Tudor: Ersatz By Design
America is ever in search of heritage. We built our capital, DC ,on a Francophile Emptiricist Vision, with Neo Classical buildings trying to evoke Greece, Rome and hubris. Its not surprising then that the legacy of survivalist architecture used by colonists to get out of the ravages of weather and threat of indigenous populations – human and predatory – appropriately dubbed “Colonial”, was deemed by some in the 19th century to be unsophisticated.
Houses are often used in lieu of a family tree to evoke a sense of “exceptionalism” – in Europe via genetic legacy, in America via wealth. Legacy is accrued by hundreds of years of evolving tradition and history. Wealth in America is by dint of work and muscling opportunity into success. Legacy has the confidence of standing on dozens of generations’ shoulders. Wealth that is made in one generation has the power of kismet and superego, but nothing under the Alpha Human – be it Vanderbilt, Rockefeller or Ford – to ground legitimacy in confidence. So families grasp at architectural straws to let those around them know how much they are worth – not just monetarily but in the greater social sense. Libraries are built, universities get new buildings, charities are endowed. And homes are built.
In the 1990’s Bill Gates built a supergroovey green/modern home designed by Peter Bohlin and Jim Cutler. But most others look back, not forward when it comes to claiming gravitas in built form. Among those forms of antiquity, such as the aforementioned Neo Classicism, Colonial, and Gothic, Tudor may have the highest threshold for mimicry for one simple reason: It’s a bitch to build if you do it “right”. Building a heavy timber frame (like a barn) with a brick/masonry infill is excruciatingly arduous and expensive involving multiple skill sets.
While “Carpenter Gothic” took the stone details of Gothic architecture and made it a wood-hewn crafty delight, Tudor derivatives use the barest contrivances to simulate a fully integrated structure and skin – where the timber frame is celebrated and the infill of windows and cement-connected material becomes the thinnest of veneers – either a layer of brick or skim coat of stucco. In making all the joints and infill the zillions of seams allow weather to intrude. The different rates of the faux skin’s disparate materials expansion and contraction via humidity and temperature allow gaps to open, water to enter and then rot to explode in all those nooks and crannies.
Of course there are legitimate reincarnations of Tudor architecture, but they are few and far between. The vast majority of homes called “Tudor” are stick built, conventionally framed boxes clad in a ticking time bomb of rot unless diligent maintenance occurs after every annual weather cycle. Seams need raking and recaulking, “timbers” need surfacing, infill windows need careful flashing inspections and repair, or water flows into the wall cavity.
Just like people, when buildings reach beyond their grasp to simulate unobtainable realities, the burden of maintaining facades often collapses under the stress. Setting up houses to fail with a Disney Skin of Imitation is not fair to the occupants – unless they look before they leap into faux history.