Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Gypsum: A Naturally Occurring Stone



The Gypsum Cycle
Originally posted July 2016 on Traditional Building Magazine Online

Gypsum is a naturally occurring stone, a metallic salt of calcium. It commonly forms as an evaporite from the dissolution of limestone by exposure to sulphuric acid from volcanic activity. Under certain conditions, continual cycles of dissolution and evaporation will agglomerate into a “primary” deposit of gypsum.

Mineral gypsum so formed is interspersed among other minerals. Primary deposit gypsums are characterized by a loose crystalline structure and high solubility in water. Over geologic time gypsum from primary deposits is often carried away in solution, forming a “secondary” deposit of a much purer gypsum. These secondary deposits or “massifs” can be tens of feet thick, forming extended beds. Massifs are the primary source exploited as raw material for gypsum plaster.

Chemistry & Manufacture



Selenite: crystallized form of gypsum
The most common form of naturally occurring gypsum has the chemical formula: calcium sulphate dihydrate or CaSO4·2H2O. This “hydrous” or watery gypsum binds water to calcium sulphate molecules in a dry, crystalline state. As we'll see this imbues gypsum plasters with some amazing properties. If water held “frozen” at ambient room temperature doesn’t already sound incredible, the alchemy of burning stone to convert it into a plaster or mortar, to be subsequently reconstituted into stone in a place and shape of our choosing is downright magical!

Unlike clay, mineral gypsum must be baked in preparation for its use as a plaster. Fortunately, this occurs at a relatively low temperature so is not an energy intensive process. Gypsum rock can be efficiently baked at temperatures as low as 300° F. At this temperature gypsum quickly loses 75% of its water content, off-gassing steam. The resulting material has the chemical formula calcium sulphate hemi-hydrate or CaSO4·½H2O. Commonly known as Plaster of Paris, this is the most prevalent form of gypsum used for plasters.

In the 19th century it was discovered that gypsum baked under increased atmospheric pressure in a barometric chamber would result in dense plasters, having less water demand. These “gypsum cements” require less water to mix and manifest a distinct crystallization pattern that produces dense, hard sets very useful in casting work. Anhydrous gypsum is another form of gypsum stone that occurs naturally or can be manufactured by continuing to bake the hydrous form over a temperature of 800° F, producing calcium sulphate or CaSO4. This anhydrous or “dead burnt” gypsum, sometimes with a small addition of alum, is characterized by a slower set and dense crystallization useful for floor, exterior and other specialty applications such as scagliola.

Properties & Specifications

 Modeling and casting ornament with gypsum
There are several characteristics that are inherent to all gypsum plasters. Notable among them is that gypsum plaster is self-binding. Aggregates may be added as an inexpensive filler or for decorative effect; however, unlike clay or lime they are not necessary for the plaster to hold together. A closely related quality is that gypsum plasters do not shrink as they set. As gypsum plaster incorporates most of the added water into its crystalline matrix it actually expands slightly as is sets. Plaster of Paris and the gypsum cements in particular are fast setting materials that permit work to be conducted expeditiously. Gypsum plasters have excellent adhesion to most any solid, fibrous or lath substrate and provide a permeable, breathable coating. Furthermore, the combination of these unique characteristics of self-binding and rapidity of set result in gypsum being the perfect binder for molding and ornamental applications. Both Plaster of Paris and gypsum “cements” can be mixed to a light cream consistency, capturing the finest of details.

Historically gypsum plasters have been used primarily for interiors. Although all natural plasters are incombustible, gypsum is practically miraculous in its inherent capacity to actively retard fire. This is due to its hydrous chemistry. Should a fire occur in one room, gypsum will continue to off-gas steam, thus suppressing the temperature on the other side of the wall well below the temperature needed for spontaneous combustion. This arrests the ability of the fire to spread, starving it of needed oxygen.

Although Plaster of Paris produces a plaster far too porous and soluble for exteriors and gypsum cements are simply not practical to use as a wall plaster, there is a long history of exterior stuccoes in Europe based on anhydrous gypsum. Similar to earthen renders, reasonable precautions need to be taken with overhangs and other flashing details to ensure protection from streaming water as well as establishing water tables to prevent capillary water rise.

  Running in situ, courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot

Nevertheless, the self-binding nature of the material itself allows a great range of technical and aesthetic freedom. Gypsum stuccoes are very manageable to work as a wall plaster and can be applied up to an inch or more in a single coat. They have a rapid set that permits working in almost any season so long as there is a brief window of good weather. Furthermore, molding profiles can be run in situ, ornamentation can be cast and affixed and a practically unlimited variety of aggregates can be added for simply decorative effect.

