no faux though

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I don’t like fake things or fake people (see past post on masquerade). Therefore, I don’t like fake architecture or fake materials. Yes, last week’s events sparked this post, but I’ll spare you the actual stories.

What I see ought to be real, what I feel should be honest, what I experience should be genuine. I would love to say I’ve never broken this rule with my architecture, but that would be a tad disingenuous. However, authentic is the goal and when the decision rests on me, materials impersonating other materials are out.

It seems the construction world in America does not share my values – let alone even care. Perhaps very few people (mostly architects) have ever really cared.

I suppose one could make a case through history that elements of architecture have intentionally appeared to look like something other than what they were. We know the Greeks used this mimicry to replicate wood construction elements out of stone in their temples. Now we mimic the Greeks with EIFS, which in itself is a fake form of cement plaster stucco. <shudder>

My distaste for vinyl siding has always existed (I’m so sad I had to use it on a few recent projects…out of my control – seriously), but in the construction industry today, we keep seeing materials that are intended to appear as something other than they are. Why do we do that? Does the food industry do that? I doubt it (chefs chime in here and prove me right or wrong).

Here are a few that I struggle with at best or hate at worst. Share others with me please.

Vinyl siding (impersonating wood lap siding – with pressed in wood grain no less)

siding1

Simulated stone (concrete sponges glued on to a building)

faux stone

Thin Brick (super thin veneer glued on to appear as a thicker veneer)

thin brick

Wood grain ceramic tile (what’s wrong with ceramic tile?)

natural-close_1000

Plastic laminate (fake granite or marble texture at a lesser cost)

laminate granite

Faux paint finishes

faux-menlopk1

I suppose if we take my basic value of “what you see is what you get” to the extreme, we would have to rule out standard brick veneer or any masonry veneer, fiber cement siding and even chrome plated brass faucets. That’s ideal, but not possible. We cannot go back to solid, structural brick walls, wood siding ultimately fails, so fiber cement lap siding has replaced it (and looks more real than vinyl), and brass or bronze do not fare well as an exposed metal in the kitchen or bathroom.

I would like to say this is a value shared equally by architects, but I hope I’m right in saying we generally strive for authenticity. This goes beyond mere materials, but to perception through architectural elements. Wood beams are structural, columns are essential, an axis leads somewhere important and the front door is intended to be used. Architectural components ought to go beyond mere decoration to existing for a purpose.

Why is this important? Why does this matter? If America wants their buildings to look like something they’re not, who cares? Isn’t it fun to live in a fantasy?

As usual, I would argue that this is asking the wrong questions.

Why fake the past? If we can build with today’s technology, should it look like yesterday’s technology? Will our children’s grandchildren look back at history and wonder why a technologically advanced society was stuck on mimicking the look of previous centuries? What should 21st century architecture look like?

We are making buildings that are net zero with energy usage, have computerized controls for temperature, security and energy monitoring, and can emulate highly complex geometry. Nevertheless, we find the majority of Americans content with living in Hollywood stage sets that are poor replicas of previous eras. Our commercial buildings are equally culpable. Have you seen small branch banks, suburban apartment buildings or any retail structure in a strip mall? I guess architecture matches Hollywood after all – fake, fake, fake.

The search for authenticity is truly challenging. Typically convincing the client is more difficult that developing a design. This is how I think. I’d like to know that what I see is genuine just as much as I want to have honest relationships.

Why be any other way?  What do you think? I’d love to hear it – if you’re honest.

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no faux though

13 thoughts on “no faux though

  1. Michael says:

    I found this to be a very interesting post. Throughout the architecture academy we are taught “truth of materials” but this ultimately fails to a degree in the profession. I understand it is ultimately the client that accepts the design, and educating the client on true material usage is difficult. I especially appreciate asking the question “what should 21st century architecture look like”? I offer to take this question further, to how does 21st century architecture operate? Should we continue to design architecture as a means to replicate past cultures experiences or needs? How should design principles adapt to contemporary needs or uses? I think these questions follow a tangent, but ultimately ask a similar over-arching question of “trueness”.

    I also offer some reading insight from Adolf Loos from 1898 titled “The Principle of Cladding”. This reading offers further insight to questions raised by your post.

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. Preach it brother!

    My additions off the cuff…. stamped concrete, asphalt shingles (and now phenolic slate), thin veneer engineered floors, profiled pine trim moldings, engineered decking, wall paper, ogee gutters, anodized “brass” fixtures and door hardware, and even carpet.

    For me, the concept of material integrity was first highlighted by the Adolf Loos essay, “The Principle of Cladding” (http://www.geocities.ws/mitchellmosesstudio/loos). Ever since, it’s been a lot easier to spot materials that are willing to fall off the building at the first sign of wind, cold, or rain.

    I think the Biblical prophesy of Habakkuk 2:9-12 is talking about precisely this issue, circa 650 BC. So this is not exactly a new concept. But I also think more people are becoming aware of this problem, and I now work with clients and get calls from prospective ones searching for design founded on material integrity, not historical style.

