Richard Neutra, the iconoclastic (now iconic) California architect
whose crisp lines and glass facades reflecting mid-century Modernism
eschewed the lugubrious and then-ubiquitous Mission Style, once
complained that the photographer Edward Weston "fell in love with
stunning cracks in buckly plaster." Neutra wanted none of it, cracks
that is; signs of age were an unwelcome counterpoint to the youth and
vigor of Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
I have seen a few of Neutra's houses, as well as those of his
like-minded contemporaries, and I have to say that striking as they
are conceptually, and as well-maintained as their devoted owners can
afford to keep them, Edward Weston would find some good subject matter
were he here to look.
Weathering is a battle you cannot win. So why engage it?
Well, that is a bit of an overstatement inasmuch that if you don't
engage the challenge to some degree you will find yourself unroofed.
One must, of course, be diligent about staying warm and dry. Short of
that, and particularly when "finishes" are concerned, I am an advocate
of the long decline, of observing and enjoying the changes of texture
and color and the reflection of experience in my house. I believe one
is wise to accommodate experience, not to attempt to disguise or
I recently observed a new crack in the interior mud plaster of a
west-facing gallery in an addition we built on our house three years
ago. About damn time. As the sun comes through the tall windows on
these long evenings, the crack is highlighted and gives the earthen
plaster a depth (literally) that in its pristine state it never had.
Luckily, the fissure is in a place where no art hangs so I can enjoy
it without distraction.
More evocative is the exterior wood trim that I never bothered to
paint when I built the place 30 years ago. I like wood; I like when
it changes color, when the grain begins to rise, when rust from the
steel roof stains the fascias. Three times in thirty years I have
applied raw linseed oil to the wood, and each time it has become a
little more appealing.
Fifteen or so years ago, over dinner in Philadelphia, David
Leatherbarrow gave me an inscribed copy of his book (co-authored with
Moshen Mostafavi) entitled On Weathering. We had somehow connected on
the idea that buildings are metaphors and, naturally, that all
metaphors are about our lives. We talked about adobe and soft stone
as we ate sushi. All very ephemeral, I must say. We agreed that
earthen buildings are in a special category in that they comprise the
most common, and the most ancient, of buildings. Importantly they
reflect change in the most optimistic way because they age so nicely.
I particularly like the book's opening statement: "Finishing ends
construction, weathering constructs finishes."
Part of the beauty of earthen architecture is that it weathers, it
changes over time and, at the risk of being trite, it reminds me that
I am a realist and that I wasn't born yesterday. Or in California.