Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Architectural Utopia


2001: A Space Odyssey
Utopia is a 16th century literary invention derived from the Greek οὐ, "not" and τόπος, "place". Owing to an homophonic anomaly most folks think 'Utopia' refers to a 'good place'. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, that would be an 'Eutopia'. An Utopia in point of fact is "no place" at all. I contend that we are fast approaching a global architectural Utopia, a built environment of "no place" and "no one".

An Aesthetic Cleansing

I just cringe when I hear a designer or architect say they are after a 'clean' look. What does a 'clean' look mean anyway? After all I think very few of us would prefer a 'dirty, unclean' look! '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. We can practically place a date for when this pogrom against craftmanship began in earnest, January 21st 1910, with Adolph Loos' infamous lecture "Ornament and Crime". Ornament and craft were condemned as unevolved and degenerate relics of a primitive past. A self-proclaimed liberator of the craftsman, Adolf claimed their employ by the privileged was abusive and immoral. A progressive society would free them of their toil:

"We have out-grown ornament, we have struggled through to a state without ornament. Behold, the time is at hand, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven. It is then that fulfilment will have come.”  - Adolf Loos



The foretold aesthetic cleansing arrived, carried to its logical fulfillment. The former craftsman freed from his toil, liberated from his art could now slave as a laborer in the factories supplying the materials of industry or assembling them as a "mechanic" in the field.

A School, a Style, and the Rise of the Machine for Living

Bauhaus Dormitory
In 1919 a "House of Building" or Bauhaus was established in Germany putting Adolph Loos' ideas into practical application. Surprisingly, coursework included fine arts and several years of workshop training under the direction of craftsmen and artists. However, the emphasis was technological, the preparation of designs for mass production by industry, canonized by the adopted slogan of the Bauhaus, "Art into Industry". Industrial efficiency demanded a reductive approach, an extreme simplification and unification of design that realized the elimination of moulding and ornament.

The early efforts of the Bauhaus laid the grounds for an "International Style" unveiled in 1932 at the Museum for Modern Art in Manhattan, NY. What made the this style "international"? It certainly did not embrace the millennia of accumulated cultural traditions of many nations and peoples from across the globe. Commonly held among those various humanistic 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, the International Style enforced the complete extinguishment of any lingering artifacts of  human culture, employing a complete reversal of the traditional thought process of design. The new doctrine dictated that "Form" was to follow only practical "Functions". The building and the attendant practical efficiencies of construction usurped the position of subject, placing people as just one amongst many objects such as chairs, toilets, stairs etc. populating the structure. The International Style might have been more appropriately called the Extranational Style, it reflected an aesthetic beyond the cultural influence of any nation or culture. It was the first step towards a new architecture, a Utopian architecture of "no place" in particular.

Drywall Factory
If the International Style achieved an architecture of "no place", several of its visionaries would envision that the built environment of the future would likewise be an architecture of "no one". Prominent leader of the movement, Le Corbusier, declared the house the "Machine for Living". The military industrial complex in place after World War II quickly adapted itself to the mass production of industrialized construction components. Traditional, simple building assemblies, adapted to local environmental conditions, often furnished and always constructed by local craftsmen were rapidly supplanted by complex, standardized cavity wall building assemblies wholly dependent on mechanical systems designed by engineers. The establishment of international building codes would ensure that those engineered building systems were everywhere to stay.

