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« Elsewhere | Main | A Less-Known Herter »

August 01, 2007

Rocky Architecture

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For much of my life a certain architectural detail has disturbed me. But I couldn't figure out why it did so.

A month or two ago I finally found the answer.

Let's take a look at some examples of what I'm talking about. The following photos were taken last week while visiting the Oregon Coast.



It's those stones on the column pedestal in the first photo and, especially, the round ones on the chimney and planter areas of the building in the lower picture.

Why was I disturbed? Because round stones cannot be piled narrowly as in pedestals and chimneys: it is unnatural. Such stones are found on flat areas such as stream beds.

Other kinds of stone such as slate or shale are flat and can be stacked. You can see stone walls or fences in parts of New England and Upstate New York. Houses in the Northeast and elsewhere that incorporate flat stonework don't trouble me: I usually like what I see. That's because such stones are used in a natural -- not artificial -- way.

Obviously quite a few people like rounds stones on their houses, otherwise I wouldn't be seeing such detailing. But still ...



posted by Donald at August 1, 2007


This sort of "river rock" stone construction is seen all over my area of the Pacific Northwest and I've often wondered about it because it is so damn ugly.

Every traditional cobblestone wall or pavement I've ever seen consists of more-or-less fitted rough cut stones or shale. I think this method has a more recent genesis--the architect Ernest Flagg wrote about slipform construction in his book "Small Houses" (1922), and many homes were built with slipform walls throughout the Depression. I believe modern slipform, like modern brickwork, usually consists of a veneer over reinforced concrete.

Another common use of round "river rock" is in "rock gardens" consisting of rocks set upright in a bed of cement, sometimes seen around office and institutional buildings dating from the 60s & 70s.

Does anyone know of any traditional examples of unfitted round stone being laid up with mortar or concrete like this?

Posted by: Luke on August 1, 2007 2:03 PM

I was just in Greece, and saw some buildings that looked to be at least a century old; the outer surfaces of the walls had been plastered smooth, but the interiors of the walls (which were in part visible in places) were piles of unfitted stones with lots of mortar in between. This wasn't a deliberate decorative look, obviously, as the unfitted stone wasn't designed to be seen at all. But I suspect that for cheaper construction, where you didn't want to pay someone to trim up your stone, unfitted stone with lots of binder may have been quite common.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 1, 2007 2:35 PM

Some sites have only cobbles as native nearby rock ... So if they were going to use stone as a building material they had to use them.

Personally, knowing this, I don't find the style disturbing. I would think that the practice certainly saves on cement, that is, it saves energy. And of course it saves the energy required to transport rock.

Posted by: Robert Hume on August 1, 2007 3:12 PM

It's an atavistic reminder of a pile of skulls, of some prehistoric cemetry. It's the collective unconscious at work.

Posted by: dearieme on August 1, 2007 3:20 PM

I'm one of those people (although technically not an architect) that MB described recently as constantly straghtening silverware at the restaurant table. Well, may be not literally silverware.
Anyway, strangely, the stones on the above pictures do not disturb me. But the matchpick columns, the military "gunmetal" exterior paint, the balconie on the 1st floor, the mismatched windows (no mullions on a big one and 4 on the small), the awful siding - they do.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 1, 2007 5:10 PM

I was curious about the statement that

"...round stones cannot be piled narrowly as in pedestals and chimneys: it is unnatural. Such stones are found on flat areas such as stream beds."

I have seen walls of river rock many places and they look fine and "natural" to me.

So I called the biggest rock dealer in the Seattle area and they told me (and their shows examples) that yes you can build walls with river rock i.e. not only with a manufactured veneer product.

If you don't like it because you don't like well that's just a matter of personal preference. But to not like it because it is "not natural" seems well a bit... artificial. The built environment is filled with many things -- metal roofs, for instance -- which one could claim just don't happen in nature. Flat rocks just don't hop up and bind themselves together into a wall either.

Posted by: Seattle Man on August 1, 2007 5:14 PM

btw, maybe here's an even better example:

Posted by: Seattle Man on August 1, 2007 5:18 PM

The collective unconscious, eh? Never know whether dearieme is posting straight or in leg pulling mode. Keeps one alert. ;^)

Posted by: ricpic on August 1, 2007 5:46 PM

dearieme: not so much prehistoric...

Posted by: Tatyana on August 1, 2007 6:09 PM

It's fun to keep track of personal responses to buildings and materials, isn't it? ... And then there's the new tendency to build things that deliberately make people uneasy. A lot of Decon architecture has that as a goal -- vertigo-inducing, "questioning-your-assumptions," etc. Stairways leading ot nowhere, big drops with invisible guardrails. "Stunt architecture," I think of it as.

I wonder how you'd respond to a regional-style fave of mine, Cobblestone Buildings, made from river and lake-smooth rocked in Western NY state. They're gorgeous, I think, partly because most of the rocks used are rounded off. But maybe I have more trust in mortar and concrete than you do.

Here's a collage that gives a good impression of what a cobblestone building is like.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2007 6:18 PM

The "porch" is disturbing. It is what James Howard Kunstler refers to as "cartoon architecture."

Posted by: Scott on August 1, 2007 6:50 PM

What can I say, Donald? That house is garishly drab...that house is pompously mingy...that house is blank yet vulgar...that house...

That house!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 1, 2007 8:13 PM

"Meet the Flintstones, meet the Flinstones"

From the town of Bedrock, evidently.

Posted by: Adriana on August 1, 2007 11:06 PM

New England's stone walls weren't so much an intentional construction as a handy way of clearing the rocky fields for agriculture.

Posted by: Peter on August 1, 2007 11:34 PM

Selected replies...

Friedrich -- Didn't the Romans use rocks and cement as fill for walls that were finished on the outside with marble, etc.?

Robert Hume -- The rocks in your second link resemble rockery rocks that are -- or are nearly -- stackable. So it's not quite the same as round stones.

Michael -- What you link to is similar in concept to larger, round stones set in cement. But your illustration makes the building seem more ornamented and the colors are almost brick-like. I'm not sure I like it.

Scott -- The top picture is on a beachfront hotel, not a house; perhaps I should have mentioned that.

Robert Townshend -- And maybe I should have noted that the structure shown in the bottom photo was a fourplex that was on that hotel's grounds. Perhaps that's one reason it looks a bit odd.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 1, 2007 11:52 PM

Actually, you're quite right, Donald. When you look at it as a bundle of dwellings it loses its terror.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 2, 2007 12:31 AM

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. On reflection, I find I generally like the looks of things that are designed for a function. The swept back wings of a jet. The lapstrake construction of a boat. And yes, rocks assembled in a way that comports with the laws of gravity.

I spent a week in Ireland and looked at hundreds of piled-stone fences. The beauty was in the careful fitting of the pieces. I don't mind decorative touches, but some structures just look insipid when they're made too cute.

Take a favorite piece of writing and set it in an overly fancy typeface. It's the same thing.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on August 2, 2007 1:12 AM

I don't usually like round stone walls either - they seem kind of hokey and forced. The tower at Robinson Jeffers' Tor House is cool, though.

Posted by: robert on August 2, 2007 5:03 AM

I don't know whether it's unnatural or not, but it certainly is ugly.

Posted by: tschafer on August 2, 2007 4:59 PM

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