Ralph Adams Cram

My wife came across a book in a local library that she thought might be of some interest to me – and how right she was! It is the original (1917) edition of Farm Houses, Manor Houses, Minor Chateaux and Small Churches from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Centuries in Normandy, Brittany, and Other Parts of France. The work is essentially a collection of photos of pre-WWI French vernacular architecture, with a preface written by a certain Ralph Adams Cram. Cram (b. 1862, d. 1942) was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and of the Royal Geographic Society and his career as an architect was a prolific one (<– a link), with hundreds of churches and college buildings from New York to California: West Point, New York's Saint Thomas Church, the unfinished Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Princeton's chapel and the graduate school, Rice University, and many, many others. Now, from long exposure to our largely unfortunate modern-period architecture, of many strains and stains, and the wear of years which has led to a certain embittered (or merely disgusted, I dare say) attitude on my part, I normally do not give modernist architecture the time of day, considering the ghastly architect-designed environment of strip malls and otherwise tarted-up rows of cubes that accost the senses everywhere you go, or the excessively-self indulgent dysfunctional structures (“architectural marvels”, as some are called), that millions of dollars are lavished upon, only for more-expensive refits to be required less than 20 years later (if repair is possible at all).

However, the first paragraph of Cram’s Preface in the aforementioned text told me right away that R.A. Cram was a man of thoughtfulness and sanity, and following piece, which I’d like to share, is something with which I strongly agree:

As, during the last century, the “human scale” vanished from life and a kind of brutal imperialism took its place to poison and finally destroy the whole system of human associations left over from better times, so our standards of architectural judgment were transformed, becoming at last as degenerate as our architectural style was debased. Our whole system of architectural philosophy, architectural teaching, and architectural determinism, so dogmatic and secure, is a thing of mushroom growth; a century has seen it come into existence, though the first premonitory symptoms are revealed during the beginnings of the Renaissance. Under this system not only has the “grand manner” held as a standard of judgment as between one historic style and another, and in the controlling of all scholastic design, but its imperialistic scale has been applied to the determining of architectural philosophy and history to such an extent that a purely fictitious theory has been built up only on the basis of the “big things,” to the total exclusion of the great mass of small work, whatever its period or its nationality

By ‘small work’, Cram is referring to houses, craft studios, barns, cottages and the like. In many respects, Cram echoes Ruskin in regards to the debasement of architecture and building in the 18th~19th century, and in fact the two were both admirers of, and advocated for, Gothic architecture. I think his criticism holds to this day – most of today’s “grand manner” architecture IS concerned with making statements and similar ego-gratifications, and though it is true that some few of those statements are indeed emotionally moving spaces, like Louis Kahn’s work or some of F. Gehrys pieces, what is very apparent is that a lot of the more ordinary work, like your local Marriot hotel, town bank, church, or Lowes outlet, are, virtually without exception, almost totally lacking in imagination design-wise, and what passes for ‘style’ is inevitably little more than some tacked-on artifice, like phony turrets, dormers, and the like. Craftsmanship? Hah! I leave that to one side for the moment and anyhow, I do digress a little.

Architectural historians have fixed on Frank Lloyd Wright as having introduced Japanese art and architecture to an American audience, but at about the same time or earlier Cram was building residences influenced by Japanese domestic architecture. Cram briefly visited Japan for about four months in 1896 at the behest of a Unitarian missionary, the Reverend Arthur Knapp. Upon his return to the US, Cram designed a residence for Knapp in Fall River, Massachusetts (a suburb about 45 miles south of Boston). This house, completed around 1897, features an attached ‘Japanese’ tea-house, and is one of the very first strongly Japanese-influenced houses ever built in the US. This is the house as it stands today:

The axial symmetry of the front is not typically Japanese, nor is the kara-hafu-esque dormer on the roof, though it doesn’t look too bad – sorta like an eyebrow dormer really.

