Canadian House Architecture

Eden Smith March 1 1911

Canadian House Architecture

Eden Smith March 1 1911

Canadian House Architecture

Eden Smith

TO observe from an artistic point of view what the Canadian house expresses, we must first wipe away that anointment with architectural detail, given to the four walls and roof of a house, which is supposed to mark its elevation to the realm of the artistic, and look for that which is of more interest to the Artist—the evidence of himself which the dweller in the house makes on that environment of himself, which he, more than any other, has the power to adjust.

When a man takes a tree from the forest and shapes it into something for his own use, he probably does not make anything as beautiful as the growing tree, but he may make something as interesting to the artistic perception. It is even possible that he may make this express a beautiful idea. In any case he will leave some evidence of himself upon the wood. This evidence of himself, which was probably first recorded when a man cut some con-

venient stick and marked it to distinguish his property, extended as he accumulated utensils to them and they became records of him and his doings, till his house with its doors, windows and rooms in time records him like a book.

Anthropologically any of this evidence of man is of interest. But we see something else interesting. In addition to the evidence of his desire for physical comfort, which these works of his express, he has added to them more than mere utility requires. He found pleasure in his work and desired to express it. He perceived beauty in the things about him and would make his work recall it. He sings at his work, for he has found something to sing of and his work must sing also.

It is this part of his art, the poetical expression in it, we are looking for in the Canadian Architecture of to-day. It is right that we should expect this and look for it, for we have had great opportunities of exhibiting it.

In England, for the English were the most wonderful house-builders, were to be seen the most interesting houses, but English domestic architecture ceased to be interesting in our grandfathers’ time. In Canada at that time a new kind of homebuilding commenced, the development of which was most interesting.

Unfortunately for our artistic development, we were overtaken here too soon by the same movement as caused an artistic decline in England in our grandfathers’ time. We also became able to produce

tilings so rapidly, that we had not sufficient time to give thought to our work, that is the thought necessary to work out artistic theories developed from our environment. We imitated anything good,

bad or indifferent that would suffice. This is to be regretted, because though in this matter we may have fared no worse than other countries, we had probably greater opportunities than had

any other. We had an unlimit-

ed supply of material and appliances and skill such as no other people ever commenced their work with. It seems as if the only element we lacked was esthetic perception, which no doubt was destroyed by the haste of production.

If someone had informed our grandfathers of their lack of artistic taste, he would have obtained no more credence then than he would now if he said the same thing of us. The duller our esthetic perception the more aggressively confident we are of the beauty of our productions. Yet I believe nothing so distinctly shows the serious growth of esthetic feeling in the present day as our evident lack of confidence. But the objection to this amiable failing is that it is driving us to seek instruction from those who need instruction as much as we do.

It is advisable to study the work of other countries, not to imitate what they do, but to discover the reasons for their conclusions, so that if in their work we perceive some originality we may understand the thought process that produced it and add the thought to our mental equipment. This is, of course, a very slow progress for which we begrudge the time, so we content ourselves by copying whole works or pieces of art good or bad from anywhere, believing that by so doing some day we shall develop a Canadian character of art. However great our faith, I do not think such a miracle will reward it in the present day. As well as wasting our time this mimcry leads to make the most absurd exhibitions.

In the old plantations of the Southern States, we saw houses built in the beginning of the last century, with large twostoreyed verandahs, supported by columns, wooden imitations of the great stone shafts that stood in front of or surrounded a Grecian temple. Faulty as this American adaptation of an old idea

might be, there was some excuse for the. desire to produce a monumental effect in a great house surrounded probably with acres of land and fine trees. But when we see a couple of these columns, stuck like clothes props in front of a flimsy shingled cottage, a cross between a bungalow and a bird cage, almost on the sidewalk of ä narrow street, we cannot help seeing, in such a straining after the picturesque that the picturesque is not so apparent as the strain.

There is no reason why we should not have a two-storeyed verandah. Therç is no reason why we should not show our liking for its cool shade and airiness or the esthetic effect of light and shade of a columnade against a massive building. But a pair of mammoth columns stuck against the side of an insignificant building, that will barely reach up to them, expresses nothing but bathos.

Our attempt at swagger in this case fails —the swagger is too obvious. We do not express what we wanted to express, and we do express that we have not the art to make the material we use expressive. We should treat our material more honorably, and not, by trying to make it look like some other material, show that we are ashamed of it, we should show that any material is dignified by honorable work, and nothing is more honorable than the truthful expression of our intention.

If our house is to be built of wooden posts, boards and shingles, because we find these materials most convenient to our use, the thing we might swagger about should be the skill shown in making this stuff not merely retain its identity, but contribute to form an evidently essential part of the composition, those, peculiar or inherent qualities which make its identity. Make its natural color a necessary note in the color scheme of the whole, and in each detail of construction or ornament, show that no other material would play the part so well.

