Wednesday, March 24, 2010


“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.”
John Ruskin

I was chatting with someone at church the other day about my house design. I told her that there will be no paint in my house. And no carpet. And no sheetrock. When I've mentioned this to other people they get a look of incredulity and skepticism on their face and ask what then my house will be made of. As if these are the only materials available for a house! Oh, how our typical experiences shape our sense of possibility.

But this woman was mostly disturbed by the lack of paint. She responded, "Well, I like color." And proceeded to describe the different colors she used for a recent painting project at her house.

Well, I like color too. That's why my house will have red brick, blue slate, golden pine, and silvery cypress. Here color is integral to the material, and the material is God's. One of my favorite quotes is, "Whether he uses marble or sod, the builder is hand-in-hand with God." As much as possible in this house I wanted to use materials that are closest to the way they naturally occur, instead of those heavily manipulated or processed by people. This ensures that God's designs, and God's colors, are everywhere.


  1. But God made the paints too, no? They are God's paints, as it were, just as the textiles used for the Tabernacle were dyed with God's dyes.

    On the other hand, yes, I agree that there can be a value to a directness and transparency in the use of materials, to minimal processing. Kahn might have agreed with you - although one might note that it very often takes more effort (and more money, both in the short and in the long term) to achieve that sort of transparency. There is a good reason why exterior woodwork has typically been painted.

    So yes, there is something good about minimally processed food in a culture where much of what we eat is heavily processed and "artificial." But in other contexts (e.g. at Thanksgiving...) there can also be something good about dishes which are the product of many hours of loving "processing," or cooking.... Perhaps it is more about the nature of the ingredients themselves. Brick, slate, pine and cypress are delicious materials in their own right.

  2. Did God make the paints? Of course the raw materials of anything we make come from the earth at some point, but when we alter those materials to such an extent that they are mostly unrecognizable, I would say that's now a man-made material. Today's paints seem to fit into that category. You can't dig in the ground and find something like latex paint. And, (though we are making some strides against this - no-VOCs, etc.) for the most part paint today is bad for us to breath.

    I'm not against all coloring. I appreciate the dyed linens in the Tabernacle because, for one, after being dyed, you still know that the material is cotton ("transparency" is preserved), and two, the dye was likely the result of crushed berries or rocks (directly from the earth). I also think there were symbolic/expressive reasons God wanted those particular colors. And it's worth noting that the linens can work just fine left white, which means that the material used has its own aesthetic integrity.

    Contrast this with dry wall finishing today: gyp board is put up to make a smooth surface, but nobody likes the look of light grey 4 x 8 boards, so they patch the joints, sand it smooth, and paint it. Now it looks like one big wall surface made out of red or blue or green material, which it is not. It's a bunch of 4 x 8 boards hidden behind paint because they are ugly.

    So I like your word "transparency." This is a goal for me in the sense that I want the house to be honest about how it's made, to not hide from the viewer what it actually is. But along with this comes the task of choosing materials that are actually meaningful and beautiful to reveal. I could put up sheet rock, not paint it and call it "transparent," but why? What's special about revealing sheet rock? Nothing, to me. And that's where I come back to using God's materials - those that have his fingerprints on them, rather than ones where we've stamped his out with our own.

  3. These are good points. And the juxtaposition of "transparent" with "unrecognizable" seems valuable. I will look forward to reading about your application of these concepts as I make my way through your more recent entries. That said, there are other materials that could perhaps act as useful test cases to sharpen or blur the distinctions: plaster, concrete, glass, and of course the big one, insulation. God's materials?

    Only Koolhaas likes to celebrate exposed/unpainted drywall . . . .

  4. Good stuff. There are indeed some blurry lines. Of the four materials you list last I'm using three - concrete, glass and insulation. The concrete is an interesting story - I originally wanted to avoid it entirely, but the cost of a boulder foundation was prohibitive (surprise). I'm still on the fence about concrete, since it is made by chemical reaction, but it's a reaction between natural materials. This brings up Koolhaas again: didn't he say concrete "has the consistency of vomit"? I agree. But I concluded that I have to use it, and that therefore I have to reveal it - the top of the slab is visible all around the base of the structure. This may end up being an architectural confession - "I didn't have the patience to wait to afford stone, so I used concrete, and here it is for everyone to see." Or is it being flexible in the right places?

    Glass is especially interesting because it is materially pure - just molten sand - but it is unrecognizable as such. I think because pretty much everyone knows what glass is, and because it is natural, I haven't (yet) had any misgivings about it.

    Insulation material varies greatly. I want to use recycled denim insulation everywhere. But if a builder convinces me to use spray foam, I could use water propelled soy-based foam. In either case the insulation is natural, biodegradable and close to the earth. That works for me.