Visiting cities on the east coast offers an opportunity to see architecture and craftsmanship that has endured for centuries. Coming from the west coast, where the oldest buildings still standing were built after 1910, the east coast presents a history lesson down nearly every street.
I enjoy exploring old neighborhoods and cities that have withstood the test of time. Cruising the cobblestone streets and passing through doors that have been open to locals and wary travelers for so many generations feels like traveling through time.
To me, the most outstanding feature of these old buildings is the craftsmanship that went into building them. Real people built these buildings with their hands. A great deal of the construction and fabrication of the architectural details occurred on the very sites where you see them.
These structures are as much art as they are homes and businesses. And because they were made with real materials by master craftsmen who spent their lives honing their skills, their works have survived centuries of weather and ware. The patina of 100+ years of use adds a charm that can never be properly faked.
When compared to the assembly line, cracker-jack track houses, McMansions and prefabricated office boxes that blight the west coast landscape, I wonder how many people know what they are missing (I love 99% Invisible and their podcast on this very topic with help from the folks at McMansion Hell).
One can scarcely detect any soul in the cul-de-sac infestation of urban sprawl spreading over the land like a cancer that has metastasized. The feeling of isolation is overwhelming when you wander through the maze of gentrified neighborhoods that are closely regulated by HOA’s that mandate sameness and conformity.
A walk through the Baltimore suburb of Lithicum reveals a different feeling. You get a sense of the personality of the houses, the people that built them and the families that have made them their homes for so many generations. While they all confirm to a similar architectural style and are made from the same local materials, each house is its own unique expression of the people that designed, built and lived in it.
The death of craftsmanship and the use of fake materials.
Today, it is possible to use composites in the place of wood or stone. Molded plastic and foam details replace hand carved and crafted details. Pre-finished vinyl floors are made to mimic the look of hardwood. Stickers cover particle board cabinets creating an imitation woodgrain effect.
Technology has led to advances that drastically reduce the cost of construction materials and minimize (or virtually eliminate) waste. Wood fibers are compressed and glued together to make MDF, OSB, Hardy-Plank, Particle Board and a multitude of other wood alternatives. These materials make houses and furniture more accessible to the masses.
As the result of such innovations, suburban track-house neighborhoods and mega-stores like Wal-Mart have become the grotesque manifestation of this disposable “stuff” culture. A glut of cheaply made, generic objects sold at unsustainably low prices fuels an insatiable desire to needlessly accumulate more things.
We buy humdrum houses that we intend to “flip” and then overfill them with disposable objects made without much care. Home no longer refers to the place where we want to settle down and make our lives as much as the place we are keeping our stuff until we can trade up.
Rebirth of the craftsman
Swimming in a sea of sameness, hand-crafted objects stand out. I commend the people that take the time to hone their skill, perfect their craft and put their whole heart into the works they create. Repurposing old materials, restoring old objects and creating new objects using the tools and techniques of the old masters has seen a resurgence recently. I am inspired by people like my friend Matt Bellomo who see things and gives them something of a soul by applying his imagination and steady hands to them.
Fighting upstream against the deluge of cheap knock-offs made in factories by slave laborers are the new artisans. The price for their art is a reflection of the quality and time that went into its creation. To borrow from a tattoo artist friend of mine, “Good tattoos are not cheap and cheap tattoos are not good.”
When you spend a premium for hand-made, you are paying for higher quality materials, for the time it took to make an individual piece (often made one at a time) and for the lifetime of practice that went into making it. The quality arises as much from what they know as from what they do.
By spending a little bit more, you are making a statement. Instead of spending money that will enrich already rich corporations that exploit slave laborers in overseas factories, you are re-investing your money in the local economy. You are investing in something that will last and creates a legacy that can be handed down to future generations. I doubt that my great grandkids will get the chance to cherish the wobbly “Billy” bookshelf in the living room in the same way as the real wood bookshelf I inherited from my father.
By investing in quality objects, you save in the long run by not having to buy new things to replace chintzy, disposable stuff you bought on the cheap. This invokes an old Mexican expression: “Lo barato se compra cada rato” (which roughly translates to “You have to buy cheap stuff over and over again”). Taking your time to carefully reflect on your needs to buy what best suits you in the long term means spending less over your lifetime. You may not have as much stuff, but what you have will be more useful and last longer.
In this way, we must re-evaluate how we regard some of the treasures of bygone eras. Neighborhoods of custom houses, old factories and warehouse buildings serve as a form of inheritance…we should consider preserving them before plowing them under in favor of a big-box store strip mall.
Enter the DIY-Craftsman
Don’t get me wrong, I love going to Ikea and seeing the wonderfully creative designs they continue to churn out. I also appreciate how home improvement stores make DIY projects more feasible for the average person. And maybe it is the last frontier for the weekend warrior to improvise Ikea inspired home-improvement projects they see on Pinterest.
In this way, even someone who may not have a background in carpentry or construction can have a hand in building their own, customized home. And this, in and of itself, is a form of artistry. Take, for example, Birdy’s idea to hack some Ikea bookshelves when we had to remodel after the water-heater flooded the dining and living rooms (check out the blog post with tons of pic’s here).
My trip to Baltimore, in fact all of my trips to older neighborhoods and downtown areas, inspire me to stop and take notice. Beyond the larger question of aesthetics, design and function of these buildings, I admire the labor and skill that went into making them works of art.
Before you write me angry letters scolding me for ignoring the wealth of new, wonderfully modern architecture that has pushed the boundaries of design and engineering, be patient…that article will come later. Believe me, I am a fan of great design, new and old.
Post Post Script:
This is more of a confession than a PS- I work as a construction superintendent for a framing contractor that builds McMansion neighborhoods. Nothing you can say in your angry letters will make me feel any worse about this fact than I already feel. I hope that my writing articles extolling the virtues of antiquity and good design will serve as penance…