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Armatures and Buttresses

Oct 31, 2017 05:18PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

What is it about clockmakers that makes them good architects? Is it their propensity for puzzling and being able to fit so many moving parts into a confined housing? Or maybe it is their intuitive sense of timing, crafting mechanisms that come to life in a measured, predictable way. I like to think it is their understanding of gears, levers and pendulums. A good architect must first know how to build, the sequencing of materials, each providing a necessary function, assembled in such a way to make a structure stand. 

One of the greatest architects in modern history was raised a clockmaker. He had no training in buildings when he claimed to know how to construct a dome over the largest cathedral the world had ever seen. “How could a clockmaker know how to build such a dome?” said the city fathers of Florence. 

Their cathedral stood open to the sky for over a century because no one in Europe knew how to build a dome to span the opening. It was so large, in fact, that there was not enough timber available in all of Italy to erect the scaffolding needed to support the masonry until the dome was complete. But this was Filippo Brunelleschi's genius:  the clockmaker figured a way to build a dome without scaffolding, senza armatura, without armature. And today, over 500 years later, that dome still stands as the largest masonry dome in the world.

He crafted bricks into particular shapes, interlocking them to be self-supporting as they were laid in successive rings, like cogs fitting together into the gears of a clock. Further, he designed the dome in the shape of an upright egg, recognizing that this natural profile transfers all of the weight of a masonry dome directly down, without the need for lateral buttressing. These ideas were revolutionary in construction and changed architecture forever.

In my mind, it was this absence of scaffolding and buttressing that defined him as a true Renaissance architect. Solving problems by finding solutions within the materials of construction, not in the crutches others would add to make things stand up. He dealt directly with the material at hand, eliminating everything else as obstacles.

Too often architects get caught up in the armatures and buttresses, losing sight of what is really going on within a space. It is easy to be distracted by sleek skins and sexy technologies, not giving much thought to the consequence of such design decisions. The walls we build no longer protect us from what is outside; they are too permanent. In our retreat inside, we have lost touch with the outside physically. And by doing so, we are more tuned to the tick of a clock than the call of a bird. The outside world no longer offers us a meditative balance, a healthy exchange—our walls have closed us off. 

Not long ago, I crafted a pivot hinge with a 3D printer that enabled a Dogon granary door to be used for the powder room off of our living room. The fabric curtain we had hanging in the opening previously remained, providing some privacy by drawing across the cracks between the door planks leaking light and sightline for peeking eyes. However, complete privacy is absent, since the rectangular door does not fit tight to the irregular curved opening, so the sounds and smells of the bathroom escape.

Naturally, this makes most visitors to our home uncomfortable. It may even play a role in the length of their visits. But this door experiment was not intended to offend or create discomfort. Rather, it was a tool to study the nuanced dimensions of inhabited space. We take for granted the security behind a closed door, to the point we no longer notice it. Much the way we no longer notice the outdoors.

Using a door that does not close out sights and sounds makes you more aware of your surroundings, more tuned into your senses. The door may not have the precision of a clock when it comes to closing, but it commands your attention immediately. You notice things that you didn't notice before, like how a spring breeze tickles tree leaves and when sunlight passes through, dances from one branch to the next, changing direction and shifting shadows, bending light.

Maybe this is the lesson our homes could learn from Filippo: that there is a world of sights and sounds out there from which our walls and doors have closed us off. By doing so, our eyes no longer see, our ears no longer hear. A dulling of the senses that a permeable house living life more directly—without armatures or obstacles to the tactile world—could restore a sensitivity and symbiosis with the environment we have lost.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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