On reading Strange Details by Michael Cadwell

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4 architects, 4 buildings, 4 essays. I’m going to treat each one individually, not in order, and I may not cover them all. So, to start with we’ll look at Chapter 2: “The Jacobs House, Burning Fields.” In this chapter Cadwell considers one of the later Usonian houses by Frank Lloyd Wright. The house has survived well for almost 100 years due mostly to the care that its owners have lavished on it over the years. Cadwell theorizes that perhaps the house was never intended to.

Platform frame construction, originally balloon frame construction, is the norm for residential construction in the United States and has been since the turn of the last century. Houses built this way have, in some cases, lasted quite well though that fact has depended on continuous occupancy and a regimen of ongoing maintenance. My own house was designed by another local architect, now retired, and built in 1985. I can say with certainty that the service life of a platform frame single family house is approximately 25 years. I’m defining service life here as that point where major systems will begin to require replacement and the ensuing period of time will require an additional investment approaching the replacement cost of the building. In my case, I purchased a house with roof, siding, and windows all failing. The hot water heater did fail and the air conditioning is gasping its last breath. We are replacing each in turn and all the while keeping our fingers crossed. We knew what we were getting into when we purchased the house and expect to eventually have renewed and even improved the original construction.

At the Jacobs house, Wright specified a construction that consists of little more than two layers of wood screwed together cross grain with a layer of tar paper sandwiched in between. There is no siding, no cavity, and no lath and plaster. The painfully thin wood sandwich is both the structure and the finish. This tent-like partition is then wrapped around a series of spaces, themselves wrapped around a central masonry mass containing the building services and ever so important fireplace. The most durable components of the house were buried in the center while the least durable were pushed to the edges much as a body consists of a hard skeleton wrapped in soft flesh and draped in continuously renewing skin. Cadwell suggests that Wright, at this point well into his sixties, had come to see the Usonian house as partaking in a natural cycle of life. We’ll never know for sure because even if he did he could never have advertised the fact. “I designed your house to rot away and return to the earth in the span of a generation” is not something an architect can easily say to his or her client. It’s not an easy thing for an architect to accept even privately.

At heart we all harbor the desire to leave a legacy, to create something that will outlast us, and architect’s exemplify this trait even more than most; it is, in part, why we became architects. We see it everywhere though and, in fact, the perpetuation of historical styles comes from a desire to impart a sense of permanence – even if the brick is just a thin veneer and the “stone” a coat of latex stucco over glued together bits of foam.

The Jacobs house was possibly a critique of this false image of permanence. It predates today’s understanding of closed-loop manufacture, reuse, and sustainability but I think old Frank had it basically right. For each project it’s important to understand the place of that particular building in the culture before assigning it a place on the sliding scale of “more permanent vs. less permanent.” If the project is to be more permanent then design it for real durability, not just the appearance of durability. And if the project is to be less permanent then we have to consider how the materials that go into it will live after the project has come to the end of it’s life. Because whether in another building or product or in the landfill the stuff we work with will persist.

Photo credit: John S Turner [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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