After some perusal of the last post, I realized I had not touched on an incredibly important element and instrument of making great places, which is that of materials, and how they are used. In hindsight I think it was providential that it happened that way. I believe that there are few more powerful tools at the designer’s disposal than material. Louis Kahn, who used light and designed all his work to showcase the medium of light, said that material was “spent light”. I like that way of thinking about it, (from physics 101) there is potential energy and there is latent energy- and then there is spent energy. It also says that there is a story behind that surface, and it had a previous life somewhere in nature. That oak hardwood floor was a tree at some point in the recent past, standing tall in the forest, casting a shadow. The stone floor, once at the bottom of a vast ocean, prior to being heaved up into the mountains of Brazil by folding tectonic plates.
Some pieces have an even longer story; being re-purposed, or like a cat with nine lives, on it’s second or third version. I love the look and feel of old wood, or antique wood as we call it, which may have first been oak siding on a barn in Kentucky, or heart pine floor decking from a textile mill in Georgia. They even “harvest” old trees from the bottom of rivers that have been soaking in minerals for decades. Stone too is a wonderful material and can be used in so many places, and what else is like it? You can see the age in it, it wont burn and it remains cool to touch, no matter how hot it gets outside. The best word I can summon to explain our love for these is character. Honestly it seems a little bit of hyperbole to use such a term that would be reserved for good people only- but there is a power and a real sense of history present in these pieces- that is inescapably palpable.
Have you ever noticed the smell of a room that is all wood, or a cedar closet, a barn? What about the scent of a wet stone patio and some nearby tea olives. How about the look of “burled” wood- where the tree grew a limb and indelibly bent the grain? How about the tannin stains in old timber that spent the last hundred fifty years at the bottom of the Mississippi? Yes materials have a story to tell if you are willing to listen. Or as the Beatles said, “isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”. Look at the side of a real stucco wall in the glint of summer sun you will see the swirls of the trowel marks or horsehair brush the masons used. What about the strength of an old (board-formed) concrete wall in some ancient warehouse, there are some whose face have witnessed tens of thousands of sunrises. Their grains of sand and tiny gravel are exposed by the weather of a thousand thunderstorms and relentless southern sun blazing in from the west.
In the hands of a really amazing talent like say, Christian Liaigre’- the simplicity of using great materials can create amazing impact just honoring and presenting them in a simple and elemental way.
As a stark contrast, have you ever heard anyone speak of the beautiful patina of old vinyl siding? Who searches far and wide for old asbestos roof tiles, or vinyl composition tiles or synthetic stucco homes for resale or re-use? No, we throw these into the landfill, and re-roof, re-floor and re-skin with “new” materials. The great irony is that these are usually and actually, the time tested ones that weather honestly- and age with great grace and beauty. I guess in this sense using the word character, isn’t really such an odd word to employ after all.