Sometimes when neither the location of our building, nor the cost of its construction, binds us down to the use of any one kind of material, this propensity to imitate, without thinking, what some other man has done makes an utter failure of* our attempt to express our sense of the-inherent quality of a material.

I have before me a photo of the interior of a dining-room of a suburban house, published in perfectly good faith, by a magazine as an artistic interior. The room has polished wood floors and doors, a delicate French paper on the walls, polished brass electric fixtures with silken shades, Chippendale chairs, brass wire chairs, portieres and tapestry, screens and stained glass. In fact the room has more features than there is space for on its carcass. The focal point of the room, that which the illustration calls attention to, is a boulder, or coble stone fireplace which reaches up to the ceiling. It has a warming pan at the side of it. To complete the comedy or tragedy there should be a gas log in it, but there is only a small coal grate.

A boulder fireplace might be quite appropriate in some place where perhaps boulders or field stones were the only building stones obtainable. The only other kind of construction that could look as ridiculous as this ponderous artlessness, would be a fireplace built of sticks and clay.

This is another case in which the imitator produces an effect quite different to that which he thought he was expressing. He only expresses the fact that he could not perceive how totally overwhelmed the natural, artless, outdoor beauty is in such" a mass of artificial frippery and that he has not skill enough to express the individuality he desired' on the material he had at hand.

It would be well to study expression in architecture. In our use of words those alone who are within hearing may criticise our expressions, but when we express ourselves with time defying material, we should have some consideration for others if we have no respect for ourselves. We know how difficult it is in other matters to avoid making an imitation a parody. This never seems to trouble us in art.

Unconstructive criticism is not a valuable commodity, as a rule the only thing it does produce is irritation both in the mind of the criticised and in the one seeking information. But unless we take things to pieces and see how they are made, we shall find it very difficult and tedious to make things for ourselves.

Suppose in order to make our search for expression more suggestive or constructive, we examine a few of the processes necessary in the building of a house. The first of the processes is the selection of a site. This is the beginning of our self announcement, and as a rule, it is not difficult to understand in this selection what is expressed of one’s attitude towards nature and mankind. There are natural resources to be conserved, advantages of aspect the site gives which we should make use of. In this land where sunshine is pleasant for about ten months of the year, our site should be chosen and our house so placed as to make the best use of it. To get as much as we can where we need it, or avoid it where we are better without it. To judge any house plan, its relation to the East, its orientation must be known. The best art is to make nature do as much of the work as possible. The effect of sunlight should be considered in every room in the house. The two months in which it may be objectionable we spend as much as possible out of doors. Nearly every room in the house should be placed so as to get as much sunshine as we can give it, and at that time of day when it will best add to the enjoyment of our use of the room. Nothing we can put in our breakfast room will make it as pleasant as the morningsunshine will do if caught properly, and so on through all the house. There is a time for sunning, and some time, as in the cook’s pantry at mid-day, or in a child’s bedroom in the evening we may be better without it.

If we were not confined at all in our selection of a site, one wide enough to allow the entrance and main rooms to face South would give us the right arrangement for the rooms to get the best of the sunshine at the most convenient time of the day. But if we are to put up with a narrower site, one on the East side of a a road, if it will allow of us leaving some open land to the South of our house, permits us to place the rooms in a good position. The entrance and reception rooms near the road and the kitchens and pantries, which, as a rule, we would place at the back of the house, fall to the North and East where they will get as much sun as they need and yet be near the dining or breakfast room which should be at the

South-East corner. The living-room with its verandahs we would put on the South side, for in the hot months the sun is high and will not penetrate far into them. The reception rooms or drawing-rooms used in the later part of the day do very well at the West end near the road.

We might consider every room, window and door and nearly every detail in its relation to the sun if we had enough space, but these few points should show that aspect contributes to comfort and convenience and the most artistic work is that which most perfectly fulfills all the requirements of comfort and convenience. In this case the designer like a good doctor should make nature assist him.

We have not yet considered the plan enough, by this we mean the arrangements of the rooms in relation to each other. The whole artistic development of a building issues from its plan, the plan is the base or root of it all, and the whole composition should reveal rather than conceal this fact. The reason for this is that the composition thus obtains one of the best elements in design-repose. The observer sees what the idea stands upon and is saved the trouble of worrying out the reason for himself.

The more readily you can, in your building or in any detail of it, tell the observer the how and why of it, the sooner you bring his mind to rest.

A house should not be an entity subdivided, as well as may be, into a required number of parts, each more or less convenient. It should be a number of complete and convenient parts combined to make an entity. The qualities we desire our art to show forth in our works are in a great measure no more than the sensuous presentation or symbolization of the virtues we admire in human character. Our plan may be made to express many such ideas.

