Our back door was rotting and allowing rain to enter our home during heavy rains which are commonplace here in Houston, Texas. We decided to replace it with a new one during our springtime cleaning and repairing routine. The man who came to install the door looked as though he had endured many hardships. He was a silent type who did his work without much commentary. It was apparent that he knew exactly what he was doing as he tore out and rebuilt the decaying structures that framed the entryway. Watching him at work was almost magical because he was indeed a craftsman who slowly but surely made every part of the door and its locking system fit like a glove. The seal was air tight with no sign of leaks that might allow water to come inside. The mechanisms were smooth and perfectly fitting. His work was artful, beautiful if one is inclined to get excited over such a seemingly simple thing.
Humans are designers, builders. The world is filled with the efforts of skilled craftsmen who elevated structures that have lasted for centuries. We revel in the medieval cathedrals whose vaults and buttresses seem to be reaching into heaven. We are stunned by castles that have weathered the ages. Architecture imagines and engineering brings dreams to life. It is in the way our society builds that we see the marvels of human intelligence and skill.
My grandfather was a finishing carpenter. With his huge, strong hands he made certain that the buildings on which he worked were as perfect as possible. He searched for flaws and repaired them with a kind of love for quality and perfection. All of his work had the mark of an artist who was proud of his craft.
Not long ago one of my former students who does home construction projects including everything from roofing to pouring concrete driveways was bemoaning the fact that many people would rather pay less and get an inferior product than do a job with longevity in mind. He spoke of losing bids to contractors who cut corners and use subpar materials but offer low prices. His work is designed to last and it is frustrating to him to see people doing sloppy work that will end up creating problems in the future. Pride in one’s craft is the key to long lasting results.
I have always been fascinated by architecture and its many styles. I am in awe of builders who take the time to produce structures that are literally works of art. One of my favorite pastimes is traveling to view the great buildings in the world, including old native American villages like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. I marvel at places like Chichen Itza that have survived centuries of weathering and human abuse. I think of how basic the tools were for constructing the Parthenon and wonder at the difficulty in creating and building such an incredible place.
I tend to fancy all great works of architecture rather than those of a certain style. One of my most favorite Saturdays was spent on the Chicago River viewing the marvelous architecture of that city. Later I visited homes in Oak Park that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From art deco to Shaker to Romanesque to Greek revival to mid-century modern I love the ideas that spring from the human mind.
My father-in-law lives in a Sears kit home that was built in the early twentieth century. Back then Sears offered plans for several different types of home along with the materials to build them. The home that my father-in-law owns is one of the Victorian styles with a a wrap around porch and a huge attic suitable for renovating into more living space if desired. It is a home that was built to last and indeed it has for over one hundred years.
My husband and I stayed with my father-in-law during hurricane Ike and even at the height of the storm the windows in his home barely rattled as winds tore through the city downing huge trees and breaking most of the glass in downtown buildings. I stood with my faither-in-law marveling at the strength of the walls and feeling as though I was watching the storm pass over us in a movie rather than real time.
Later when I spoke with others who had weathered the storm I heard stories of windows seeming to be on the verge of buckling and roofs that tore from the tops of their homes leaving leaks that brought down ceilings and flooded rooms. Not so with that Sears kit house which was as sturdy as the day on which it was first built. A big bad wolf might huff and puff but never be able to bring that house down.
There are stories in our buildings. Their styles suggest personalities and dreams. The Kings College chapel at Cambridge University was a breakthrough in design and build with its soaring glass windows that light the interior in ways that make it heavenly. It is more than just a structure. It seems to be alive. Its designers created a glorious and triumphant work of art that has also withstood the ravages of time. Their spirit lives inside every stone, every vault, every piece of glass.
I am barely able to nail two boards together so I am awestruck by the great builders and even the man who installed my backdoor and my former student who insists on performing high quality work. The pride and the glory of building well done lives forever and tells the story of humankind. It is our way of reaching for the heavens.