Sunday, March 27, 2011

Formwork for Space

This is the wood formwork that was installed last week to contain the concrete that will be poured this week. This concrete will be the foundation and floor slab for all of the house except the Great Room and porch. The plumber will be out prior to the pour to install piping for the kitchen and bathrooms, which will be in this area.

This formwork gave me my first real sense of how the scale of the whole place feels. Now I can see the house wrapping the courtyard, and the size of the square porch around the open space in the middle. The feeling I get from the size of a built work is always a little surprising; most often I find that a space feels smaller than I imagined from the drawings. I have feared that the built spaces of this house would feel too small, but after walking around these forms for a while and imagining the final building, I was smiling. I think it will be about right. These spaces may seem smaller than we are used to, but I think that's because we are used to more space than we need. This house is human scaled for sure, just what's needed to walk through, walk around, to go about living. I don't think there will be anything unpleasant about a smaller scale here; actually I think it will be more pleasant than most places we experience. It's not so much "small-scaled" as intimately scaled. The building will hug you. It will brush your shoulder as you go around a corner, ask you to dance around columns, invite you to reach out and touch a sun-splattered wall. And that will be nice because the materials inside this hard exterior shell are soft and natural. But then if you are in the Great Room, or a bedroom, you look up through a skylight and your viewing distance goes from a few feet to a few light-years. There is something powerful about being in a human-sized room with a God-sized view.

And the walls keep rising around the Great Room. I think the concrete slab for this space will be poured when the rest of the house slab is poured. No formwork needed here though - the "forms" are the brick and stone walls.

It's worth pointing out that there's not really any "architecture" here yet. There is building, and there is design. But architecture is about enclosing space. The key element that distinguishes architecture from the other arts is that it provides a volume for people to inhabit. As the late great Philip Johnson said about judging works of architecture, "Let the building wrap itself around you; that'll be the test." Since the brick walls have gone up there is certainly the definition of an area, and the suggestion of volume, but it will be a while before it is fully defined, before it wraps around us. I've always been fascinated by this spatial wrapping. As a child I found a pile of bricks in my grandparents' backyard, stacked them into a square about a foot tall, and curled up in a corner, intoxicated at having carved out a space within the universe just for me. So here's my new square of bricks, another special place carved out of the universe - but not just for me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Word and Image

the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands (Acts 7:48)

To that I say: Amen. Some people have mistaken my talk of architecture as a spiritual endeavor as a refusal to accept verses like this. But I don't say that this building will make it possible for God to dwell there; I say rather that it can join with nature - and with the Lord's Supper, and baptism - in proclaiming the truth and beauty of God through visual image and symbol. Even the Word himself was not only word, but also image, "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15).

"The lesser light to govern the night" (Gen. 1:16) - A still from video
footage I took of the full moon rising over the sea a few hours
before the vernal equinox this year.

We are not the privileged ones for having God's words neatly bound between the covers of one book. The privileged ones were those who walked with the Word in the flesh - who saw just how his eyes moved around the crowd as he preached, just which way his hands gestured when he lifted the crippled out of their demons, who got to watch him walk, to see what is the stride of God. The visions too received by the prophets were God's choice of how best to manifest those truths. The wordy, mostly impenetrable verbal accounts of them are good for us to read and digest, but they are mere shadows. Will we think ourselves higher than John for being able to read the vision of the exploding heavens on a flat piece of paper?

"The greater light..." Looking west through the first and
lowest window opening formed in the stone wall.

John's "Word" is Greek Logos: the divine wisdom, the ordering force of the universe, God himself ("the Word was God"), not yet word or image in the beginning, only Spirit. "Word" is not the same as "a word" or "words." This Word was imaged via incarnation in human form and sinless action. "Incarnation" means "in his meat." It's fleshly, visual, physical. And the Word also spoke words; words are just another imaging of the Word, another way of manifesting the Idea. An idea, a raw concept, at its inception has neither words nor images to express it; it sits in the womb of the mind waiting to be enfleshed -
a spirit awaiting a body.

The south-east corner of the Great Room. I love the earthiness
of these bricks - just slabs of red clay, baked and sliced into chunks.
Who needs paint when you can get color like this out of the ground?

The Incarnation of the Word was not the first imaging of God's thought. Creation was there already. Nature is a constant image of the thoughts of God, always in the background of our senses, ever returning to our visual field. It is the first "book" of God, the visual book, declaring without speech the truths of God,
as the Psalmist said.

The sweet bay tree near the stone wall. These
have the sweetest flowers I've ever smelled,
but I haven't seen a bud on this one yet.
When will you bloom, my sweet bay?

