Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Lamp of Power

Mont Blanc, Switzerland
How do you personally describe the sense of awe experienced at the base of a high mountain, in the midst of a raging downpour or even seated in the lofty nave of a towering cathedral? Such experiences make us deeply aware of our smallness, profoundly feel our mortality, perhaps even go so far as to intimidate us to a degree. Yet our souls are touched, we are excited even if at the same moment somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. How best to describe this quality engendering so much awe inspired emotion in us? Western philosophers began considering this question at the close of the 17th century and the debate continues into our time. In the 19th century, naturalist John Ruskin too pondered this question and singled out “Power” as the most fitting description of this quality, specifically as related to architecture.

John Ruskin was a stalwart promoter of beauty in human activity considering it the preeminent order of building in particular. Nevertheless, in this essay he acknowledges that there is a second order of building that likewise pleasurably impresses us yet in a completely distinct manner. Whereas beauty in architecture seeks to emulate that which is delicate and precious, power in architecture imposes the severe, the majestic. Beauty gathers and reflects the fairness of nature, whilst power governs and depends for its dignity on the order inherent in the human mind. The former asks for veneration, the latter exercises dominion. Ruskin observed that these virtues of beauty and power were polar opposites; it was impossible to amplify one without diminishing the other. The conclusion reached that it would be best first to choose decidedly one of these virtues in harmony with the purpose of the building to be constructed. Ruskin next goes on to highlight the four principal ways a given work of architecture might manifest its power.

Beauvais Cathedral
13th Century
This may appear so obvious as to not merit more than the briefest of mention. Of course, making a building taller or more massive will likely increase its sense of power. However, there is a greater sophistication involved. A building is nothing in comparison to a mountain, for example. Yet some buildings despite their comparatively smaller size are able to engender a similar sense of awe in us. Often in design, we may be limited in greatly enlarging the physical size of a building; nevertheless, how we treat its visible surfaces can greatly enhance their impression upon us. Ruskin provides an excellent example, “There are few rocks, even among the Alps, that have a clear vertical fall as high as the choir of Beauvais; and if we secure a good precipice of wall, or a sheer and unbroken flank of tower, and place them where there are no enormous natural features to oppose them, we shall feel in them no want of sublimity of size.” I can personally attest, Beauvais Cathedral is very successful in making you feel every bit of that height.

Ruskin gives a further admonition for ensuring the power of a building, “determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime...if he chooses size, let him abandon decoration; for, unless they are concentrated, and numerous enough to make their concentration conspicuous, all his ornaments together will not be worth one huge stone.” Ruskin presents St. Peter's basilica as an example where several aspects of its design undermine its potential power. For instance, the arrangement of the façade conveys the appearance of a two story building with an attic. Together with its conspicuous horizontal entablature and pediment this appearance serves to detract from the actually quite significant height of the building. Furthermore, Ruskin points out that the folly, commonplace to Renaissance cathedral architecture, was to place a dome, spire, lantern or some other prominent feature over the crossing of the nave and transept, in the middle of the building where it was least visible. This is poignantly true of St. Peter's, unquestionably one of the greatest domes ever constructed is unable to be appreciated in its full majesty, its view largely consumed by the façade.

St. Peter's Basilica, 16th century

Palazzo Vecchio 14th century
The Palazzo Vecchio was the seat of power for generations of ruling Florentine nobility, including the powerful Medici family.The Palazzo does not struggle to embody the concept of power. Everything about the building conveys strength: the sheer face, the imposing entablature, the crenelations, the heavy rustication of the masonry the placement of its tower flush with the façade. Not withstanding the latter Ruskin noted the form of the Palazzo Vecchio as an oft overlooked, yet noteworthy source of its power. He writes, “the square and the circle are pre-eminently the areas of power among those bounded by purely straight or curved lines; and these, with their relative solids, the cube and sphere, and relative solids of progression...the square and cylindrical column, are the elements of utmost power in all architectural arrangements.” The shape or form of the Palazzo Vecchio, approaching near cubic proportions, does not require it to be significantly larger in size than its neighboring buildings to eclipse them in power.

