Sunday, August 12, 2012

Weathering

One of my favorite books about architecture is a small volume called "On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time." I read it when I was in school, and have been mindful ever since of the process of weathering, or aging, in the buildings I design. The authors praise buildings that deal naturally and gracefully with the effects of the elements, that change gradually in appearance as sun, wind, rain and snow exert their influence. "Weathering is not only a problem to be solved," they say, "but is an inevitable occurrence to be recognized and made use of." All buildings will age. The question is whether this aging will be unintentional and unsightly, or intentional and graceful.

It's a delight to be able to post about the weathering of my house before construction is even complete. The house is showing its age already - and I think that's a good thing. Here's a picture of the cypress siding I took this past March, shortly after it was installed:


And here's the same view taken last week, six months later:


As much as I liked the uniform bright blonde of the brand new wood, there's a beauty also in the random mottles and streaks, the blacks and grays drawn out by sun and rain.


I feel that there's a deeper beauty here, because it's not just about appearance, but the passage of time. The wood is not just a pretty color now; it's an organic material (like us) honestly showing its age.

In reading up on bronze hardware I came across the phrase, "living finish." I like this term. Bronze is considered to be a living finish because it changes over time. Weathering causes the bronze to gradually change color. Unpainted, unstained wood is also a living finish.


Contrast this with a material like vinyl, which does not weather. It looks the same for 20 years, then cracks and falls apart. There's no graceful, gradual aging, no honest expression of time. It seems to resist or ignore aging until the moment it dies. There's something false about this.

Of course there are natural materials that age almost unnoticeably, at least during our lifespans - such as the aluminum, brick and stone on this house. But it's one thing to use a natural material that ages slowly, and quite another to chemically engineer a material to show no sign of change over time. Does the widespread use of vinyl just indicate our interest in low-maintenance houses? Or does it also show a deeper, less conscious quest to rid our environments of reminders of the passage of time, and therefore of our own mortality?


About fifteen years ago during a trip through rural North Carolina I noticed a common architectural theme: new suburban single-family homes, usually clad with vinyl, directly across the street from old wooden farm houses, sheds and barns. I wrote a response in my journal in the form of a letter to the new residents:

Your houses will yield a shameful history rather than the glorious, respectful one across the street: plastic doesn't know how to die. Time will mock your houses for resisting rather than accepting death. The fallen barns across the street are well acquainted with time, agreed with death when the time was come, and then let go when gravity pulled. From these alone - across the street - will your children learn about life. These barns rust and corrode, and their structure is breaking. Your child's grandmother - his dear grandmother - lies in a hospital bed with a broken hip, and with cracked skin, and without the energy to hug her grandson. Your vinyl will not interpret this tragedy for him. But the crooked barns, the moss on his friend's clapboards, will explain everything.

So for a while now I've had in mind the parallel between our buildings and our bodies. Some philosophers have suggested a connection between the anti-aging ambition in producing our contemporary building materials and a defining characteristic of modernity: the denial of death. I think they are right. And further, as expressed in my journal entry, I think we benefit from living with buildings that visibly relate to our condition as inhabitants of aging, death-bound bodies. When our built environment echos visually the reminders we see throughout Scripture that we are dust, and to dust we will return, we live a little closer to reality, and hopefully with an appropriate sense of urgency. But it also makes the promise of eternal life all the sweeter.

2 comments:

  1. Aunt Raynette and Uncle KennyAugust 16, 2012 at 7:38 PM

    Beautiful photos, beautiful aging wood and beautiful words all of which make my heart smile and my eyes tear. You are a blessing to us all.

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  2. And that comment is a blessing to me. Thanks Raynette.

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