The Library - Part 3: Learn the Ways of the Past
“When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
A survey of the master builders and architects of the last 200 years will reveal one important similarity. They all revered books and built libraries for reference in building. One could argue, that books and a library are second only to travel as the key design inspiration in all of building. For over 2000 years these are what have inspired all great buildings.
It was Vitruvius, the Roman writer, that inspired and encouraged the early Italian Renaissance builders. These Renaissance authors, like Palladio and Serlio, wrote books and in turn inspired Enlightenment builders and architects like Campbell, Paine and Robert Adam. These men, like their predecessors, wrote books that the early builders in America collected and coveted. Sadly, today we are a generation of non-readers. We are turning our backs on traditions of the past and consequently we have forgotten the Art of Building.
This Art of Building is complex and rich. It is filled with stories, traditions and methods of construction that can be quickly lost. Books preserve these traditions. Books protect, for future generations, not only the technological leaps like how to build, but also esthetic advances that teach us what to build. My library for instance is a great resource for many things. The other day I was reviewing different forms of brick arches. I was quickly reminded of the mirade of ways the bricks can support the arch and enhance the opening. My books reminded me that the keystones require proper sizing that is based on the radius and the key center point. Suddenly a rather plain arch burst with life because of what I was able to find in my library of books. Building from the past makes our buildings more beautiful. They subtly improve our environments and unknowingly enrich our lives.
Because of the rich precedent of those who have gone before us, if you are a builder or designer today, I implore you not to turn your back on the past, and to instead begin building your library. It should include books on technological methods (the how to build) as well as books on the philosophy of building (or why we build). The technological advances must be married and balanced with philosophical advances. We are too “how-to” focused today and not engaged deeply enough in what makes architecture beautiful and timeless.
Today most craftsmen and builders have no training with 98% being self-taught. Technological advances like nail guns and CNC routers fool us into thinking we know more than we do. Somehow knowing how to pull the trigger of a power tool misleads us into thinking we are fine craftsmen. We need to reflect back on the writings of our building forefathers if we are to create architecture that will last for hundreds of years. To ignore the past and the rich traditions of just 100 years ago is dangerous and foolish.
In an age of Pinterest and Instagram I understand that building a library may seem archaic, like collecting vinyl records, however, if we want to build homes that are beautiful and will stand the test of time, then there is a clear path. To learn the ways of the past, we must study its ways. Building a library is only the first step. There is a great deal to be learned in the deep-tracks of history that is more fulfilling than today’s pop hits. Enjoy the journey.