And then came the Law. And then the Temple. Then the Christ, and his Church. There is a symphony of God's thoughts enfleshed all around us: plants and animals, planets and stars, our own bodies, ever before us speaking; and the Bible's writings, rooting us, nourishing us, changing us; and finally the works of God's inspired people, creating with both words and images - preachers, prophets and poets, painters, dancers and architects, none of us doing everything, each of us doing a part, to drape flesh over the invisible face of Jesus
in the world, for the world, until he comes.

A vine I found on site today that just started blooming.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Destruction After Construction

Brickwork started last week for the three walls behind the stone wall, which will complete the space of the Great Room. Above is a shot of some of the bricks I asked the mason to tear off of one of the new walls. Here's what the wall looked like before:

See the problem?? I didn't either, until I got home and checked my drawings - which, yes, show every single brick in this wall. What I noticed is that the mason started the first course wrong off the footing. And by "wrong" I mean that the patterns I designed for the wall would not work out farther up. The particular pattern here is correct - traditionally called the "Flemish bond," where each course, or layer, is made up of an alternating rhythm of "headers" and "stretchers" (the end of a brick, then the long side of a brick, then the end, then long side, etc.), and this rhythm alternates as the courses go up the wall. The craftsmanship is great, too. He simply started the bottom course with a stretcher in the center of the wall instead of a header, which means that this alternating pattern would terminate a course too low, or too high, compared with what I drew. The patterns in these three walls go through several transformations from bottom to top and they all blend together.

My first thought after realizing this was that the whole wall would have to be demolished and rebuilt to fix the problem. Then I realized that only the top two courses would be visible, so gritting my teeth I decided I'd just ask the mason to take off those two courses. I didn't call him right away, which I think is good; I need time to think about these things. Also, an interesting string of questions had occurred to me, which I hope will always occur to me in cases like this: What if the mason inadvertently did me a favor here? What if starting the wall on the opposite coursing yields a better design than the original? So I spent some time that night revising my drawing of this wall, shifting the pattern a course down, then a course up. But I wasn't seeing a better design. I realized that I could "make it work," meaning probably no one but me would ever notice the difference. But it wasn't better; the original design had a special order and harmony about it that was lost by changing the coursing. It's like the difference in writing between the right word and the almost right word.

So I concluded that the "test" for me in this is to nicely and graciously tell the mason to demolish and rebuild a portion of this wall. This makes sense as a test, because I hate it. I have to tell a person who's an expert in his craft to tear apart his work. It's also a special test of confidence in my inspiration: Do I really believe this design is the result of God's work in me? If so, how could I not tell the mason to fix it? It wasn't even all his fault - my drawing doesn't show the bottom three courses of brick, because they are below grade. It's possible to deduce the pattern on the first course from the patterns above, but still, I should have known better than to leave out of my drawing the bricks that begin the entire wall.

Well, he was a good sport. We met on site the next evening and I clarified the problem. He offered that actually only the outer course (of three) have to be cut out, since only they will be visible. Good - I had been hoping he would see an easier way. Here is the wall after it was fixed:

See the difference?? I wouldn't either, if I hadn't drawn it myself. But if you look at the fourth and fifth courses up from the ground, you can see that they don't alternate like the others; they are "stacked," stretcher on stretcher, header on header. This puts the pattern back on track for everything that happens above. So I'm happy, and now my mason knows that, yes, I am that obsessive.

And now some pure progress: the continued growth of the stone wall:

This last shot shows the result of "daylight savings time": when I stop by on my way home from work now I get to see this west-facing wall staring at the setting sun. There is something this wall shares with Stonehenge - it's a pile of rocks on earth conversing with a light in heaven.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Going Vertical

Concrete has been poured for the stone and brick walls around the great room. Here it is still wet. Something appropriate about a mountain in the future holy place.

A day or two later I found a pile of rocks in my driveway. Beautiful sight.

My mason decided to build a temporary wood frame so he could get a perfectly flush interior surface on the stone wall, since the roof structure and interior walls have to frame to it. This wasn't considered as a strategy before, and the problem of framing to a rough granite wall has always been a major concern of every builder that has looked at this. Thanks to my mason for taking this thorn out of my side.

...The Temple of the great God that is being rebuilt with large stones. (Ezra 5:8)

When the workers laid the foundation of The Temple of God, the priests in their robes stood up with trumpets, and the Levites, sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise God... (Ezra 3:10) Okay, so there wasn't a lot of praise and worship coming from this father and son team of masons that first day. When I showed up a few hours into their work, they looked weary, and instead of the boisterous "excited to have work" hello I was expecting, they gave me a short glance that said something closer to "WTF." The stone looked quite a bit larger than I was expecting, and their first remark to me was that it was a lot heavier than they were expecting.