In our next essay we’ll begin taking a closer examination of the family of lime binders, materials intimately associated with civilization itself.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Architectural Word of the Day; 241 - 250


CHEVET


The east end of an abbey or cathedral distinguished by radiating chapels protruding from the apse.










 

PLATE TRACERY

An early Gothic adaptation for rose windows, plate tracery gives the appearance of perforations through a thin stone slab in an otherwise solid wall.

The West front of Chartres Cathedral provides an amazing example, exceeding 12 metres across.









CROSSETTE

The horizontal projection of a voussoir that rests upon an adjacent stone.








DOUGONG, TOU KUNG

A Chinese tradition of timber framing, consisting of a complex system of interlocking, corbeled joined bracketing allowing the rafters and eaves to be cantilevered well beyond the supporting columns.



ENRICHMENT

Embellishment with ornament, well...just because.



LANCET

A narrow pointed arch typically utilized for open, blind or glazed windows. The lancet can be arranged in an infinite possibility of widths that facilitates a rhythmic composition.



GUILLOCHE

The linear pattern of two or more interlacing bands that create a series of circular openings. A prominent feature of COSMATESQUE work, an intricate style of marble, glass and stone inlay dominated by the Cosmati family of 12th and 13th century Italy.




Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, January 5, 2018

Book Review: Maps of Meaning - The Architecture of Belief


I encountered Jordan Peterson quite coincidentally while researching underlying symbolic meaning in architectural ornamentation. As it turned out this book (and his accompanying online lecture series) considers subject matter of a far more philosophical and psychological nature; nevertheless, it arrested my attention as it spoke very clearly to another interest of mine: why do human beings believe and act as they do?

It became immediately self-evident he was someone well read in the profound thinking of Neumann, Jung, Freud and Nietzsche. These thinkers have been often characterised as "New Age"; however, I don't agree with the implications of that designation inasmuch as what they proposed was not new as much as additive to the philosophical edifice that had been erected before them. They were true scholars who knew that edifice well, had absorbed like sponges the intellectual contributions to Western culture (Schopenhauer, Kant, Hume, Christianity, Greek philosophy etc.) That is precisely what empowered them to make a contribution of their own that was actually meaningful.

As much as I can tell academia has relegated these thinkers, the entirety of Western culture for that matter, to the history department aka dustbin. But Jordan Peterson isn't a historian; fixating on once famous but since obsolete old philosophers isn't a fetish for him. He is a clinical psychologist and academic researcher taking their work seriously, more importantly he takes their approach seriously and it would appear to me that he is blowing off the dust of their projects, largely abandoned by academia and actually carrying them forward.

If you've read or attempted to read any of the aforementioned authors, you know they can be tough. Some of the difficulty might be attributable to the content, the style of the authors or the subtle changes in language in the time that has passed since they were written. For the contemporary reader, Peterson's treatment remains rigorous but ultimately accessible. Here are a few themes which don't align with chapter headings yet struck me as permeating the book.

Transcending Dichotomies

Empiricist David Hume
Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The first dichotomy to be addressed is a metaphysical one: what constitutes reality? Science largely pursues an empirical approach, that reality is"out there", having an independent existence in the objective world to be observed and measured. The skeptical counter-arguments have dogged science from the beginning. All we can observe are the perceptions in our heads so to speak; those subjective perceptions are the only reality we'll ever know and even these are not altogether reliable. However, it seems likely that only with the interaction of subject and object that meaning can be generated. Such a transcendent perspective might consider the world not as isolated things, rather as fields of potential information and actualised experience.

The second dichotomy is of an epistemological nature: what can be known? Thinkers secular and religious have for millennia pursued knowledge, bedrock truths that are absolute and universally applicable. Nothing seems to withstand the test of time and further experience. One cultural response has been to willfully reject new experience, to cut oneself off from the unknown. Totalitarianism assumes that all that is known is all there is to know and worth knowing or otherwise constraining any search for truth within very restrictive parameters. Other thinkers have responded to the aforementioned difficulties of absolute truth by denying the possibility of true knowledge at all, discrediting any value in its pursuit or more commonly adhering to a philosophy of relative truth that accords with a subjective metaphysics; there at best can be your truth or my truth but there exists no basis for our truth, a shared truth between us. Decadence is the description of cultures whose view of the possibility of true knowledge has eroded in this way. They become undisciplined, antisocial and nihilist...all appears arbitrary, nothing seems to matter. Totalitarianism and decadence are two modes of suppression of knowledge either by cutting oneself off from experience or by denying its very possibility and value in the first place. The result in either case is a loss of capacity for adaptation. Peterson seems to favour a pragmatic approach. It is patently obvious that human beings are not omniscient, we can never have total knowledge. The unknown will always be out there for us. However, we can and do act in the world on the basis of sufficient knowledge which is contingent on further experience, continued conversion of the unknown into the known and adapting accordingly.

