The Waning Days of Traditional Building Crafts
Tom Wolfe in his book From Bauhaus to Our House had described how the modernist architects such as Gropius, Mies and Johnson had decimated the traditional building craft industry in the 1940s. He wrote: “In the balmy days of Beaux-Arts architecture, Caldwell had employed a thousand bronzeurs, marble workers, model makers and designers. Now the company was sliding into insolvency, along with many similar firms.” Apparently, co-existence was not an option for these architects.
It was also recorded that carriage-trade painters, decorators and tradesmen in general were loitering around the entrances of the grand apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue, hoping to get some work, any kind of work. The Modernist architects had robbed them of their livelihood and subsequently taken away their precious skills from the generations to come.
I am a custom home builder in Toronto. My father was a master plasterer, stuccoer and tiler who started his business in Shanghai in the 1940s, decorating villas and mansions for the moneyed crowd. Venetian plaster, Italian stucco, lime-wash finish, terrazzo, mosaic tiling, etc. were his specialties. He showed me, when I was a youngster, how to create an Ionic column from brick, mortar, lime and marble chips. Near the end of his career, he had all but abandoned his traditional training in the old crafts.
Customers' Expectation of Traditional Building Crafts
Any architect or custom builder that promises old-world design and workmanship today to their clients are not exactly truthful. While there are still finishers that can do a passable facsimile of French polish or gold-leafing at a reasonable cost, this type of simulative work has lost its value in today’s world. We encourage authentic French polishing, gilding or even inlays with semi-precious stone in one-off pieces such as objet d’art or furniture, but certainly not in large-scale built-in components of a house. No matter how much we crave top-notch workmanship, in modern society, such labour-intensive and time-consuming work is simply not equitable for the working skilled tradesmen. French polishers (the workers, not the employers of course) eighty years ago made 25 cents an hour in Shanghai and probably not much more in Europe and New York.
Traditional Crafts Augmented by Modern Technology
Today, we design the most up-to-date cabinetry and furniture and finish them with the latest environmental-friendly water-based stain and lacquer technology. The wood veneers could be real or reconstituted (both have their merits). European-based design and manufacturing techniques are giving us simulated marble tiles as big as 5’x10’ that look and feel like marble. In other words, our design could look five hundred years old, but the construction is thoroughly modern. The photo below shows large floor slabs made in Italy.
Traditional carving is aided by computer-guided procedures so that the repetitive grunt work is taken out of the craftsman's work routine. The finer details that require carving under or behind the front surface still require handwork. Craftsmanship is very much needed in high-end custom home construction.
The stone Tudor arch below was entirely carved by hand without computer aid. In projects where all stone components are cut and carved by computer-guided equipment, introducing hand-carved elements reinforces authenticity and sophistication of the design.
The best craftsmen not only possess the particular skills to perform the tasks that they have contracted to do but also nearly all of them are good with numbers. They can perform quick calculations in their head on demand. For example, the task of figuring out how many steps in a staircase so that all steps are of the exact same height when the floors are finished requires just simple arithmetic. To maintain the same accuracy when the design is for the stair to curve elliptically is not as simple a task. And to fit a set of curved wrought iron railing on the stair accurately requires a good grounding in geometry besides the workmanship.
The modern stone mansion follows the time-tested rain-screen principle. There is a space between the outer layer of solid stone and the inner structures. Any water or moisture that gets behind the stone must be able to escape further down. In high-end construction, the outer layer of stone is four to ten inches thick, but in some areas, it appears as if it is two foot thick. This is achieved by mitering and joining two pieces of four-inch thick material together with stone adhesive that is stronger and more durable than the stone. Stainless steel pins are used as joining dowels. The outer layer is called the veneer.
The outcome is a simulation of solid load-bearing masonry in classical buildings from bygone eras. Each piece of stone is precut in a factory equipped with CNC machines. The complex details are carved by hand. Each piece is precisely dimensioned and fits into the overall composition on site with ease. The fitting is high precision work as the horizontal lines carry through around the entire building. Windows, doors, soffits and string courses all have to line up. The photo below is the front of a completed stone mansion.
A Treasure Trove of Old-World Craftsmanship
Toronto is a fortunate place where immigrants from all over the world tend to congregate, bringing their old-world skills and craftsmanship with them. Each of the neighborhoods of Toronto has its own flavor and characteristics, a welcoming sign for newcomers. High caliber wrought iron artists, wood carvers, sculptors, stone carvers, cabinetmakers, marble crafters, glass artists, metal casting and forging experts, marquetry and inlay artists, leather workers, painters, muralists, machinists, high-tech glass artists, etc. are contributing to the renaissance of the fine art of custom home building.
In a small town about an hour’s drive south west of Toronto, there is a manufacturer who has been making European style windows and doors for half a century. Their products are shipped to the States for use in major historical restoration projects. Single units as tall as fifteen feet are nothing unusual. On the right is a photo of their 12’ high French door with very narrow stiles made of mahogany. Only a handful of window manufacturers in North America can make French doors this tall and slender. Correct window styling is critical in the design of French Baroque architecture.
A 40-minute drive north of Toronto takes you to a stone carver living on a quiet rural street who has been carving marble and limestone for architects and custom builders for the past thirty-five years. The Greco-Roman style of carving that he excels in is a rare and dwindling trade. Image to the right is his French Baroque style fireplace mantle, carved by hand without computer assistance. His carving style and techniques are unique to those who have apprenticed under master-carvers working on major western European restoration projects. In classical architecture, the themes, details and flourishes are established many centuries ago and leave little room for amendment.
Precision metal machining by hand is almost a lost art. The table base shown above was made by a machinist/artist who was born in the Philippines and now living in Toronto. There are 72 separate parts in this design. In custom home building and furniture making, one-offs and prototypes often require precision hand-made parts that cannot be ordered from a catalog.
This 16-foot-long dining table base (see photo below), strong enough to support a heavy marble top, without legs and with cantilevered arms, was made by a wrought-iron artist from Uruguay now living in Toronto. He specializes in large-scale forged iron and wrought-iron work. His forte is in bending and shaping steel bars up to one inch thick, much heavier than what most wrought iron workers can handle—a necessary skill in creating Baroque style architectural components such as balcony and window guards, gates and railing (see image to the right).
In an industrial park in suburban Toronto, a workshop tucked inside a large brick building has been producing period style plaster components for architects and high-end custom home builders for almost a hundred years. They are different from their world-famous counterpart in Chicago which only produces smaller decorative plaster components. This company in Canada also constructs and installs large-scale plaster domes and vaulted ceilings. The ceiling shown below was decorated by this company using plaster components produced from moulds that were from the 1920s.
The Future of Traditional Building Crafts
Canada, with only 36 million people living in an area of 3.85 million square miles, is a small market for talents such as these. Unless they also promote their skills and products south of the border, the home market really cannot keep them as busy as they would like to be. The peaceful, cosmopolitan environment of Toronto and the Canadian universal health care system are the reasons why they want to stay.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to work with them, Toronto is a treasure trove of talent. A database should be set up so that the best of the traditional craftsmen are searchable by architects, custom home builders and end-users. Now that McMansions and contemporary stacked-box architecture constitute the bulk of custom home construction, the market for their talents has diminished somewhat. With sympathetic and vigorous support from like-minded individuals, their crafts should flourish in the years to come.