Sep 8, 2010

Headlong into Mediocrity

This past holiday weekend we packed a picnic lunch and headed north to Banning State Park, near Sandstone, MN. I have always liked Banning, despite an ill-fated May camping trip we took there early in our marriage that resulted in the most amazing wood tick infestation I have ever seen. Regardless of the ticks, the Kettle River in this park is spectacular, and there are not one but two historic sandstone quarries within the confines of Banning and Robinson Park, immediately south of Banning.

These quarries were vibrant from 1910 until the 1940's or so. Sandstone was quarried to make some beautiful buildings in downtown Minneapolis like this one and this one, and was used to construct the iconic Stone Arch Bridge. Small pieces of stone not suitable for building were either used for railroad ballast or chiseled into cobblestones and used to pave streets. In fact, I am pretty certain I rode over a block or two of cobbles from these quarries in Crocus Hill during our most recent 3-Speed Ride.

What brought about the end of stone construction and the supporting quarry business? The advent of steel frame and concrete construction techniques. I defy anyone to name a beautiful steel frame/concrete building, yet stone construction was brought to a halt by this advance in technology. Skeptical? Ladies and Gentlemen - I give you Multifoods Tower.

It's this way with a lot of things. Another case in point is furnaces. Forced air hear is the default in new construction. Not because it's better, but because it's cheaper to install. Radiant heat works great; the boiler in my 90-year old house has been replaced once, but all the pipes and radiators are original. The heat from the radiators is even - it does not heat up the room, then cool off until it switches on again. Also, radiators are not dusty and don't dry the air out as much as forced air heat does. Unfortunately, you need plumbers, or at least pipe fitters, to install radiant heat. Virtually anyone can do the sheet metal work required to install ducts for forced air heat. So, although the system is inferior for the entire life of the building, we all end up with forced air in newer buildings.

Similarly, plaster versus sheet rock. It's hard to even find qualified people to re-plaster walls in old homes. Stucco versus vinyl siding. Quality paint jobs versus powdercoating. Faux town squares in the suburbs versus the real downtowns that were decimated by the stripmalls. I could go on and on but neither of us has the patience for that...

In his September 2 podcast, Jim Kunstler speculated that the retracting economies and crumbling infrastructure may actually move us away from the modular, pre-fabricated, mass-produced construction techniques that have seemingly made America unable to construct anything that looks good, and back towards a more local, craft-based approach to construction. I hope that's true, because it's really insulting and numbing to keep getting crappy crap that looks like crap shoved at us when you see so many reminders that a little skill and craft can have such a positive impact on the built environment.

I have to go lie down now.


  1. I don't even think there is a sidewalk that wraps around the building, so much for a town square.

    It's like this quaint little homage to a life that we all wish for in the 'good ole days' but for some reason but will only go back to it kicking and screaming.

  2. It's so disappointing. People stop and tour Milwaukee Ave. in Seward because it's unique and quaint and cool and unlike anything else around the Cities, but back in the day this was a neighborhood of modest worker houses. Now it's so unique because it's community and walkable and cars are restricted. It's like we have entirely forgotten how to do "good" when it comes to building. The whole concept of putting the parking lot in front of the building, rather than behind it drives me ape-shit. Look at a Target and think how much better it would be if they would build a ramp behind the building and move the store closer to the street. Ramps cost more than asphalt, however.

  3. Interestingly, my husband has been trying to get me to camp in Minnesota. Previously only having enjoyed camping twice - once in Colorado and once in Utah - both insect free, I can not say your tick experience pushes me to want to have one as well.

    And crappy crap that looks like crap? I couldn't have said it better myself.

  4. Radiators also work better at drying wet clothes than forced air, which happily, puts more moisture into the air.

  5. Kunstler JR?

    I really hope we can get back to an economy where we actually make stuff and skill is needed. Not everything needs to be mass produced or machine made.

    While it might cost more, It will last a lot longer for sure.