Modern architecture is fundamentally about technology.
The industrial age ushered in new materials, science, math, and tools to enable humans to create power grids, ocean liners, airplanes, and highway systems. In architecture, technology resulted in steel structures, large sheets of glass, wood studs, plywood, indoor toilets, heating systems, and electric lighting. This was further refined in the middle of the 20th century with significant improvements in insulation, less hazardous paint, non-toxic plumbing, air conditioning, more efficient lighting, and the internet.
So why, now in an era where the world’s fastest car is electric, do we still want to reference historical technology? I believe primarily this is because we disconnect architectural features from their relationship to technology.
The sketch above is one of my typical five minute explorations. This is exploration for an actual house in Raleigh where the client is interested in traditional detailing. The challenge is to create historically accurate references even though the home is built with construction methods fundamentally removed from the technology that evolved those details in the first place. Can this even be done? Should it be?!
As with any historically linked design, I start with a model. The 1740 Drayton Hall outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is the model for historical southern architecture. (Google image search for a lot more views.) There are also some Neo-classical models around, but Georgian is the first mature style of architecture in the south although few great examples exist like this one.
In the sketch, I began with Drayton Hall’s basic form. The primary mass is a rectangle and the roof form is hipped with a gable only on the front. But that’s the extent of progress when logic starts to break down.
Drayton’s roof is actually double-hipped, with two different slopes. Notice in the far right of the sketch, an illustration of a roof kick. Maybe that is a way to suggest the double-hip without the complexity?
There is also a suggestion of synthetic slate. Although it is currently metal, Drayton’s original roofing material was likely clay tile or slate. (Metal roofing wasn’t used in America until the 1800’s, when Drayton was re-roofed.) Modern slate roofs are rarely repaired with stone. They use a simulated phenolic slate that is lighter and has a 50 year warranty.
Also indicated in the sketch are quoins. These are vertical blocks defining masonry corners. They were used to define and stabilize masonry structures as far back as Rome. But today’s masonry is effectively glued onto a wood framed building. Our codes don’t allow brick to support a building so it is conveniently pasted onto the outside. There is no functional necessity for quoins.
The upper sketch also indicates flue extensions (pots). This is the classic English historical look, but Drayton Hall never had them.
Finally, notice the bottom right corner sketch–a garage door! Obviously fitting such a large scale opening into an historically derived building looks pretty ridiculous. Without steel and modern glass manufacturing techniques, 18th century windows were very small. The architecture didn’t give voice for large openings. You can see in the lower left sketch that two garage doors are fitted in on the building left. But the historical building had nearly a full story of stairs up to the finished floor. It also has a downstairs cellar. Neither of these are conducive to our modern needs for drive-in garages and walk-in level main floors.
In a few minutes, the sketch highlights numerous difficulties with historical reference in current construction techniques. I’m not convinced it can properly be done. I’ll write another article if the project takes off and we can successfully accomplish it.
For more information on authentic historical architectural styles of residential buildings in America, see A Field Guide to American Houses (Revised), by Virginia Savage McAlester for a thorough catalog. I have the original edition, but the revision is even better.