Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Three Orders of Architecture

I was working with a colleague today over lunch, designing the framing ideas that we'll put into play in our first semesters of design experience for new students. And the thought occurred to me, as we were talking about materials and about making, that there have really been three significant structural modes or orders in architectural history. There is the stacked order, in which heavy things are piled on top of other heavy things to make structures. We pretty much quit doing that at the turn of the 20th century when we stopped making buildings our of real bricks, but there's still some of it around, and lots still occurring around the world. There is the assembly order, in which major components are notched and jointed and the joints fit precisely together for structural strength. Post-and-beam barns were made this way, and much of Japanese architecture is based on the elegance of its wooden connections.

Our contemporary design culture is, I think, representative of a third order, which I'll call the super-glue order. Things are stuck together with the lightest of touches; thin nails, adhesives, staples, brackets. And this is true not only for finishing panels, but even structurally; the suburban house is made affordable at least in part by the mass-produced truss, which itself is made possible only through the use of metal nail plates, not much more permanent or elegant than duct tape.

I was at a conference 15 years ago in which a major contractor in the Midwest said that he was preparing to lose (to retirement) about 40% of his journeyman electricians, and 50% of his masons, and a third of his plumbers. He didn't see a generation of new skilled tradespeople coming up behind to fill in those voids. In part, that's because we've made ever-more-ingenious materials that can be assembled by ever-cheaper labor. It doesn't take nearly the care or experience to build a balloon-frame house that it does to build a post-and-beam. And the quality of our environment reflects the quality of not only the materials, but the care of their construction.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is about to host a major Greene and Greene exhibition. You want to see some craft, have a look at their work. But in far more humble ways, most of the housing of 1920 was intensely more interesting and better constructed than what we have now. They didn't call it the Craftsman era for nothing. What will they call ours?