Progress and Propaganda, The Freedom of Limited Choice

Proposed Clemson Architectural Center
Charleston, SC
There is the prevailing opinion that contemporary architecture is progressive, at least among architects who have been indoctrinated in this philosophy. Examples of progress take many forms: embracing new materials, "green, sustainable" technologies and pursuing bold, unprecedented designs. This is epitomized by the American Institute of Architects annual Progressive Architecture Award. The architectural community pats itself on the back for specifying multimillion dollar complexes utilizing high-embodied energy materials of glass, concrete and metal alloys wholly dependent on mechanical systems burning fossil fuels to function, life expectancy unknown. The architects designing these projects are "International", neither educating themselves locally nor maintaining a practice locally, nor are the highly engineered proprietary building systems they specify locally furnished. Instead, they impose a signature style, free of cultural influence, independent of craft that can be plugged into any major city: New York, London, Beijing, Dubai or ceremoniously dumped in the historic districts of traditional cities such as Rome, Kyoto or Charleston. The envisioned "Utopia" has quickly morphed into a "Dystopic" reality, an alien, uncultured, craftless built environment of "no place" in particular.

Tianjin EcoCity Ecology Museum. Courtesy Steven Holl Architects


Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Escayola


Foto por Walter Cipriani
Se ha creado la más alta expresión del arte del yesero, perdido y redescubierto. Sin embargo, durante los dos últimos milenios Escayola nunca ha dejado de fascinar ni perder su misterio.

Mitad escultura, mitad ciencia, el proceso sofisticado que da a luz Escayola exige la mente enfocada y la precisión de un químico, las manos de un yesero experimentado y el ojo sutil y sensible de un artista.


Historia

Escayola es elaborado a partir de una secuencia cuidadosamente
programada para teñir, para mezclar y para organizar los yesos de imitar el mármol. Los arqueólogos han descubierto que los romanos y los egipcios emplearon métodos, desde hace mucho tiempo olvidado, para imitar el mármol en yeso. Sin embargo, fue en el siglo 16, durante el Renacimiento italiano que las recetas contemporáneas de escayola fueron concebidos y perfeccionados para efectuar complicadas incrustaciones en las superficies de los muebles.

A principios del renacimiento muchos mármoles deseados eran raras o se han agotado. Escayola podría imitar esas mármoles, así como crear colores y patrones que no existían en la naturaleza. El uso de Escayola pronto se expandió a los ornamentos moldeados, fustes de columnas y hasta paredes enteras, un proceso que llegó a ser conocido como Estuco Marmo.

El uso de Estuco Marmo expandió por toda Europa continental y finalmente a Gran Bretaña en el siglo 18. Usos destacados de estuco marmo en Inglaterra incluyen columnas y pilastras en el Palacio de Buckingham y la Casa Syon por Robert Adam. Un avance significativo en la tecnología de yeso se logró a mediados del siglo 19 con el advenimiento de Keen's cement. Keen's prepararon el terreno para un nuevo método para la producción de Escayola llamado Marezzo, conocido en los Estados Unidos como Escayola Americana  debido a su rápida aceptación y el uso prominente de mediados del siglo 18 hasta la gran depresión.

Hay innumerables recetas, en todos los casos propietarias, para los ingredientes y la mezcla de Escayola. Vamos a tratar de sacar la cortina de misterio, al menos parcialmente, con una explicación básica de la fabricación Escayola.

Fabricación

Escayola tradicional se puede hacer in situ o en un banco. El trabajo realizado in situ requiere varias precauciones en la preparación del sustrato. En todos los casos, el ambiente de trabajo debe estar limpio, seco y cálido.


Yeso de París finamente molido se utiliza como el ingrediente principal. Pegamento de la piel animal, rico en colágeno, como de conejo o cola de pescado se prepara el día de la fabricación para retardar el yeso y fortalecer el trabajo. Pigmentos minerales secos pueden ser emulsionados en el líquido o mezclados directamente con el yeso seco o incluso introducirse directamente en la masa en función de efecto deseado. Los ingredientes opcionales incluyen yeso o cal molido como material de carga, el aceite de linaza para complementar el pegamento como retardador y para ayudar la manejabilidad, y los pedazos de mármol para ofrecer efectos decorativos.

Al igual que un panadero que maneja la harina, la levadura y el agua, el artesano amasa el yeso de París y el agua colada a la consistencia de una masa firme. Esto se logra mediante la formación de un anillo de yeso seco que rodea a un "castillo" central de yeso. El "foso" se llena con agua colada y el proceso de cortar y amasar comienza.

