A contractor once told me an interesting story about a house he’d built for a man in Connecticut. Winter was already setting in when he’d gotten the place weather-tight, so as soon as he finished the fireplace, he built a fire in it to keep the house warm. When the owner found out, he demanded that the contractor tear out the bricks inside the fireplace and replace them because they’d gotten sooty. He told the contractor that he was paying for a brand-new fireplace, and he was damned well going to get one.
This brought me back to a paradox I’ve pondered from time to time. When some people build, they become obsessed with getting everything absolutely perfect. It’s not uncommon for owners to have brand-new materials ripped out again because they’ve picked up a tiny scratch or a little ding somewhere along the line. This happens even with materials predestined to show age or wear from normal use — say, hardwood flooring, painted trim, or in the case of our unlucky contractor’s client, the inside of a fireplace.
What’s odd about this obsession with newness and perfection is that the sort of buildings we seem to admire most — Europe’s storied old cottages, let’s say, or perhaps China’s ancient courtyard houses — are precisely the ones that are old and thoroughly beaten up, with a patina that bespeaks their many years of history. And "patina," after all, is really just a nice word for the flaws that arise from age and use — if anything, it’s a sort of anti-perfection. And given that we covet the patina of age in old buildings, why do we place so much value on flawlessness in new ones?
In architecture and construction, quality — soundness, durability and fitness of purpose — is never negotiable. On the other hand, we’d lose very little in easing our compulsion for flawless surfaces. For one thing, time and Mother Nature never allow us the pretense of perfection for any length of time — something modernist architects have usually learned the hard way. Better to start with the assumption that our work will get a good thrashing over time, and design accordingly.
One way to do this is to use materials that don’t demand a high degree of finish: oiled wood, rough plaster and wrought iron, to name a few. Better yet are materials requiring no additional finish at all: natural wood, stone, brick, textured concrete, clay tile, weathering steel and tinted stucco, among others. Besides requiring negligible maintenance, all of these materials can absorb years of abuse, and in return just keep looking better and better.
Take a look at much of today’s architecture, though, and instead of materials that improve with age, you’ll find mirror-polished surfaces, razor-sharp corners, and demanding and intricate finishes. Seeing these flawless designs in photographs, forever protected from the indignities of daily use, it’s no wonder so many of us have come to expect flawless results in our own projects. To this rarefied school of design, I suppose, a soot-blackened fireplace would indeed be seen as a thing that’s ruined and imperfect, instead of being testament to a human tale unfolding.
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