Until now we've considered power at the scale of the building. However, this virtue can also be exhibited (or neglected) in the details, the elements.  St. Madeleine in Paris is a fine example of powerful architecture in respects to treatment of size and form. Nevertheless, its power is severely compromised by the construction of the shafts of its columns. Traditionally such shafts would be constructed wholly or in a few large drums. Ruskin likens the hundreds of stacked discs to “vertebrae...which suggest ideas of poverty in material, or deficiency in mechanical resource, besides interfering with the lines of the design”. The resulting visible joints crossing the flutes creates the unfortunate effect of a garden trellis.

L'église de la Madeleine, consecrated 1842

By contrast, the relative weight of a material can imbue sublimity to an otherwise modest, humble abode. Ruskin noted that many of the thatched stone cottages encountered in Wales and Scotland accomplished this by using just a few courses of large stones to reach the roof line. Similar to the previous example, the noble effect would undoubtedly be lost were many courses of a standard brick to be used instead.

Thatched cottage, Scotland


Palazzo Ducale, Venezia 15th century
One of the first things I share with my students regarding moulding theory is that the practical concerns regarding mouldings in exterior are quickly attended to with a calculated projection and a few right angled fillets to serve as drip edges. The cymas, ovolos, fascias and other possible shapes are not important design elements in and of themselves, rather the visible component derives from the shadows that they cast. Ruskin offers similar advice to the aspiring architect, “the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of it shadow...among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of think(ing) in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it; when its stones will be hot, and its crannies cool; when the lizards bask in the one, and the birds build in the other.” A fine example he provides is of the Doge's Palace in Venice. The quatrefoils of the piano nobile are thick, unornamented, sharply cut and cusped resulting in powerful contrasts and lines of shadow.

Corinthian Capital Temple of Olympian Zeus
2nd century
The column capitals of the Palace likewise furnish some instructive examples. Ruskin draws the following interesting comparison, “while the arrangements of line are far more artful in the Greek capital, the Byzantine light and shade are as incontestibly more grand and masculine based on that quality of pure gradation, which nearly all natural objects possess”. This is not to say that one was generally superior to the other, merely on the question of power by virtue of their respective treatment of shadow. In an almost confession Ruskin continues, “I know that they are barbaric in comparison; but there is a power in their barbarism of sterner tone, not sophistic nor penetrative, but embracing and mysterious; a power faithful more than thoughtful”. I too must confess, I have seen, drawn, made many a capital yet none have enthralled me like those of the Piazza San Marco. There is something truly spiritual about them, beyond the ability to rationalize, just to be enjoyed.

Palazzo Ducale

Over the next few posts I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Beauty

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Plaster as an Architectural Specification

From its origin as a British colony the United States inherited a fully developed plaster tradition that would
East Room, White House
circa 1951

expand considerably from the mid-19
th century until the 1940s. The fine craftsmanship can still be enjoyed in public settings such as period railway stations, banks, courthouses and capitals across the nation. Many fine plaster ceilings enduringly grace private residences in historic neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights and Peninsular Charleston.

However, in the decades following World War II plaster ceased being specified and plastering rapidly diminished as a trade. What happened? Two distinct movements figured prominently: the ascendency of architectural Modernism and cheap, industrialized residential construction.

Pre-fabricated home. Levittown, PA
circa 1951

Modernist architectural programs were no longer teaching the traditional language of ornament. By contrast, students were learning that ornament was born of a superstitious and deceitful past, craft was a criminal enterprise injurious to the human spirit and that industry and technology were to be embraced as the basis for a new, purer aesthetic. At the same time, prefabricated temporary housing developed for the military during the war was being modified by developers for residential use. Factory produced construction systems were designed to be assembled by unskilled, replaceable laborers. Part of the package was to replace traditional plastering with nascent “dry” wall systems. By the 1980s there were practically no traditional plaster apprenticeship programs, little opportunity for training, by all appearances the trade had died.