A través de una serie de cortes, la adición de pigmentos, doblar y amasar, la masa se ​​coloca a un lado como grandes bolas divididas con relación a que logren el resultado deseado: una imitación del mármol verdadero o una creación imaginaria.  Según el resultado deseado, suspensiones de colores y otras preparaciones se reservan para efectos decorativos. Gran parte de la artesanía se encuentra en un proceso de ingeniería inversa mental. Hay que concebir el resultado deseado, tener todos los materiales a la mano y tomar sistemáticamente medidas para lograr el efecto.

Típicamente, el yeso se applica hasta 13 a 16 mm de espesor, dejando 3 mm para el corte de la superficie. Una vez que el material ha alcanzado una fija inicial puede ser afeitado con una herramienta de corte apropiado, tal como un Berthelet Francés, eliminando el exceso de 3 mm a realizar una superficie plana. En este momento el material debe ser todavía maleable y puede dejarse curar como un panel plano. Alternativamente, rebanadas de escayola se pueden presionar en un molde o directamente sobre un sustrato de yeso rayado in situ. Para el trabajo ornamental tales como balaustres, urnas y fustes de columnas, la Escayola se puede girar en un torno.

Una vez que la Escayola se ha permitido para fijar y secar naturalmente el pulido puede comenzar. Tradicionalmente, después de cortar la Escayola, piedra de piedra pómez natural y esponjas húmedas se utilizan para suavizar el trabajo.

El alisado y pulido final históricamente se logró con Agua de Ayr, una piedra natural de Escocia reconocido principalmente como una piedra de afilar para pulir peluquero navajas. Técnicas de pulido modernas llegan a un resultado similar con cada vez más fino papel de lija mojado / seco. La superficie acabada puede ser frotado con aceite de linaza para aumentar el brillo, la dureza y añadir una medida de protección contra las manchas. 

Marezzo o la técnica de "American escayola", fue una verdadera innovación que siguió una metodología distinta. No se requiere un corte de la superficie debido a que el veteado y la coloración se realiza en la cara del molde en una capa fina. Los paneles planos se realizan sobre una placa de vidrio gruesa así que los patrones creados pueden ser vistos desde abajo.

La mezcla de yeso Marezzo se basa en el Keen's cement, un cemento de yeso de lento ajuste que no requiere el uso de retardadores o endurecedores. Hilos de seda se utilizan para vetear y tintes minerales secos pueden ser utilizados para proporcionar color.

Conclusión

Escayola ha disfrutado de una rica historia que adornan muchas de las obras más prestigiosas de Europa, de la arquitectura del Renacimiento hasta el período neoclásico. Asimismo, en los Estados Unidos Marezzo ocupó un lugar destacado en muchas de nuestras obras maestras arquitectónicas del siglo 19 y todavía es de admirar en las grandes entradas de las casas estatales, estaciones de tren y grandes hoteles por todo el país.
 


Este artículo fue escrito por Patrick Webb y Sloan Houser
 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 81 - 90


APSE

The ‘apse’ is the terminating space beyond the nave at the east end of the basilica. The word derives from Ancient Greek ‘hapsis’ (ἁψίς) meaning arch or vault. It does in fact take the form of a polygonal or a semicircular space covered with a vault or half dome respectively.

The half domes of medieval apses often contained beautiful mosaics, gilding and frescoes. We just recently concluded our annual ‘Spoleto’ festival here in Charleston so I thought it might be nice to show off the beautiful apse from our sister city’s duomo in Spoleto, Umbria.


AEDICULE

‘Aedicule’ literally means ‘little house’ in Latin. It does in fact have the appearance of a miniature temple front, having a small pediment surmounting two pilasters resting on a sill or pedestal.

Often this design is used to give prominence to door entries or as a surround to enrich window openings. Also, it may have a niche that is filled with statuary as depicted here at Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico. 