If we like hospitality, cheerfulness and comfort, and we are generous enough to desire to give out these feelings, we would not like the entrance to our house to be mean, cold and repellant \ we would nut it on the warm, sunny side, make it wide, deep set and inviting, like an old armchair. When your guest does get inside the house it is well to let him see that in the hall, the guest’s first room, you have

provided unstinted accommodation for him. Dp not let the entrance for instance, stick out of a, North-West corner, sending one off or holding him out in the cold wind, or when he has made this passage, do not let him find himself in a dark, cheerless hall, whose closed doors make him feel that there is difficulty in getting at you.

On the other hand we may rèadily make our entrance so large that it suggest ostentation, and if the living-rooms are, as we often see them, thrown open too freely to this entrance hall to secure the seclusion or reserve the comfort of family life requires, the plan conveys the idea that something has been sacrificed to create this imposing effect and one does not care to be imposed upon. We dislike falsity in human character, we prefer to know what a man is driving at. The essence of Architectural beauty is the complete expression of function, this is just frankness. The direct straight-forwardness of the self-announcing man. The highest virtue in any art is the development of individuality in simplicity.

This individuality can be shown as distinctly in our art as in our words, but it is - farther reaching, and longer lasting. If we wish to be understood by all, we must study to -speak simply. Now we make a noise with all the instruments there are in the Architectural Orchestra. It would be better to learn to play upon one.

How much we think of candor and truth may be shown by our refusal to disguise the elements of our construction. That we admire courage, strength and endurance, is shown by honoring with graceful form and ornament those constructive elements we have chosen for their strength and endurance. Grace, sweetness, courtesy, deferences, the arts that make the noblest art. the art of life ; these or their opposite will be expressed in our art of building.

Man is a wondering, enquiring animal. Defer to him courteously, show him when we intrude our building upon his landscape, that wé consider his feelings and desire to please him as well as ourselves, satisfy his curiosity, tell him in our building why we do such things. You, perhaps, remember prying off the top of your drum to find out what made the . music. Men

still wish to do that. Let your drum be open at one end. Let him see how things are done. Doors, that by means of hidden machinery slide into a hollow in what we took to be a strong solid wall, excite almost subconsciously this fidgety curiosity. We wonder what mysterious things may not be in that impenetrable region in which they disappear and wliat strange machinery supports, or moves them, while the simple latch or bolt and strong hinges tell their admirable tale at once. They are worthy of decoration. We can appreciate the skilful workmanship displayed in them. The window sash that slides up and down and grudgingly only opens half the window is in the same category of unreposeful detail. Our subconscious mind expects the cords which suspends it to break when some one might be stooping to look out; for these things very seldom lift high enough for an upright man to get a breath of fresh air at them.

Windows are the eye of the room and the wide casement windows, like broad browed eyes widen our vision of all the good outside things.

Windows make great rents or holes in the walls we designed for our shelter. Even if we fill up these holes with sheets of plate glass, they still look like rents. But if we divide these fissures up with stone mullions, the effect of the wall outside will be carried over the opening and the feeling of strength preserved, while inside if we divide the window sash with bars of wood or lead, we shall not loose the feeling of enclosure and comfort. The expression of comfort in a house, if with it goes the suggestion of generosity, is perhaps its most pleasing expression. What possibilities there are in a fireplace with its mouth lined with smoke blackened bricks, wide open to consume the unstinted fuel and radiate its comforting heat, suggesting many a bygone symposium.

Compare this warm héart of a house with what we so often see in a modem reception room—a gas log set in a refrigerator like recess of white tiles, an appearance, to comfort a guest with the least expenditure of trouble.

Our works are the children of our minds and like many a human child, they will chatter and sometimes say the reverse of what we desire and expect from them. They seem to have a supernatural gift for exposing a pose, or swagger.

In Art of any kind swagger is common. It is quite right to admire performance, when it is the performance of something worth while, but we do not wish the Artist to be always telling us what a clever man he is, when we are looking for some beautiful idea we expected him to announce.

I have only touched upon a few points of expression in Domestic Architecture, I am only able to write a chapter. A book would not suffice to say all one would like to say, but the subject is an easy one to carry on if one thinks of it. Of course, some of us may say we do not care to express anything by means of art—we are not interested in it. Many people have already said as much, but they cannot get away from expressing something if they make or use anything, probably the easiest way for them to conceal their identity, would be under a uniform, as in living in a long row of houses exactly alike or by always dressing in some uniform like a man’s evening dress. Expression even then would not be lost, they simply would have adopted the character of the mass.

I have not mentioned the subject of style, because style is a consideration absolutely of no importance esthetically. That is the reason, I imagine, why the first question one is asked about a building by the uninitiated is, what style is it in?

The expression style as we use it means really an archaeological difference. The word is used by designers to distinguish in a short way buildings having differing schemes of composition. For instance, we say it would not do to put a tower and spire in the thirteenth century style on the top of a building in the Grecian Doric style. Many people do not understand why one should not do so, because they lack a certain sense of perception, as one may lack a sense of humor, or of musical tone and harmony. There are in two such buildings antagonistic schemes of composition of line and space which will not blend.