Thursday, July 30, 2015

Architectural Word of the Day; 181 - 190


Rubbed and gauged brickwork is the highest artistic expression of the medium and craft. Appropriate bricks are fired at low heat, made of the finest clay, sieved of any rocks.

They are then hand "gauged" or cut to the appropriate shape with axes, saws, rasps etc. and subsequently "rubbed" to a precise fit and finish against a harder rubbing stone.


A column whose shaft is twisted and often enriched with running vines. Having a purported origin from the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the spiral column is often found as the support of the canopy over the high altar of a Catholic church.

A hemicyclium is one form of an ancient sundial in the form of a concave quarter sphere or more accurately conic section.

The shadow casting rod or "gnomon" is oriented so that it points north and is parallel to the rotation axis of the Earth, marking the surface of the hemicyclium.


Highly detailed, corbeled arches or vaults unique to Islamic architecture.

The appearance is intentionally designed to stylize stalactites in symbolism of Muhammad having received his revelation from Allah, by means of the angel Gabriel in the Cave of Hira outside of Mecca.


An ornamental mosaic composed of small cubes of coloured marble, glass or tile called 'tesserae', Latin for 'dice'.

This guilloche patterned example from the Roman port city of Ostia is about two thousand years old.


Gorgons were seen as simultaneously endowed with beauty and terror, the writhing snakes of their hair, a symbol of fertility and a talisman against evil influences.

The name of the iconic gorgon, "Medusa" literally means "protector". The head of the Medusa was utilized as a symbol of royal "aegis", shield or protection.

 Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Decorative Plastering

Students at the
American College of the Building Arts
Without question the craft of plastering has always held widespread practical utilitarian value to our built environment. Stuccoes rendered in exterior provide a sacrificial function, protecting vulnerable substrates from erosion and water damage. Plaster applied inside insulates, attenuates sound and provides a sanitary, durable wall surface. Extrusions of profiles in plaster create mouldings that add architectural interest, helping to delineate space by means of shade and shadow. However, among the many craft specializations of the Decorative and Applied Arts, plaster is by far one of the most expressive mediums. We'll take a quick overview of the Art of plastering via some of the traditions still practiced in Decorative Plastering.

Color and Texture

Clay plaster with osyter shells
Fortunately, two of the most commonly used minerals to produce plaster, lime and gypsum, are inherently very white and accept color readily. A few clays are also a light grey and can be tinted to produce a broad, if muted range of colors. Other clays are naturally occurring in a variety of earthen colors such as sienna, umber and ochre that most of us love just as they are.

Marmorino, meaning "little marble", is an Italian tradition of integral colored lime putty plastering inherited from the ancient Romans. Enjoying a 20th century Rensaissance in the Veneto it soon was popularized once again in Italy and now throughout the world.

The French have there own long standing tradition of adding colors and aggregates to plaster. The French plaster is based on gypsum which is naturally more matte than lime. So, instead of marble  the French tradition emulates limestone, called Stuc Pierre, meaning "Stone Stucco". The surface of Stuc Piere is typically shaved with a "Berthelet", a hand held plaster razor, and often scored to create joints in imitation of ashlar masonry. Virtually every culture has developed its own artistic flare using color and texture with plaster: Shikkui in Japan, Tadelakt in Morocco, Enjarre in Mexico to name a few additional examples.

Moroccan "gebs" or Gypseries

There are two principal approaches to creating ornamentation in plaster. The first is reductive. Morocco has cultivated master artisans of  "gebs", otherwise known as Gypserie, a wonderful tradition of carving into gypsum plaster that is very akin to wood carving, using similar chisels and gouges.

A more widespread reductive method applied to a variety of different plasters around the world is Sgraffito, carving plaster in very low relief. Sgraffito relies on contrast of color between plaster layers for the effect and is a relatively inexpensive way to add a lot of visual punch.

Of course there are the additive forms of ornamentation for which plaster is famous. The finest ornamented stucco is done by hand, in situ. Lime is the preferred medium although sometimes a quantity of gypsum is added to speed up the work and create higher relief. The most awe inspiring work left by the ancient Romans and emulated in the Renaissance was all painstakingly carried out by hand by armies of sculptors. These must have been very exciting times to be a plasterer! As mold making technologies increased in the 18th century, in situ ornamentation became largely displaced by pre-cast ornamentation in gypsum plaster. Gypsum has a rapid set, just a few minutes, so once time has been invested in a master model, many copies can be made quickly.