CLERESTORY

The clerestory is a raised level above the nave, supported by the arcade pierced with windows to bring light and occasionally ventilation into the body of the building.

TRIFORIUM

In some cathedrals there is an additional mezzanine level of arcaded galleries fixed above the principal arcade and under the clerestory called a ‘triforium’, literally meaning ‘three gates’ but having a meaning of ‘thoroughfare’ or ‘passageway’.

I find the elevation at Lichfield Cathedral particularly well designed. There are cinquefoils in the spandrels of the arcade, quatrefoils and trefoils in the traceries of the triforium openings and clerestory windows respectively.






TRANSEPT

‘Transept’ means ‘across the fence’ in Latin. Architecturally it is the section that crosses the nave separating it from the chancel in a cruciform cathedral. Sometimes the division between clergy and laity is literally expressed with a fence as at the Basilica Saint Sernin in Toulouse.

The shared space of the transept and nave is called the crossing and is often surmounted by a dome or spire.

CHANCEL

Also derived from the Latin ‘cancellus’ meaning ‘lattice’ (again referring to the separating fence) the ‘chancel’ is the area beyond the transept that typically holds the choir, presbytery, altar and terminates in the apse.

BASILICA


The Latin ‘Basilica’ originally derived from the Greek (βασιλική) meaning ‘kingly’ or ‘royal’. The Roman Basilica was a public meeting place where business matters could be conducted and sometimes settled by a sitting magistrate, representing the power of the Roman state.

By the 4th century basilicas were being constructed for the church. Over the next few posts we’ll take a look at architectural features typical of basilica architecture.
NAVE

The central body of the basilica, having the highest elevation located just West of the apse. In a church it is usually partially filled with seating for the congregation.

The word ‘nave’ derives from the Latin ‘navis’ meaning ‘ship’ as it was felt the vaulting above somewhat resembled the keel of a ship. I particularly like the labyrinth in the nave of Chartres cathedral. It may not add much architecturally; nevertheless everyone, especially children are drawn to the maze, very interactive!
 


AISLE

‘Aisle’ derives from the Latin ‘ala’ meaning ‘wing’. A basilica will often have one or usually two halls running parallel to the nave, the central body of the building. The aisle ceilings are typically lower than the nave.

COMPOUND PIERS, CLUSTERED COLUMNS

A series of large piers form an arcade to separate the aisles from the nave. 16th century engraver, Albrecht Dürer, made some keen observations of the designs of early Romanesque compound piers as well as their evolution manifest in Gothic clustered columns.

Wells Cathedral provides a beautiful example of the unification of the compound piers with the arches and the ribs descending from the vaults above by incorporating aligned colonettes. Although the thrust is obviously downward, the feeling conveyed is vertical and upward as if the arches and ribs ‘spring’ from the capitals of the colonettes.


Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

An American Couple’s Perspective on French Wine and Plaster Traditions: Viniculture

Bacchus, circa 1497, Caravaggio
Previously considered was "Viticulture", the cultivation of the grape on the vine itself and its equivalent in plaster manufacture, the careful selection and baking of the various mineral binders. We now progress to our fourth step in the process, "Viniculture", the art of the blend.

At this point, man must utilize his intelligence, engage all of his senses to influence nature. Man as creator of the "Artificial" in the original Latin sense of the word, that which is "made by craft".

Viniculture in Wine 

As we have seen so far, wine making is truly a partnership between the wine maker and nature, with majority control vacillating between one and the other depending on the process underway.  Nature dictates the terroir and the varietals she will support while the wine maker plants and prunes according to those dictates. The partnership story continues now with a look at viniculture, the creative part of wine making; namely hand harvesting, oak barreling and blending as they are practiced by small scale, world-class Bordeaux wineries.

No doubt we’ve seen old photographs of workers manually harvesting grapes from vines and placing them in the small woven baskets on their backs for transport to the winery.  We may look at these photos with a sense of romanticized nostalgia but within them are important, time-tested instructions for the best way to harvest grapes.  Here’s why.