    The relatively new ideals for building science are pushing us to consider what actually works over any specific aesthetic model, too. With the promise of vastly improved energy efficiency, maintenance, air quality, and comfort, people are willing to forgo the faux.

    Nice article.

  3. brady ernst says:

    Historical pastiche. We try to emulate past materials, yet consequently turn them into historical parody.

    Why do we try to make plastic look like faux wood? Plastic siding could be remarkable – by just looking like plastic. Plastic laminate countertops in ridiculous colors are striking, yet look ridiculous when attempting to emulate stone. Plastic has a tactility and emotion tied to its materiality, but somehow we’ve even cheapened plastic.

    Most architects would agree with your sentiments, but it shows that we still don’t have enough influence over the built environment within the confines of a capitalist society and a free-market – as it is all too often “out of our control.” (But vinyl – seriously?)

    1. Very well written – I’m going to quote you and take full credit. You’re exactly right. No material is without some merit and with some thought or innovation, any of them could be quite interesting based on their inherent properties. It’s much like people, I was always told to be myself rather than act like someone else. Why is this any different? As for the use of vinyl, I really hate it, but on all of these affordable housing projects I’ve done (multifamily), the fiber cement siding gets eliminated through VE. On the last one, I actually specified vinyl as an alternate, but I put in details for cellular PVC (Azek) corners and trim. Only the siding is vinyl. It’s much better looking, but it still bothers me to use it.

  4. JK says:

    Interesting article. I’m not familiar with the practice in America (I hail from the land beside the land down under – New Zealand) but I have found that with practices there are a lot of uses for faux materiality. Timber is a huge one – in our harsh UV conditions (no seriously, the hole in the ozone is directly above us – skin cancer anyone?) and seaside locations, we often find that real timber is just not a viable option – can you imagine the splitting, warping, rotting not to mention the ridiculous amount of maintenance that entails? Yet, our architectural history has us deeply rooted in the phenomenology of wood and can even sometimes consider modern options to be ‘faux’ to our sense of place, especially in places with spiritual connections. More often than not, the risks involved with real timber is just not worth sacrificing those emotions and senses for something like ‘genuine’ plastic. Though I do agree vinyl siding makes me shudder also.

    1. Using real wood as a cladding in the US is extremely rare except for glossy architectural magazines. You’re also exactly right with the experience of real wood without all the fuss. It seems we’re not ready to move on to appreciate the wonderful properties of plastic – in fact I doubt we ever will as it’s fake and our inner persons tend to gravitate towards real materials like wood, stone, earth and even metal. I’d love to invent a way to make a cladding where vinyl is celebrated for its actual properties. I bet it wouldn’t sell.

  5. Seth Terry says:

    For me, honesty of materials is a complicated notion. In my experience it is essentially dead in the projects I see and work on (commercial work in the US). After all, as soon as you put a gypsum panel over wood framing, haven’t you already destroyed any true material honesty? Perhaps the most materially honest building in the traditional sense I’ve seen is Markli’s Museum La Congiunta from 20+ years ago, made primarily of unreinforced concrete. I’m not sure if it is even possible to achieve an absolute level of truth in material except in this type of very small, very tightly defined project (something you speak to in the OP).

    This discussion also makes me think of what we now call “modern bond” brick coursing, which was used in the early 20th century as a way of explaining to the observer that the brick was being used “dishonestly”, in that case as a veneer in lieu of a mass brick wall. I wonder if there is a way to articulate our current palette of faux materials in such a way as to communicate their representative nature.

    All in all, a very thought provoking subject. Thanks for the post!

    1. I really appreciate your willingness to accept my premise understanding its apparent limitations, but extend the conversation anyway to scratch at the same point. Yes, you’re exactly right in terms of material honesty. I’m not as interested at having tectonic honesty as I am having a material look like what it is perceived to be. In other words, a log cabin has an almost pure tectonic honesty – structural logs through and through that look like logs. However, when we draw or press wood grain into plastic in hopes that it returns the mood or perception of an alternate material, it cries foul to me. I get it – meaning I understand why people do it. I just struggle with it. I’m quite enamored with articulating our current materials in a way to communicate their representative nature – that’s fascinating. However, I don’t think I have a large following.

  6. Hi Lee!

    Glad I found this! Your point is spot on. Our design trend here in Manila is also going through this parody of history and of place. Elements are just pasted on walls and are very superficial, it’s like sitcom sets these days. I’ve come to realize this after finishing a few projects, and admittedly I have become part of this and guilty of using fake materials. Plus, people’s fascination with Pinterest isn’t helping either.

    On our end, we’re in progress on finding the authenticity, shifting our decisions, and educating clients. I guess it’s similar to the digital concept of Skeuomorphism and the criticism it has received from the graphic world. It will be an uphill battle but I’m glad to find out there are others along the way. Thanks!

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