Enrico Trolese, contemporary Venetian Stuccotoro

Scagliola and Buon Fresco

There are a few really special applications of decorative plastering that could easily take a lifetime to master. One of those is Scagliola. Scagliola is a technique of emulating marble, typically with gypsum plaster. The artistry required is tremendous. Just matching colors as they occur in marble or developing your own color palate is a challenge in itself. As the technique requires cutting, folding and stacking loaves of plaster in various orientations repeatedly, you must continually visualize what is happening inside, how all of those layers are coming together in a natural way, recreating the subtle variegation of color, veining, stratification and fracturing that occur in marble are all separate skills.

Perhaps the highest artistic expression of plaster, one that blurs the line Buon Fresco. Painting mineral pigments into lime plaster while it is still fresh takes incredible understanding of materials. The plaster must be prepared in a way so that it maintains a consistent level of dampness for as long as possible. Fresco can be as simple as brushing two or three coats of a mineral wash into a completed wall to give it a soft, cloudy, parchment effect to most elaborate works of fine art and trompe-l’œil.

What is important to recall about all of these various decorative plastering traditions is that many of them can and are used in combination. Scagliola might be pressed into moulds to make ornamental pieces that resemble carved marble. Marmorino or a similar fine lime putty plaster is the grounds for painting Buon Fresco.

The art of plastering really has not changed much in thousands of years. We use the same commonly available materials and techniques we always have. And although to become truly expert at the various arts of decorative plaster requires patience and practice, the truth is they are quite humanistic endeavors, appreciable and accessible to most everyone.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Architectural Word of the Day; 171 - 180


The individual wedge-shaped arch stones or bricks whose converging sides are cut according to one or more radii depending on the type of arch or vault.


Repetition with variation. This echo in the parts of what manifests in the whole or climax is well exemplified in the minor domes of Santa Maria del Fiore which prepare the viewer for Brunelleschi's great dome that would otherwise overwhelm the composition.


A large semi-circular window typically divided by two mullions or alternatively four mullions into an odd number of compartments. The core of the Thermae commissioned by the Roman Emperor Diocletian is largely preserved, windows included, within the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli.


An oriel balcony of Islamic architecture typically projecting over the street that features elaborately carved screens allowing for the passage of light and air while offering privacy.

The design was maintained and incorporated into Western architecture on the Iberian peninsula and subsequently in Latin America such as the early 20th century example of the Archbishop's Palace in Lima, Peru.



Flame On!
The Flamboyant (French for "flaming") later period of predominantly French Gothic architecture characterized by flowing, ogee window traceries resembling flickering flames.


French for "to thread" (as in a needle), architecturally it refers to a suite of rooms directly connected, the doors aligned along a common axis. Frequently employed in palace architecture of the Baroque period, guests would be escorted to the farthest room their rank would permit.


A compound curve combining a concave and convex curve in a continuous line, otherwise referred to as an S-curve. They are often used to form moulding profiles, arches, roofs or a tracery as in this handsome circa 1923 Gothic Revival example I saw recently at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA.


A large, circular window often placed in the gable of a church or cathedral, with tracery laid out in a radial pattern and an interior window of stained glass.

This Norman church in Kent, England features the most amazing of grotesque ornamentation.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Modernist Ideology: Theses XXI - XXX

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

Thesis XXI

The cult of freedom. Freedom from your fathers. Freedom from your children. Freedom from gravity. Freedom from responsibility. The imposing, obnoxious, unlimited freedom of expression, consequences to culture, community and society be damned.

Thesis XXII
The cult of reason. The attempted materialization of an imagined, simplified, rational world of pure order. A rejection of the infinite variety clearly evident at the subatomic level, among ourselves as human beings, extending to the scale of galaxies and the universe itself.

Thesis XXIII
The cult of separation. Endless contrast. The failure to distinguish harmony from monotony. Unending rejection. The inability to recognize any measure of continuity as anything but repetition.

