I’ve been in the thick of gathering material for my Handmade Houses follow-up, so I haven’t had the time to post much to the blog, especially lately. Recently, while out photographing for the new project I had the pleasure of experiencing the work of the late Dudley Carter (1891–1992) and can’t help but take a moment now to share a few pics.
No nails, no screws, no assembly hardware at all. Just pure hand labor and artistry.
Along with his totems and other sculpture, Carter did houses. This one from 1935, now another family’s cabin, is deep in the woods of California’s Central Coast. The family’s outdoor bed shown here, one of several in strategic spots, overlooks the creek that cuts through the property, a bit downstream from the hot springs. Not bad.
All photos copyright 2013 Richard Olsen.
For more on Dudley Carter, including more photos, check out this link.
Following a few frustrating months of back-order status, the HANDMADE HOUSES reprint (the third or fourth so far) has arrived and the book is again available for purchase. Click here to order.
Why is the handmade house an anomaly in the architecture world? In illuminating his conclusions about Iran’s “architecture without architects,” Nader Ardalan ends up nailing one of the reasons:
“I was trained as an architect in the United States and then practiced in San Francisco,” says Ardalan. “When I returned to Iran after being away for a total of 18 years, I found that my training had not prepared me adequately to understand the traditional architecture of that country, which is thousands of years old.
I found that I could not go through a Cartesian, rational process of analyzing this art and architecture because they were produced by a society which, like other traditional societies, transferred its knowledge from master to disciple, from breast to breast, in an oral tradition. The Sufi tradition in Persia—like the Gnostic, Kabbalistic, Zen Buddhist, and Celtic traditions, to name a few—is an esoteric tradition where the outward phenomenon could be understood only by studying the inward process of thinking and feeling of the artist or artisan.
It was only when I began to study classic Persian music and poetry that the door to understanding began to open. Through this study I came to see that the artisan was meant to transform himself through his work. In other words, while striving to transmute the material’s physical limitations, the artist was striving, more or less, to transform his own inner soul.
This struck a deep chord in me. Whereas, in the West, architecture seemed to be primarily a business phenomenon, or at times a means of solving social needs, here was a view of architecture and the arts as a transformative, personal, transcendent act.”
In the process of evaluating possibilities for Handmade Houses, I’d been in contact multiple times with Hungarian architect and builder Imré Makovecz (1935–2011). So many of Makovecz’s house designs, and certainly his convention-defying, handcraft-based approach to architecture (he was the son of a carpenter), fit the book’s agenda ideally. As I was finalizing the book, Makovecz was preparing to close his office and retire. Arranging the photography became too complicated. He died not long after we shipped the book to the printer. I regret that in the end I couldn’t fit him in.
Here’s a look at the house I’d intended to include in the book, an incredible little place he did for a client in Göd, a quiet town about a half-hour north of Budapest.
Hugging the edge of the Sognefjord in the village of Brekke, some 65 miles north of the old city of Bergen on the rugged and fragmented coastline of western Norway, is the Brekkestranda Fjord Hotel. Designed by the noted Norwegian architect Bjorn Simonnaes and built 1966–’80 by a team led by Ingeborg Brekke, the hotel is one of many sublime examples of building activity that grew out of Norway’s spirited eco movement of the 1960s and 70s. It’s part of a rich parallel to what was happening in the United States during those same years, most famously (in architecture circles at least) at the Sea Ranch in Northern California.
Simonnaes, who studied architecture from 1945 to ’50 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen under Steen Eiler Rasmussen, was working as an architect in Bergen when Ingeborg Brekke first contacted him in 1964 to discuss designing a hotel for her. For much of his career up to that point, Simonnaes had worked almost exclusively in the burgeoning concrete-construction, prefab-housing industry and had become one of its leading voices in Norway with his 1952 break-out invention of Flexihouse, a type of prefab house made of wood. By the time he heard from Brekke, however, Simonnaes was thoroughly disenchanted with the concept of prefab, and he saw in the hotel project an opportunity to make an entirely different kind of statement. As he recalls: “I wondered if it could be a possibility to prove that an anti-technical method of building houses could be even as cheap—and even as good—as any prefab system. At that time, our architect office had many and great tasks. And very good incomes. We had no fear of the future. I mention this because I am sure you cannot run a risk if you are not safe.”
“I made this sketch and sent it to [Brekke],” Simonnaes adds, “who wanted to build a very little hotel, or rather a little inn. In a letter…I tried to get her consent to build anti-rationally with angles awry and with quite different-shaped windows, furniture, and all sorts of things. But first of all, I stressed that the hotel’s construction should use natural wood, a turf-covered roof, and roughly built stone walls.”
