Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Master Builder Tradition - What Happened? VII

A confluence of events in the 1850~1900 period served to put the Master builder tradition in its grave, and events in the first few decades of the 20th century were simply nails in that coffin. At the turn of the new century, virtually every kind of literature, from builder's journals and pattern books, women's magazines, domestic science (home economics) textbooks, and so forth, began clamoring for a radical simplification of domestic architecture. This barrage of ideas radically changed the appearance of dwellings from the Victorian model into 'modern'.

The writer Oliver Williamson, in a book of essays titled The Complete Home (1907), states the mood of the time quite succinctly:

"There have been two extremes in later American home architecture - over-ornamentation and absolute disregard for appearance. The first arose from a feeling that every dollar spent in the interest of art should be so geegawed to the outer world that all who passed might note the costliness and wonder. The second extreme had its birth in an elementary practicality that believes anything artistic must be both extravagant and useless"

(quoted in G. Wright's Moralism and the Model Home, p. 232)

Other popular writers of the time blamed the 'visual disorder' of Victorian architecture with social problems, and the 'excessive' diversity between individual houses for the increase of social tensions and even political conflict, as they emphasized class differences. Thus, it came to be thought that such an architecture was un-democratic, because, after all, America was intended, so the mythology goes, to be a 'classless' society. Bye-bye 'painted lady':

So too the pressures of society, as the population dramatically climbed in urban centers, and industrial production took over virtually every facet of manufacturing, the move was on to simple and quickly produced structures. Also related to that rising tide of industrialism, the supremacy of technique that Jacques Ellul describes with much perspicacity in The Technological Society, were developments in various areas that affected architecture. New systems appeared that brought to the home air and heat control, light, power and other services. Hope would appear to spring eternal in America, and these new technologies for the home promised, it was thought, a greater ease of home life, a reduction for the housewife in drudgery, which would free up opportunities for the female to work outside the home and thus increase economic abundance. The ideal of the suburban home began to catch on, and a lifestyle beckoned of freedom from restraint, clean air, room for children to play, gardens - in short, an idyllic return to some sort of life, as it 'should be' or was thought to have once been in the romanticized past.

Many middle class homes came to be equipped with flush toilets, hot-air furnaces, pressurized water supplies, (combine the two and you get running hot water); advances in small appliances were numerous - iceboxes cooled by ammonia, gas-fueled cook stoves, the telephone, and eventually the washing machine. An interesting point to note is that each of these systems and pieces of equipment took up a lot of space in the house, and thus houses came to be redesigned around them. Something had to give, as houses were growing smaller and filled with ever more equipment. The bathroom, formerly a rather ample space in many houses, now became reduced to as small as 5' x 5' in many cases. The basement was given over to the furnace, hot water tank and piping, while each room, and surrounding structural components now had to accommodate radiators, forced air ducting and registers, and electrical equipment. Servant spaces became a thing of the past in the middle class dwelling, as did the pantry (which, also was a victim of the rise of the supermarket chains), which was 'replaced' to an extent by built-in kitchen cabinetry. Faster distribution of food reduced the need to stock the kitchen for long periods of time. The number and size of rooms declined significantly. The parlor was disposed with, rooms became more 'multi-purpose' instead of specialized as they had been in Victorian forms, and the floor plan became more open.

All of these new technologies for the home came at a cost of course, but even after initial resistance to these technologies among members of the public, once accepted, the move to a the point where these technological advances were deemed necessities rather than luxuries was only a matter of time. Thus, in order to cut construction costs, the wood framing became progressively lighter, to the point of flimsiness it may be said. Balloon framing rapidly eclipsed timber framing in wood construction, and in short time was supplanted by platform stick framing. Sheet rock did away with the trade of plastering for the most part. Poured concrete became a commonly-used material, and brick veneer began to supplant real brick construction.