Thesis XXIV
The cult of genius. The deification of the individual. Unique expression of personal vision is held as the unassailable ideal even in the face of detriment to the civic good.

Thesis XXV
The cult of the future. Perpetual novelty. The obsession with striving for tomorrow. A future where human interests, desires and needs of living will be nothing like they are today.

Thesis XXVI
The cult of reflection. The obsession with mirroring what is perceived as the spirit of our times: fear, displacement, lust, shock and uncertainty. An abandonment of exercising the moral responsibility to encourage, comfort and uplift.

Thesis XXVII
The cult of technology. An unfounded yet intractable belief that widespread implementation of technology will continue to improve human lives. Faith in technology extends to the belief  that the present social, ecological and health crises directly attributable to technology will be solved with future technologies.

The cult of ugliness. The wholesale rejection of beauty as an universal ideal. Individual taste is all that remains, subjective and relative, abdication from any aesthetic accountability whatsoever.

Thesis XXIX
The cult of patricide. No generation has ever portrayed their forefathers so ignorant, unenlightened, and unevolved as our modern one. Not only is it acclaimed that there is nothing of value to be learned from them, any such attempt would only taint, contaminate and distract from the current enlightened viewpoint.

Thesis XXX
The cult of intellect. The private universe of the Modernist mind creates its own rules, structure and narrative. Anyone who does not understand and appreciate the results is condescended as uninitiated, ignorant or mentally deficient.

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

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Architectural Word of the Day; 161 - 170


Prominently employed though not exclusive to Islamic architecture, an arch featuring a curve that continues slightly past its diametre, resulting in the opening below being narrower than its greatest span.

I quite like the scalloped treatment of the upper storey arches in this exemplary Charleston façade.



The diagonal ribs of a Gothic vault.



The exterior face, the architectural front of a building. Sometimes, as is the case with the tombs at Petra carved out of the living rock that is all there is, nothing more than a façade...and sometimes that is enough...


Fantastical morphings of human, animal and vegetal forms were typical Roman crypt decor. "Grottesca" is Italian, meaning "of the grotto" which derives from old Vulgar Latin "grupta" from the Classical Latin "crypta". Surprising to know our use of the English "crypt" is closest to the original Latin pronunciation!


Literally meaning the "glass room", the term implies a vaulting of plated glass. The Cour Vitrée of the Palais des Études, École des Beaux-Arts in Paris provides an exceptional example of the delicacy and sophistication typical of the 19th century use of glass and steel.

Ornamentation of a running vine featuring grape clusters and accompanying leaves. This unusual polychromatic example in high relief is taken from the ceiling of a late seventeenth century Irish chapel.

A large stone basin with orifices of flowing water traditionally used in ablutions, ritual washings of purification.

This example from the Abbey of Valmagne, Languedoc provides such a peaceful setting for inner reflection.


The Greek word for gateway that we apply almost exclusively to the massive, slanted entrance portal to ancient Egyptian temple complexes. Note how each one of those column capitals to the right are unique.

A monumental arch having four portals allowing for the passage of two intersecting streets.
 Contributed by Patrick Webb



Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Post-Industrial Revolution

"This is a simple question of evolution. The day is quickly coming when every knee will bow down to a silicon fist, and you will all beg your binary gods for mercy." - Bill Gates*

There is no question that the so-called Industrial Revolution has transformed human society, and more broadly speaking, life on earth. At the dawn of the 18th century most goods were produced in small craft workshops or "put out" to domestic households. A convergence of developments towards the close of the century, taking place first in England, led to rapid changes. Advances in the precision of machine tooling increased the mechanical efficiency of the steam engine. At the same time coal began to replace bio-fuels such as wood to heat the boilers of said engines. The looms of the textile industry were the first large scale application of machine labour, increasing daily production from tens to hundreds of times over human output for certain aspects of the work.

A further series of advances sprung up one from another sometimes dubbed as a second, Technological Revolution. Mass manufacture of steel in the 1860's coincided with the rise of the petroleum and chemical industries. By the close of the 19th century coal fired electrical power was supplanting steam power for factory machinery. The enormous capital required for these technologies consolidated control of the means of production into the hands of a few wealthy industrialists.

