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.

Anything to add?

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