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Is the “performance” of a house—its overall finished quality and appeal to its user (both measurable practical factors and the visceral)—dependent solely on the merits of its design, or does the building’s construction in fact matter, too? Consider the topic in relation to a special object of clothing. Does sewing and assembly, the overall “construction,” have an important role in the end quality of a great dress or suit, or when evaluating a garment should we only be concerned with the lines—the drawing or pattern from which it originated? It’s an absurd question, right?
Lately, in my house-scouting travels for California Green: Eco-Movement Home Design, from Handmade to High-Tech, my follow-up to Handmade Houses, on several occasions I’ve been asked by homeowners and frustrated owner-builders, “How come the builder and the construction in general seldom get celebrated (often, not even mentioned) in architecture books and in shelter magazines such as Architectural Digest and Dwell?” Certainly, I’d heard this one—and pondered it myself—long before.
I’ve been involved in architecture-and-design book and magazine publishing only since the late 1990s. During that period though, as an editor, I’ve had the great fortune to work for years at a time, often one on one, developing books for and otherwise supporting leading writers, critics, and scholars of architecture and design—residential A+D history primarily. On these subjects I’ve edited some five-dozen books and hundreds of magazine stories. But it wasn’t until I took an active interest in the history of first-generation environmental design, the practice of “design-build,” and the back-to-the-land movement’s owner-built-house phenomenon that I became cognizant of the plight of the builder, the “invisible craftsperson,” in my genre of publishing. Moreover, it’s only been since the making of my last book that I’ve come to fully understand what a craftsperson, an artist-carpenter for example, can bring to a building endeavor such as a house. In all those books and magazine articles I worked on, in so much of what I’d read and studied, where were they? Why had they been left out of the discussion? It’s actually very possible that their creative contributions to a project can amount to measurably more than those of the commonly heralded party behind many a house’s inception, the architect. So, then, how come the craftsperson and the builder are so frequently overshadowed, if not excluded entirely from published accounts of architectural work? Is it just part of the old Art vs. Craft debate?
In the mid-2000s, while senior editor for architecture at Architectural Digest and editing a story involving a timber-and-log house that had craft and construction features that defined its character beyond anything architect-designed or decorator-installed, I posed the craftsman/builder question aloud to my colleagues. (In total, I was with the magazine a few months shy of five years but some of them had been there for decades.) No one, however, seemed to have an answer to the question. While we did extensively cover the work of architects (we even did special “architecture issues”), it was customary to exclude the contributions of those who’d been charged with interpreting and articulating the architect’s designs for the client.
Intent on understanding how AD had gotten to that practice and hoping to find clues about it in its past, I reviewed the entire publication history, all the way back to its 1920s founding. It was like taking a walk along the leading edge of 20th-century residential architecture-and-construction history. It was impressive to see how the magazine had addressed the stylistic trends of the day, not to mention all the sweeping societal change in America (the war and post-war years, the birth of the suburb, the new role of the “housewife,” the advent of interior decorating within the middle class, still more wars, and on and on).
At AD, which to its credit has always published the full range of popular design styles, matters of handcraft and construction had indeed been a prominent and even glamorized part of the magazine’s focus. But that was during the 1920s and ’30s. Keep in mind that that was the time when the American Arts & Crafts era (think Greene & Greene) was giving way to the similarly handcraft-heavy period-revival-style phase that included Spanish Colonial, Mediterranean, and Tudor. Through those decades, the artisan of ceramic tile, stone and brick, ornamental plasterwork, heavy-timber framing, stained glass, or wrought iron enjoyed high demand for his skills. The architecture that was then popular very obviously relied on idiosyncratic handmade complexity. Then, in the ’40s, came the conclusion of that run. The ever-increasing popular acceptance of Modern architecture’s message, which in America had been gaining ground since the late ’20s, had squashed it. This is where the design culture has been stuck, with limited interruptions (Postmodernism, Deconstructivism) and with overwhelming enthusiasm since the ’90s rediscovery of “Midcentury Modern,” ever since. Certainly in Los Angeles, judging by recent and new construction, it looks as if Midcentury Modern had never faded. It’s back in a big way.
THE PRINCIPAL MESSENGER
In 2001, I edited a book by Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation professor Kenneth Frampton and the late architectural photographer Roberto Schezen called Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, a survey of the Modern master’s greatest buildings. (Le Corbusier is probably the most influential Modern architect in history, more so than Mies Van der Rohe, more than Walter Gropius. To this day, Le Corbusier is revered in the architecture community.) Now looking back at the book we made, I’m reminded both of how much I learned that year working one to one with Professor Frampton and, yes, the paucity of builder information we included in the work. Ironically, Corbusier, besides being a shrewd and aggressive self-promoter, was famously fond of having his photo taken on his construction sites, ensconced in rebar and concrete, as it were. But who were these sweaty and dirty people, tools in hand, standing around the always-dapper and meticulously groomed architect? Some of them at least probably ranked as artists in their own right. In books, we seldom get to find out. Within the world of architecture and design publishing, it’s largely accepted that this is how it’s done. And the builders have been conditioned to put up with it.