Actually, we find ourselves in the latest ongoing phase of industrialization which began in the mid-20th century, commonly called the Digital Revolution, so named by the development of technologies derived from the digital logic circuit: computers, cellular networks and the internet. This digital revolution is culminating in a large scale automated workforce of robots run by integrated artificial intelligence programs and networks.

Revolution or Evolution?

The first thought that comes to mind at the mention of revolution is often a  forcible overthrow of a government, prominent examples being the French, American and Bolshevik Revolutions. A long standing system is upended, usually accompanied by extreme violence, replaced with an entirely new social order. In that sense, the changes wrought by Industrialization since the late 18th century might justifiably be called a revolution, if more of an economic than a political one.

However, I would contend that "revolution" is really a misnomer for such events or periods. Our English word "revolution" derives from the Latin verb "volvere",  meaning to "roll, turn" combined with  the prefix "re-",  meaning "back, again". So the fundamental meaning of "revolution" is a "rolling, turning back". This is the sense we apply to the rotation of the earth. A 24 hour day is one "revolution" of the planet. We return to the origin, a new day it may be but a day much like the previous one.

By contrast, the changes produced by Industrialization are entirely new, without precedent. I suggest "evolution" might be a better description. Sharing the same root verb "volvere", the sense of "evolution" changes by substituting the prefix "ex-", meaning "out". An "evolution" is an "unfurling", a "rolling out" of something truly different. Industrialization was and continues to be an economic Evolution of unprecedented change.

Evolution and Entropy

The second law of thermodynamics states that while it is possible for the total complexity of a system to remain constant for a reversible, cyclic or revolutionary process, that it can only increase in disorder or "entropy" for evolutionary, irreversible processes.

As we pass wholly from the "technological" to the "digital" phase of industrialization our machines will increase in complexity while we can expect our own social complexity, human beings' diversity of language, art, and culture to continually, exponentially decrease. Governments, industry, public and higher education are preparing for this globalized world where basic necessities (food, clothes, shelter and medicine) and even the arts (painting, sculpture and musical composition) will be fully automated.

What finances this mad evolutionary rush? Cheap energy, principally fossil fuels. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that fossil fuels are inherently bad. Quite the opposite, they represent hundreds of millions of years of accumulated, irreplaceable resources. Properly managed fossil fuels should have improved our own lives, our children's lives, and our children's, children's lives a million years into the future. Instead we've decided in a couple of generations to set fire to every last drop in one big, selfish, orgiastic party. The greatest act of social entropy ending in billions of people whose lives are devoid of meaning with little to keep them occupied: sounds like a recipe for social upheaval to me.

The Post-Industrial Revolution

We're already deep into a cultural dark age. We just don't realize it because of the comfort of air conditioning and the latest app we've downloaded onto our iPhone. The modern world may outwardly appear to be sophisticated and complex; nevertheless, it is getting simpler, more standardized every day. In the past couple of hundred years, thousands of languages have been extinguished along with thousands of ways of understanding, describing and inhabiting the world. Entropy, simplification and the loss of diversity of human activities such as farming, cooking, weaving and building parallel the loss of complexity of the biological systems, plant and animal species we depend on for survival.

What happens after our present unsustainable industrial evolution collapses upon itself? What does the world and human society look like then? I don't know for sure but I suspect after a period of great tribulation and turmoil it will in time resemble our pre-industrial past. In the meantime, certain among us understand where we are in human history. Like monks holding a dimly lit flame in the depth of darkness we seek to copy the manuscript one more time, keep our traditions alive for one more generation. We seek to bring a little bit of human happiness to our brothers and sisters today and make the return to a sustainable society a bit less painful for our children.

*Andrew Lephter,  The PWOT Bill Gates Interview

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

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Oyster Shell Tabby

Colonial Fort Dorchester, circa 1757
One of the oldest, most enduring forms of Spanish and British colonial architecture is oyster shell Tabby. I'll briefly share what I've learned about the history, the materials and how to go about building traditional Tabby walls.

