The Humble Arch vs. Neo-Mannerist Queen Anne Revivalism

01.17.2012

The Bloomsbury Estates,
Raleigh, North Carolina.

I think that this is the building that set the seed for this blog. Just one look at it made me seethe with rage. Where do I begin?

How about with the arches? Arches, in a conventional load bearing masonry wall, are used to create window and door openings. The beauty of the arch, as I see it, comes from its structural and material efficiency. Often arches are created from the exact same masonry unit that is being used for the rest of the wall. Chicago is a city (re)built out of brick, by a highly skilled class of European immigrant masons, and everywhere you walk in the neighborhoods you will see beautiful vernacular residential architecture with brick arches of many different forms.

The elusive triple-segmented arch

One thing you will never see is a triple-segmented arch window. The reason: the arches on these old buildings are actually structural. But the architects involved in The Bloomsbury Estates aren’t burdened by that, and therefore had all the freedom in the world to create arch-like forms that refer back to, I don’t know, sometime in the past. When was it that the French were building arches like this? The 1600’s? The 1800’s? Maybe it wasn’t the French who were doing that, but I assume on account of the Mansard Roof. Or perhaps the multiple arch detail comes from local southern architecture, as some of the balconies apparently allude to. I can’t quite figure it out. See if you can make any sense of it watching this promo video of the project here.

So arches were a necessity with load bearing masonry walls, but if your bricks don’t hold up the roof you are free to do whatever you wish with them. This freedom can be dangerous, as demonstrated above. Why not avoid the whole bag of worms by not using brick in the first place? It is wasteful to use this much material solely to create a fuzzy historical reference or two. A much lighter rainscreen material would have been my choice –maybe fiber reinforced cement board. It’s new, invented in Austria in the early twentieth century. It doesn’t have all the historical associations that brick does, so it doesn’t give the designer any crutches with which to lean on, but it does come in any color you want. Choosing a rainscreen material can cause an architect much consternation. I mean, what parameters does one use when you no longer require the outer layer of your building to hold up the roof, keep out the moisture and create space for living? In the words of David Chipperfield, “A cladding has no limits, it demands nothing but a surface to clad.” I wrote a paper on this in grad school, concluding that bricks, in my mind, are a bad decision merely for cladding. And they just invite more ridiculous Neo-Mannerist Queen Anne Revival projects like the Bloomsbury Estate.

The very exuberant south facade

A special thanks goes to Arthur Earnest, my man in Raleigh for the expert photography.

Next week: Irresponsible vending machine placement!

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