The architecture of belief would seem to be primarily a moral, ethical one: we're less concerned about "what is" than what we ought to do about "what is". A pattern typifying human behaviour is the positing of an ideal state of being (or conversely something calling us to such a state) and subsequently taking actions towards that end. In the context of a goal, objects in the world and our own psychological states can be evaluated for meaning and motivation that might enable or inhibit progress towards it or even determine a restructuring of the goal itself. An ever changing field of experience calls for a dynamic morality, continuous adaptation in light of more information.

Development towards Individuation

In the course of human development we start off in total dependence, in normal circumstances upon our mother. Even prior to that we physiologically are the mother, we grow from her. This state of complete dependence is the metaphorical "matriarchy". After birth, infants identify totally with the mother and continue to strongly depend upon and identify with her for years thereafter. There is little to no conscious awareness of a self separate from mother for infants and young children.

During later childhood into adolescence identity with the mother gives way to absorption of culture and formation of an identity. In this process of socialisation, the child learns how to speak a language, identifies with being of a place such as a town or city, belonging or not to a particular faith. Through accent, dress, behaviour etc. the youth embodies and acts out (even in rebellion) complex narratives that he did not generate and could never articulate. This is what metaphorically is referred to as the "patriarchy", culture as re-presentation of a creative past that is absorbed and imitated by a youth as a step towards independence through identification with a group collectively holding a larger field of experience. For many maturity ebbs here at near total identification with a subset of their culture.

 
Ryerson University, Student Protest - courtesy of Jonathan Castellino

Collectivist theories which posited that group identity (with the state or one's economic class) constitutes the individual, played out politically in the 20th century. Derivative theories continue to dominate the Humanities departments of academia today, claiming what we call the mature individual is the outcome of a process determined by identification with a matrix of a person's race, class, political ideology, sexual orientation etc. However, Peterson stakes out and articulates an earlier and contrary position, that the mature individual is not an outcome but is what constitutes the society. It is a hopeful claim because it implies that change at the level of the individual can change the world. What he describes is transcendence of identification with the known by identifying instead with very process of continual incorporation of the unknown. For example, who could we become if we pursued the highest ideal that we could envision? What might the world look like if each and every one of us embraced as much responsibility as we could muster and fulfilled our potential?


Archetypes and the Mythical Perspective

When you look up "myth" in your average dictionary you're likely to see a definition such as "a belief, idea or story that isn't true." I wonder who the hell writes these definitions. Did they entirely miss their childhood? Of course myths are not an historically accurate chronicling of events as they objectively happened. If so, we certainly wouldn't be interested in them. Yet, unless you have a rationalised preconceived bias against them, myths remain undeniably appealing.

During the 18th and 19th century, as myths from around the world were being documented, scholars began to notice common narratives. At first this was reasonably theorised to be the result of unrecorded contacts between such ancient peoples. However, evidence continued to amass that origin, flood and other archetypal stories had underwent parallel developments in isolation. Superficial details aside, there was a marked correlation of themes that have led some thinkers to postulate the mythical as a distinct mode of knowing the world.

Chaos

The Ouboros
In the beginning there was chaos, the void, undifferentiation, an abyss akin to the water pitched in deep darkness.Yet, chaos is never described as nothing, rather the personification of the unknown which holds the same significance to us today: it could be anything. A most widespread symbol the precosmogonical chaos is a dragon, particularly the ouboros who eats his own tail, forming a circle.


The Great Mother

Kali
Mother of Death
Nature. Realm of the unknown. The Id, the unconscious from which hidden motivation billow forth. Peruse the worlds traditions as you like, you'll never here the expressions "father nature" or "father earth." The bringing forth of new life and all that nurtures and sustains existing life is the domain of the Nurturing Mother. Her womb is the very earth. Her creative works occur in darkness. Her generative forces a sacred mystery. Yet, her domain is also that of the Devouring Mother. She is both the drought and the flood, the famine, the plague. She is the ultimate force of destruction that each and every life will eventually be consumed by.

 The Great Father

Social Order. Realm of past captured knowledge, retained and represented in culture. The Protective Father is a symbolic wall. He is the sky, light and the domain of knowledge, understanding and the accumulation of wisdom. However, the security and order he provides can stifle and oppress. The Tyrannical Father is old and blind. He limits human potential and blocks the maturity of the individual who would venture into the unknown and expand the domain of knowledge.

