Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? VII

A confluence of events in the 1850~1900 period served to put the Master builder tradition in its grave, and events in the first few decades of the 20th century were simply nails in that coffin. At the turn of the new century, virtually every kind of literature, from builder's journals and pattern books, women's magazines, domestic science (home economics) textbooks, and so forth, began clamoring for a radical simplification of domestic architecture. This barrage of ideas radically changed the appearance of dwellings from the Victorian model into 'modern'.

The writer Oliver Williamson, in a book of essays titled The Complete Home (1907), states the mood of the time quite succinctly:

"There have been two extremes in later American home architecture - over-ornamentation and absolute disregard for appearance. The first arose from a feeling that every dollar spent in the interest of art should be so geegawed to the outer world that all who passed might note the costliness and wonder. The second extreme had its birth in an elementary practicality that believes anything artistic must be both extravagant and useless"

(quoted in G. Wright's Moralism and the Model Home, p. 232)

Other popular writers of the time blamed the 'visual disorder' of Victorian architecture with social problems, and the 'excessive' diversity between individual houses for the increase of social tensions and even political conflict, as they emphasized class differences. Thus, it came to be thought that such an architecture was un-democratic, because, after all, America was intended, so the mythology goes, to be a 'classless' society. Bye-bye 'painted lady':

So too the pressures of society, as the population dramatically climbed in urban centers, and industrial production took over virtually every facet of manufacturing, the move was on to simple and quickly produced structures. Also related to that rising tide of industrialism, the supremacy of technique that Jacques Ellul describes with much perspicacity in The Technological Society, were developments in various areas that affected architecture. New systems appeared that brought to the home air and heat control, light, power and other services. Hope would appear to spring eternal in America, and these new technologies for the home promised, it was thought, a greater ease of home life, a reduction for the housewife in drudgery, which would free up opportunities for the female to work outside the home and thus increase economic abundance. The ideal of the suburban home began to catch on, and a lifestyle beckoned of freedom from restraint, clean air, room for children to play, gardens - in short, an idyllic return to some sort of life, as it 'should be' or was thought to have once been in the romanticized past.

Many middle class homes came to be equipped with flush toilets, hot-air furnaces, pressurized water supplies, (combine the two and you get running hot water); advances in small appliances were numerous - iceboxes cooled by ammonia, gas-fueled cook stoves, the telephone, and eventually the washing machine. An interesting point to note is that each of these systems and pieces of equipment took up a lot of space in the house, and thus houses came to be redesigned around them. Something had to give, as houses were growing smaller and filled with ever more equipment. The bathroom, formerly a rather ample space in many houses, now became reduced to as small as 5' x 5' in many cases. The basement was given over to the furnace, hot water tank and piping, while each room, and surrounding structural components now had to accommodate radiators, forced air ducting and registers, and electrical equipment. Servant spaces became a thing of the past in the middle class dwelling, as did the pantry (which, also was a victim of the rise of the supermarket chains), which was 'replaced' to an extent by built-in kitchen cabinetry. Faster distribution of food reduced the need to stock the kitchen for long periods of time. The number and size of rooms declined significantly. The parlor was disposed with, rooms became more 'multi-purpose' instead of specialized as they had been in Victorian forms, and the floor plan became more open.

All of these new technologies for the home came at a cost of course, but even after initial resistance to these technologies among members of the public, once accepted, the move to a the point where these technological advances were deemed necessities rather than luxuries was only a matter of time. Thus, in order to cut construction costs, the wood framing became progressively lighter, to the point of flimsiness it may be said. Balloon framing rapidly eclipsed timber framing in wood construction, and in short time was supplanted by platform stick framing. Sheet rock did away with the trade of plastering for the most part. Poured concrete became a commonly-used material, and brick veneer began to supplant real brick construction.

The drive of technique, permeating all aspects of society by the time of the Fin de siècle, meant for some observers that the home itself should become rational, efficient, and simplified, and this in turn would encourage the production of rational men and women, all the better adapted to life in a rapidly industrializing society. Rational and efficient, if simple, houses and people, molded to fit the demands of technique.

These moves towards simplification promoted such things as the suburban ranch house. Framing one-floored structures meant simplified framing and a reduction in the sizes of framing components, along with the disappearance of the stairwell in many cases. Even in two-story buildings constructed in that period, the stair which was formerly a point of elaboration and wealth display in the home, came to be greatly reduced, severe even, and bereft of carving or intricate turned balustrades. The art of stair building and hand-railing (one of the most complex of the carpentry arts), peaked in the mid 1800's and fell into decline rapidly thereafter. Today, very few carpenters indeed can construct equivalents to the magnificent geometrical staircases of the Victorian era, because the demand for them has dropped to nearly zero, and thus the skills have fallen out of use and the development process. Another case of 'use it or lose it'.

Simplification extended from the interior to the exterior. The houses built at the turn of the century were shorn of dormers, projecting wings, porches, and the complex roof line of the Queen Anne 'painted lady' was reduced to a simple gable or hipped form. As the roof became flatter, the attic all but disappeared. with the coming of piped city water in many areas, the cistern was no longer required on the roof, thus further simplifying and lightening roof and wall framing.

Industrial production of materials, and the rationality of increased standardization in the materials for housebuilding meant that houses became more and more alike. some reformers even advocated for increased uniformity of housing, as they felt it would lead to a more egalitarian society and reduce social tensions. These simpler and smaller houses could be seen as possessing a democratic heritage. The watchwords were 'economical', 'standardized', 'simplified'. In time there would be some reaction to that trend of course, as cookie-cutter didn't sell so well after a while.

Anyway, I have tried to convey, over these 7 postings, some share of the complex set of factors, some independent and some interrelated, which contributed to the downfall of the Master builder tradition. After a brief period of struggle between the traditional trades and the factory, the factory came out on top, and, by the early 20th century, the collapse in these old trades was nearly complete. With that collapse came the building worker's loss of pride and independence at the construction site, which in turn led to a psychology of habitual caution in the swamp of the new and rapidly changing building fads. While old forms were never fully abandoned, and not all new innovations were fully accepted by builders, it was a situation very much akin to a ship that had lost its compass or rudder; building was now left to wander, it would seem, from fad to fad, long-established pattern as precedent rendered 'hopelessly' old-fashioned. Simplified houses with simplified roofs led to a 'dumbing down' of the trade, and industrially-produced components reduced much of the carpenter's work to little more than assembly. Soon the suburbs would explode in growth, and the mechanism set in motion in the first decade of the 20th century would result in the sprawl and homogeneous landscape we see around us today. It's all very rational and efficient, the triumph of the machine.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? VI

Post 6 of this series. To backtrack, post 1 <--(link)

The prevailing American attitude toward the builder, master or otherwise, profoundly changed in the decade 1890~1900. Throughout most of the 19th century, the construction trades were the subject of respect for the most part, even romanticized as a proud tradition upholding noble skills, however by the close of the century, the building laborer came to be seen rather differently: unconcerned with high quality or innovation, a 'fly in the ointment' holding up progress, and a pawn of the union movement, a movement which came to be seen as corrupt. The term 'slipshod', more and more, came to be associated with the work of the craftsman. Ruskin, through his extolling of the virtues of traditional craft, gave a mantle of dignity that protected the worker from harsh criticism. Part and parcel of Ruskin's depictions of the craftsman were that they were people content with their position in the social hierarchy.

The rise of industrialism was met by the Victorian architecture of the time, in an apparent counter-stance, architecture which on its surface appeared to be celebrating handcrafted detail. In fact this was an artificiality- the ornament, not to mention entire sections of structures, were often produced in a factory. The wealthy, of course, along with their architects, could still have handmade ornament and detailing on their buildings, thus perpetuating an illusion for some observers.

The 1890's were a period of social and political turmoil. The prevailing idea in Victorian architecture - the fashion, in other words - was that of a domestic architecture celebrating individual carpenters and masons, and the house as refuge and realm of the housewife. As mentioned in the previous post in this thread, women at that time began to chafe against the narrow social role allowed to them - less interested in being 'married to a house', women began to campaign for suffrage on an increasingly loud basis.