Harvesting begins when the grapes have reached their appropriate sugar to acid balance. Hand harvesting ensures only the best quality grapes are picked and are not damaged in the process. The grapes are then transported in small batches to reduce the risk of being crushed under their own weight.  By using vented baskets, juice from any grapes that are crushed can drain away before it oxidizes and affects the other grapes in the bushel. Once the delicate bundles of juice have been delivered to the winery they are meticulously sorted of any remaining unacceptable grapes and then pressed for fermenting.

What emerges is a wine that is full of promise but whose initial characteristics are often brash and a bit rough around the edges. Centuries of wine making have proven that grapes need time to adjust to their new role as wine and that barrels provide the ideal location for such quiet contemplation.

Through the years various types of wood have been used in barrel making, but oak remains the wood of choice primarily because it contributes the most interesting characteristics.  Oak barrels have their own tannins and are rich in aromatic compounds, which are imparted to the wine. Over time, this interaction tempers the aggressiveness of the new wine while enhancing its flavor subtleties.

Wine blending is another way an artistic wine maker can enhance wine’s subtleties. Contrary to some opinions, wine blends are not inherently inferior to varietal wines. To this point, Bordeaux wines, arguably among the most prestigious wines in the world are blends of several varietals.  In fact, the mighty Cabernet Sauvignon grape itself is a blend of mixed heritage. 

So while less reputable wine makers have been known to blend wines in a “hail-Mary” effort to make drinkable the undrinkable, quality wine makers understand that there is an art to blending and do so only to make minor tweaks to what is already fundamentally good wine.

For instance, a wine maker may decide his Cabernet Sauvignon wine is a bit cloying and bordering on flabby. To provide balance and structure he may blend in a Cabernet Franc wine, which is lighter bodied and higher in acid. Or perhaps a wine perceived to be too crisp, tart and sour, can be muted through blending with earthier, more rounded wines.  Or a wine maker in the enviable position of having several outstanding varietals may select some for blending into an extraordinary and wholly unique wine.

Thanks to high-yielding varietals, fertile soil and industrialized processing, today almost anyone can afford to buy wine; which bottle to bottle, year to year, maintains a standardized flavor profile. Many see this example of technological advancement as a profitable and efficient way for large producers to bring affordable wine to the mass market.  However, quality wine making requires full cooperation of all of our senses; touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing and intuition. For this reason technology, advanced as it may be, will never match the wine maker’s innate human ability to harness, nurture and coax into each glass the sensual essence found in each bottle of wine.

Viniculture in Plaster

Not unlike American choices in wine, "varietal" plasters made from either gypsum, lime or occasionally clay are the norm in the United States. These are largely supplied by industrial manufacturers who modify properties such as the set time, hardness, plasticity of plasters by means of synthetic chemical additives, often with unpredictable and undesirable long term effects. Europeans in general and the  French in particular have a long, continuous tradition of blending the mineral binders themselves to adapt the properties of a resulting plaster to a given use. Fortunately, many of the heritage mineral binders or "varietals" are highly compatible with each other, offering plasters with a wide range of applications, adaptable to almost any specification. Let’s now take a closer look at how this "made to measure" approach of the French utilizes clay, gypsum and lime to prepare the traditional blended plaster, Terre de Séléné.

Ecology. Clay is the primary mineral used for Terre de Séléné plaster. It is a very sustainable choice as suitable clays are widely available and require very little energy to produce. Clay is harvested, left to dry by the sun and goes through a crushing and screening process to make ready for plaster. Like clay, gypsum is also a material that requires little embodied energy to manufacture. Lime requires substantially more energy to produce but fortunately only a small percentage is needed for Terre de Séléné. All three mineral binders are free of volatile organic compounds and completely non-toxic.

