Sunday, November 14, 2010

Imperfect, but OK

I came across this nifty little house on lower Union Street the other day. It is only about ten feet wide and the ground floor looks barely tall enough to stand up in, but I found it rather appealing. Note how carefully it is composed, with all elements in perfect symmetry: the center of the porch, the bay window, and the brackets above align precisely. Even the squatness of the ground floor contributes to the whole, as it makes the bay above it seem all the more ambitious.

Actually I'm fibbng; the image above was Photoshopped. The real house looks like this:

Notice that almost nothing lines up. While the bay window seems to be centered in the facade, the bracket above it, which one would expect would be centered, is several inches to the left (see below). Meanwhile, the middle porch column stands obtrusively in front of a window (I deleted it from the first image) and is even farther left of center than the roof bracket. And the left and right ends of the porch roof overhang differ from each other.

Why do such flaws occur? Why can't architects or builders get things lined up?

The reason is that when buildings abut, as they often do in urban environments, architectural features such as roof edges cannot turn the corner as they would on a freestanding house. The roof overhang on the front of this house couldn't be continued on the right side, because it would intrude on the neighboring house, which would create not only an aesthetic problem but a legal one. So the bracket on the right was pulled in a bit from the edge(below), even though the bracket at the left side is flush with the left edge of the house. To make the whole assemblage look more three dimensional, that is, to give a sense that at least part of the assembly turns the corner, the topmost molding was returned 90 degrees into the facade.

The abutment problem in urban places has a domino effect on the design of a facade: if you can't place a roof bracket quite where it wants to be, do you adjust all the brackets so they are evenly spaced, or do you let the spacing of the end one be mismatched? Do you place the windows so they align with the roof details or do you place them symmetrically in the facade without regard to the roof? Which "mistake" would be more or less noticeable?

No answers here, but on a completely different note, as I played with this facade, I found myself wanting to grow something out of the top of the bay. I had no idea why, until I realized that in removing a porch column I had turned the porch into a de facto table... a good place for a vase?

Mmm, maybe not. 


  1. Nice to read your blog again, Matthew. I agree with your reworking of that building, but I would say that it was pretty out of scale upon its completion, especially when compared to the companion building to the left. But, perhaps you can find some adherents by photoshopping the buildings and presenting the results to the owners! Is there an Historic Preservation Commission where you can add some perspective to the typical thinking?

    Chris D'Aveta

  2. Hi Chris,

    Nice to hear from you. I agree with you that the house is out of scale... if I had been designing it I never would have made the first floor so squat. On the other hand, the bad proportions are kind of what I like about it. I thought about making the ground floor taller in Photoshop to see how it would look with better proportions, and maybe I will still do this. It probably will look better, but on the other hand I wonder if something would be lost. It would be like your wife getting a nose job when her imperfections were part of what you loved about her... objectively she looks better, but that which was uniquely "her" is lost. Then again, it's only a house, so I'm probably overthinking it.
    Yes, there is an active historic commission here, and to my knowledge this building is in a protected district. One thing I was addressing obliquely in my post is the inclination of historic preservationists to forbid architectural change and experimentation--as if the old buildings were perfect and any change to them would mean an insult to the public realm. But the imperfection of old buildings is often part of their charm. Perhaps if we can see their imperfections we will stop being so opposed to architectural experimentation in historic districts. The HP movement is understandably afraid of allowing bad things happen to old buildings, but in so tightly governing them they also tend to forbid them from becoming better still.
    BTW, I've got to figure out how to set these posts so they aren't in a white font. Too hard to read!