Grand Central Station, NYC
With the destruction of New York's Penn Station in 1963 and the proposed destruction of Grand Central Station in the 1970s, an architectural consciousness began to arise among the public at large, a widespread awareness of how much of value from our traditions was being lost. This coalesced both into an historical preservation movement and a renewed interest in traditional architectural design. By the 1990s plaster was being once again, if cautiously, specified in new construction. For several generations of architects plaster has become somewhat of a mystery not understood or taught by architectural programs. Many architects would like to specify plaster, yet being unfamiliar with the medium are concerned with exposing themselves to risk or appearing irresponsible with their client's budget. Let's see if we can't ease that trepidation by considering some of plaster's strengths and its most practical, effective uses in contemporary architectural specification.

Traditional Plastering

Gypsum drywall has largely displaced traditional plastering for interior walls and ceilings. Many homeowners are surprised to discover that the vast majority of the gypsum used for drywall is the waste byproduct of coal-fired power plants pollution control systems. This is in contrast to gypsum, lime and other plaster binder materials that are mined from naturally occurring deposits. I would like to highlight a few specifications where traditional plasters should be considered as a practical alternative to drywall:
  1. Monolithic substrates
  2. Curvilinear surfaces
  3. High durability
Plaster applied directly to
straw bale
Monolithic substrates (as opposed to cavity wall systems) are solid substrates, common examples being brick masonry, cast concrete or CMU blocks. The maturing natural building market also typically use monolithic substrates such as straw bale, adobe and compressed earth blocks, cob, rammed earth, hemp lime, etc. Exterior plaster or “stucco” will invariably be a practical solution in the exterior. However, interior plaster applied directly to the substrate is likewise a practical alternative to furring strips and drywall. With a carefully selected binder (clay, gypsum, lime, hydraulic lime or cement) a plaster can be formulated that closely matches the thermal, expansive, permeability and other characteristics of the substrate resulting in a far superior surface that is completely integrated into the substrate.

Running a barrel vault in place
courtesy of Sloan Houser
Curvilinear surfaces which may include walls but are often horizontal ceiling surface such as domes, vaults
and the underside of staircases are a logical consideration for plaster specification. I've been on many projects where vaults are painstakingly framed out with what is commonly called “ship hull framing” to receive multiple layers of ¼” drywall that has to be cut into small strips, soaked and scored in the back to adjust to the curvature. This is completely unnecessary and an inferior construction to traditional plaster over lath, requiring only nominal framing.

Courtesy of Louvre Museum
and Plâtres Vieujot
High impact and abrasion resistance may not be expectations of walls surfaces for a residential home; however, for commercial and institutional specifications of hotels, museums, shopping centers, universities, airports and similar settings, long term durability and low maintenance are concerns to balance against initial cost. Gypsum, lime and cement plasters are often prudent investments that can also provide a pleasing aesthetic.

Cast Mouldings and Ornament

As the millwork industry became increasingly sophisticated, soft “paint grade” woods such as pine and poplar began to displace plaster as the economic plain moulding specification. The integration of ornament enrichment into mouldings slowed this transition until ornament itself was largely stripped from architectural design in the mid-20th century. Nevertheless, there are many strong arguments for specifying plaster mouldings with the following specifications often being competitive or less expensive.
  1. Medium to large curvilinear profiles
  2. Non-radial curvilinear profiles
  3. Large, complex crown mouldings
  4. Curvilinear oriented mouldings
  5. Ornament
  6. Low maintenance
Image courtesy of
Palladio Mouldings
Straight mouldings can be produced just fine in plaster but it excels like no other medium in being able to contour to curvilinear shapes. I say curvilinear as opposed to radial because plaster is not constrained physically or economically to arcs of circles but can readily accommodate ellipses, hyperbolae, or free formed curves. The process helps to explain this property. The first step in creating a plaster moulding is hand-cutting a reverse metal profile from a template. The profile is mounted on a jig and the plaster is built up in successive layers on a table or ramp. For plaster it matters very little if the profile is large or small, very complex or composed of non-radial curvilinear elements. In fact, the moulding itself can be curvilinear such as vertically for architraves surrounding arches, or horizontally as for moulding applied against a curvilinear surface or even complex helix shapes as sometimes encountered in the stringers of descending staircases.
Students learn to sculpt, cast and apply
plaster ornament at the
American College of the Building Arts
With a return to interest in traditional architecture there has been a corresponding interest in ornamentation. As with plaster moulding profiles, the work of plaster ornamentation is by hand so there are no mechanical constraints. Often much time is invested in a single model of high quality from which a mould is produced. Plaster is an inexpensive material and multiple casts can be easily and economically produced. The more detailed the enrichment and the more units produced the more value can be attained with ornamentation.

