Botox for buildings ?

'The problem of architecture as I see it is the problem of all art--
the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.'

Professor-Architect Otto Friederich Silenius from Evelyn Waugh's 'Decline and Fall'.

                                  *                   *                   *                   *

The first thing architects do when a building is completed, preferably even before it's occupied, is to get the definitive photographs taken before the new occupants can start to change their 'ideal' form. 

These forever-unchanging photographs, always taken without people in them, are destined to be published and re-published even fifty years later.  If they had people in them, at least we could date the pics by the clothing fashions!

It's curious that thereafter most architects pay little attention to the long term changes that happen to their buildings other than grumbling that 'they' should look after them better.

And it's also a curious fact that while we all accept that our cars need regular maintenance, we don't maintain our buildings with anything like the same automatic regularity. 

It's not that architects don't care about their buildings, it's just a professional fact of life that they have to move on;  their role ceases with completion of the building, he or she is off to the next job and the building is left for time to take its toll! 

Part of the fascination of photography for architects is a desire to capture that ideal moment in the building's life before it starts to change. 

High contrast black and white photographs are the ideal way to capture this image, and Max Dupain, David Moore and John Gollings are household names in the architectural world because of their ability to interpret and idealise this moment.

And it's curious that while contemporary buildings are usually seen as being disfigured by the changes that happen over time, the changes brought about by the weathering of older buildings constructed using more traditional materials weren't usually seen as negative at all.  Indeed they were more often associated in a romantic way with mellowed brickwork, moss covered stone and seasoned timber.

And the more recent idea that ageing in some way enhances buildings and is nothing to be apologetic about, that the marks and changes that happen over time are like the lines adding character to an old face, and that they allow one to see the earlier stages in a building's history, had yet to be articulated much less accepted.

So weathering in the adverse sense is most often associated with modern buildings and is seen as undesirable deterioration. 

This attitude stems from the early days of the modern move-ment and the progression of the thinking of Le Corbusier, the loudest of the pioneer advocates of modern architecture, is instructive in this regard.  He changed his name from Charles-Edouard Jeanneret to Le Corbusier (the name of his mother's family) to avoid confusion with his cousin, who was also an architect, and because he saw himself as a messianic prophet.

He thought that prefixing his name with the defnite article 'Le' would give him a certain objective stature; he wanted people to know they weren't dealing an ordinary architect but with the leader and spokesman for the new modern architecture!

Corb, as architects call him, saw modern architecture not just as a stylistic change in the appearance of buildings as much as a revolutionary change in the way we think about them, and like all revolutions it involved persuasive hyperbole. 

Unfortunately the white, abstracted appearance he proposed for his buildings was based on anticipation of materials and con-struction techniques that were not available then, certainly not in anything like mature forms.

The Villa Savoye for example, has what looks like reinforced concrete walls supported on steel columns, but is in fact made of masonry blocks, rendered and painted.  As a consequence the walls of many of the early modern buildings cracked and became badly stained, and their flat roofs leaked; the age of prefabricated materials and components with factory finishes had still to come.

Corbusier's unstated aim was to make the modern look totally unlike the traditional; marketing differentiation and competitive advantage wasn't talked about then, but that's what he was really on about!

While he said that he wanted 'an architecture of social justice and equality, transcending class barriers, an emblem of liberation within architecture', the visual embodiment of those noble sentiments was white, abstract and different.

He saw the surfaces of the new architecture as not only 'white' but also as 'unified, planar, smooth and flat'.   He declared he wanted to reveal the outline of things and in his eyes whiteness signified 'honesty and objectivity, of truth'  and he continued the role of white in the interiors as what he called
'an objective architectural finish'.

With his way with words Corb clearly would have been at home in a modern ad agency, and one can see how, in their concern about whiteness and purity, modern architects at that time would have had little sympathy with the idea of ageing as something that should be accepted and designed for.

Indeed they regarded staining of their buildings not just as technical failures but almost as moral failings; shades of Professor Silenius aka Walter Gropius, another pioneer parodied by Evelyn Waugh in his novel 'Decline and Fall'.

