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Of Time and Architecture

By Milton Wilfred Grenfell

A train ride along the Boston-Washington corridor presents a disturbing cross section of America’s building. Along the once industrial corridor, miles of abandoned factories and warehouses reveal a chronological decline in quality. The early-19th-century textile mills of New Bedford, MA, rise four and five stories in dressed local granite, with large, handsomely proportioned double-hung windows of such premium wood and sound construction that after two centuries, all they need is putty, paint and new sash cords. Thankfully, many of these old mills are now being recycled as residential loft space.

By the mid-19th century, brick industrial buildings became predominant. Even in areas lacking clay quarries and brick kilns, railroads made this economical and durable material the material of choice. Although mere industrial buildings, these were typically adorned at the cornices, doorways, bases, etc., sometimes in brick, but often with accents of terra cotta or stone. These imposing and visually satisfying buildings were proudly displayed on postcards, posters and promotional material of all sorts by the owners and their communities.

By the 1930s, factories were still made of brick, but were increasingly unadorned, articulated only by ill-proportioned punched openings. By the 1940s, the blank boxes continued, but were made of concrete block and brittle Portland cement mortar. These drab, lifeless gray walls are already cracking, well along in a process of self-demolition.

In the 1950s, concrete tilt-slab construction, which is rather like constructing a building out of very large Jersey barriers, with the joints between the panels oozing sealant, made its appearance. And finally, by the 1960s, when the last of the factories were built, walls were just painted corrugated steel. Their progenitors, the Quonset huts of World War II, were only intended to provide quick, temporary shelter – and so like begets like.

Not surprisingly, the houses along this industrial corridor, though mostly modest, follow the same chronological declension, only worse. Observing the oldest houses, built of the most noble and durable material – stone – decline to the vinyl siding, the PVC windows and details in foam or fiberglass of the most recent houses are a sorry spectacle to behold. The only consolation is the hope that at last the bottom has been reached, and that construction can surely get no cheaper. One hopes.

We have been told that our society has grown wealthier over these last 200 years, yet our building record tells a different story. The record we read here is of a civilization entering a dark age. Instead of the settling of a continent as manifested in our nation’s first 200 years of building, begun in 1607, the last 200 years, in Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase, reflect the “unsettling of America.” The record along the rail line speaks of a people who no longer build for the future. And surely, underlying the barbarity of all dark ages is life lived without much attention to the future, much less any hope for it. For barbarians, like animals, only the present moment matters.

If indeed our civilization is sliding into a dark age, we who still practice the craft of building are part of the rear guard, fighting to slow or avert the decline. Every time we produce a detail built to last, when we successfully deter a client from selecting a cheaper material or restore rather than replace a fine old building (for surely an awareness of time future encompasses time past), we light a candle against the darkness. Few things affirm the future more than erecting a good building. If a gathering darkness is the symptom of an ailing civilization, perhaps we builders are among the physicians with a needed remedy. Good buildings can help prolong the patient’s life, and hopefully even help cure him. When, in the 1980s, the buildings, monuments, fountains and gardens of New York’s Central Park were restored and rebuilt, the city began returning to health after a long illness.

We have to be willing to speak to the better angels of our clients, long conditioned to think only in terms of depreciation schedules, quarterly profits and upfront costs, rather than long term. We must again see construction as part of the project of civilization, leading from a meaningful past toward a hopeful future, to paraphrase James Howard Kunstler. We must tell them what Aristotle tells us, that “To seek utility everywhere is unworthy of the noble and free.”

The staggering heights of the great Gothic cathedrals – structurally and aesthetically – far exceeded simple necessity. When most medieval people lived in wattle and daub shanties, with hunger a constant companion, they nevertheless gave lavishly to realize, in the finest materials and craft, the splendid visions the builders presented them. Let us frankly acknowledge that good building requires sacrifice, without forgetting that to sacrifice means to make holy. Although today the sacrifice might be skipping a Caribbean vacation or forgoing the media room for top-grade wooden windows. As the latter suggests, it’s often not a case of a larger construction budget, but of how it is allocated. Will it be allocated with the future in mind, or just to indulge the fleeting pleasures of today?

Our challenge and duty as builders is to offer buildings of such consummate beauty and deep satisfaction that our clients feel called to sacrifice for, and participate in, the project of civilization. This has always been and ever remains at the very heart of our work. 

Milton Grenfell is principal of Grenfell Architecture, PLLC, a Washington, DC-based firm that practices traditional architecture and urbanism. He was a recipient of Classical America’s Arthur Ross Award in 1997. His book, Comparative Architectural Details: A Selection from Pencil Points 1932-1937, is due out in September from W. W. Norton as part of the ICA&CA Classical America Series in Art and Architecture.



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