Breathability Although shared by all three heritage mineral binders, clay has the highest capacity to absorb and release water vapour which can be attributed to its platelet structure, composed of tetrahedral sheets.This property contributes significantly to interior air quality by allowing vapour to migrate naturally through the wall assembly.

Permeability. Gypsum and limes have a loose crystalline structure that allows for the absorption of liquid water. This is a characteristic that all but eliminates condensation inside the wall assembly and absorbs water infiltration from small structural cracks. Yet, permeability can also draw standing water via capillary water rise. However, the aforementioned platelet structure of clay swells as moisture content increases, eventually creating a self sealing effect.

Durability. All three binders imbue Terre de Séléné with high flexural strength, providing incomparable crack resistance, eliminating the need for control joints. Gypsum and lime acts as stabilizers for clay reducing vulnerability to erosion from streaming water. Together with good flashing, water table and eave desgin there are many extant examples of Terre de Séléné that have served their sacrificial function of protecting the substrate for many decades, even centuries.

Efficiency and Frost Resistance Gypsum has a rapid set, controllable from mere minutes to several hours. Rapid setting permits subsequent coats to be applied in successive days allowing application to proceed efficiently. This property also becomes very useful for plastering in climates that may undergo freeze thaw cycles within days of application.

Workability and Mold Resistance. Lime has a lower viscosity than clay or gypsum which eases application of the plaster, particularly by trowel. Although mineral binders are inorganic, sometimes organic matter will contaminate the aggregates or water used to make the plaster, providing a food source for molds. The high alkalinity of lime combats the growth of mold during the drying process.

Beauty. Due to the self-binding nature of gypsum, there is a far wider range of flexibility in the selection of aggregates and natural fiber additions than would be available for a clay or lime based plaster varietal. Size, concentration, colour, softness and shape can all be controlled to create a plaster that has a very specific aesthetic. A Terre de Séléné version of "Stuc Pierre", a plaster resembling a limestone or brownstone, is a common composition that reflects the authenticity of traditional, artesanal plasters.

We've spent a good bit of time learning about the Bordeaux wine and Terre de Séléné plaster. Now its time to set the table! The motivation of countless generations of artisans developing these French wines and plasters will next be fully revealed in the upcoming fifth and final segment, the perfect: Pairing.


This article was coauthored by Angela and Patrick Webb








Thursday, June 5, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 71 - 80



OCULUS

‘Oculus’ is Latin for ‘eye’ and refers prominently to the circular opening at the top of a dome. However, oculus is also used to describe the ‘eye’ of a volute and a round or elliptical window opening.

ŒIL DE BOEUF

Oculus windows came in vogue in the French Baroque and can be found on iconic structures such as Versailles and the Louvre. ‘Œil de Boeuf’ means ‘bull’s-eye’.
FOIL

Overlapping rings are a common feature of Gothic architecture. The open areas are referred to as ‘foils’, from the Latin word for leaf, ‘folium’.

The Ducal Palace in Venice prominently uses a quatrefoil, four leaf design.

MUTULE

‘Mutules’ are a specific species of bracket typical of the Doric architectural order, speculated to be representative of rafter tails from an earlier timber architecture. They are characterized by guttae along their bottom face and are aligned above the trigylphs.

ZOOPHOROUS

When the metopes of the frieze are filled with animal sculpture relief, the frieze can alternatively be called a ‘zoophorous’ literally meaning ‘supporting an animal’ in ancient Greek.
 
 
FESTOON, GARLAND, SWAG

Out of the three I would venture that ‘festoon’ is the more serious, architectural term. All three can refer to an ornamental representation of bunched, hanging leaves sometimes with fruits and flowers.

If just fabric is depicted, ‘swag’ is the appropriate term.
 


GUASTAVINO, TIMBREL VAULTING



Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino made popular a Mediterranean system of vaulting with interlocking clay
tiles laid out in the form of an inverted catenary profile. It was introduced to the United States during the late 19th thru earlier 20th century and can be seen in many public landmarks such as Grand Central Station, NY.


