places."

What is it that we really need to satisfy our physical needs? Less than we think. How much space can we occupy, how much square footage to we need, how many homes, automobiles, computers? Boats, televisions, cable subscriptions, fantasy leagues? A million things to distract us and waste our life looking after. Do any of the aforementioned, the petty luxuries, pretences of a showy display of wealth, truly enrich our lives? I think not. These commodities are mere fashion, vanities that come and go in our lives as we soon tire of them. In our hearts we recognize they have no value. I believe the drugged pursuit of MORE robs too many of us the time to think and feel, to pass on the inheritance of a better world than was left us. By contrast, "Real art is cheap, even at the price that must be paid for it." and "Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement."

Our physical nature is only a small aspect of what constitutes our humanity. What is it that we really need to satisfy our other needs: intellectual, sensual and spiritual? First we must recognize that we have such needs and so does our fellowman. It places a moral obligation before us to contribute to a society where these needs can be fulfilled. I speak the truth when I tell you that you can not truly enjoy something knowing its production crushed and took advantage of other people. Neither can you verily treasure such things by turning a blind eye, in a thinly veiled, willful ignorance, only suspecting its making was with great injustice.

"If you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. It is not so much because the wretched thing is so ugly and silly and useless that I ask you to cast it from you; it is much more because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them: look through them and see all that has gone to their fashioning, and you will see how vain labour, and sorrow, and disgrace have been their companions from the first,- -and all this for trifles that no man really needs! Learn to do without; there is virtue in those words; a force that rightly used would choke both demand and supply of Mechanical Toil."

This message is admittedly inconvenient if not irksome for industry, nothing more than "mere grit and friction in the wheels of the money-grinding machine." However, it is high time to reject its tyranny, reclaim our humanity, stand up for our fellowman and seize our collective right for happiness, for "an art made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user... How could we keep silence of all this? and what voice could tell it but the voice of art: and what audience for such a tale would content us but all men living on the Earth? This is what Architecture, Art, and Craft** hopes to be: it will have this life, or else death; and it is for us now living between the past and the future to say whether it shall live or die."

*All quotes are from William Morris unless otherwise noted
 **Text added

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Plaster Restoration


Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
I must confess, as a plasterer I do not like the work of plaster restoration. Please don't take that to mean that I don't consider it important or a valid aspect of the art. I just have a preference for new work. My reasons are personal and valid for me. For example, in the context of new work I have the ability to reach a high degree of perfection. In restoration work perfection is not usually the goal. Often the substrate has shifted, walls and ceilings are not level. I have found myself obligated to just improve the situation, make it presentable. I find that frustrating. Also, I would say one of the aspects of plaster working I really enjoy is having a hand in the design be it colour and finish, moulding profiles or ornamentation. In restoration all of these decisions have been made a long time ago and are buried under many layers of paint (did I mention how much I hate stripping paint?). Its like all the fun part is done already.

Irrespective of my feelings, I do live in downtown Charleston so the matter of plaster restoration is unavoidable. Not to mention it breaks my heart to see plaster being ripped out to be replaced with drywall or losing some beautiful ornament to be replaced with absolutely nothing. I just finished working on a small project that I would like to share with you all below. I think many will find the process very educational. Before I do that I would like to share just a few general thoughts about the fundamental properties of applied plaster in the context of restoration and conservation.

The technical purpose of traditional plaster, or stucco if you prefer, in the exterior is as a sacrificial coat. It 'sacrifices' itself to protect the substrate, that is to say the building. It is not intended to be preserved. Rather rain erodes it, soluble salts evaporate at the surface, slowly deteriorating it. Better the plaster than the building. Plaster over masonry on the inside might last indefinitely. Plaster over lath is another matter. It has a lifespan. The wood or metal moves with changes in humidity and temperature, the plaster does not. Between these cycles and some inevitable structural shifting eventually the bond of the plaster to the lath will break down, usually between 120 to 200 years in the case of wood lath. Not bad I'd say. Unless there has been water damage the wood lath is good for another 200 years if sometimes the old iron nails need replacing.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
One of the challenging situations that occasionally arises is when a lath and plaster wall or ceiling has been enriched with ornament. The plasterwork has failed but you don't want to lose all of that art. I don't blame you one bit! There are a few traditional solutions. If there is access to the back of the lath from an upper floor or attic loose plaster can be secured from below using special types of washers, then new plaster can be added to re-adhere the plaster to the lath in the spots where the keys are cracked or completely broken. What I would strongly discourage is injecting some kind of epoxy or glue to fix the broken plaster to the lath. This is a one time, short term effort that destroys the re-usability of the lath. These proprietary "solutions" also tend to form a vapour barrier that causes other problems as well.