The Hostile Brothers

Cain and Abel

Pietro Novelli
Hero and Adversary. Abel and Cain. The brothers are the aspect of myth that gets personal, what path will you choose as an individual?

The Hero absorbs his culture completely, recognises its insufficiency and explores the unknown so as to update and redeem it. The Adversary shrinks from the unknown, either totally identifying with the current social order or denying the very possibility of meaning itself. Often the adversary adopts ideologies, still compelling as partial but incomplete mythical narratives but too impoverished to fulfill human potential or sufficiently adapt to a dynamic reality.

Former prisoner of the Soviet Gulag Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

Alchemy, Demystification of the Mystics

The book concludes with a discussion of medieval alchemy, a mode of being that shared many characteristics of the mythical and whose development paved the way for an empirically based natural science. Alchemical matter defined its elements as information contained not in subject or object, rather at the nexus of meaning, the transaction point between them. Classification of phenomena (objective or psychic) was based on a representation of how one ought to act in its presence. Such behaviour was conditional, subject to change upon additional information garnered from experience.

One of alchemy's most important axioms was that subject and object both have the same ontological status, they're both "real". If you perfect yourself you can perfect the world. This generated an imperative to identify with and act out the redeemer, rather than worshiping the former act of redemption itself. There is much more to be said about alchemy, archetypes, and experiencing life by paying attention to our motivations. Jordan Peterson does an admirable job in this book of laying out a map of where the individual can embark on the path of a life rich with meaning.


Contributed by Patrick Webb 



Thursday, January 4, 2018

From Dust We Come: A Look at Clay

 
Courtesy of American Clay
Originally posted February 2017 on Traditional Building Magazine Online

Clay was undoubtedly the first binder discovered and used to make plasters and earthen, clay-based
construction is our oldest continuous building tradition. Clay is superabundant and clay-based products such as roof tiles, pottery and bricks are benefits of clay technology that we almost take for granted. The topsoil in your backyard is likely a mix of organic matter, sand and clay. Having clayey soils is vitally important for most kinds of agriculture. Because of this there is hardly a habitable region of the planet that doesn’t have large, easily accessible clay deposits suitable for construction.

What is perhaps less widely known is where clays originate. Clays form from millions of years of mineral erosion. Mountains break down into boulders, boulders into rocks, rocks into pebbles, sand, silt and eventually, when the silt reaches a certain size of fineness, an amazing transformation occurs. Instead of just being a loose mix, the fine particles manifest an attraction for water and each other at a molecular level. Clay can be thought of less as a material and more of a behavior, the phenomenon of very finely eroded minerals to agglomerate.

Chemistry

Clays can and do form from a wide variety of minerals. The mineral sources most interesting as raw material for plaster are from the silicon dioxide family, examples include granite or feldspar. Fortunately for us these minerals make up more than 60% of the earth’s crust, explaining clay’s wide availability, practically an unlimited resource! When eroded, granites and feldspars form hydrous aluminum silicates having a simplified chemical notation: AlO•2SiO•2HO. This notation helps us to identify the alumina, silica and water components; however, this is not just a mixture. Instead, at a molecular level clay reorganizes itself into a platelet arrangement better described with a formula such as AlSiO(OH).

Manufacture

To convert naturally occurring clay into a binder for plaster requires minimal processing. In many areas clay can be found just a few feet under the topsoil. Manufacture often is simply a matter of harvesting. It is one of the few plasters you can easily and inexpensively make yourself! If your underlying soil has 20% or more clay content it is quite likely a very good candidate for use as a plaster binder. Even if the percentage of clay in the soil is low or has a relatively high silt content usually it can be easily amended with a suitable local soil rich in clay. There are simple, inexpensive tests that yield trustworthy results for determining if a given clay is suitable for plaster or construction more generally.

Clay has many practical uses in many industries including pottery, masonry supply as well as fields related to civil engineering. As a result, clays that have already been tested, dried, sifted, amended if necessary, are readily available for purchase as an inexpensive raw material. Industrial manufacturers of processed clays typically take advantage of the sun in the drying process, resulting in a significantly lower embodied energy and cost than most other construction materials.

Properties & Specifications

One of the most unique characteristics of clay that distinguishes it from other binders such as gypsum or lime is that it has a mechanical set, that is to say it undergoes no chemical change from a wet to a dry plaster. Rather, it simply dries out. The aforementioned platelet structure makes the clay very plastic and workable when wet, just what is needed for a good plaster. However, as the water evaporates from the plaster it becomes rigid. A major and unique benefit of having a mechanical set is that if damaged, clay plasters can be rehydrated and reworked.