A view of the rear house corner:

If you look at the roof corner at the hip closely, in the previous two photos, you will see that the last several feet of eave edge is actually a straight section- the eave edge is more or less kinked to execute the up-lift at the end of the hip. And, another detail: the gutter on a Japanese building with such a curved hip does not follow the curve up like that but remains straight. The carpenter who built it, at least, appears to have had little idea how to construct a Japanese curved hip, and besides, the degree of curvature apparent (both at the hip and with other roof elements visible in the photo) is way too much for a residential application. It is obviously a single-layer roof as well, using 2×6’s, or so, for the rafters. Additionally, the protrusions on the second floor level, especially the one at the rear of the structure, imitative of demado, are not typical of Japanese buildings, and neither are the shed dormers in the roof. I could go on listing the oddities, but I have said enough to get the point across I think.

A shot of one of the interior rooms:

Here we have the unusual sight of a single room, indicated by the lack of sliding tracks on the floor, divided by a partition with ranma on a sagging lintel. This is the tea house interior as it stands today. The ranma in this room are merely decorative additions which makes them a bit tacky in my view. The wood-paneled ceiling, though a little clunky in proportion, is strongly suggestive of a Japanese ceiling.

Now, anyone with a discerning eye for Japanese domestic architecture would find Cram’s house a bit of a caricature. To be fair, he was trying, and he was impressed by Japanese architecture but he really didn’t get it, not in terms of detail or structural system. Or at the very least, his carpenter was unable to build what may have actually been in Cram’s mind. The same could be said, mind you, for Frank Lloyd Wright or the Greene and Greene brothers of Pasadena, though those works were less overtly Japanese.

As I said, Cram was impressed by Japanese architecture, based upon his short visit to that country, and we can learn of some of this enthusiasm as it was expressed, initially, in letters to his friend Ernest Fenollosa, following upon return to Boston from his sojourn in Japan. As noted in Douglass Shand-Tucci’s book Boston Bohemia 1881-1900: Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Literature, Cram was entranced by his stay near Tōshōdai temple in Nara:

…full of some kind of enchantment; once there, one would never leave. We had heard each evening down at our inn at Uji…the velvety boom of some enormous bell, a sound that seemed to draw one irresistibly to rise up in the still night and search for its source under the great, pale moon…We found the bell and much more…[Japan] concentrates itself and becomes really quite irresistible, in the form of scented temple garden in some forgotten monastery where the odour of incense mingles with that of box, where the patterned sand retains the lines of a thousand years ago, where tonsured bonzes [monks] in yellow robes move silently through the shed petals of a pink cherry, and a thunderous bell gives tongue at the rising of the moon

A very romantic image indeed, and one is left wondering if Cram has tendencies towards Zombie-hood(!). In 1905 Cram came out with a book titled Impressions of Japanese Architecture and the Allied Arts, a 1st edition copy of which I have on my desk at this time. Unlike Farm Houses, Manor Houses, Minor Chateaux and Small Churches from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Centuries in Normandy, Brittany, and Other Parts of France, Cram’s work on Japanese architecture is primarily text with rather few illustrations. While I find much in his impressions/interpretations to disagree with, based upon my own direct experience of living in that country for 5 years, my own formed impressions, and study of the topic, there is quite a bit which I do find to be a delight to read, and I’d like to share a few passages with readers here.

In chapter II, where Cram discusses the early architecture of Japan, he opens with the following observation:

Japanese architecture is undoubtedly less well known and less appreciated than the architecture of any other civilized nation. Not only this, but it is almost universally misjudged, and while we have by degrees come to know and admire the pictorial and industrial arts of Japan, her architecture, which is the root and vehicle of all other modes of art, is passed over with a casual reference to its fantastic quality or a patronizing tribute to the excellence of some of its carved decoration...In nearly every instance those who have written most intelligently of Japan and of her art have shown no rudimentary appreciation of her architecture: it is dismissed with a sentence. To the Western traveler it seems only fanciful and frail, a thing unworthy of study; the shrines of Nikko are assumed to be the highest point attained, and the consummate work of the great period between the seventh and twelfth centuries is ignored. Nikko, Shiba, Ueno, indeed only the temple architecture of the Tokugawa period is considered at all, while Horiuji (sic), Yakushiji, and the Ho-o-do of Byodo-in, are completely ignored, and the castle and domestic architecture are treated as non-existent.