On the building front, carpenters, sheet metal workers, and woodworkers developed increased antagonism towards the industrialization of their crafts. They complained that the factories were taking their jobs, driving the quality of construction downward, and 'dumbing-down' the work itself. The factory system, being the very epitome of the new rage in rational technique, planning and integration, led to greater and greater specialization - usually this specialization was in fact also a simplification of method, and thus unskilled workers, trained to do but one task, at low wages, were taking over the trades.

The trades increasingly unionized in response and attempted to fight back against the threat of industrialization in a number of ways: resolutions were passed restricting the use of certain machinery, over the use of non-union materials or labor on sites, limiting access to the union only to those that had served a long and all-around trade apprenticeship, and so forth. However, though the building trades were fighting against the factory, they as often as not fought amongst themselves, and some of the methods they employed with the intention of promoting job security in fact contributed to an accelerated downfall of their trade. By restricting entry to those that had served long apprenticeships, while at the same time many highly specialized jobs were being created in industry, the pool of talent began to drain away and union membership began to contract slightly.

Prominent local capitalists came together in virtually every major US city to sponsor trade schools, the purpose of which was to train workers for specialized jobs as opposed to a complex trade. In such schools, there was little emphasis on decision-making or experimentation, though a great deal on discipline. Most trade journals, along with the unions themselves, were resolutely against these new trade schools. Here's a quote from the trade journal Carpentry and Building (#27, March 1905) in an editorial:

"We are opposed to trade objectionable, because they never learn the practical parts of a business, only giving a smattering of the theoretical knowledge that makes its victim a poor workman, incapable of getting a good job, and yet a menace to every other man in the craft"

The unions saw the trade schools as places for little more than teaching skills for mindless industrial production and little else.

The building trades unions had once been at the forefront of the labor movement. In 1876, the year of the American Centennial, and the following year, labor strife came to a head, according to G. Wright's Moralism and the Model Home:

"...Chicago carpenters and lumber workers joined with railroad workers, tailors, and McCormick plant laborers in the strike by the Workingman's Party for the eight hour day and wage increases; the army was called in to break the strike. The following year, Chicago laborers took part in the nationwide Great Strike, in which a hundred thousand people left their jobs across the country in support of railroad worker's grievances; again, National Guard troops were called in. Reactions among the working class and the middle class were tense and angry."

After such events as these, many people in the middle class began to fear that organized labor would engender more strikes, class violence and chaos. National Gaurd Armories were enlarged and well stocked during this period, often by public subscription, in anticipation of coming class warfare. Many found the actions of the labor movement frightening and feared further conflict might upset social order more dramatically than had been already threatened.

The 1877 Great Strike was held by railroad workers in response to having their wages cut for the second time that year. By the time this strike spread to Chicago, angry mobs wreaked havok in the train yards. The year of 1877 was coincidentally the same year that some 20,000 loans for rebuilding the city of Chicago after the fire of 1871 came due. The city's largest savings bank failed, and as a result many depositors lost their property. The cities newspapers took the opportunity to lay most of the blame, not on the banks and their unscrupulous fractional lending practices and speculations with railroad building, but on the strikers. The builders themselves, prominent in these labor movements, were also held to blame for the cities inadequate supply of housing.

In Chicago 1886, the final straw that turned the tide of the labor movement: a large labor rally in support of striking workers was held May 4th in Haymarket Square. As the meeting was dispersing at 10:30, a bomb exploded without warning, killing a police officer. This infamous event is referred to as the Haymarket Riot. Police fired into the crowd, killing one and wounding many more. Many police officers in fact died as a result of 'friendly fire' in the ensuing chaos. Because of the riot, four labor organizers were hanged, and one committed suicide in jail with a real 'exploding cigar', which blew half his face off. The hangings of these organizers took the steam out of the national labor movement and energized management. the fact that many of the convicted were recent German immigrants also fueled resentment against the labor movement as being 'un-American'.

With the corporate press in vehement condemnation of the labor movement, along with the architects, bankers, and real estate interests, the tide began to turn against the building trades. The Panic of 1893, caused by bank speculation in shaky railroad ventures, turned into a severe depression and a series of bank failures resulted. In Chicago, the number of unemployed in the city topped 200,000 in the winter. The mood was one of despondency, and the construction industry was hard hit. Nonetheless, the unions remained powerful, and yet the earlier feeling of kinsmanship between builder and worker was broken by this point. Contractors and architects were desperate for work, and found themselves increasingly in opposition to the skilled craftspeople who wanted to keep their jobs and ways of work the same. In the face of an onslaught of industrially produced material (in fact a dangerous overproduction of construction materials happened at the time of the 1893 depression) , the contractors found themselves more and more in favor of the products of industry as a means of solving their problems. It all came to a head in 1899 when the Chicago Building Contractor's Council went to battle with the unions. This led to a citywide lockout, initiated by the Contractor's Council, in which materials were withheld from construction sites in an effort to regain control over the cities construction sites. The impasse dragged on for a long time, and the next year, 1900, saw the lowest number of housing starts in Chicago's recent history. Hundred of manufacturers had to close down, and 50~60,000 workers were out of work, along with thousands more in related industries. Finally, in April of 1901, the deadlock was broken and the Contractor's council came out on top.

The building crafts were themselves in decline at this point. G. Wright again:

"A worker with a general education in the arts and sciences, with autonomy at the workplace and a respected place in the political arena seemed an impossibly romantic notion by 1900, even to the building unions. The fact that a style of handcrafted (or seemingly so) decoration continued to be acceptable - indeed, to be a minor fad in certain parts of the country - did not by any means, indicate that Americans still believed that building workers deserved their respect. Not even the workers themselves advanced such a position. House-building, even if it had a romantic look to it, was industrial production."

With all these changes in public perception of the building arts, came changes in ideas of how the family functioned, along with new ideas about sanitation and hygiene, that led to reformulations of much in America, including how architecture should represent such ideas. The next, and final, installment in this series, which has been looking at the decline of the master builder tradition, will focus on the transformation of domestic architecture in the US along these new models of economic and social rationalization, themselves reactions in many ways to the very idea of individualized dwellings with costly handcrafted details: the new dwellings would embody a minimalist, efficient, and economical aspect.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? V

In the 19th century in these United States there was a outpouring of literature which juxtaposed drawings of picturesque cottages, barns and villas, complete with extensive texts that explained to readers the meanings of the forms - these were called 'pattern books'. It was quite an industry at the time. Most of the publishing originated on the east coast, and most prolific of all the pattern book writers was Andrew Jackson Downing of the Hudson Valley. His major works were Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). Downing extolled the virtues of good residential architecture, largely to be based on variations of English Gothic-Revival cottage styles, which he felt would encourage the Jeffersonian ideal of the private home as the basis of a stable society. He felt that every American dwelling would be a "home of the virtuous citizen".

These pattern books were intended for a mass audience that was still largely rural in 1850, and thus the tone was both of practicality and individual expression. It was thought by the writers of these books that the models of home they proffered would serve the moral purpose of strengthening the nuclear family along with the values of American democratic society. The egalitarian ideal of American society at that time was to be expressed in houses that were simple and economical, and avoiding of any taste for luxury and expense which were associated to the wealthy and their architects. Democracy was to be expressed in a domestic architecture, by being varied, both by virtue of location (on hillside, at lakefronts, on the farm or in town, etc), and by virtue of the owner's occupation, background, and family values.

Ruskin was bit of a hero of this movement, and his books like The Seven Lamps of Architecture (see my previous post titled "Lamp of Sacrifice") and The Stones of Venice were popular throughout the last half of the 19th century, with over one hundred editions of his works appearing before 1895. These pattern books celebrated Ruskin's ideal of home and hearth, and the eccentricities of American middle-class dwellings. Since these books were in direct competition with the profession of architecture (and further, many builders were self-styling as 'architects'), and were overtly critical of architects, the architects responded by banding together (the American Institute of Architects was established in 1851) to resist these populist attacks on their skill and integrity. The builders were trying to sell themselves to, and inspire, the public on a variety of premises: widespread social equality, readily available plans, loads of symbolic ornamentation, an insistence upon imaginative mixture of details. In general they pushed a freedom from European precedent. The professional architects, naturally, took an opposite approach, selling themselves as purveyors of taste, the reserve and elegance of form which were the result of high training, the chastisement and self-denial which came from "knowledge and discipline, and imagination which dares to venture upon new flights, and an education which prevents these flights of fancy from becoming disasterous". That's what they were selling, and as far as they were concerned, neither builders, nor the enthusiastic engineer, nor the simple mechanic, or the ambitious carpenter - not even the client - could create true architecture like the architect. Architects put forth the view at that time, and perhaps it has not changed much, that they, and only they, would elevate the nations homes by providing elegant examples in their mansions and prominent public monuments; ordinary builders, they insisted, should recognize the superiority of the architect's training and respectfully follow his lead, rather than try to create independent styles. Humility has never been a strong point in the world of professional architecture, from what I have observed thus far.

Obviously, a certain amount of hostility seems to have been engendered between builders and architects from the earliest days, which was a little funny in one respect since both groups at the time under discussion were reading the same current English treatises on aesthetics, like those of Ruskin. While sharing a similar intellectual world in that respect, they interpreted that world very differently from one another. And, it should also be noted, that while the architect and builders served a somewhat different client base, especially class-wise, they both relied upon an increasingly well-organized system, the growing mass of techniques that Jacques Ellul elaborated upon (see previous posting in this thread), of industrial manufacture and commercial distribution of the vast quantity of goods that came to be considered necessary for decorating and constructing homes. As this production and distribution became more complicated, the work of designing and building homes also grew more specialized, which led architects to form ever larger design firms, the builders to congregate into trade unions and other large aggregates. These larger groups, quite naturally, in an 'every man for himself', profit-driven society, vied with one another for political power and control of what was a rapidly expanding and lucrative market. To give one example, Chicago, the birthplace of the balloon-framed form of construction, went from a population of 29,963 in 1850 to 1,698,575 in 1900.

As Ellul points out numerous times in The Technological Society, once the pertinent conditions are in place, and technique takes a foothold, it begins to develop a life of it's own that seemingly multiplies on a sort of geometric progression, and gains, in fact, an autonomic quality. Here's a quote from Gwendolynne Wright's book, Moralism and the Model Home (1980) that shows this progression quite well I think:

"Advances in printing technology, reproduction techniques for illustrations, and transportation services refined and disseminated ideas for the home. Improved papermaking in the 1880's yielded an inexpensive high-gloss paper. Even more important for cutting costs and printing time was the use of standardized type sizes and column widths, a practice that most larger publishing companies adopted during this decade and that led eventually to the linotype machine. Illustrations grew more numerous as they became easier and cheaper to produce. Zinc cuts replaced the earlier, crude wood blocks which had to be slowly cut by hand...journals began to offer special inserts with heliograph reproductions of drawings and photographs...halftone photography introduced a less expensive process which closely simulated contours and depth through minute dots. The illustrations of houses in builder's guides and in professional architectural journals could now, as never before, emphasize details of texture and ornament as well as mood. These advances allowed the ideal [the romantic home] to be intimately connected to specific symbolic details of architecture."

Improvements in roads, trucking and distribution systems, allowed postage rates to come down, which allowed these new images far wider distribution than ever before. One thing about an image I would observe, compared to a written or oral description of a thing, the image, while providing a rich amount of information, provides a correspondingly lower opportunity for the engagement of the individual's imagination.

As Ellul states, one of the 5 prerequisites for the development of the technological society is population expansion, and Chicago of 1850~1900 provides a very clear example. As the city grew, Chicago became a national center of sorts for the housing industry. In fact, by 1880, Chicago had become the third largest producer of goods in the nation, the principal source for raw materials for housing - especially lumber, plumbing fixtures, and glass, and it was the nation's largest manufacturer of furniture. Major railroad lines converged there, and soon Chicago was the nation's largest distribution center for all these goods. Department Stores sprang up, like Montgomery Ward, and the fledgling mail order firm that would become Sears. As a result of all this rapid urban development, Chicago had a burgeoning middle class of clerics, salespeople, business entrepreneurs, government employees, salaried professionals and technicians, and with this rise came a rapid increase in home ownership, and demand for housing and apartments. This demand could only be satisfied, or even made possible, by advances of technique in the industrial realm.

The advent of steam power and it's application to the milling of wood allowed for the production of ornamental mill work, stock blinds, doors, window sash in greater speed and variety than before. By 1870, some 70% of the lumber-milling firms in the country that made such millwork relied upon heavy steam-powered equipment. After 1871 there was a flood of inventions, especially in the realm of cheaper and faster machines. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 featured a vast array of new woodworking machines and tools, including the state-of-the-art all-metal hand planes:

The Centennial Exhibition, which hosted some 10 million visitors, was a pivotal moment in the rise the technological society the US was fast-becoming, and transformed the county's image, in the eyes of Europe, from that of young upstart to powerhouse. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his new 'telephone', there was even a steam powered monorail locomotive (clearly too far ahead of it's time). It was also the place where asbestos was introduced, a mineral first discovered, that same year, in Quebec. As with many technical innovations introduced with great fanfare, it is never possible to know all the outcomes and effects of that technology, which are often negative. Of course, in a technologically- driven world, the solutions for a given problem in a technology are always to be solved by further applications of the technical repertoire....

The site of the 1876 Exhibition, Fairmount Park, also ties into my personal architectural interests since it is the current site of the Shofuso building, originally installed at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1956 (see Drexler's The Architecture of Japan for more). It's a worthwhile place to visit. But, I digress.

By the late 1870's, much of the decoration for the stylish middle class home was already being produced in a factory, shipped across the country, then simply tacked onto the dwelling. Such things as 'gingerbread' ornament, shingles in the shape of snowflakes or fish-scales, molding in a diverse range of patterns, all formerly crafted by the carpenter on site could be produced cheaper and faster by a factory. Entire porches and stairs could be ordered from catalogs, and soon sears was selling compete buildings by mail order. None of these machine-made creations were actually new in and of themselves, however it had been technical improvements in such things as higher grade hardened steel cutting blades which allowed such machines to be used for long periods at a far higher stock feed rate than previously. By 1889, the US Commissioner of Labor, Carroll Wright, reported that mechanical saws now required only 4 hours to produce irregular forms in wood that would have required 110 hours with hand processes.

All these new techniques and the cheaper materials that they made possible encouraged, in turn, extravagant display on the part of builders and homeowners. In the house now appeared a profusion of wooden latticework screens, complex stair balustrades, and ornate pediments, architraves and friezes. Developments in the glass industry made for inexpensive window glass in plain, stained, or ornamentally-cut iterations which in concert with greater uniformity in machine-produced sash, allowed builders to furnish a house with a large number of windows. All of these factors combined to effect shifts in US domestic architecture, moving from its beginnings of the humble building patterns imported directly from Europe and expressed in such ways as the New England vernacular of the Georgian house, with its minimal articulation of surfaces, strict formality and symmetry, to the architecture of the late 19th century, characterized by the Victorian style. These houses, made possible by cheap and standardized materials and mass-produced ornament, veritably burst out of the confines of the four-wall envelope, and articulated their surfaces in virtually all directions: now such things as porches, bays, balconies, dormers, towers, and oriels.

This Victorian architectural flourish, the "painted ladies" as such structures are called in San Francisco, while an artifact of the machine age, were also in some ways a reaction to the encroachment of technique into all aspects of life. With the endless drive of technique is the complete rationalization of everything, in a certain sense Victorian architecture was in reaction to that idea, and while it did make heavy use of the machine in production ,the appearance of the objects produced in many ways tried to recall the quirks of the handmade.

Prior to the advent of the 5 conditions Ellul posits as necessary for the explosion in technique to occur, elaborated upon in the previous posting, the world of technique had a particular characteristic prior to the 18th century: it was local. The social group was all powerful and controlling, and people didn't move much from the place in which they were born. There was little communication of technique in any given field, and therefore it spread slowly and largely in isolation. Technique was thus intrinsically bound up with culture in a tight framework, and but one factor in a group that made up the components of a civilization, which were both diverse and numerous - natural factors such as climate, flora and fauna, along with artificial elements such as politics, art, and techniques, each interlinked yet somewhat independent of one another. Even if a civilization was well-provided with technical inventions, and I name the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Inca, as a few examples, they deliberately undertook to use these technical innovations only to the degree to which it would enable an imaginative construction to be realized. 'Functionalism' was a long way off at that point in time. Thus, in certain societies, art and technique become somewhat co-mingled, and in simpler societies, technique was purely of a pragmatic nature for the most part. For any given invention there was a considerable time lag before it might be utilized on anything approaching a wide scale, and that goes too for the transformation of inventions intended for play (like gunpowder in China which was for fireworks, or the wheel in Meso-America, which was a child's toy) into useful objects.

The evolutionary slowness of technique prior to the 18th century was accompanied by a great variety, an "irrational diversification" of designs. Ellul again,

"Men made incoherent modifications on instruments and institutions which already existed; but these modifications did not constitute adaptations. We are amazed when we inspect, say, a museum of arms or tools, and note the extreme diversity of form of a single instrument in the same place and time. The great sword used by Swiss soldiers in the sixteenth century had at least nine different forms (hooked, racked, double-handed, hexagonal blades, blades shaped like a fleur-de-lis, grooved, etc.). This diversity was evidently due to various modes of fabrication peculiar to the smiths; it cannot be explained as a manifestation of a technical enquiry. The modifications of a given type were not the outcome of calculation or of an exclusively technical will. They resulted from aesthetic considerations. It is important to emphasize that technical operations, like the instruments themselves, almost always depended on aesthetic preoccupations. It was impossible to conceive of a tool that was not beautiful. As for the idea, frequently accepted since the triumph of efficiency, that the beautiful is that which is well adapted to use - -assuredly no such notion guided the aesthetic searchings of the past. No such conception of beauty (however true) moved the artisans who carved a Toledo blade or fabricated a harness. On the contrary, aesthetic considerations are gratuitous and permit the introduction of uselessness into an eminently useful and efficient apparatus." (emphasis mine)

In the 19th century, however, all this began to change, as society adopted technique on a wider scale and began to emphasize rationality and the quest for efficiency over all other concerns. It was felt by many at the time that this shift in society violated not only long-held traditions but also the deepest instincts of humankind. Thus, men sought to reintroduce the seemingly indispensable factors of aesthetics and morals into these products of rationalization now being produced everywhere. What emerged in the 1880's were tools and products with machine-made embellishments - 'useless work' in other words. Bandsaw castings were decorated with cast iron florets and curlicues, tractors fronted bull's heads, and houses tried to show as much of the irrational, sentimental, and hand-made as they could (even if most of the components came out of the factory). Of course, a profusion of ornament was also a means of displaying wealth; it was understood that one way to display wealth is through the conspicuous consumption of items of pretense and display, of whimsy and impracticality - this was, as the 19th century wore on, more and more serving as a replacement for the previous principal means of displaying a person's cultural reputation: conspicuous leisure.

A further point about Victorian housing styles that I would like to make is that these buildings were also a reflection of other social ideas as to the structure of the family and the roles of the members within it. These roles were rather clearly defined and rigid, and the architecture was designed to reinforce an ideal of the home and family, which in itself positioned the home as retreat from the industrial world. This rigidity meant specific rooms for the husband, for the servant(s), for the children, for important visitors (the parlor) and for the wife, with clearly defined boundaries, solid walls and doors. Women were encouraged to become paragons of domesticity, and in fact the overarching thrust of popular women's magazines of the day (often edited by men, curiously) was to tutor the 'housewife' in how to make her home a haven from the harsh world of business and industry. Increasingly, these magazines, a technical artifact in themselves, pushed forward the concept that the good housewife herself was not the judge of what was best for her own home, but must be encouraged to look to 'experts' to learn how to create a 'good' home, and that the ideals for this were to be sought in the world of the wealthy and their architects. The skyscraper and industrial factory were now to be the world of men, and the home, the Queen Anne 'cottage', the world of women. Well, in time, as with all styles and planned attempts to fit round pegs into square holes, there was a backlash against the 'excesses' of the Victorian aesthetic and social construct. Society shifted and strained under the weight of so much change in such a short period of time, and eventuated a series of profound social changes - adaptation took place in other words - and, as always from this point forward however, with the lens of technique now snapped permanently into place. We'll take a look at those changes, and the Arts and Crafts movement that was born in reaction, in the next installment in this series.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? IV

Industrialism is often perceived simply as being concerned with the development of machinery, but that is only one aspect of a far larger technical revolution. Other writers have characterized the industrial revolution period as one of "new modes of exploiting energy", and the transformations that resulted, say moving from wood to coal to oil. This is also a superficial assessment when considering technical civilization as a whole.

Jacques Ellul defines the word technique in a very particular and revealing way:

"The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. Its characteristics are new; the technique of the present has no common measure with that of the past. This definition is not a theoretical construct. It is arrived at by examining each activity and observing the facts of what modern man calls 'technique' in general, as well as by investigating the different areas in which specialists declare they have technique."

Thus, technique spans not simply developments in machinery, but developments in social relations, political structures, systematization of laws, economic phenomena, and so forth, and was not an isolated fact in society but it related to every factor in the life of modern man. I accept Ellul's definition since it helps to clarify the scope and depth of the phenomenon of industrialism and it's effects upon both society and the individual.

So, as I mentioned above, classifying the industrial revolution as a matter of this or that form of energy exploitation, or this or that development in machinery, falls woefully short. Others have similarly rejected these sorts of classifications - one writer, Norman Wiener, states that there has only been one industrial revolution, consisting in the replacement of human muscle as a source of energy, and a second revolution in the making (at that point in time) whose sole object is the replacement of the human brain. We are today in the middle of that revolution.

The industrial revolution resulted not from the simple exploitation of coal, and the development of steam power, but from a change of attitude on the part of the whole western civilization. This begs a very important question: Why, after such slow progress for centuries, did such an explosion of technical progress take place in a span of 150 years? How did this become possible at that juncture of history, something which had not seemed possible before?

After all, the ancient Greeks knew that machines could be used. The ancient Romans innovated in several technological realms like transportation and hydrology, but these inventions did not transform society nearly to the extent we saw in the 18th and 19th centuries. Leonardo da Vinci invented a great variety of new machines and useful devices, (like the alarm clock, the silk winder, double-hulled ships, the universal joint, conical gears) and drew machines for flying, warfare and so forth that were never realized - yet why did none of his inventions and improvements find widespread application and use?

Somehow the atmosphere at the middle of the 18th century was conducive to technological development, in at least in its preliminary phase - the 19th century is the period in which things really took off. Ellul posits that the transformation of civilization at that juncture in history can be explained by the "conjunction in time of five phenomena":

1) the fruition of a long technical experience
2) population expansion
3) the plasticity of the social milieu
4) the suitability of the economic environment
5) the appearance of clear technical intention

Let's look at these in brief.

For the first, in the period from 1000 A.D. to 1750 there was in effect a slow fermentation of ideas and technical methods, many of which had no immediate consequence or use. Every tool the carpenter uses today is the product of a long series of development and is the result of tools which served to make it. Japanese carpenter tools reached their zenith in the late 19th century when un-employed swordsmiths brought their advanced techniques to bear upon the tool forging process. The continuity of development of any tool, represents an incubation of sorts, an incubation consisting of millions of accumulated experiments, and was the preparation for a decisive moment of formulation.

The second factor, population expansion, was equally necessary. The growth of population entails a growth of needs which cannot be satisfied except by technical development, AND population increase also offers favorable grounds for research and technical growth by furnishing both the necessary market and the human capital required to develop the technique.

The third, plasticity of social milieu, refers to the disappearance of social taboos and of natural social groups. Of all the factors that made favorable the seismic shift that was the industrial revolution, this factor was perhaps the most decisive, according to Ellul. The taboos which disappeared relate to taboos in Christianity and other sociological taboos. The popular mentality created by Christianity, particularly during the 17th century, was that the natural order must not be tampered with and anything new must be submitted to a moral judgment -- which meant an unfavorable pre-judgment in the vast majority of cases.

Sociological taboos related to the conviction, through most of Western history, that a natural hierarchy of man exists and must not be tampered with. Thus the position of nobility and clergy, and especially the King, were beyond reproach or question. The natural hierarchy operated against the practice of mechanical arts, which would only bring improvements to the lower classes. And since the lower classes also believed in the natural hierarchy, they could only be submissive or passive and did not try to better their lot. Belief in this artificial hierarchy and it's sacred character thus stood in the way of technique.

Further, the very structure of society, arranged upon the basis of natural social groups, guilds and groups formed upon the basis of collective interest (like Universities, the Parliament, Hospitals, and so forth) were all distinct from one another and independent. As Ellul puts it,

"The individual found livelihood, patronage, security, and intellectual and moral satisfactions in collectives that were strong enough to answer all his needs but limited enough not to make him feel submerged or lost"

If a person's position is fairly stable socially he does not try to gratify imaginary needs; if the position of a person in society is a balanced one, even if it is one of poverty, they will oppose any innovation which might threaten that balance. Thus the existence of natural groups impedes the propagation of technical invention. In particular reference to the mechanical arts, like carpentry, Guilds served as repositories of techniques, however the structure of the guild itself meant that exterior diffusion of those techniques (which entails the crossing of a sociological frontier to from new social bonds) is extremely difficult. Moreover, the Guilds themselves were in fact secretive about technique, even internally, and only after a long period of apprenticeship would the 'secrets' be fully revealed to the acolyte. Thus, division of society into closely constituted groups like guilds is an obstacle to the development of inventions. This is also true of religious groups. The diffusion of every technique tends to be checked by such social divisions.

The obstacles presented by religious and social taboos disappeared largely at the time of the French Revolution in 1789 (in England a similar event took place when Cromwell executed Charles I). The overthrow of the corrupt French royal family was followed shortly by the creation of new religions/sects, the affirmation of materialism, a struggle against the clergy (given their former alliance with the French nobility), and, at the same time, a systematic campaign waged against the old order of natural groups, including the guilds, the religious orders, and the Universities. The old idea of liberty of groups was supplanted by a new idea of the liberty of the individual. There was also a struggle to undermine the family unit, by new revolutionary laws governing inheritance, divorce, and paternal authority, the effects of which became permanent in time. All of these radical shifts and break-ups, the very atomization of society, of the established order, created the social plasticity that Ellul talks about.

The break up of the natural groups and the overthrow of the established order led to an enormous displacement of people at beginning of the 19th century, to quote Ellul once again:

"To uproot men from their surroundings, from the rural districts and from family and friends, in order to crowd them into cities too small for them; to squeeze thousands into unfit lodgings and unhealthy places of work; to create a new environment within the framework of a new human condition (it is too often overlooked that the proletariat is the creation of the industrial machine) -- all this was possible only when the individual was completely isolated. It was conceivable only when he literally had no environment, no family, and was not part of a group able to resist economic pressure; when he had almost no way of life left"

Without the anchor of the social group, the individual is left with only the state, which by default becomes the highest order and all-powerful. The plastic society produced by the factors leading to the supremacy of the state was perfectly malleable and incredibly flexible, a highly favorable development that allowed industrialism to proceed without hindrance.

The fourth factor, suitability of the economic environment, means that for technological progress to take place, the economic system must have suitable traits in place. These traits, in fact, are somewhat contradictory of one another: they must be both stable and in flux. What this means is that the foundations of economic life must be stable enough so that primary technical research can be devoted to well-defined objectives and situations, AND, at the same time the economic milieu must be capable of change and adaptation so that technical inventions can be absorbed into the economy. This was in fact the condition of the late 18th century.

Finally, the fifth condition, clear technical intent, was also present in this key period of human social development. Siegfried Gideon, in his work "Mechanization Takes Command" (1948) makes this comment about the period of 1750 to 1850 in the US:

"Invention was a part of the normal course of life. Everyone invented. Every entrepreneur dreamed of more rapid and economical means of fabrication. The work was done unconsciously and anonymously. Nowhere else and never before was the number of inventions per capita as great as in America in the '60's of that century."

The shift to a general movement in favor of technique was industrial self-interest (that is, what we call today, special interest), which, for the sake of efficiency (=$$$), demanded a search for the "one best way to do the work". This special interest was not simply confined to mere machinery, or any other single area of endeavor - it was widespread. State interest became conscious, as it were, following the French revolution, and the same could be said for the US following the revolutionary war. In France, the state developed political and industrial technique, then military and judicial technique, as control of these aspects of technique led the state to have a dominant position in respect to enemies both within and without. After the state, it was the powerful interests within the state, the bourgoisie, who soon discovered that great deal of profit could be extracted from consciously-developed improvements in technique. These bourgoisie soon created improved financial techniques, which in turn 'helped', to put it mildly, the development of the modern state. As Ellul puts it,

"At the beginning of the 19th century, they saw the possibilities of drawing huge profits from this system, especially as they were favored by the crumbling "of morals and religion" and felt themselves free, in spite of the idealistic smokescreen they raised, to exploit individuals. This class put the interests of technique before the interests of individuals, who had to be sacrificed in order that technique might progress."

Since the bourgoisie made money from their developments of technique, it was only a natural extension that developing technique became one of their primary objectives. Industrialization, led by these bourgoisie first occurred and became most widespread in England, as capitalism was more highly developed there and the wealthy elites more at liberty to do as they pleased, than in most other places.

Of course, as I mentioned in a previous posting about the Luddites (Luddite Dreams), the self-interested goals of the wealthy, wonderfully promising as it must have appeared to them, was not enough to carry the whole of society along with it in the early 19th century. Resisters like the Luddites were still smashing machines as late as 1848. The workers were not quite ready to go along for the ride yet because their standards of living had not risen with the, er, big boats - there was in fact a considerable loss of equilibrium from their lives as a result of all the newly-wrought changes to society. The masses were not, as it were, exactly intoxicated with the results in the early period of the industrial revolution, and thus split society to a great extent: the power of the state and the wealth of the bourgoisie were for it; the masses were against.

This situation was to change however as a prodigious upheaval was to take place between 1850 and 1914 which convinced everyone of the excellence of a technical movement that could produce such marvels and alter human life. That period, 1850 to 1914, shall be the focus of the next piece in this thread, where I will also shift attention from the general to the specific, and begin looking particularly at changes to the way of the carpenter in the US, and the resulting end of a proud building tradition.

--> on to part V

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? III

I was out at the Boston Children's Museum recently, to take a look at a Machi-ya (Japanese merchant house) that is installed inside the facility. The building is about 400 years old and was given to the city of Boston by Kyoto, in 1979, shortly after a sister city relationship was established between the two places. Kyoto, which teems with old architecture (and lots of concrete and glass too!) is often considered Japan's oldest and most traditional city, is fittingly twinned with Boston, which is one of the oldest cities in the US, and is the location of the first Japanese consulate in the US.

The Museum had invited me to visit on rather short notice, as a Japanese craftsman was visiting for a couple of days, and they thought it would be good timing for me to come by as well. The Japanese craftsman, a Mr. Hashimoto, is a hyōgushi (表具師), a specialist in creating and repairing papered surfaces. A hyōgushi is kind of like a master wallpaperer, but the specialty also overlaps into the field of gilding. In fact, Hashimoto-san usually specializes in the gold leaf work in temples. On this visit, he had just done a spell at the Rockefeller residence in New York, where they have a Japanese teahouse, and had swung by to do some repair work on the Machi-ya's fusuma doors for a couple of days before returning home to Kyoto. Here, Hashimoto-san is building up the door edge with a lamination of strips:

As you might well imagine, an ancient Japanese merchant's house and a children's museum is a curious pairing - I got to watch what goes on in the house when 20 kids suddenly rush in, like fish through a penstock. They basically run amok in the house, opening and closing every sliding door they can get their hands on, and bashing into things. So, compared to normal, the house receives a huge amount of wear and tear. Fusuma are a type of lightweight door similar to shoji, except that they have thicker lattice frames (kumiko) and are papered on both sides of the kumiko. The paper is in layers, which on high-class fusuma is often three layers. The fusuma in the museum were just average ones with two layers, though they did have black lacquered outside frames. Several of the fusuma, after years in the museum, were punctured with numerous holes, so those needed repair along with putting fresh paper and lacquered frames on the fusuma.

I watched the hyōgushi work, right at the house entrance, for a couple of hours and it was quite fascinating. While I have never made fusuma, I understood pretty well how they were constructed as far as the internals went but was unclear as to how the paper was serviced and worked, and now I know some more after watching a master craftsman at work. An interesting observation also, was not just of Hashimoto-san, but of the various families that came up to the house's front door to enquire about the house hours, which were 1:00~3:00 that day. In each case, the Museum staff member at the door patiently explained that the house wasn't to open until 1:00 and that they had a Japanese master craftsman at work (and pointed towards Mr. Hashimoto), a rare event, and that it was a unique opportunity to observe the repair of the doors. To my surprise, not one family stopped even a heartbeat of time to observe, they simply turned about and headed back into the rest of the museum. After some 15 separate families doing the same thing, I began to conclude that perhaps they simply didn't have attention span for something like watching a craftsperson work. It wasn't that they didn't have time, as many came back an hour or so later after the house opened, it was more they just simply didn't consider the idea of stopping for a few moments, let things slow down, and watch someone work patiently at an activity. I watched the children a lot in these multiple interactions with the staff members, and I got the strong impression that they had little to no attention span whatsoever, and I imagine their parents (who may also have limited attention spans) basically knew that, so it would appear that they didn't consider, even for a blink of an eye, the thought of pausing to watch. It was a bit sad. The museum staffer mentioned to me that she found that kids have virtually no attention span. I guess so. I had thought this was less common asa phenomenon, however now I am beginning to wonder if in fact most children (and adults) are this way. Without an attention span, it must be said, gaining depth of knowledge in any deep field of enquiry is all but impossible.

I was thinking about that fact of limited attention span, the rising rates, apparently of ADD and ADHD among the young, the type of media we have had, I suppose in particular since the early 1980's advent of MTV with the shift to media of hyper-shifting imagery and sound-bite journalism and politics and how it might contribute to this phenomenon. And beyond that, I have been doing a fair amount of reading of late on a series of books that have made extensive comments upon shifts that have taken place in N. American culture in the past 150 years. It seemed to me that it would be worth revisiting the topic of the decline and fall of the Master Builder tradition, which I first took a look at back in January, as I feel I have some fresh insights to offer.

One of this things we often read about when mention is made of the late 19th century and the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, is how it was a 'reaction' to the 'excesses' of Edwardian and Victorian architecture. I'd always taken that somewhat at face value, but without really seeing it in much depth. Indeed, I may well now be still seeing it from a relatively shallow perspective, but it is a notch deeper than previous, so I hope the reader will indulge me in this respect.

It is curious that no one seems to talk much about why Victorian architecture and material culture in general was the way it was - highly decorated and prone to sentimentality and ornament. Did that just naturally evolve, or was it in itself a reaction to something? Well, it seems like it was in fact a reaction to something, and that something, I think, was industrialism, that is the set of behaviors and methods, techniques, that were spawned by the industrial revolution. As I averred in previous posts in this thread, the largest contributor to the loss of the Master Builder/Craftsman tradition was industrialism, and I would like therefore to examine the industrial revolution in more detail, both in it's effect upon society and upon methods of work and traditions in craft. That will form the focus for postings here over the next few days.

--> on to part IV

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting to 'yes'(?)

As I mentioned several postings back, about 6 weeks back I had been down to Connecticut to look at an interesting job involving a 1930's Japanese house that needed complete rebuild. That first visit I spent some 5 hours with the clients and subsequently have devoted no small amount of time to the matter as the negotiation process has evolved in the weeks since that first visit.

Yesterday I got the following message,

"Dear Chris

Thank you for your time, emails and references. Unfortunately, we decided to use a different contractor for this project for several reasons. We believe that your craftsmanship is absolutely outstanding but we do not have the means at the moment to do everything in the best possible way. As a result we will have to "cut some corners" which we know you would not want to cut.

Our budget simply does not allow your level of perfection.

I hope you understand our reasoning and we hope to stay in touch.


That was tough to read, but I can't say it was entirely unexpected. I knew that that the projected budget for the rebuild would be stretch for them. There have been many such promising looking projects on the horizon, and time and time again I have let my hopes soar only to see the crash at the end, time and time again.

I've been reading various books on business strategy and marketing, and though several of them tell me that you have to hear a whole lot of 'no' before you get to 'yes', sometimes it's mighty discouraging after hearing yet another, "sorry, but....".

And often enough what follows such messages, for me at least, is an examination of what I did in the process, to see if I might have done things differently in how I presented or 'sold' things. You see, I'm not the exactly high-pressure sales type of individual. For me, 'sales' is the act of talking about what I love to do and why - if I can't convince someone about that, then the issue would be more a shortage of passion, however that is certainly not the case for me when it comes to Japanese carpentry. In this case I really feel I did a good job of representing myself and giving he clients clear information upon which to base their decision - so I don't find fault at all with my part in that process.

Then, in the post-mortem, I look again at how I priced the job, often wondering if there was some way I could have offered to do it for less. However, I do know that it is as often as not the best thing that the job NOT go ahead if the money is not there. I have worked for pennies in past projects, all too often, as I have mentioned in previous posts. I can't afford to do that any more. On a bigger job that can go on for months and months the opportunity for a builder to bankrupt themselves from estimating errors or unanticipated problems is a definite possibility. I've read several accounts of contractors going under as a result of getting the apparent 'dream' job, as such jobs often stretch them to their limits and all it takes in such circumstances are an unfortunate series of events and things can go badly wrong. This job, a small structure, was not quite in that category of 'giant dream project', though I very much wanted to do it all the same - it was exciting to me to have the prospect of bringing an 80 year old derelict structure back to vitality.

The flip side of risk in these situation is that of giving a reasonable estimate, and then the client taking on more than they can handle and things going south before the project finishes, which can be a real mess too. So I'm glad that the clients thought the situation over very carefully before coming to the conclusion that what I offered, though very desirable to them, was simply beyond their budget.

As far as the budget went, I was hungry for the job and had in fact priced it at the low end of the scale for the work - in an effort to get my 'foot in the door' so to speak in the local scene, to which I am a new and untried entity at this point. There can be no 'word of mouth' until you have something to show after all. At the price point I was proposing, my intent as far as the job went was solid, quality, authentic work, which though admittedly was going to be of higher quality than the original building (not a masterpiece of Japanese carpentry or embodiment of perfection by any stretch), was hardly what I would characterize as some sort of 'level of perfection'. Of course, that all becomes relative - one person's standard of 'perfection' is another person's 'hack job'. At least the clients perceived that I was going to offer them high quality work instead of slip-shod, and they had made a number of mentions of their disappointment as to the level of craftsmanship they had seen in the work performed upon their house to that point.

I had another promising-looking job a month back with a lovely couple. They had spent 5 months working with an architect to develop plans for a substantial house expansion, and for their planned new space they wanted me to build several pieces of furniture, along with shoji and possibly a Japanese ceiling (tenjo) for their bedroom. That job looked likely to happen, and my initial meeting with the clients had gone extremely well. We had a few more conversations over the following month, then I received the following e-mail:

"Hi Chris,

We have come to a decision not to proceed with our addition just as we were on the verge of soliciting bids for construction.

The reason is that we had a fair cost estimate based on square footage and specific prices for cabinetry and fixtures, and we realized that for the same amount we could purchase an already built newer house without a year of construction hassle. Not to mention the open-endedness of new construction.


So, after having experienced dozens of such client retrenchments/reconsiderations, I don't tend to come to a place of viewing any potential job as a 'sure bet' until I actually have the deposit cheque in hand. Even then I'm still somewhat disbelieving! The struggle, perhaps, is to find the place where one still keeps some measure of hope close at heart without taking too big of a ride on that balloon. or maybe the ultra-realist 'abandon all hope ye who enter here' approach would be more sensible?

While it is comforting to know that people like your work and may really want you to do the project for them, there are many factors affecting such decisions, many out of my control and out of the client's control. This is especially the case for architectural work as compared to furniture. It is easier for most people to decide to spend $10,000 on something than $200,000 on something.

One can understand the endless drive in the building industry to embrace ever increasing amounts of factory-produced product - anything to bring the labor hours down on site and reduce costs. The cheaper the product, the larger the group of potential buyers. When I am faced again with the information, from yet another lost potential job, that I'm apparently simply too expensive, I can't help but start thinking that I should find some way to, if not cut those corners, at least find a way to work in a different way that would be cheaper somehow. I haven't found any way to do that yet without sacrificing the integrity of the work. I guess I have a lot invested, philosophically, emotionally, in doing the work in an honest and conscientious manner, in a way that honors the materials, that honors the craft tradition, and that honors my drive to leave something of worth behind after I'm done on this earth. Sometimes I really fear I'll never get the opportunity to do the work I am capable of doing and really want to do. Sometimes I want, for a brief flicker of a moment, to give up this path as it seems fraught with a lot of disappointment at times.

I've been reading a lot by and on Frank Lloyd Wright lately, and it is somewhat encouraging, I suppose, to learn that his greatest period of productivity in which he produced buildings like Fallingwater, those icons of American architecture which the AIA and the academics effusively drool over, and which garnered Wright the greatest fame - - all took place in the final two decades of his life, after he was widely considered to be a 'washed-up' relic. Similarly, the much-revered architect Louis Kahn didn't land a substantial commission until he was in his 60's, and his greatest work was also all done in the final 20 years of his life. I'm not saying that such matters concerning success late in life necessarily cheer me up, but they do provide, in some small way, a glimmer of hope that one day my chance too will come. I'm thankful that my wife believes in me and supports my dreams too, and is there to pick me up when I fall down. I hope I won't have to wait until I am 60 years old or to a point where am widely considered 'washed up' before the nice projects come along. Jeez, I've had barely the opportunity to get dirty yet, let alone washed up....


A note to readers:

There's been more of a gap lately in my frequency of posting here on this blog, and it's not for a lack of something to say. More the problem at times is that I have too many thoughts running through my head, and lack an organized direction or structure in which to frame them, so while have come to sit down at the keyboard a number of times with an idea to write a blog entry, if I can't come up with something reasonably coherent I often choose to wait a while. I've been reading a lot lately, both on FLW, and building in the 1850~1900 period in the US, and that, along with a, how can I put it? - swim - in the deep pool of Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society (1963) has given me much food for thought. Hopefully I will have organized my thoughts sufficiently in that regard to produce something in relation to these materials soon. Also, I have been designing a few different larger scale Japanese garden lanterns, and am planning to start making one of those, on a speculative basis, shortly. The French sawhorse situation still remains in a holding pattern waiting to hear back from the campagnon, but I think that must end pretty soon. Finally, I have been considering writing on more mathematical topics, like trigonometry, but fear that this will repel a lot of readers, so I hesitate in that regard. Who's afraid of math(s)? Sadly, most people, it would seem....

I just wanted to let you all know that I'm not running out of stuff to say, and though I have been slowing down the rate of posting, it may well pick up again soon. I appreciate your patience.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

All Academic II

It's a little bit embarrassing to post up pictures of my first building, though I imagine a lot of builders would feel similarly hesitant about showing their early work. When I look at the little well pump shed now, it seems hopelessly crude and there are a million things I would do differently. However, that said, the purpose of the project was to cement together my nascent understanding of compound roof joinery, and in that regards the project was a success. As I mentioned in the previous post, after struggling with my existing notes, I found that my Japanese layout texts easier to grasp and essentially followed the methods they espoused.

The pyramidal roof - termed hō-gyō (方形) in Japanese - I made entirely in Douglas Fir, and set the common slope at 5/10. Japanese roof layout, whether in traditional measure of sun 寸 and shaku 尺 or in metric, is always done on a base-10 basis, unlike the base-12 used in N. American framing practice. Base-10 is convenient since a calculator is set up to operate on that basis, thus one can move directly from the calculator to the framing square without having to perform any extra conversion.

I connected the wall plates, keta, together at the corners using the most basic and simple joint employed for this connection in Japanese carpentry, a haunched single tenon on one piece, fitted into a single mortise on the other, and wedged. This joint is termed ko-ne-hozo-zashi (小枘差し), which means, roughly paraphrased, "little root tenon assembly":

The corner is reinforced with a diagonal brace, hi-uchi bari (the 'flint' beam) which is let into each face of the keta with a housed sliding dovetail. The rafters are received atop the keta in individual notches, which permit the rafter to remain undiminished in size at the connection. This is one of two primary methods for connecting the rafter to the plate used in Japanese carpentry (though there are several other less common methods too). I fastened the rafter to the plate using a zinc-coated deck screw.

Here's a look at the completed hō-gyō roof frame:

I chose to use an octagonal king piece at the center of the roof to receive the upper ends of the rafters, as this allowed the rafters to have a simple plumb cut. I also chose to cut the rafter and hip tails plumb for some reason, though this is more commonly done in western framing. I prefer the 90˚ end cut for common rafters in most cases.

Once the roof frame was together, I fitted the rest of the rafters, and then applied some sheathing, using job site scraps. Then I moved the roof over as a unit to the waiting shed frame:

After that, I simply popped it on top, and this is how it looked:

Besides a slight mistake I made in rafter spacing (can you see it?), the curious bracing I did on the front, which I thought looked 'neat' at the time, had a purpose of providing an exit for a garden hose connection at the pump. This form of bracing is actually rather poor, structurally speaking, and I certainly wouldn't employ it on any buildings that people were to live in and/or which take any significant roof load.

Though the building is only about 1 meter tall, I couldn't resist taking a noki-shita (under the eave) picture:

Clearly, as seen in the above picture, I had little understanding at the time of the ideal configurations for rafters in relation to perimeter fascia. Gotta start somewhere though.

The braces, which were Yellow Cedar, I then infilled with Yellow Cedar tongue and groove boards, which could be had cheap at the local building supply:

And here are a few final pictures of the building with it's roof partially complete:

Obviously, such thick roof shingles are totally inappropriate for a tiny little building like that, but it was all I had on hand and time was, as it often seems to be, running out. I actually moved out at the end of that month with the landlord agreeing to finish up the shingling. He sold the place a couple of months later. Two years after that, I was in the area and swung by to take a look to see how the little shed was aging - hopefully with some grace. When I got there I was stunned to see that the new owner had painted the entire thing lavender in color. I tightened my jaw, sat right back down in my car, and drove away in silence. Jeez...

Ya can't control what will happen to the things you make for others, all you can do is control how you make it in the first place. This little well pump shed was a great project for me and was the start of a long path of study, still on-going, in Japanese roof carpentry.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's All Academic

When I was in school, I was hardly an inspired student. Well, that was true from about the 6th grade of elementary school onwards - prior to that I was a really keen student. I used to be the science monitor in 5th grade, which meant I'd stay after school and clean equipment and organize the storage room. Moreover, I would go out on the weekend to the ocean, head out in a rowboat and collect samples of floating plant material, bring them back home and examine them for hours with my microscope, then I'd write 20 page articles on what I had discovered, complete with detailed hand-drawn and colored illustrations. This wasn't for any required coursework - it was because I was into it.

Sometime in the 6th grade however, I can't remember exactly how, I twigged on to the system - I became aware that the teacher was more irritated than glad for my extra efforts, and I suddenly realized, in fact, that the entire thrust of the curriculum was directed at the 'C' level. It would be better all round if I just kept quiet. So I did, for the most part - it's called "checked out".