If access is not possible it is often possible to save much of the ornament by simply cutting it out, setting it aside to be re-affixed once the surface has been replastered. There are other instances where there is partial water or fire damage so that some of the ornament is lost. This is a similar scenario to my recent project where a room was being shortened in a remodel of an older home in downtown Charleston. I was asked to consult on an highly enriched cornice to see if it could be removed from the wall that was to be demolished. The cornice was so large and so well plastered to the wall that is was practically impossible to remove it without destroying the pieces. Below is a description of the traditional solution that we offered that worked quite well.

A Small Plaster Restoration

Working along with students and alumni from the trowel trades program of The American College of the Building Arts, we took on the restoration of a highly enriched Gothic Revival plaster cornice installed in an early 20th century home downtown Charleston. 

1) Stripping Paint 

We identigy the pattern repeat and painstakingly remove scores of paint layers (did I mention how much I hate stripping paint?) Usually I prefer to use an alkali paste to strip paint, especially if it is a large wall. However, it is a challenge to use on relieved ornamentation. In this case, having a small surface area to cover we utilized a chemical stripper.

 

 2) Framing

We have to create and affix a plywood frame to enclose the pattern, using clay to seal the ends.

3) Rubber

The rubber we chose is a two part urethane on the softer side. We alternate the colours beige and blue between layers so we can gauge coverage and depth, starting off thin to get in all the nooks and crannies, adding thickener to quickly build on the final passes. It is important to have a minimum of 1/4" thickness and create relief angles so that the plaster applied in the next step does not lock into the rubber and get stuck.
 
4) Jacket Mould

The rubber captures the pattern; however, it is very flexible and will not keep the form. Several layers of gypsum plaster are applied to the back of the rubber. These are reinforced with fibreglass and hessian cloth to increase tensile strength and reduce weight. It has to be thick enough to be strong, yet you must be careful not to make it too thick or you'll never get it off! The plaster sets very quickly forming a rigid 'jacket' also known as a mother mould that will keep the rubber in its original position.

 

5) Casting

The moulds are removed and brought back immediately to the college workshop, placed on a bed of sand to reduce deformation. After drying over the weekend we can use the negative mould to generate new plaster positives, our cornice pieces. Again, to reduce weight and enhance tensile strength, fibreglass veil is embedded, a technique called GFRG or Glass Fibre Reinforced Gypsum.


5) Crating

The plaster only takes a few minutes to set. The process of setting puts a lot of internal stress on the moulding. We must find a way to prevent them from deforming. Since we need a safe way to transport them back to the site we build wood frames and mechanically attach the mouldings to the frames.



6) Affixing

Completion in view, the next task is to affix the plaster mouldings to plaster with, you guessed it, plaster! We do use some temporary plywood blocking to align our pieces and help support our pieces from below. Also, a few galvanized screws are used at the top to secure the cornice until the plaster has set. It is optional to remove them later. We're in a seismic zone so I'm going to leave them in. 



7) Pointing

The final step is to join all of our pieces with each other and to the existing moulding. This is done with plaster. Because plaster sets quickly we mix a little bit of rabbit skin size as a retarder in our water to give us more time to work. A bit of sanding in spots and its ready to be primed and painted.



Everybody was really happy. The contractor that he could find folks with skills to do the work (He's already given us a nice recommendation for a project we'll tackle in January), the owner who was afraid they might lose the cornice or have it missing on one wall, and the sophomore students who got to learn an advanced skill during their summer internship. A special thanks to our alumnus Michael Lauer who was the plaster contractor for this job. I recommend giving his website a look: http://www.michaellauerstudios.com/

Contributed by Patrick Webb