Because so much water evaporates out of clay plasters, precautions have to be taken to ensure that the plaster is not overly friable, in other words loose and weakened because of voids. Base coats are typically loaded with aggregates and fibers such as straw to prevent shrinkage. Finish coats will receive a hardening consolidation of the surface by rehydrating slightly and compressing with a trowel.

Clay plasters contribute to a very healthy indoor air quality. As clay has a high degree of permeability it helps to regulate humidity in the air. At as low as 50% relative humidity clay plasters will act as a reservoir, adsorbing excess humidity out of the air and releasing it later as humidity levels in the air diminish. A few years ago I plastered my bathroom with a clay plaster. In winter it was great to take a long, hot shower coming out immediately to shave, the walls adsorbing all of the excess humidity before it could condense on the mirror.

Rammed earth, Root Down Designs; image courtesy of David Quick

In exterior, earthen plasters have been the most traditional building material around the world and throughout history. Wattle & daub refers to earthen plaster applied over interwoven reed laths, a typical infill for traditional timber framing. Adobe bricks are sun baked clay-based plaster molded masonry units that in turn receive an earthen plaster finish. Cob is similar to adobe; however, damp lumps are unmolded and hand applied. Rammed earth, as the name implies, compresses earthen plaster between forms. Clay plaster’s greatest vulnerability in exterior is erosion which can be accounted for in a building design that includes extended eaves or other means of preventing water from streaming on the façade.

Traditional Adobe Santa Fe, NM

In arid climates having a diurnal cycle of warm sunny days and cool nights, the thickness of earthen construction can be managed to take advantage of its thermal mass. Earthen buildings can slowly absorb the radiant heat of the day, releasing it in the interior of the building during the night. In more humid climates the thickness of the walls can be increased even further creating a highly insulative wall assembly. Earthen wall assemblies combined with smart building placement, natural shading and ventilation can create comfortable living conditions that negate or diminish reliance on mechanical systems, a traditional construction solution that is both economical and ecological.

In our next essay, we’ll delve into gypsum, a plaster binder whose properties are nothing short of magical.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Awakened Craftsman


Prometheus Creating Man in Clay
The cultural inheritance that remains to us today of Western civilisation is the culmination of a millennia long process of integration of predominantly Classical, Judaic, and later Christian traditions. All three traditions share a view of the transcendent, the highest ideal likewise as being the omniscient source of knowledge and Creator of man. This is perhaps most strongly expressed in the Judaic tradition where God is metaphorically addressed as Master Craftsman: "And now, O Lord (יְהֹוָ֖ה; Yahweh), You are our father; we are the clay, and You are our potter, and all of us are Your handiwork" - Isaiah 64:7 Tanakh.

The idea of man as crafted in the Great Potter's image has certainly instantiated itself deeply in Western culture. Like the dear Lord himself this image of ourselves "doth giveth and doth taketh away." An example of one of the gifts might be the Western legal system that grants due process and a presumption of innocence until proven guilt on the basis that the individual, as an artifact of the divine, has intrinsic value and inalienable rights. Even most of those who have rejected the inherited view of God maintain this positive view of individual worth. However, whereas man was said to be crafted in the image of the divine, nothing else in nature was so claimed. So we in the West have likewise been bequeathed a sense of separateness from nature and, being artifacts, an alienation from the divine source.

For the most part human beings lack qualities typically attributed to God, notably omniscience or omnipotence. Nevertheless, there is one capacity that does appear to clearly distinguish us from at least the rest of nature: self-consciousness. Each of us to a greater or lesser degree is awake.

The Waking State


Certainly, if nothing else human beings are uniquely conscious of their mortality to an often painful degree. However, I find it interesting that the purported source of light and wisdom, the indefatigable divinity awake like no other, is expressed repeatedly in Western culture as a master craftsman, essentially a sculptor. Perhaps this can be taken as an encouragement to pass our waking hours in more noble pursuits than anxious preoccupation over our inevitable demise.

There are several levels of consciousness, of becoming awake that human beings can realise. Such levels of conscious awareness have been described in religious traditions as knowledge, understanding and wisdom existing alongside the philosophical and secular analog of perception, apprehension and comprehension. Knowledge and perception are at the very edge of awareness and are associated with youth, the initial collection of 'facts' or experiences. Knowledge acquisition continues naturally but with more time and experience there is the possibility of conscious growth towards understanding, the apprehending or grasping of meaning emanating from the disparate pieces of knowledge acquired. After further acquiring knowledge and drawing understanding, it becomes possible, though not inevitable, through incredible struggle to collate experience and meaning, to privilege relevant material and establish  holistic connections. To truly comprehend is the mark of wisdom, a meta-understanding of the processes that generate meaning.

It is interesting to follow the traditional path of an apprentice to master craftsman as a great awakening.