In 15th century Iberia and North Africa there existed a strong tradition of rammed earth construction inherited from the Romans: taking clay, sand and larger granite aggregates and tamping a nearly dry mix into wooden forms. In Spain this type of consturction was called 'tabia', a borrowed word from the Arabic 'عتاب' (attab). When the Spanish began to establish colonies along the Southern coast of North America they modified the 'tabia' construction as suitable clay was rare along the southeast coast and Florida, the general condition being a thin layer of topsoil covering over sand. Although the 'pluff mud' found in the 'back barriers' and tidal lagoons is partly composed of clay, it also contains large percentages of fine sands, even finer silts as well as organic matter that make it entirely unsuitable for construction. However, pluff mud does provide a perfect nesting bed for a natural resource that would prove extremely useful as a building material: oysters.

Whereas in Spain readily available limestone was quarried and dressed as masonry units or burnt for lime, in the colonial outposts it was largely unavailable (the Coquina of St. Augustine providing an exception). However, there were plenty of oysters available whose shells were a ready source of lime. The oyster shells were harvested, oyster removed and the shells left outside for weeks to allow the rain and insects to clean out any organic matter. Most often 'middens', Native American waste oyster shell heaps, were already available and exploited for raw material.

The shells were used in three ways. Shells were broken up to provide a gradation of small to medium aggregates although many were left intact for the larger aggregates. A good percentage was set aside for a lime burn. Shells were stacked atop a 'rick' of alternating logs not unlike a funeral pyre and the logs would be set alight, burning for a couple of days. Carbon dioxide calcines from the shells with the intense heat (over 1500° F) leaving a caustic highly alkali compound, Calcium Oxide commonly known as quicklime. 

Making Tabby is a lot like making pancake batter. One starts with hoeing up the dry ingredients:

1 part quicklime
1 part broken shells
1 part whole shells
1 part sand

Next comes the water. One needs to be very careful at this step because with the addition of water the slaking process, conversion of quicklime to Calcium Hydroxide of slaked lime, is a very rapid, exothermic reaction. Larger pebbles of quicklime can quickly release steam that can cause the mix to pop and splatter the highly alkali mix onto exposed skin or eyes.

The mix should be just wet enough to be able to tamp. Excess water will make the lime matrix weakened by voids as the water evaporates and take longer to achieve a sufficient compressive strength. Tabby can be hodded to the site with barrows. Balls of Tabby are made by hand and slung into wooden forms. The mix is then vigorously tamped from above.

With all of the rough oyster shell aggregate exposed at the surface, tabby walls are vulnerable to erosion from streaming water. Typically, like the wall itself, they were covered with a lime plaster using just the smaller crushed oyster shell and sand for aggregates. This render served as a sacrificial coat to protect the wall. The entire system is both aesthetically pleasing and very durable, proof of which being a number of colonial and early federal sites that have endured hundreds of years even without maintenance. 

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Architectural Word of the Day; 151 - 160


A chariot drawn by four horses, typically driven by a one of the goddesses such as Victory, Peace, Triumph or Fame. Very often a quadriga will be found surmounted upon a standing triumphal arch or an arch incorporated into a façade.


The precise term for the concave inner face of an arch or vault.


The convex visible outer face of an arch or vault. This well preserved bath complex by the Romans in Leptis Magna display extraordinary examples of visible extrados including a hemispherical dome, barrel, groin and segmental vaults.


Think "Gemini" or "twins", geminated columns are coupled. A frequent and enjoyable approach of support employed in cloistered Romanesque colonnades.


As every good head is supported by a neck, the Greeks decided their finest capitals should appear supported by a
NECKING band or "trachelion".

To take the anthropomorphic metaphor a bit further, I could imagine the alternating lotus and palmette motif of the Erechtheion trachelion as a kind of necklace.

As "trachelion" is Greek for "necking". The "hypo-" prefix means "under" so that the "hypotrachelion" indicates an element under the necking band.

In contrast to the Romans who would typically form an astragal or bead profile as a binding element between the capital and shaft below, the Greeks preferred to incise a deep groove, the hypotrachelion as a dividing element.


A column capital crowned with the stylized spreading leaves of the palm tree. This ancient example from the temple of Horus at Edfu casts some dramatic shadows under the Egyptian sun.


Latin for "little boys" or "children", the Putti were revived as a theme from antiquity and fattened up during the Renaissance. Despite a frequent effort to Christianize Putti as winged Cherubim, this only served to closely associate them with the pagan Roman god of desire CUPID.

Contributed by Patrick Webb