The drive of technique, permeating all aspects of society by the time of the Fin de siècle, meant for some observers that the home itself should become rational, efficient, and simplified, and this in turn would encourage the production of rational men and women, all the better adapted to life in a rapidly industrializing society. Rational and efficient, if simple, houses and people, molded to fit the demands of technique.

These moves towards simplification promoted such things as the suburban ranch house. Framing one-floored structures meant simplified framing and a reduction in the sizes of framing components, along with the disappearance of the stairwell in many cases. Even in two-story buildings constructed in that period, the stair which was formerly a point of elaboration and wealth display in the home, came to be greatly reduced, severe even, and bereft of carving or intricate turned balustrades. The art of stair building and hand-railing (one of the most complex of the carpentry arts), peaked in the mid 1800's and fell into decline rapidly thereafter. Today, very few carpenters indeed can construct equivalents to the magnificent geometrical staircases of the Victorian era, because the demand for them has dropped to nearly zero, and thus the skills have fallen out of use and the development process. Another case of 'use it or lose it'.

Simplification extended from the interior to the exterior. The houses built at the turn of the century were shorn of dormers, projecting wings, porches, and the complex roof line of the Queen Anne 'painted lady' was reduced to a simple gable or hipped form. As the roof became flatter, the attic all but disappeared. with the coming of piped city water in many areas, the cistern was no longer required on the roof, thus further simplifying and lightening roof and wall framing.

Industrial production of materials, and the rationality of increased standardization in the materials for housebuilding meant that houses became more and more alike. some reformers even advocated for increased uniformity of housing, as they felt it would lead to a more egalitarian society and reduce social tensions. These simpler and smaller houses could be seen as possessing a democratic heritage. The watchwords were 'economical', 'standardized', 'simplified'. In time there would be some reaction to that trend of course, as cookie-cutter didn't sell so well after a while.

Anyway, I have tried to convey, over these 7 postings, some share of the complex set of factors, some independent and some interrelated, which contributed to the downfall of the Master builder tradition. After a brief period of struggle between the traditional trades and the factory, the factory came out on top, and, by the early 20th century, the collapse in these old trades was nearly complete. With that collapse came the building worker's loss of pride and independence at the construction site, which in turn led to a psychology of habitual caution in the swamp of the new and rapidly changing building fads. While old forms were never fully abandoned, and not all new innovations were fully accepted by builders, it was a situation very much akin to a ship that had lost its compass or rudder; building was now left to wander, it would seem, from fad to fad, long-established pattern as precedent rendered 'hopelessly' old-fashioned. Simplified houses with simplified roofs led to a 'dumbing down' of the trade, and industrially-produced components reduced much of the carpenter's work to little more than assembly. Soon the suburbs would explode in growth, and the mechanism set in motion in the first decade of the 20th century would result in the sprawl and homogeneous landscape we see around us today. It's all very rational and efficient, the triumph of the machine.


  1. Ellul really gets to the heart of modern Western culture, doesn't he?

  2. yes, he does, and his words of the late 1950's would appear to be quite prescient. Not exactly the sort of reading, with either The Technological society or his later work Propaganda, to put a cheer in one's heart, but Ellul is a writer of clear perspective and presents a persuasive line of argument.


  3. What's the best way to find all of this master builder series of posts? I'd like to read them from the beginning, but am having trouble accessing them. When I hit the label Master Builder I end up on a 2012 post.


  4. Anon,

    I usually don't allow anonymous comments, however I'll make an exception. When you use the label index on 'Master Builder" it gives you the results in reverse chronological order, which is a pain. I noticed while checking that the part 6 of that series had no labels, so that didn't help either. To save you the trouble of trawling backwards, please cut and paste the following link into your browser and you will go to the start of that thread:




All comments are moderated, so if you're planning to spam this, know now that your clicking and pasting is in vain. I do read the comments before posting, so your mission is doomed from the outset. All this time and effort trying to put your inane spam onto blogs -- is this how you want to spend your time on earth?

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