The Apprentice

An apprentice within a traditional atelier is much like a very young child. Just as an infant is wholly dependent upon and completely identifies with the mother so the apprentice finds himself in a similar situation; he is in the realm of the unknown, everything encountered represents hope and anxiety, promise of success or threat of failure. So the young apprentice must rely completely on the Master and takes the conveyance of tradition as gospel truth. He is essentially possessed by the spirit of the Master, all his efforts are directed towards imitation until sufficient experience is achieved, enough knowledge acquired that more responsibility can be taken and a measure of freedom given.

What the apprentice represents to the Master is potential. As is the case of a mother with her beloved child, potential is to be worshiped. So it is that nothing less than the best of himself, his revealed wisdom that the Master metaphorically places upon the altar in sacrifice for his foster child.

Courtesy of Finch Woodworks

The Journeyman

To become a journeyman is to hold and share an identity, to join a brotherhood. A journeyman knows the means and methods, the tools and the medium; he knows what to do and why. He has submitted to discipline; his craft is a ritual, a reenacted drama pregnant with meaning and value to himself and others. He's embodied all the lessons the Master had to teach and is exactly what the culture expects from him. As such he is welcome in any workshop where there is work to be done.

This represents a significant step in his development as a craftsman obviously but more importantly towards maturity as an individual. However, more is expected. As the name implied he is encouraged to journey, to serve under a number of masters. There is good reason for this. Exposure to a single approach to creative problems can deaden the mind into an inflexible, lethargic state. Many masters stimulates capacity for invention, provides exposure to various methods for approaching a given task. A journeyman will be of even more value to his culture if he continues to adapt, a lesson best learnt early.

The Master

What does it mean to be a Master?

The very word has become acid in the ears of modern man. Mastery is represented as an old, feeble, and conservative elder clinging with gnarled hands to the tired traditions of an exhausted past. While the world hurtles apace in the name and glory of progress (towards what end we're never sure), Mastery it is claimed can't hope to keep up so it responds by dragging the world down through oppression, domination and authoritarianism, an avatar of power that is the embodied enemy of liberty and freedom.

So modern man's response has been to idolise the stars of his own collective whim. A churning chaos of fickle popularity, a continuous upheaval of perpetual novelty instinctively abandoned at the first sign of maturation. There is no longer allowance for a social hierarchy based on competence neither the acknowledgement for competence of the individual. Freedom from being subject to or developing judgement and discernment dissolves the blossoming individual subsumed by arbitrary assignment of some group identity; a rejection of the very process of maturation impoverishing a society that slumbers on till midday like a middle school adolescent.

What is no longer well understood is that the Master craftsman was never master over his apprentice or any person, rather he was the master of the very process of growth itself. Long prior to mastery he himself had submitted to a discipline, he had thoroughly absorbed his culture; only with such hard won wisdom inherited or discernment newly acquired does he transform into the steward of tradition. Rather than identifying with his craft, something already pertaining to the past, the master identifies with the process that generates craft. This process is tradition, literally the "giving across the threshold."

Sculptor Alexander Stoddart

Masters may embrace responsibility for tradition in numerous ways. Below are three typical examples.

By establishing a workshop (business in modern parlance) they address practical concerns providing an environment for apprentices to mature and journeymen to practise, providing the community of which they are a member valuable service.

As previously discussed the Master is intimately involved as a teacher in the development of both apprentices and journeymen. This is an additional burden and sacrifice. To be able to clearly articulate craft in guided verbal instruction and demonstration far exceeds the level of competence required of practise alone.

Perhaps the most noble pursuit of mastery is to conceive, to give birth metaphorically, to bear, to take on voluntarily. Both the physical world and human culture are dynamic, ever changing. Past knowledge is always insufficient. Masters take on the responsibility of expanding the domain of knowledge and understanding of their craft. Sometimes this entails adaptation to changed circumstances by reevaluating means and methods. However, often the boundaries to be crossed and explored are artistic.

While we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent; nevertheless, each and every one of us have the gifts to acquire knowledge and exercise power. What the Master Craftsman represents is a time tested, verified path of transforming human potential into individual actuality. In essence, the light we could become if we would articulate the highest ideal we can conceive, disciplining and orienting the very best within us to that end. Awaken yourself, awaken the world.



Contributed by Patrick Webb





Sunday, December 31, 2017

Architectural Word of the Day; 231 - 240


INTERSECTING ARCADE


A series of intersecting arches, crossing on the same plane, resting on alternating column supports.




 









INTERLACING ARCADE

A series of arches resting on the same plane but that visually appear to overlap. Both interlacing and intersecting arches are a common decorative feature of Norman Romanesque architecture.