Particularly when large or ornate mouldings are specified I have found clients concerned about maintenance becoming an issue. The coefficient of expansion of soft woods is relatively high with changes of temperature and especially humidity. This is exacerbated by the reality that wood mouldings are typically affixed mechanically against drywall or plaster materials that have a very low coefficient of expansion. The wood moulding moves, the wall does not and cracks develop quickly between the disparate materials that are either addressed with caulk or lived with. Alternatively, plaster mouldings are affixed with plaster to a plaster (or drywall) substrate. The result is a monolithic system, the bond is so strong that the mouldings literally become a part of the wall. Most plasterers will guarantee that aside from structural movement their work will not crack, ever.

This article is a brief summary of a subject that can become very specific for a given project. As a technical consultant for plaster materials and application, I provide services to architects helping them properly specify plaster and plaster systems. I also work with plaster contractors providing training and onsite consultation services as needed.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Defense of Craft

Traditional Timber Framing
courtesy of
American College of the Building Arts
Food, clothes and shelter. That's where it all started for us, as a species that is. Humans are otherwise fairly fragile creatures but with our ability to procure such basics needs we were able to not only survive but prosper. We got pretty good at it too and fast! Rapid developments in agriculture, husbandry, textiles and building laid the grounds for what we today call civilization.

Mere survival was good and fine but ultimately not all that satisfying. So we started cooking, mixing and flavoring our food and culinary traditions were born satisfying our senses of smell and taste. We weaved colorful, intricate patterns into our garments from the softest wool and the finest linen and a textile tradition was born satisfying our tactile and visual senses. And finally we began building shelters for families that we called homes and ornamented them with forms literal and iconic and we finally arrived to a place at once personal, secure and restful. I have no doubt it was good to be home.

I suppose I could go on about music, ritual, love and a dozen other human needs; however, I guess my contention is that nothing has really changed. We have not evolved in the past 200 years or the past 20,000. You and I today have those same human needs we've always had. I'm going to focus my attention on craft as applied to shelter not because it has any more merit than the others but because it is where my personal experience rests.

A Definition of Craft

Mimi Moore
Architectural Stone Carver

What craft means to different people today is quite varied. Perhaps its bringing back something old fashioned such as all the quaint craft breweries springing up (we have 6 right here in Charleston, a healthy sign of culture!) Or maybe it could be a hobby, something amateur that we do for fun like making wreaths for the holidays or a woodworking project in the garage. Occasionally it may be understood as something actually done for a living such as a stone mason or an iron smith.

Our word “craft” came into Old English by way of an older Norse and carried the meaning of “physical strength.” By Middle English the meaning extended to include “mental power and skill.” A related term arrived to English by way of Latin and Italian was “artisan.” It carried much the same sense as “craftsman*” but indicated one especially instructed in the arts. So historically the meaning of “craft” was anything but pastiche or trivial, it was a serious expression of man's physical and mental ability, it was if anything sacred.

Four Misconceptions Concerning Craft

The above definition aside, there are a number of ways in which Craft is misunderstood. As a craftsman I'd like to offer my opinion concerning some of the most frequent misunderstandings:
  1. Craft is not Labor
  2. Art is not Craft
  3. No one does that anymore
  4. Industry and technology is the future of production. Craft costs too much
Ornamental Forged Iron
courtesy of
American College of the Building Arts
Somehow as a society we have come to view sweating and exerting oneself physically outside of sport as demeaning to the human spirit, an indication of low social status and inferior intelligence (perhaps this mentality contributes to the fact that the baby boomers are believed to be the most obese generation ever). This “stigma” has led some craftsmen to insist on a strict demarcation between labor and craft. Not to say that there is not menial labor commonly found in industry and construction that meets the above description. However, one must always start off as a laborer in the process of acquiring the skill to grow to the level of a craftsman. There is nothing ignoble about it. Quite to the contrary, even in the daily routine of a craftsman he will find himself doing mundane tasks, sometimes very labor intensive and not particularly skilled. That's just life. Frankly, there are times when you appreciate the mental break so that straightening up the shop, sweeping the floor and taking out the trash is a comfort. Labor is only demeaning when there is a desire to progress but no ability and opportunity for advancement.