I think Cram is quite correct in this statement, in regards to the short shrift given Japanese architecture at that time in other works on Japanese art and crafts. Similarly one can read of the crowds that gathered in Chicago to watch the Japanese carpenters putting up buildings for the 1893 Worlds’ Fair – initially, the carpenters were heckled and laughed at for their ‘curious’ building techniques, however as the buildings grew closer to completion the critics became silent as people came to see the beauty of the structures and their elegant simplicity. During the Fair, the Japanese structures were among the most popular exhibits with huge crowds thronging the structures. It was those buildings which had an indelible imprint upon a young Frank Lloyd Wright.

Adams Cram draws a very useful observation I think in regards to Japanese architecture, and it is one I have often repeated myself – that to take Japanese architecture and make use of it in other contexts and places, is not a question so much of simply imitating Japanese building forms and arrangements, but of drawing useful lessons from those forms and adapting them to suit Western living habits and climatic conditions:

On the other hand, it is possible for us to learn many most valuable lessons from it. In the first place we shall see how delicately buildings of all kinds may be made to fit themselves to their surroundings. In this respect the architecture of Japan acknowledges no superior. Nothing could be more subtle and sympathetic than the relationship between the temples and pagodas, the castles, cottages and inns, and their natural surroundings. In every line and mass harmony is complete. The buildings seem almost to be a concentration and perfection of the hills and trees of which they seem to be a part. One feels this particularly when looking on any structure designed on Western lines, no matter how excellent it may be according to European standards. The native work is part of the country, the foreign is ugly, ungrammatical, offensive.

Another quality that is most salient is the exceeding unity and perfection of composition either of single temples or of whole groups, either of the exterior or the interior. The whole thing is built up with the utmost delicacy of appreciation until it forms a consistent and united whole. The refinements of line and proportion have their equals only in the architecture of Greece and medieval Europe. The mere measuring of some one of the older buildings reveals a subtlety of feeling for proportion that is amazing. Such measurements show at once that every curve and every line has been developed with the most astonishing care.

Still another quality that could be studied to advantage is the extreme solemnity of the temple interiors. For impressiveness and deeply religious feeling, together with extreme splendour of colouring and wealth of detail, they are almost unexcelled….

…the perfect development of structural form from the qualities of the natural environment. The connection between these brown and gray temples and the forests and fields, rocks and rivers and mountains, is intimate and exact: as the castles and abbeys of England blend with her landscape and her air, as the nacreous palaces and shrines of Venice grow out of the opal sea…“

Compare Cram’s comment about the integration of Japanese architecture with it’s environment, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s comments about the opposite case being the norm with American domestic architecture (in The Natural House, 1954, pg. 14):

What was the matter with the typical American house? Well, just for an honest beginning, it lied about everything. It had no sense of unity at all nor any sense of space as should belong to a free people. It was stuck up in thoughtless fashion. It had no more sense of earth than a “modernistic” house. And it was stuck upon wherever it happened to be. To take any one of these so-called “homes” away would have improved the landscape and helped to clear the atmosphere.

I wonder, truly, how much of FLW’s conception of the American home as ill-suiting it’s environment came from processing Cram’s mention of a Japanese architecture exhibiting an opposing possibility? Mere speculation on my part, I realize all too well.

Cram further emphasizes his point about drawing useful lessons from Japanese architecture when he turns his attention to Japanese domestic architecture:

It is when we come to the domestic work of Japan, however, that we find more in the way of salutary teaching…it has certain qualities…that we could imitate to advantage. One of these is the perfect simplicity of each room, with its soft mats, its beautiful wood, its subtle colouring, its reserved and satisfying decoration. A Japanese room is full of repose, and after one has come to feel these qualities fully. One remembers with a kind of horror the stuffy chaos of the apartments of the American dwelling.

