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not so simple

architectural sandstone viewed in the light of systems theory, traditional priority and ruskin’s warning

a 19th century corbel detail ’adapted‘ for a Victorian cottage 2016

What do period details, systems theory and home renovations have in common?

Nothing.

Until they collide.

Firstly, lets look at the ‘system’, or our lack of one.

No one goes to the doctor with a rash all over their body and asks the doctor to “Just cure me from the neck up””.

As ridiculous as this sounds, this ‘just this bit please’ assumption is analogous to some contemporary building outcomes.

Our modern ‘evolution’ has led us away from a ‘systems culture’ to one of specialisation, We have moved towards an universal ‘simplification’  over recent decades. Not just in building craft but also in agriculture, manufacturing and technology.

We witness now a culture of ‘tradespeople confining themselves to their ‘patch’, looking only at their ‘bit’, the piece of the building puzzle that they are formally responsible for, be it concrete, carpentry, tiling etc..

So we see trades ‘doing their bit’ (and no more) which is fine, but when their material meets an Interface  (the border, transition area) with other elements, such as when masonry meets timber, or a formal Transition, as when a wall turns a corner, our system-less system is vulnerable to sub-optimal outcomes. And if the project does not have an assertive architect, or an aesthetically motivated builder, a building of many dots threatens.

The preoccupation with ones own ‘section’ leads in many cases to a ‘staccato’ ad hoc aesthetics, a sense that whilst all the separate ‘boxes are ticked’, there is often a limited harmony between them, and scant consideration of an optimally harmonious whole.  .

This is not a suggestion that anyone is building inappropriately, or poorly.

Rather, it is a questioning-

Are we creating details (between the various elements) that are as architecturally transcendent as they could be?

Are we Integrating our Interfaces optimally, for the greatest overall architectural good?

Do we as craftspeople considering the interface details, the architectural ‘whole’, while delivering our specialised ‘part’?

And nowhere is the pressure to coordinate interfaces and other transitions more evident than in period home renovations, and most especially in their sandstone elements.

We see excellent restorations and harmonious renovations replete with Traditional Period Craft, and careful detail transitions between new and old, between masonry and timber, and between structure and finish.

And sadly we see also, less resolved outcomes.

Stone, possibly due to its perceived expense, is ripe for short cutting. Period homes ranging fro mid-century back to Edwardian, Federation and Victorian eras display details and masonry dimensions intended to quietly support and compliment restful space. Yet sometimes these  buildings are ‘added to’ with elements composed of jarring craft short cuts.

These short cuts include:

– eschewing traditions of crafted texture, and hand-craft in general

– Easy acceptance of non-traditional proportions (eg. 50mm thicknesses were not an option before modern saws)

– Parodic ‘half-crafting’ of stones (as in the prevalent ‘sparse sparrow peck’,as if engaged in a game of ‘period parody’)

– post-rationalising of expedient choices as ‘modern’ or ‘simple’, to mask a secret but aesthetically ruthless frugal priority

But is this merely about ’avoiding short cuts’? It could be argued that way but there may be an underlying movement.

Architecture and construction has moved away from ‘systems’. We have evolved towards an universal ‘simplification’ process over recent decades. Not just in building craft but also in agriculture, manufacturing and technology. SImplification is assumed to be ideal. There has been benefit but there may also be cost.

Because each element or ‘part’ is not “just about the part”. Stone, for example, is not “all about the stone”. It’s about doing its part for the overall ‘Utilitas, firmitas Venustas’* of the overall outcome.

Even architecture is not “all about the elemental integrations”.

Rather architecture, the craft of imagining space, is arguably about spatial experience – humans experiencing the space created by other humans’ hands and thoughts.

Many will rush to put this down to ‘dodgey’ contractors or price imperatives.

But before price it could be argued that the issue is cultural.

Apart from manual skill and traditional knowledge modern culture has moved away from a systems as a way to get things done.

We have broken everything into small parts and, over time, have come to view every task as a separate unconnected one.

We have separated construction into ‘design’, ‘structure’ and ‘finish’ phases, as if there is a line between them.

As if each part is not part of an overarching architectural ‘system’, with a specific project theme, and spatial experience outcome to be achieved.

If  elemental outcomes are a function not just of the quality of the elemental crafts themselves, but also of their harmony with other elements combining to a greater whole, our cultural preoccupation with finding ‘the best builder’, the ’best stonemason’ or the ‘best material’ is off point.

Architecture (and every building has it, whether an architect is attached or not) is a multi-element, multi-process, multi-craft system.

Architectural creation is more akin to growing wheat and apples, the baking a pie than it is to building a car in a factory.

Yet we have been trying to force it into a factory type quasi-system for decades now.

Quality stone masonry (and building) that resonates with both period details and modern functional expectations is necessarily systematic. This resonance is not an indulgence just for the purists.

Human-driven hand and thought craft resonates into the spacial experiences that are subsequently enjoyed by other humans.

And yes, such a systems approach does come at a price. There is a price threshold that cannot be reduced without a spatial experience compromise..

Writing in the mid 19th century architectural philosopher John Ruskin wrote:

“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little.

When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all.

When you pay too little,you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.

The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done.”

The ‘things we buy’ ( like crafted timber or stone) are rendered less ‘capable’ of creating deliberate  human experience of space (the ‘thing’ each bit ‘was bought to do’)

when their role in the overall ‘experience’ system  is forgotten, or brushed over while clambering for less relevant ‘things’, like minimal price via increased short cuts and system neglect.

Ideal quality design outcomes first require quality system-design incomes.

Modern form meets traditional proportions and textures, 2014.

* Structure, Function and Delight are deemed to be the three crucial principles of a building design by Vitruvius, Roman architect.

Damian Cudmore designs and details sandstone for period and contemporary spaces.

Conversations about optimal architectural stone outcomes may begin at damian@truestone.net.au or 0425212852

www.truestone.net.au

More Period thoughts

‘Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas’

Vitruvius, the 1st Century BC architect referred to three simple building principles – structure, function and beauty.

The key principle in a true stone design is ‘structural expression’, inviting Vitruvius’ three principles to co-exist

– in sandstone.

Many other periods and styles have come and gone since Vitruvius.

true stone design specialise in one –  small dwellings that incorporate sandstone, especially 19th century sandstone.

Led by accomplished stone designer Damian Cudmore, this practice prioritises stone and the elements stone interfaces with.

Because the use of stone traverses the divide between home and garden, true stone designs are relevant from  dwellings to courtyards, gardens and striking, but simple, entrances.

A background in heritage restoration, from cottages to cathedrals, and an affinity with multiple crafts means that Damian’s details always seek a sense of the classical and timeless.

This is a design practice with a strong hands-on foundation. The intention is always to deliver traditional craft to modern forms and functions. The details are hand hewn, textured, full of light and shade, always looking to draw from the history of the chosen materials, their craft, and their place.

Ultimately good design is not about the materials. It’s about the experience of space.

Sandstone, consciously detailed, can create a unique experience of space.

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