BARTIZAN

The projecting turrets of a fortification placed at the corners and near entrances, with machiolations and meurtrières for defensive purposes.



VASTUPURUSAMANDALA

A combined Sanskrit expression to describe the architecture of the ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Jain temple complex. VASTU denotes the 'physical site', including placement and orientation. PURUSA refers to the 'spirit, soul or essence' of the place. MANDALA embodies the 'form' manifesting the concepts of the 'circle, unity and the universe' enclosed by the square plan.



TROMPE

A truncated vault utilized in lieu of brackets or corbels as a support structure for a projecting architectural feature, permitting a change of vertical plane.












SIKHARA

Sanskrit for "mountain peak", the great tower of the Hindu temple complex, typically having a convex taper towards the crowning great stone disc or AMALAKA, inspired by the shape of a local fig variety and symbolic of the sun and the heavenly realm.












SQUINCH

An alternative to the pendentive, the conical or arcuated corbelling placed in the corners of a square plan to support the cylindrical or octagonal drum above, whilst at the same time resolving the smaller drum to the walls or piers below.



CASTRUM DOLORIS

Latin for the "Castle of Grief", a memorial structure raised to offer a measure of protection from the elements of the CATAFALQUE or raised bier of the deceased.




Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture


Originally posted September 2017 on the TradArch blog
Contributed by Patrick Webb   


Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture
by Robert Venturi


Of course complexity and contradiction but also: ambiguity, paradox, incongruity, exclusion, vestigial, both-and, discord, brokenness, irony, distortion, unresoluition, chaos, inconsistency, superadjacency, superimposition, perversion, hyperproximity, contrast, juxtaposition, tension and violence, violence, violence...how Venturi revels in violence.

In 1966 Postmodernism escapes the bounds of continental philosophy and literary criticism making its grand splash in architecture with the publication of this book, the broadly acknowledged gospel of architectural Postmodernism*. Since its publication three generations of architects have been indoctrinated in it. Therefore, if you wish to understand why the architectural and planning professions dysfunction as they do today, then this is a seminal text you are obliged to consider.

A Critique of Orthodox Modernism

That is to say a critique of the International Style as exemplified by Bauhaus icons Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Perhaps the writing was already on the wall for the International Style. Regardless, Venturi's polemical critique was effective; he was great at smashing things.

The first two chapters are actually quite coherent. Venturi quotes and acknowledges inspiration from the author T.S. Eliot who spoke of drawing tradition from more than just the immediate preceding generation, rather the whole of Western civilisation. Setting the stage honestly, Venturi confesses his personal attraction for complexity and contradiction and highlights the eras of Western civilisation that exemplify this best in architecture: Mannerism, the Baroque and Rococo.

Next he delivers Orthodox Modernism an initial blow: “Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture...Orthodox Modern architects have tended to recognize complexity insufficiently or inconsistently. In their attempt to break with tradition and start all over again, they idealized the primitive and elementary at the expense of the diverse and the sophisticated. As participants in a revolutionary movement, they acclaimed the newness of modern functions, ignoring their complications. In their role as reformers, they puritanically advocated the separation and exclusion of elements, rather than the inclusion of various requirements."

Then Venturi follows up with another condemnation that lays the International Style to the mat: "The doctrine 'less is more'  bemoans complexity and justifies exclusion for expressive purposes...here the building becomes a diagram of an oversimplified program for living-an abstract theory of  either-or. Where simplicity  cannot work, simpleness results.  Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore." Orthodox Modernism was condemned as simple, bland and boring with a clear implication: Modernism wasn't "modern" anymore. Readers, including a generation of young, frustrated architecture students were hooked. What was Venturi going to lay out next? Where was he taking them? Where was the future of architecture headed?

Complexity and Contradiction in Writing about Architecture

Rauschenberg, Pilgrim 1960
Chapter three, entitled "Ambiguity", is aptly named and self descriptive. Venturi seeks the "discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect" typified by the Abstract Expressionism of the avant-garde of the art world who had already effectively mastered the principle of unresolved tension, paradox and contradiction, directing their dramatic genius towards chaos. Here and elsewhere there are echoes of the dialectic process as described by Hegel or Kierkegaard where opposites are brought into dualistic conflict, synthesising a new, if relative, truth that in turn finds itself in renewed opposition and so ad infinitum. The anticipated long term effects to the actual psyche of the human beings who find themselves living inside the architectural expression of ambiguity itself is never mentioned.