Perhaps the greatest lesson one learns in Japan is that of the beauty of natural wood, and the right method of treating it. The universal custom of the West has been to look on wood as a convenient medium for the obtaining of ornamental forms through carving and joinery, the quality of the material itself being seldom considered. In Japan the reverse is the case. In domestic work, a Japanese builder shrinks away from anything that would draw attention from the beauty of his varied woods. He treats them as we do precious marbles, and one if forced to confess that under his hand wood is found to be quite as wonderful a material as our expensive and hardly worked marble. In Japan one comes to the final conclusion that stains, paint, and varnish, so far as interior work is concerned, are nothing short of artistic crimes.

In another respect Japanese builders are right and we are wrong. They do not destroy that sense of protection every room should possess, by filling whole sides thereof with plate glass. Instead their windows are of delicate lattice work covered with translucent paper, and the result is a light that is soft and pleasant. Nothing can be more absurd than our modern fashion of filling an entire window opening with one or two sheets of glass, particularly when, as happens in cities, there is no plausible reason for looking out of doors.“

In Chapter VI, Domestic Interiors, Cram talks about the elemental simplicity of a Japanese house, made as it is from the humblest materials:

Not an ambitious collection of materials [wood, plaster, straw matting, paper], and yet for refinement, reserve, subtle colour, and perfection of artistic composition and ultimate effect, I know of few things to compare with the interior of a Japanese house.

…Under ordinary circumstances, living room, even of the best class, contains nothing in the way of furniture except what appears in the tokonoma and chigai-dana. Cushions are produced when a room is in use by day, beds at night, and a brazier if the weather is cold, –this last apparently as a formality for it has no appreciable effect on the temperature. One would say that the result would be barren and cheerless, but this is not the case, every detail of form and colour being so exquisitely studied that the empty room is sufficient in itself. There is something about the great spacious apartments, airy and fully of mellow light, that is curiously satisfying, and one feels the absence of furniture only with a sense of relief. Relieved of the rivalry of crowded furnishings, men and women take on a quite singular quality of dignity and importance. It is impossible after a time not to feel that the Japanese have adopted an idea of the function of a room and the method of best expressing this, far in advance of that which we have made our own.

…For the courtesy and simplicity of Japanese home life, the domestic architecture forms a faultless setting. It is absolutely frank and straightforward in construction, perfectly simple in its forms; all the ornament is rigidly constructional, while the furnishings are of the simplest quality and only such as the nature of the life demands. There is no ornament for the sake of ornament, no woodwork or carving not demanded by the exigencies of construction, no striving for picturesque effect through fantastic irregularity, no overloading of unnecessary decoration, no litter of trivial and embarrassing accessories. The spirit of ornamented construction and no other ornament whatever that characterized Greek architecture finds its echo in Asia. As a result the effect is more reserved, refined, gentlemanly, almost ascetic, than is to be found elsewhere. No greater contrast to our own fashion could be imagined. With us the prime object appears to be the complete concealment of all construction of whatever nature by an overlay of independent ornament. With wainscot and marble and tiles, plaster, textiles, and paper hangings, we create a perfectly fictitious shell that masks all construction and exists quite independently of it.

We pile up our immutable little cells in superimposed courses, cut narrow openings in the walls and fill them with flapping doors that are always in the way. We perforate the outer walls with awkward holes and fill them with plate glass in order that we may gaze upon a narrow back garden or a narrower street where nothing that is worth seeing ever occurs. With wainscot and drapery and paper hangings we strive for an effect of protection and then nullify it by our plate glass windows that afford only a garish light, and, in most cases, a view of things not worth looking at.
As a result the rooms are chilly and without sense of protection in winter, and stuffy and oppressive in summer. The Japanese house is a revelation of the possibilities of exactly the opposite course. It is a permanent lesson in the value of simplicity, of modesty, of frankness, of naturalness in art.” (emphases mine)

Ralph Adams Cram’s comment about Western spaces being little more than an aggregation of boxes with holes (windows, doors) punctured in them, was reiterated by Frank Lloyd Wright, again in his work The Natural House (1954, pg. 14):

Essentially, whether of brick or wood or stone, this “house” was a bedeviled box with a fussy lid; a complex box that had been cut up by all kinds of holes made in it to let in light and air, with an especially ugly hole to go in and out of. The holes were “trimmed”; the doors and windows themselves trimmed; the roofs trimmed; the walls trimmed. Architecture seemed to consist in what was done to these holes.