This is all fine, design-wise; in fact I think I like the larger stones better. This was my first hint of just how massive this wall is (Is this what a father feels like when he realizes his son will outgrow him? And outlive him?), and that's how it should be. But architects don't often think about the effect of their design on the people who will actually build it. Sure, my mason picked out the actual stone, so I'm surprised that he was surprised at its weight. But I hope this experience will cause me to consider from now on the impact my designs have on the backs of the people who build them.

When a job turns out to be much harder than expected, it's only natural to start asking why it was designed this way. After going on for a while about how heavy the stone is, the father mason said to me, "You building a bomb shelter? If they had this for the Civil War they never would have gotten in down here!" Since he said it laughing and then changed the subject, I assumed it was hypothetical and didn't explain. Not that I was prepared to go into the symbolism of ancient church architecture anyway. My immediate internal feeling was satisfaction that this wall has the protective massiveness that I intended. But it's hard to imagine how to explain that this is a symbolic fortress, to protect against the symbolic "bombs" of sin and evil. Would this inspire him, or just piss him off more? I might find out before this project is over.

End of day one of stone work. They told me there is a stone in the pile that is too big for a person to move. The father joked (I think) that they'll have to get a horse to drag that stone to the wall. Dude, if you bring a horse to my site to pull a rock, I'll give you a hug. And take lots of pictures.

A final thought that occurred to me as I walked away from the site this day was what my fellow architects would think about this wall. (Always a dangerous thought, I know - "please God, not man" - but don't worry, I'm over it.) I think especially about the more avant-garde designers I went to school with, and the architects on the cutting edge of the profession today. I imagine them pointing out to me that this is the 21st century, not the 1st. We can build much lighter now. Embrace technology! Be progressive! Make curves and folds and crinkles! We can build with polycarbonate and fog!

I'm all about using the latest technology to build never-before-seen forms - but not as a goal in itself. My goal is not about technology or originality, but about the truth and beauty of God and his creation. Sometimes that goal will require the latest technology, or even technology that doesn't yet exist, and sometimes it will require a pile of rocks. Sometimes the most progressive design move is to reject what is "progressive."

On the other hand: Could this be the first true load-bearing stone wall for a house in 21st century America? Of course that's not the point, but it would be a fun fact. Also, this wall has only just begun. Right now it may look like a ruin unearthed in Scotland, but as the nine different openings begin piercing its thickness in an apparently random array, it will seem quite a bit more... creative? Progressive? Otherworldly? Whatever you want to call it. It is what it has to be.

I'll close with this video from this first day of stone work. In case you can't hear it, the father (who his son invited down from New York for this work) declared that this first day of work will be his last on this project. Next victim?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Here is some footage from work on site this past Monday morning, which culminated in the first turning of earth. Along the way is some interesting chatter by my mason and foundation contractor, including the mason's estimate for the weight of the stone wall: 45 tons. That's 80,000 pounds. No doubt miniature compared to the west walls of ancient churches. But I think it'll do.

I'll back up a step for the shot above, showing the string that was put up to precisely locate the major walls and corners of the house. This gave me my first glimpse of the slight angle at which the house sits in relation to the street - a result of orienting the house to the cardinal directions. The vernal equinox will be upon us in about three weeks, when the sun will set due west for one of only two times out of the year. It's possible the stone wall will be rising out of the ground just as the rays of the setting sun begin to hit it at a perfect right angle.

Above is my foundation contractor in what he called a "mini excavator." I assume this was used in place of a "maxi excavator" in order to maneuver around all my trees.

The results at the end of the day! First is the 6-foot wide, 34-foot long excavation for the stone wall footing, and the second image shows the excavations for the brick wall footings (together these walls will define the Great Room). I was surprised by the fact that the place felt completely different. Space has been opened up in the ground and closed up above.

Above is what the stone wall footing looked like at the end of today. That's a lot of rebar. It's just as my drawing shows, but it's always a bit jolting to see little circles and dashed lines on a piece of paper get translated into three-dimensional webs of steel bars. It also occurred to me that this placement of rebar was the first actual CONstruction of the project. Everything up to this point has been destructive or subtractive - taking out trees, removing dirt. Anticlimactic though it may be, the rebar for the footings is the first element installed for this project that will be part of the finished building.

As mentioned in the video, I rode with my mason to a nearby stone yard to look at the actual stone that will be used for the west wall. This is the "westworks," recall, an element from ancient churches that was a symbolic shield against evil, sin and death. The stone we looked at is granite, but the particular form of this granite goes by the name "rip-rap." You see this material in drainage ditches everywhere. It's the commoner among stone, cheap and abundant, used and abused, a trash rock if there ever was one. So I say, what better material to put to divine use? Commoners with trashy reputations brought together to do something good. Yeah, just like human beings in the hands of God.