Buildings constructed using materials like brick and stone also often had traditional elements such as copings and cornices, sills and drips that had evolved to channel water and direct the staining that it caused.

These elements allowed change to happen in a way that could be regarded as mellowing rather than staining, but they found no place with the planar materials that were in favour with the new aesthetic.  Sills and copings would have spoilt the desirable abstract, machine-like appearance and were ignored.

New sheet materials were normally joined with mastic or sealant and these joints accumulated dirt that was washed down, staining the walls in unacceptable, irregular ways. Over the next few decades the air quality in industrial cities also deteriorated so that particulate matter in the air and acid rain started to affect the appearance of buildings by corroding build-ing materials along with the lungs of the citizens.

Prefabricated cladding increasingly became the norm in con-temporary construction, but an attitude of accepting and designing for weathering and staining didn't develop in parallel.

Most of Corbusier's pioneering houses were built during the Twenties and early Thirties and this was when angst about perfect forms and whiteness was at its height. The Great Depression and the 39-45 War that followed changed everything and Corbusier also moved on.

His first defection from the white ideology was the Maison Jaoul when post war shortages dictated the use of masonry materials and more traditional construction.  Then the size and scope of his work expanded with the Unite de Habitation (public housing) in Marseilles, the church at Ronchamp, and the Benedictine monastery at La Tourette. All these later buildings were progressively less 'white' in basic attitude and showed an increasing debt to earlier architectural traditions and the vernacular.

His attitudes changed even more definitively when he designed Chandigarh, the new capital of the Punjab created after partition and independence from the British Raj.  The difficulty of getting sophisticated modern workmanship led him to accept rough concrete that disguised and accepted marks and stains; a quite different view from his pioneering stance, and one with its own problems but that's another story.

Remember that this was happening thirty or forty years after Corbusier had proclaimed that everything should be white, even titling one of his tracts, 'When the Cathedrals were White!'

Corb's postwar buildings overlapped with my architectural apprenticeship and together with his earlier houses, his crusading philosophy inspired my generation.  And I have to admit that something of the austerity of that earlier 'white' tradition still lingers on in my own puritan architectural attitudes.

The simple fact is that neither people nor buildings can escape the effects of time, and the idea that change can be resisted is a delusion.  Botox attempts to hold back the effects of ageing in peoples' faces, and regular painting attempts to do the same with buildings.

While whitewash in the Greek Islands is regarded on the same level of housekeeping as sweeping up the leaves in front of the house, on the whole Australians are in favour of minimum maintenance and avoid painting where possible. But like Botox, age in buildings still shows whether painted or not, and runs counter to the aim of achieving psychological as well as material sustainability.

There isn't a full acceptance yet that weathering is an inherent part of the building process, and it still isn't considered part of the design equation by most architects.  In buildings as in everything else, we have to start with an acceptance that change is inevitable.

Buddhist philosophy asserts that until one has an absolutely inbuilt understanding and acceptance that everything changes,everything, mountains, rivers and valleys, air pollution and climate, personal relationships and buildings, thateverythingchanges, and until one really accepts change in an instinctive gut way, there can be no real understanding, wisdom and peace of mind.

To accept change as a given is an ever present challenge for the architect, and ideally it should go further than just concern about appearances.  Buildings are too expensive, last too long and influence our lives too much to be designed in such a way that they can't be easily converted during their long lives to other, more productive uses when circumstances change. 

The dictum of 'Loose fit, low energy, long life'  is a good guide.

Buildings should be designed and detailed so the inevitable effects of time on their appearance can be assimilated in acceptable and sustainable ways.  Much undesirable staining can be minimised or avoided relatively easily just by taking it into account and detailing better sills, flashings and cappings. 

Stopping coal fired power generation would also reduce the staining of buildings as well as improve our health. 

Accept change and the rest will follow, right?

Don Gazzard LFAIA
May Day, 2013    

 

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