Next he purports to say something of incredible profundity: "Architecture is form and substance - abstract and concrete." No kidding. When have you ever experienced 'formless stuff' or 'immaterial form'? That matter and form are of a piece, that they always go together, that we're really describing one thing is hardly revolutionary and is certainly not a paradox. The only complex thing about it being the way it's presented in this chapter. In any case, it is the last mention Venturi has of  the material. We're off to the world of contradictory ideas, all form and programme from here on out.

By chapter four the nonsense machine is in top gear: "Contradictory levels of meaning and use in architecture involve the paradoxical contrast implied by the conjunction "yet." They may be more or less ambiguous...this series of conjunctive "yets" describes an architecture of contradiction at varying levels of program and structure. None of these ordered contradictions represents a search for beauty, but neither as paradoxes, are they caprice." WTF is that supposed to mean? Who knows but prepare yourself for six more chapters of dense Postmodern theory-laden jargon whilst fetishising over every anomaly and freak work of Classical architecture as approbation of his ideas. In rare lucid moments, Venturi pulls back slightly, acknowledging that a certain balance (rather than tension) might be warranted between order and chaos but always goes on to reassert and justify his bias for tension, chaos and violence. The book concludes with a chapter of embarrassingly crude and just awful projects by the author, mostly in foamboard.

image 330. Town Hall, Ohio

Classicism's False Friend

A fair number of my professional colleagues would classify themselves as either Classicists or practitioners of Traditional Architecture. Academically, almost all of them received an university education rooted in architectural Postmodernism, with Venturi as required reading. Many have expressed appreciation for the freedom that Venturi's polemic brought about from the hegemony of Orthodox Modernism and the permission it granted to reconsider traditional forms. I would concede there is a measure of truth to that. However, they often assert that architectural Postmodernism is quite a different thing than philosophical Postmodernism, nomenclature is about as much as they share in common; "PoMo" being nothing more than a style getting off to a slow start in the 60's with Venturi, seeing its nadir in the mid to late 80's. Perfectly harmless. That would be a mistake.

To illustrate a few fundamental contrasts between the Enlightment or Classicist philosophical world view with those generally held in Postmodernism:

The Metaphysics of Classicism is one of form imposed upon matter producing something real, tangible that points to the transcendental. Postmodernism denies a knowable reality, eschews the importance if not the very existence of material, privileging abstracted form and concept.

The Epistemology of Classicism considers experience of and reasoning upon an objective reality, one in which complexity is resolved through hierarchy, order, harmony and balance. By contrast, Postmodernism views reality only through relative, subjective frames. Complexity is purposefully left unresolved, tension exacerbated by violent contrast and juxtaposition reflects the world as it really is, a dynamic battleground.

The Ethics of Classicism are humanistic. The individual is not fully determined, has at least limited autonomy and can be held responsible for his actions. The civic realm ought to physically express a forum for rational discourse amongst individual members who constitute the society. Postmodernism denies individual autonomy as illusory. The individual being a socially constructed product determined, subsumed and constituted by his culture. As such there can be no basis for a shared understanding between conflicting and contradicting ideologies outside one's own identity group, no shared values. "Meaning" is absurd in any literal sense, only to be understood as something arbitrary imposed by the will of those wielding power.

Unlike many of my colleagues I do not see Postmodernism as a passé style, as having been a mere surface phenomena. This is a philosophical movement deeply entrenched in the humanities, schools of fine arts and architecture in academia. It is shaping a generation and needs to be understood. The current, 21st century movements in architecture such as Deconstructivism, Blobism, Parametricism etc. all decry material as nothing more than a means to a conceptual statement, all promote visual and experiential tension and unresolved contradiction, all revel in absurdity and refuse to participate in a shared civic order yet are shaping our built environment. Postmodernism is alive and well in architecture and in fact dominates contemporary architectural education and practise. Furthermore, I would assert that Postmodernism is fundamentally incompatible, in fact being the result of two centuries of departure and in most cases opposition to the Enlightenment. It is a grievous error to think of Postmodernism as an appropriate foundation for the recovery of Classicism.


*A note of clarification regarding the terms 'Modern' and 'Postmodern'. In philosophy 'Modern' refers to the body of thought and intellectual culture leading up to and including the Enlightenment. This was resisted by a Counter-Enlightenment that took hold principally in the Germanic countries during the 19th century. Marxism was one of the last intellectual movements of the Counter-Enlightenment. The 'Postmodern' represents the intellectual ideas that came to prominence during the 20th century that incorporated many of the fundamental tenets of the Counter-Enlightenment and Marxism.

In architecture, 'Modernism' stands in opposition to 'Modern', that is to say Enlightenment inspired design as principally expressed in the Classical. Architecturally, both 'Modernism' and 'Postmoderism' materially express Marxist and Postmodern intellectual culture.


Contributed by Patrick Webb