I suspect F.L.Wright read Cram’s book (I don’t believe there were any other significant English-language books on Japanese architecture from that period, save for Edward Morse’s Japanese Homes and their Surroundings), given that his interest in the topic which has been well-established, and it is in Cram’s writings where FLW may well have adopted that idea. It is a sentiment I find entire agreement with, especially here in the Northeast where the unrelenting monotony of the building pattern, and the un-thinking imitation-of-an-imitation-of-an-imitation process of architecture continues unabated and where builders today for the most part still pay little to no attention to site when placing the house, other than what is convenient for the automobile to access or how the house may look from the road. That aspect, of course, is shared with houses built right across this nation and how profligate our energy use is at home as a result!

I think that Cram well-expresses the differences between Japanese domestic spaces and Western ones, however I would say his attempt to manifest his perceptions in the form of the architecture which he designed, as evidenced by the pictures above of what is now called, somewhat unfortunately, the “Rising Sun” House, was not altogether successful. Of course, the original design for that house may well have been a bit more closely Japanese, the years may not have been kind, and the original design may have suffered from a lack of skillful interpretation by the builder. It is very difficult to duplicate the form of Japanese architecture with only a superficial understanding, say gleaned from looking at a few pictures, and all but impossible without an understanding of the structural systems that underlie these roof structures. Cram’s piece does it better than many, but it can hardly be called Japanese architecture.

There are pictures of the original Arthur Knapp house in a few period architecture books, one of which I have ordered through my local library and will receive shortly. In the book The Japanese Influence in America, by Clay Lancaster (1963) there is a picture of the freshly-built Knapp house showing the originally tea house at the back – at that time it looked fairly authentic in appearance, and had tatami mats. Subsequent owners of the house have made changes however, and now the interior of the tea house no longer has those mats, rather tiling, and instead of tea, other libations may be procured:

I can’t help but cringe when I see stuff like this, though of course the current owners (or whoever had it built for them) possibly found it charming and, who knows, may have even thought it was ‘Japanese’. The pseudo-torii in the back of the bar is surely one of the worst examples of crass cultural appropriation I have come across in a long while.

My recent travels around the New England region, seeing the unrelenting monotony of box after box, white colonial after pseudo-colonial, interrupted, un-satisfyingly, by the occasional white saltbox or Gambrel/Mansard, have got me thinking about both Cram’s and FLW’s comments about these ‘aggregations of boxes with holes’ that we call domestic architecture. Surely we, the richest nation on earth, can do better than this? Surly we can be a little cleverer than throwing together some stapled-together plastic-wrapped box we call a house, only to crush it and dump it in the landfill 50 years later? Surely we can come up with a soulful domestic architecture that is both varied and is worth passing on to future generations? Surely it is possibly to produce houses that don’t make their occupants sick from the off-gassing chemicals? Surely the McMansion phase has passed, or will pass at the very least from social vogue amongst those with a means to afford it? It has to we need to move to housing that is more sustainable, which means, to me, of a greater percentage of natural materials and built to last longer – 150 years at a minimum. And if the building has to come down at some point, then most of it should be recyclable or of low-toxicity.

Or am I deluding myself here? I don’t think so, these things are very possible. If we could put a man on the moon, after all, ….

I realize that it is easy to make criticisms, and harder to suggest worthwhile alternatives. As you all know, I deeply admire Japanese domestic architecture and timber construction methods, AND have the knowledge to build that architecture in complete authenticity, yet what would be more useful would be to elucidate how it might be best adapted to this culture, and a colder climate. While it is easy enough to build Japanese houses in Hawaii and southern California, a re-think is needed for the more northern climes.

I have a lot of ideas in that regard, and intend, as the Carpentry Way blog unfolds over this year, to devote some time here and there to sharing some of my building ideas with the readership, for whatever it is worth. I hope to receive some constructive (excuse the pun) advice and comments from readers as well.