The hundreds of books written about Le Corbusier always paint the picture of a complex and often contradictory character. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that early in LC’s career, in the 1920s, the architect devised an ingenious system of wall construction that used salvaged rubble from war-torn buildings. Certainly there’s no gray area, though, when it comes to interpreting his purist mantra of the house as a “machine for living.” Throughout most of his career, he aggressively pushed for it—a house free of idiosyncracies, a house in celebration of standardization, one made of parts not crafted by an artisan aiming for one-of-a-kind character but, instead, fabricated by an anonymous factory somewhere—capital-”I” Industry. And he believed the same should apply to the furniture—no artistic embellishment, no decoration, nothing charged with emotion or meaning. Make it in a factory by an anonymous worker and mass produce it.
Le Corbusier’s 1920s vision of factory-made emotionless architecture is alive and well today in the pages of Dwell, the magazine founded in 2000 in response to the Baby Boomer’s rediscovery and Generation X’s discovery of so-called Midcentury Modern. Month after month, what Dwell promotes is what Le Corbusier prescribed for the masses nearly a hundred years ago: The purist box made in a factory. (Nearly a hundred years ago. Really. It’s important to keep in mind that what’s Modern stylistically isn’t necessarily “modern.”) Through the recent housing crash and the subsequent closure of some of the nation’s leading prefab companies, including Dwell darlings Marmol Radziner Prefab, not to mention the discovery that prefab had become more costly than a site-built custom house, Dwell surprisingly rolled on with their prefab marketing message. But my real point is that the Dwell-endorsed house, costly as it is by comparison, is a rather generic object, an architecture empty of human idiosyncracies, a home in celebration of standardization, one composed of parts made not by an artisan applying *one-of-kind* character but by an anonymous factory somewhere—capital “I” Industry—engaged in mass production. In the house created by the craftsman builder, you can see and actually feel the love, the passion, and the pride he has in and for his art. How much love do you think exists inherently in shipping-container architecture? The craftsman builder isn’t relevant to Dwell‘s mission.
Like Modern icons Mies Van der Rohe and Richard Neutra, Le Corbusier had little use for the “old world” made-by-hand repertoire of the craftsman builder. Modern architecture worked aggressively in its early days to advance the notion that the architect was to be revered as an artiste, all knowing and practically beyond reproach. Builders of any kind, craftsman or not, belonged in a subservient role. But let’s hear about the great class divide between the architect and the builder as LC himself viewed it and described it in his 1923 book Towards A New Architecture:
“The purpose of construction is TO MAKE THINGS HOLD TOGETHER; of architecture TO MOVE US…. Architecture, pure creation of the mind.”
LIVING WITH THE MESSAGE
Modernism’s pioneers ushered into architecture a new snobbery, an elitism that plagues it to this day. None of the Modern masters were about to willingly share credit for their “creations” with a lowly builder. And why should they? When you’ve got the parts being made in a factory by “workers” and you’ve removed all personal artistic embellishment and decoration from the situation, you really can get away with using a builder of lesser talents and fees.
Modern architecture’s rejection and effective reversal of the strides made by William Morris and England’s Arts & Crafts movement, efforts that in some circles had the craftsman elevated to the level in society previously held by the great painters and sculptors, resulted in the craftsman builder being pushed out to the fringes of the custom-home industry and even out of work. In the United States, this is pretty much where we are now. It’s the answer to the question of why builders aren’t mentioned in architecture books and magazines such as Architectural Digest and Dwell. Until handcraftsmanship and the building arts—slow architecture, slow design, slow construction—are again held up, as they were in the 1970s, as vital to the culture, this predicament isn’t going away.
Certainly I’m not suggesting that all architects who practice Modern architecture are anti-handcraft or disrespectful of builders who emphasize it in their work. In my book Handmade Houses, I feature the work of a number of Modern architects and architect-builders who regularly defy convention. Some close contemporaries of Modern’s pioneers even had different ideas about it all. Eileen Gray, an architect and designer, also a Modernist, who was at one time close with Le Corbusier and had, herself, struggled with issues of credit for her work [in a notoriously male-chauvinistic field], saw it as so many designer-builders of handmade houses do:
“A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation. Not only its visual harmony but its organization as a whole, the whole work combined together, make it human in the most profound sense.”
“Human”—it’s the highly invigorated characteristic, that amalgam of personalized traits that can only come from the hand, that the artist-carpenter and other true craftsman builders instill in the process of realizing of a house. When you remove their talents, their individualism, from the enterprise and make it about mass production and a CNC machine’s predictability, what do you think happens to the “human?”