In architecture, the surest way to achieve a timeless design is to use materials that are familiar, durable and that become more beautiful the older they get. Not surprisingly, most of the materials that qualify have been around for ages.
Brick is a classic example. It’s among the most ancient building materials — the oldest known bricks, found in the upper Tigris region of what is now Turkey, date back to around 7500 B.C. In all the intervening millennia, not much about brick has changed, either: Even here in 21st century America, where nothing happens fast enough, genuine brick is still installed at a relative snail’s pace, one little piece at a time.
Other common examples of timeless materials include stone, heavy timber, and metals with so-called "living finishes," such as copper, brass and bronze. All of these can shrug off decades and sometimes even centuries of abuse without losing any of their visual appeal. In fact, most people find them more beautiful when they’re old and weathered — "patinated," in the parlance of the trade — than when they’re brand-new.
The value of a patina shouldn’t be underestimated, either: We’ve all seen episodes of "Antiques Roadshow" in which an expert tells the hopeful owner something like: "Well, if you hadn’t polished this 17th century bronze door knocker, I’d have valued it at $6,000, but all shined up like this it’s worth about $17.50." That’ll teach a guy to keep his hands off the Brasso.
The funny thing is that, while almost everybody finds the greenish patina of an old copper gutter beautiful, almost nobody feels that way about a weathered plastic gutter. The reason, I think, is that no matter how old the copper gutter gets, we know that it will still serves its purpose perfectly.
On the other hand, we can also presume that a weathered plastic gutter has already bought a one-way ticket to the Dumpster. We’ve learned to associate visual cues of aging with intrinsic durability. We see beauty in the aging of certain materials, and just plain failure in others.
At the larger scale of architecture, though, there’s more to a timeless finish than just aging gracefully. The appeal of a brick wall, for example, has just as much to do with its ability to reflect the human being who created it. Flaws and all, the wall becomes a compelling record of the mason’s skill and personality, frozen in time right before our eyes.
Other largely handcrafted finishes such as wrought iron, stucco, shingle, shake and tile, all of which have been around for thousands of years, can also provide this sort of snapshot in time, precisely because they’re never perfect.
The telltale flaws of hand workmanship are so integral to a timeless finish, in fact, that the manufacturers of mass-produced wannabe products such as artificial brick and imitation slate routinely design in fake defects, straining mightily to evoke the charm of the real thing.
Well, just keep at it. You’ll get it wrong enough eventually.
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