Saturday, August 23, 2008

In the Material World

Last week, I was going to post a blog about the difference between high Victorian architecture and Craftsman style, because they express two completely different, and conflicting philosophies of building. I was going to post this because of something I knew intellectually but learned on a whole different level in the process of rebuilding our front porch.

The style of architecture generally associated with Victorian houses--Queen Anne and Gothic, with all the frills and points and swoops and arches and fiddly bits, is all about outrageous fakery. Most of what you see isn't structural. It's all trimming and disguise, fanciful stuff meant to suggest that the solid stuff of the material world--brick and wood and stone, is all paper and lace and angel wings. The support structures--load-bearing columns and beams, for instance, are all hidden under swathes of trim. It's _about_ fakery, style and surface, kind of like postmodernism is--excess for its own sake. This has to do with the beauty of the manufactured world, the dream world.

On the other hand, there's the Craftsman style, which was deliberately antithetical, which emphasizes the clean solid beautify of real materials, where all the architecture is clean and visible. Nothing is hidden, and therefore the craftsmanship in the construction needs to be perfect. This movement was all about the return to authenticity, and the beauty of the material world--things as they truly are.

I have a copy of House Beautiful magazine from 1907. In it is a piece by Jack London, and he is ranting about exactly this difference. In this pretty little magazine, that advises women what colors go nicely in which rooms and which fabric to use for curtains, is the Famous Author in a full-bore rage about buildings that lie--especially the house he bought in Oakland and its fake plaster pseudo-columns, which he despises because they bear no weight and therefore have no purpose. "Someday, when I get the time, one of two things will surely happen. Either I'll go forth and murder the man who perpetrated the atrocity, or else I'll taken an axe and chop off the lying, fluted planks."

He goes so far as to blame the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake on the proliferation of these lying buildings. People with no architectural appreciation deserved what they got.

Anyway, I was going to post about all of this last week, and to try and figure out where I stood on the issue. I like both styles. But I got another lesson in the nature of materials. It's been raining incessantly here for days at a time--sheets and pounding sheets of grayness. My partner noticed a fair bit of water on the basement floor, and thought we had a leaky pipe. I took one look and said "that's not a pipe. We have flooding." He said he couldn't see where it was coming from, but it took me about 30 seconds to find the fist-sized hole in the corner of our foundation, with murky daylight coming through.

It amazes me that many people don't really see the world around them. They don't really look at things. It's as if reality--the real world of solid objects, is some mysterious thing that people don't see. Generally, I do see things, but not always. It took me weeks of studying other people's porches before I realized how they were made, saw the difference between the fake and the real of their construction.

We had a fake wall in our basement, made of pegboard, which covered up the original fieldstone. It's there that the water seemed to be seeping through. Once we tore that down, we discovered, much to our delight, that the previous owners had covered up an old basement window. With thin cheap plywood. And then put dirt on the outside of it, and the pegboard wall over it. Wood has its nature, and so do water and earth. They cause wood to rot. And so it was that we had a two by three foot leaky rotten hole in our basement wall, the rest of which was a sheet of cobwebs, stinking black mold and ancient dryer lint, on the century-old, loosely-mortared fieldstone behind the cheap pegboard.

So my partner went outside and dug down into the dirt around the foundation, in order to start mortaring the hole over. It wasn't supposed to rain that night, so he laid plastic lightly over the hole.

It did. Torrentially. The plastic collapsed. Spectacularly. We had quite literally a waterfall in the basement--a surging nightmare of water, mud, mold and ancient dryer lint--me with my face in that muck trying to staple plastic over it, coughing my lungs out because I'd been sick with a cold all week and the mold wasn't helping, and he out in the mud and rain patching it up from the outside.

Two baths later, and after that "I'll never be clean again feeling" had receded, I had more thoughts about the nature of the material world, fakery, and the strange fact that so many people just don't seem to really pay attention to what's around them, to the nature of wood and water and stone, and to wonder why that is. And I wanted to wonder why it was that people mystify things so--looking to God or the great maybe beyond or some random miracle or various dogmas instead of what's right in front of them and readily observable.

But I was too freaking tired and cold and wet and sick for the next several days to put the words together.

The basement is mended and much less stinky now. The porch is still a half-built shambles. I am trying not to think about that either.

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