During the Enlightenment of the 18th century another line in the sand was drawn, this time between art and craft. many artificial hierarchies! Craft was at that time condescended as a strictly technique driven, practical, functional work. By contrast, art or rather the “fine arts” were to be distinguished by creativity, uselessness and a conceptual nature. This was an entirely arbitrary distinction out of context with recent historical precedent and common sense. Sculptors, plasterers and painters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael all had to begin as laborers or apprentices before mastering the practical techniques of their respective mediums and ultimately expressing their skill in highly creative discourse. I would concur that much of the unskilled rubbish that passes itself off as contemporary fine art today is indeed “useless” in the most fundamental way, it answers no human need whatsoever. This is not intended to disparage many of the skilled artists working in paint and other mediums on conceptual works, rather to commend the skilled individual who has mastered ornamentation and the decorative applied arts and by so doing can fully express their creativity while bringing delight to their patrons.

Ornamental Plaster
courtesy of
American College of the Building Arts
“No one does that kind of work anymore.” I hear this all the time. I've heard it while I was actually on a scaffold doing that kind of work. Someone will pass by to ask me what I'm doing, perhaps I'm placing some plaster ornament, and they'll say, “too bad, no one does that kind of work anymore!” For a brief moment I think this person is either a complete idiot or trying to be malicious. That of course is usually not the case. This idea is so firmly entrenched that despite the fact that the person sees craft happening right in front of their eyes they still can't believe it. The educational system has told them that craft is dead so that's it. The reality is quite different of course. By and large, most architecture before WWII had a level of craft in its construction. That is a lot of inventory in the US that has to be craftsmen. It is true that most new construction today primarily utilizes cheap, factory made materials designed to be installed by unskilled labor; however, in the natural and traditional new build markets craft continues to thrive.

There is the misconception that industry and technology are the future of production. I challenge this view. I declare that industry and technology are clearly the undisputed present of production and have been so for many decades. And so what world have they created for us to live in? A cheap one to be sure, though not so inexpensive. I'll state a few obvious facts. We know our contemporary homes are toxic. We know our contemporary homes are poorly constructed, unlikely to last the mortgage. We at least sense that our contemporary homes were poorly designed using cheap materials and cheaper labor. None of the above contributes to the good of society or our personal happiness.

“There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey.” ― John Ruskin

The Value of Craft

If you want a golden rule
 that will fit everything, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses
 that you do not know to be useful
 or believe to be beautiful
― William Morris
As a craftsman myself I see the value of craft as very personal. It has made me more materialistic. Not of course in the empty desire to acquire more, but a deep and profound appreciation for materials themselves, the delicate grain of walnut that tells the story of its life, the intricate veining of a precious Nero Portoro marble that fractalizes in a symphony of color and pattern, the smooth, sensuous feel of earthen clay shaped by the power of my touch. At once I am the creator and the humblest devotee.

You can always tell when a house was constructed on a tight schedule and a tighter budget, when the workers were squeezed and pressed. Get the job done, on to the next, it is a business after all. Nobody cared about you, that this was to be your home. It's palpable, you can feel it and it is a horribly oppressive place to live. The costs are exorbitant for something that contributes so little to our comfort and humanity.

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.” In harmony with these words I present an alternative: live honestly, with yourself and with others. Make no false justifications, build or refurbish an authentic home that you want to live in. Fill it with craft that is both useful and beautiful. Employ men and women who care deeply about their work and want to give you the best. It may be at first a daunting concept but eventually it is a liberation to realize that you can actually eat, drink, love and live in a place that contributes to your happiness.

*The terms craftsman and craftsmen are used throughout this article in reference to both men and women practicing craft. 

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb