Architecture & Innovation

Related Post Roulette

8 Responses

  1. Avatar Will says:

    I just visited Savannah and was struck by many of the same qualities Bess praises in the town’s beautifully preserved historic district. My only qualm is how Bess is interpreted – I’m afraid that many people assume a properly reverential “culture of building” involves a very superficial recreation of historical architecture (witness the rash of faux-colonial developments).Report

  2. Avatar Simon K says:

    My question with traditionalist architecture is this: if you gave a medieval or 18th century builder access to modern materials and know-how, firstly would the use them in preference to their own? and secondly what would they do with them?

    I think the answer to the first question is obviously yes – drywall just is superior to plastering, concrete foundations to rubble and modern timber or steel framing to masonry in every practical respect.

    The second question is more interesting. A lot of the ugliness of (some) modern building is not the materials so much as the demand for flexibility, which can be accommodated thanks to the materials and not otherwise. If you tried to build an office building or warehouse that wasn’t a giant air conditioned box it would necessarily be less efficient and worth less in rent than one that was. At least some of those economic forces wouldn’t apply.Report

    • @Simon K,

      @Simon K,

      We’ve discovered new materials like reinforced concrete and steel that have changed the way we build, and rightly so.

      Still, I would add that there are certain downsides to industrially produced materials. They are often harder to repair or replace. They lead to structures that cannot be modified by their inhabitants. (I should note that “traditional building” might often have these same flaws, if for different reasons.)

      Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language is very good about stressing this point. The point is not dissimilar to what Jason recently highlighted about technology. Some of it is hackable, adaptable and open. Some of it isn’t. It’s a closed system that only does what its designers intended.Report

      • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

        @Matthew Schmitz, This is a good point about open and closed systems. I think as far as contemporary building materials go, it’s something of a wash. Steel and concrete are harder to alter but joists and drywall are much easier to alter than traditional materials.Report

        • @David Schaengold,

          A few points in response:

          The rise of industrial materials has made perfectly smooth surfaces and right angles a de facto requirement of building. Sheetrock — which can’t be produced on-site but must be manufactured elsewhere — is a good example of this. We may have ways that allow us to patch, repair and change it, but we will reject any result of that repair that does not have the pristine look of something manufactured. This is a cultural change.

          The architecture Alexander praises does not aspire to adaptability of a pitched tent. It instead seeks lasting usefulness, which requires not only adaptability but also quality materials locally sourced with a minimum of manufacturing steps. This way they are likely to be available even under changed economic conditions. I think this clarification makes the critique of contemporary forms of building a bit sharper.Report

      • Avatar Simon K in reply to Matthew Schmitz says:

        @Matthew Schmitz, I’m not sure about the inhabitant-modifiability thing actually. Modern timber frame houses are actually pretty easy to modify. Most people won’t do it, but that’s a different matter. Masonry construction which was the traditional form of building in most of the world is much, much harder to modify.

        I’m also a big fan of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language idea. But part of his inspiration was the “pattern books” of the 18th century which enabled semi-skilled builder to make professional-looking (and in many cases very long lasting) palladian-style buildings out of cheap local materials. What we’re doing now with framing and sheetrock isn’t that different in spirit.Report

    • Avatar David Schaengold in reply to Simon K says:

      @Simon K, @Simon K, “drywall just is superior to plastering, concrete foundations to rubble and modern timber or steel framing to masonry in every practical respect.” This way overstates the case. The main aspect in which these materials are superior is that they’re cheaper to produce and install. The exception is steel, which is not cheaper but is much stronger under tension than any traditional building material. Rubble of course drains better than concrete foundations and copes better with settling. Plaster is more fireproof, more soundproof, more durable than drywall, and most crucially does not deteriorate when exposed to water. Masonry insulates and serves as a heat sink as timber does not, and requires much less maintenance over time than any other kind of load-bearing wall.

      Not to say that modern materials don’t have their advantages of course (you forgot two that have been used in some of our best contemporary architecture, namely reinforced and pre-cast concrete). But don’t oversell the point.Report

      • Avatar Simon K in reply to David Schaengold says:

        @David Schaengold, Its not only price – they’re also much more flexible. But yes, I went back and forth between “economic” and “practical”. I think economic undersells the point because they are more flexible, but practical probably oversells it.Report