That approach continued right on up through the years I spent at University, where after a while things like 'grade-per-effort' ratios (if I could get a 'C' doing the absolute minimum, that seemed ideal) and choosing the courses with the least amount of reading load - these were the main drivers in my 'educational' process. I wasn't in university because I wanted to be there, but more because of family pressure and expectation. After the first couple of years were behind me, I stayed in university until completion largely motivated by the fact that I was already into it for a fair amount of time and not a small amount of money, and to leave without the Holy Grail piece of paper would have been close to a total loss. So I stayed, and I graduated eventually, with a degree in English Literature. As as result, I can no longer read classics, especially anything from Dickens. It's too bad really, and I feel in some ways like I wasted a lot of time going to school - in fact I wasted other people's time for that matter. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been there - technical school, say studying pattern-making, would have been a far better choice for me. When you're 19 years old though, it's not always obvious what to do with one's life, is it?

It's funny though, how sometimes in life you start out walking in a particular direction, even if it's all wrong for you, and it strangely brings you around to where you wanted to go, or perhaps should have been heading from the outset. In my case, A bachelor's in English facilitated getting a work visa in Japan, where I was able to pay off my student loan in short order, and more importantly, discover Japanese timber architecture. Working in Japan in the public school system for several years, which I found to be an extremely tedious and unrewarding job, gave me the opportunity to study a lot of Japanese and spend considerable time reflecting on my life and where it was 'going'.

Despite having a job that paid well, provided me with a free place to live, furnished, and a free car (I only had to put in gas), and nearly 100 paid days off per year, I wasn't enjoying life, though by any standard, I had it made, no? Obviously, this is not a plea for sympathy folks - many would dream to have a job like that, but I found, for the way I tick, that without challenge and emotional reward, the job and its perks meant nothing to me. Further, I really didn't like having a desk job and wearing a suit all day.

One day, during the time I was helping out the swordsmith, I was building a small structure in the basement of my apartment building - a little climbing wall - and the light finally went on! I realized that I really liked to work with wood. It was a profound rediscovery for me. I'd worked with wood a lot as a young man, from pre-teen up until the age of 16~17, when I (my parents) 'made the decision' to go to university, whereupon I ceased all shop courses at school and concentrated on the academic ones. So, though I had headed in the academic direction, and in the end that path brought me back to a simple joy of creating with my hands. Funny how things work out sometimes. Once the light went on for me, the direction was set, and some 6 months later I left Japan.

I had the opportunity to apprentice with that Temple Carpentry company in Osaka, Kongo Gumi, but I decided against it. I'd already been through the apprenticeship scene to an extent, with my martial arts training and experience with Watanabe the sword maker, and while I fully comprehend the value of the sensei-deshi relationship, I figured I could do better for myself by going the auto-didactic (self-study) route. While I was sure to make innumerable blunders trying to figure things out by myself, I knew I would never actually be alone in my quest as a great deal of carpentry information has been set down in print, and there are so many opportunities in modern life to access people and information that would have been impossible a few generations ago. Not everything comes out of books of course, and without having the hands in the work, all the theorizing in the world isn't going to be of much use in a practical art such as carpentry. There's a lot of stuff that can be learned by simple copying and repetition - indeed, rote learning is the cornerstone of many educational systems, Japan's in particular.

Also, by means of self-study, which was entirely self-motivated and directed, I could blame no one else for my shortcomings, and even when I would run into the inevitable areas where I just couldn't understand something, the important point is that when I met someone who might have the information, I would know exactly which questions to ask. and unlike the past years of uninspired study that had characterized my time in school, this time I was motivated! Learning is SO different when you are really engaged, and when you are pursuing knowledge, not certification.

What I loved the most about Japanese architecture, besides the intricate joinery and glassy planed surfaces, were the glorious roofs. From the outset, I wanted to make Japanese roofs. To learn how to layout such roof structures one cannot, it would seem to me, rely upon the rote learning method - it's not a matter of snapping a line in some place just because someone told you to do so - it's a matter of snapping the line in a place because you understand that is where the line needs to go. And if you didn't understand and put the line in the wrong place, the mistake will be all too clear soon enough. An Albertan named Robert once told me that an old teacher of his said (in a broad English accent):

"carpentry is just about two things: putting the lines on the wood and cutting where the lines are"

In my experience, the cutting part is the far easier skill to gain - whereas mistakes in the placing of lines seems to go on pretty much indefinitely! A carpenter in California who I greatly respect told me once that he laid the entire side of a building out backwards once and the mistake wasn't discovered until raising. There are accounts of Japanese master carpenter's fleeing into the night in shame or even taking their own lives as the result of layout mistakes on important projects.

You have to get your intellect engaged in layout, and that involves finding a way of learning that works best for yourself. For me, all those hours studying Japanese simply for something to do while passing the time at my job would prove to be very valuable indeed, since I could now access the Japanese carpentry and layout texts. Now, simply because one can read a textbook doesn't mean one can understand the book - especially when tackling a subject like Japanese descriptive geometry....

After I was back in Canada a while, I signed up for a couple of week's instruction with the Timber framer's Guild at Pingree Park, Colorado. The first week was devoted to cutting an raising a standard 12' x 16' timber structure, comprised of three bents and a 12/12 common rafter roof . That was fun and easy but not of great interest to me. The second week of the course was devoted to an 'introduction to compound joinery'. Will Beemer and John Miller shared the instructional duties, and we were shown three methods for determining the cut angles for compound roof joinery:

-the Hawkingdale angles (which derive from the Martingdale Angles used in steelwork)
-developed drawing

In the first week of the course I had of course gotten to know my fellow students, and learned that a couple of them were going on the compound joinery course for the second and even third time. I was puzzled why they needed to take the course again - later I understood a little better.

For the compound joinery course we were put into pairs and during the week endeavored to produce three roof models - a prow gable, a hip corner, and a valley corner. To be honest I wasn't totally getting the material we were being taught, but my partner, an architect, seemed comfortable with the drawings. I was quite comfortable with the cut out, so we made, it seemed, a good team and completed all of our models just fine. What I didn't come away with however, was a solid understanding of the methods. Cutting, as I said, is relatively easy. The instructors had done a superb job and were very clear, however the penny hadn't dropped for me at that point.

Then I returned home. One thing I knew right off the bat that as far as the compound joinery layout material was concerned, it was 'use it or lose it'. My landlord happened to need a well pump shed, so I offered to make it in return for provision of the materials and in lieu of one month of rent ($650). He agreed.

I decided to make a little pyramidal roof since it involved compound angles, and cracked open my notebook from the course, thinking that with some applied study I would figure it all out. Trouble was, I couldn't figure it all out - I couldn't make head nor tail of it. While I had been shown three methods, I was confused with every single one of them. A few days went by, and I grew quite frustrated. Use it or lose it....

I went and dug out one of my Japanese lay out books and sat down to see it I could make some headway. They teach a different method than I had been exposed to in the course at Pingree Park, and they don't teach the method in what might be called a logical-progression. My comprehension of the reading at that point in time was about 70%, but to be honest, since the reading was a struggle, I tended to look more at the pictures than the text at times. Curiously though, after a few hours, I was able to understand the method quite well, and the next day, I was putting the lines on the wood.

So, over the next couple of postings, I'd like to detail the construction of the well pump shed, my very first building project. My 'workshop' was the sun deck - I didn't even have sawhorses at that time, nor any power tools. I put time in on the project after work and on the weekends.

First things first: the foundation. I removed the topsoil, compacted the ground, threw down some gravel and cast a small pad for the pump house and the pump itself:

Then I laid out and cut the parts for the sill, termed 'dodai' in Japanese. I chose to join the sill corners with a double-wedged joint called 'dai-wa-do-me' 台輪留め, which means 'platform-ring-miter':

Here's the completed sill assembly:

Then it was a matter of bolting the sill and pump motor into place once the slab had cured sufficiently (I gave it 3 weeks):

Sill installation complete:

In the next post I'll detail the remainder of the well pump shed construction.