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    The Architectural Detail: Maybeck and Aalto

    continued

    The Leon L. Roos House in San Francisco (1909) is another matter. Although its interiors are almost entirely wood and have similar cross-section and detail to these earlier buildings (split pediments and double columns), not one stick of the exposed wood is structural.

    This is evidence that Maybeck was, at least in his middle career, entirely comfortable moving back and forth between the clad and the exposed, between the symbolic and the literal, or between the scenographic and the real.

    One explanation is programmatic. The Roos House is more refined than its rustic predecessors, necessitating the more precise, nonstructural moldings. Another explanation is pragmatic — the difficulty of obtaining large-scale timbers of adequate size and the difficulty of maintaining such timbers in their precise configuration after drying. Warping and cracking inevitably occurred.

    But the only unique character of Maybeck in regard to the question of structural expression is his possible interest in Semperian ideas of cladding, for this mixing of constructional styles is almost universal in architects who built wood houses in the late 19th and early 20th century. Charles Voysey, Greene & Greene, and many others moved easily back and forth between the clad and the monolithic, even between the false structure and the real. Dogmatic adherence to one style or the other is clearly a phenomenon of the late 20th century.

    A second explanation for this apparent contradiction of attitudes toward cladding is a product of Maybeck's eccentricity or, more specifically, of the dual nature that many historians see in his work.

    Architectural historian Esther McCoy wrote in 1960, "There was an honesty in his approach to structure that was little understood because of his apparently conflicting interest in decoration. He was not content to follow the modern concept that structure itself was ideal form."

    William Jordy sees Maybeck's buildings as divided between the craft tradition of his father's woodcarving shop and the academic tradition of his education at the École des Beaux-Arts, the latter of which, according to Jordy, was characterized by engineering "dressed in historical costume, in contrast to the modernist's delight in its exposure."

    But a third explanation is that Maybeck was comfortable with either form of structural expression, the clad and symbolic or the exposed and literal, and it is intriguing to speculate if Semper's thought on this matter had any resonance in Maybeck's work.

    The Japanese Tea House and Alvar Aalto

    The tokobashira, the isolated tree-trunk columns of the traditional Japanese house or tea house, is the introduction of a literal fragment of unprocessed raw material into a construction in which the same material is processed, geometrically regularized, and abstracted.

    It appears in the work of modern Japanese architects such as Fumihiko Maki and Kisho Kurokawa, but the tree-trunk column is also common in Shingle-style and Adirondack architecture. As with the tokobashira, it is most effective in isolated dissonance, as in A.C. Schweinfurth's First Unitarian Church in Berkeley (1898). It has a long modernist life as well. One can understand it as a history of the construction process, from natural wood to finished wood.

    Alvar Aalto's Finnish Pavilion for the Paris Exhibition (1937) contains a more complex progression of its constructional history, beginning with the most primitive tree-trunk columns; then progressing through a level of intermediate craft in the clustered and wrapped wood columns; and finally, the double-tapering wood columns with fins that resemble airplane pylons. All are isolated moments reminding us that the structure is wood in the abstract context of a building in which the structural frame is concealed.

    Aalto's clustered columns are an example of another type of autonomous detail with a long history that winds its way through modernism. In Aalto's work, this history is complete, moving from a literal archaic folk technology to a literal representation of it over the course of his career.

    As initially proposed in his Bus Station for the Sunila Pulp Mill in Finland (1937), the clustered column can be more precisely descriptive of the structural forces at work than a solid column. Additional column shafts can be added or subtracted as loads increase or decrease.

    By the time that they were used at the Villa Mairea (1939), however, they had become vestigial and symbolic. The wrappings of the wood sauna columns are unnecessary, for example, while those of the interior steel columns are there for tactile — not structural — reasons.

    At the same time, the caning of the living room columns recalls the more archaic wrapping of the sauna columns that are structural, at least in appearance. The real role of both column groups is to represent archaic technology rather than to structurally support.

    They appear in stone in later Aalto works such as the Wolfsburg Cultural Center in Germany (1962). These details act to alter the level of representation. They are handicraft elements in technologically sophisticated buildings, and they are also representative (e.g., historical) elements in abstract buildings.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Edward R. Ford is the author of numerous books on architecture. He is a practicing architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, and an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

    This article is excerpted from The Architectural Detail by Edward R. Ford, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.

     

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    Axonometric drawing showing part of a structural bay at Thorncrown Chapel.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

     

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    Thorncrown Chapel axonometric detail drawing showing the same elements of a structural bay with finishes.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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    Thorncrown Chapel, designed by Fay Jones, is an elegant building of wood, glass, and steel, nestled among trees on a rural site near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Image does not appear in book.
    Photo: Casey/ Artifice Images Extra Large Image

     

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    A graceful structure comprising repeating bays of columns and minimalist hammerbeam trusses defines the interior worship space of Thorncrown Chapel. Image does not appear in book.
    Photo: Timothy Hursley

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    Thorncrown Chapel elevation drawing. Image does not appear in book.
    Image: E. Fay Jones

      ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    This series of wood handrails includes Bredenberg's Department Store (1935), Stockholm, Sweden, by Gunnar Asplund (top); Viipuri Library (1935), Vyborg, Russia, by Alvar Aalto (middle); and the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery (1992), Waterloo, Ontario, by Patkau Architects (bottom).
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

    AW

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    The unmilled tree-trunk columns of the First Unitarian Church in Berkeley echo the Japanese architectural tradition of tokobashira.
    Photo: Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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    In this sketch from his 1886 book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, Edward Morse documented an example of tokobashira.
    Image: Edward Morse

    ArchWeek Image

    This axonometric drawing depicts a bay in the Berkeley Hillside Club (1904), a wooden building in Berkeley, California, designed by Bernard Maybeck.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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    While the Berkeley Hillside Club exposed its structure, this axonometric wall-section drawing shows that the wood structure of the Roos House (1909), a San Francisco home also designed by Maybeck, was hidden behind layers of intricate wood finish.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    This series of metal door handles includes examples from Villa Mairea (1939), Noormarkku, Finland (upper left) and the National Pensions Building (1952), Helsinki, Finland (lower left), both by Alvar Aalto; St. Catherine's College (1960), Oxford, England, by Arne Jacobsen (upper right); and the Chapel of St. Ignatius (1997), Seattle University, by Steven Holl (lower right).
    Photo: Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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    Sketch drawing of Alvar Aalto's design for the now-demolished bus station that served the employee housing for the Sunila Pulp Mill outside of Kotka, Finland. The mill's master plan, mill buildings, and employee housing were all designed by Aalto in the late 1930s.
    Image: Alvar Aalto

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    Axonometric detail drawing of the column-and-beam roof support assembly for Aalto's Sunila bus station.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

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    The Architectural Detail by Edward R. Ford.
    Image: Princeton Architectural Press Extra Large Image

     

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