You see, I do like timber buildings, but I have little interest, for the most part, in the way timber buildings are constructed in this country, both in method, design and overall aesthetic. I like Japanese architecture, yet most people here do not live on the floor and most prefer central heating, so some things would have to change at a minimum for it to successfully be adapted. I love natural materials, like clay/straw walls for instance. Natural materials and craftsmanship do go together!

Finally, I also like some aspects of French traditional timber architecture, and can see some useful lessons and inspirations to be drawn from that source as well. I believe these various elements can be synthesized into a satisfying package, a little different mix than what has come before and that it is possible to have a well-made home without being a millionaire or recourse to factory-production methods. We’ll see.

Thanks for coming by today.

5 thoughts on “Ralph Adams Cram

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this.

    I always wondered if a religion which puts mankind and his interests ahead of all other life isn't to blame, at least partly, on how far we (in Europe and North America) have tried to distance ourselves from conforming and blending into the natural world. Its seems the only worthy quest is to force nature (in as far as is possible) to obey our, usually faulty, understanding of the way things “should be”, rather than admit that nature has done it right all on her own (and needs no “help”). I realize that religion has less direct influence or control over our thinking these days as opposed to years past, but our “highest form of life” attitude still prevails. And perhaps its human nature to look for something else to blame when things go wrong and delay acting until we are forced to. But I'm hopeful too.


    p.s., enjoying all the other projects as well.

  2. Hi Steve,

    some interesting thoughts there. There could be something to the idea that religion has had an effect upon the way people in different countries view the natural world and how they should treat it. Much has been said in that regard before by many other commentators more knowledgeable than myself on the topic. I understand the idea that if the religion one subscribes to tells you that man has 'dominion' over all other creatures of this earth, well, depending upon how you interpret the word 'dominion', the outcome could vary, from stewardship to exploitation.

    I do note, reading Thomas Hubka's “Big House, Little House, Back House Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England” (an excellent read), that prior to 1800, when I would have thought most rural folks around here were attending church every Sunday, that the farm buildings were typically oriented to face south, regardless of the lay of the nearby road. After 1830, houses became typically road-facing. Something curious happened in that period from 1800 leading up to 1830, over many parts of the United States. Jonathan Hale, in his work “The Old Way of Seeing”, also puts the point of architectural decline having a commencement around 1830, with the advent of fads in architecture, like Greek Revival. I don't see how that information reconciles with the argument about religion you were suggesting.

    Food for thought at least – thanks for your comment.


  3. Hi Chris,

    I haven't made a study of it. As I was reading your last entry, I was trying to think of reasons why we seem to have such contempt (not universally, nor certainly is everyone of a similar attitude) for nature. Its not that the prevailing religion actively promotes such action, but it certainly makes little, if any, attempt to condemn it. While it could be argued that ignorance may have had a bearing, you can go back more than a century in North America and see examples (think the buffalo, for one) of lessons learned that should have set us on a more cautious and respectful path, but didn't. It seems we take each example in isolation, no matter that there are often very loud voices sounding an alert, and constantly push things to the brink before we admit the error of our ways.
    Fortunately, there are many examples of concerted efforts to set things right again. One hopes with this “global warming” we are able to change gears well before the brink.

    Anyway, I'm shooting from the hip with these thoughts, so could very well be out to lunch. So I'll leave it to you to rant (its your blog, after all) when you see fit.

  4. Mr. Hall: I appreciate your bringing the “house of the rising sun” to light on this blog. I had the great fortune of living in that house for @10 years. When my father purchased the house in the late 1970's, the tea room was nothing but a 'gutted' junk space. He spent a considerable amount of money to refurbish the tea house. The ceiling panels and hand carvings had to be salvaged from beneath a lot of debris. Granted, the turning of the space into a bar/t.v. room might have been “non-architecturally correct, or even asthetically pleasing to some.However, for me and my family, that tea room was a place of great parties, Christmases, and also sad events. So, though your cringing at decorating style may be excused, please remember that at least someone loved that house enough to save it from total ruin.

  5. Unknown,

    thanks for your comment. Time is rarely kind to most buildings, and while my criticism of the house might be a bit stern, there's more to a home than simply the physical appearance, as you noted. I'm glad you found the blog entry worth a read.


Anything to add?