The Attitude of Historic Construction

Liverpool skyline c. 1905

the half-finished stone church belonging to our Episcopal friends… will be an ornament to the town.  Truro, 1877

The new Masonic Hall, Sheet Harbor, now under construction, will when finished, be quite an ornament to the village.

Sheet Harbor, 1903

“…an ornament to the village”  “…an ornament to the town” These early phrases and various equivalents have been used in reference to period construction of public buildings and residences alike.  Its conviction is virtually unheard of today.  Its sentiment is loaded.

It treats the subject as a piece of art.

It declares the appearance of the subject as a credit to the community.

This kind of sentiment was once widely held by architects and other local builders; and their work was truly admired by citizens.

Consider the associated benefits that this sort of attitude could potentially produce.  Does it not impact on sense of place and community pride?  To personalize it we might say self-esteem and self-confidence.  These attitudes naturally encourage economic initiative and risk – in other words – entrepreneurship.  If you look like a winner and feel like a winner – you’ve got the makings of being a winner.  Now we’re talking about economic prosperity.

Is it a coincidence that communities that once built “ornaments” were at the same time prosperous?  Some might be tempted to say that such communities were prosperous and therefore could afford “ornaments.”  Some might claim that notable structures can only rise out of affluence.  A closer look at the building of these “ornaments” reveals, in many cases, considerable sacrifice and hardship, even cases of derision for building on such a scale.

The idea of building “ornaments” is best encouraged by the words of John Ruskin (1819-1900)…

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever.  Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See!  This our fathers did for us.”  For indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold.  Its glory is in its Age.

Contemporary construction typically does not follow the “ornament” creed.  Buildings now are often constructed with something called a “life expectancy” – an odd concept for a culture that is trying to adopt ideas of sustainability and of minimizing carbon footprints.

Although the largely uninspired architecture of today should be a concern; there is already ample enough building stock that did follow the “ornament” creed to keep preservationists busy for decades.  In other words, we already have wonderful ornaments that need either preservation to retain their status, or restoration to return them to their former prominence.  These ornaments also need to be cherished by the general public in ways that are vocal and sincere.

Value these structures  – because indifference means slowly conforming to contemporary ideals that promote a sterility and sameness of architecture – ultimately eroding community identity and neutering a community’s ability to present itself as confident and proud.

Architecture should be experienced and enjoyed.  Build ornaments.  Preserve ornaments.

Posted by Joe Nov 30, 2011 Posted in Architectural History Comments Off

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