 
The tradition continues in France under the name ‘le voute Sarrazine’, utilized to create delicate helix shaped staircases. A traditional gypsum plaster is used as mortar.



Contributed by Patrick Webb  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Pre-Colonial and Colonial



Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde
The arrival of Europeans to the New World meant the introduction of architectural and craft traditions, plaster among them. Of course there were native peoples already present. Plastering was and continues to be an important craft for Native American traditional architecture. Clay and earth are the raw materials. The English and French populating the East coast would have found the thatched roofed huts with walls of “wattle & daub” earthen plaster over reeds utilized by the Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee similar to their own vernacular traditions. Likewise, the Spanish colonizing the West must have been amazed to see villages constructed of adobe and earthen plasters not unlike their “pueblos” back home.

Pre-Colonial Earthen Plaster

Navajo Hogan, Monument Valley
One of the building techniques existing throughout North America prior to European settlement was the earth lodge, a central space with wattle and daub walls covered with a dome roof, having a smoke hole at the apex. The Navajo of the dessert Southwest developed a variation of the earth lodge called a “hogan”, featuring earthen floors and timber walls packed with a thick, clay-rich earthen plaster on the exterior. Hogans are extremely energy efficient benefiting from natural ventilation and evaporative cooling during hot days whereas just a small fire is needed to take advantage of the thermal mass properties of the earthen plaster, maintaining the interior warm during long winters and cold nights.

Structures constructed entirely of clay-rich subsoil reinforced with straw were also common, essentially forming a plaster building. One method was to shutter the mixture between boards with a light tamping, something between a rammed earth and a cob technique. Alternatively, the mixture might be formed into rectangular "adobes", left to dry and used as mud bricks bonded with an earthen mortar. For both methods the surface would be rendered with an earthen plaster and finished with an "aliz" or clay slip that would be reapplied annually for maintenance. In a region with little rainfall and scant resources for fuel, hogans and adobe structures are comfortable, healthy and efficient.

Taos Pueblo

Spanish Colonial

San Miguel Mission
The Spanish were quick to adopt adobe and earthen plaster for their missions in the West. The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico began construction in 1610, making it the oldest church in the United States and a testament to the durability of adobe construction. The earthen plaster acts as a "sacrificial" coat being replaced occasionally to protect the adobe walls underneath.

Castillo de San Marcos
On the East coast and in the Caribbean the Spanish utilized lime for mortar and for plasters. With plenty of wood for fuel and oyster shells readily available, lime was easy to produce. The Spanish already had a tradition of producing lime plaster from the continent and it was a more durable material for the subtropical, wet climate. Both the 16th century Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the 17th century Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida are well preserved examples of the durability of limestone construction utilizing lime mortars. The fort would have been a brilliant white when constructed. Some lime plaster of the Castillo de San Marcos is still visible.

British Colonial

St. Paul’s Chapel, NYC circa 1764
By the early 18th century the British had firmly established their colonies on the East coast of North America. Increasingly elaborate public buildings both governmental and religious were being constructed in a Georgian style based on Palladian archetypes. Emerging cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston all have surviving examples of colonial era Anglican churches featuring plasterwork, most notably coved and groined ceilings.

Kenmore Plantation, circa 1776
Meanwhile in the agricultural South and mid-Atlantic, crops such as rice, tobacco and indigo were generating incredible revenues. Wealthy landowners began to construct palatial plantations modeled after English country houses again in a Palladian style. Interior details including ornamental plaster ceilings were a symbol of wealth, status and cultural sophistication. The Kenmore plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia is one of the best preserved examples featuring room after room of highly ornamented neoclassical plaster ceilings.


I last mentioned that this was to be the concluding article in the series. However, upon preparing for this article it became evident that there is a larger story to tell in the United States. Next time we'll continue by considering our own national history of plaster from the Federal period into the 20th century.


Contributed by Patrick Webb