Color, texture, form, imprinting, & red cedar shingles

Most behavioral and mind scientists believe that we have all been trained (or conditioned or imprinted) at various times to react to certain visual stimuli, and that this can affect our thinking and behaviors. There is discussion as to when this occurs—some propose a sensitive time up to teenage years; others postulate infancy; others think some of this happens at birth, or that we may even be genetically programmed to respond to certain visual stimuli.

Ethologists1 have pursued this concept far more seriously than psychologists. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel Prize winner and considered one of the founders of that field of study, designed an experiment where baby greylag geese saw his face first after hatching; consequently they followed him around instead of their mothers.

A case can be made for imprinting in terms of human responses to the built environment. Anthropologists have shown that in some Mediterranean and equatorial countries where almost all roofs are flat, children, when asked to draw a picture of home as they imagine it, will draw a crude gabled roof structure, even though they may have seen very few if any in their lives. We would like to explore a few deeply ingrained ways in which we see buildings, and how part of that reaction to the three dimensional world we build around us might be innate.

Many of us find ourselves attracted to materials that are apparently uniform in color, but not quite in reality. If we think about the green leaves of our favorite plants, on closer inspection we will find them to be of almost infinite varieties of green, differing very subtly in exact tone. This occurs in most of our favorite flowers as well. In buildings, many people find beauty in the subtle variation in hue in the grain of woods used in interior trim, and the natural variations of color in red cedar shingles or clapboards. The verdigris of tarnished copper or bronze, offers much of the same slight color variations, as does the look of brownstone and various marbles. Perhaps we see in these materials the same color variations that we are trained to see at a very early age, like the baby goslings, when we look at loved ones’ faces. Think of the color ranges we first see in our parents’ faces and in their hair; think of how disturbing it can be to see their faces only one shade from make-up or blanched by age, or their hair a shingle shade. Perhaps this is why the red cedar or the verdigris of some metals is so attractive to us, or the grains of certain rocks often used in construction is so appealing. The same can be said of the sidewalk pavers historically used in the metropolitan Boston area—there are many shades of red and related in colors in a palette of bricks sold as one type—Boston City Hall Pavers.2 We use a brick very similar to these in our pathways.

All of this is a very long lead-in to why we use certain materials, and how we install them. With the exception of certain surfaces such as painted plaster or sheetrock, tile in your baths, the paint or finished surface on your appliances—many of the choices were made because we wanted material with subtle variation in color, texture, and even precise form. It is important for you to understand that this is why we use these materials; the difference in color shape or texture from one piece to another is not a flaw, but in fact considered desirable by most people. A red cedar shingle starts out different from the shingle on either side of it; this difference will become even more pronounced as it ages. If we sided your building with shingles, please do not try and clean them, whether by hand, power washing them, or sandblasting them or just as bad, applying a semi-transparent stain over them. To do so is akin to trying to repair the craquelure3 or crazing in a 300 year old oil painting, or cleaning an 1804 American silver dollar. You will be greatly reducing the value of the object or the material. Imperfection, whether endogenous or acquired by age, is very desirable in some things.4

So, you will notice differences from one piece to the next in exterior and interior unpainted trim; some differences in grain; in a few materials, like brick and granite, differences to size and shape. Tile will be of uniform shape and color unless cast; they will have different crazing. Bricks will differ in size, shape and color–the result of being from different batches of clay, and responding to the loss of moisture differently when fired. Red cedar will start out with a certain amount of both homogeneity and heterogeneity, but extractive bleeding5 as they weather will increase the variation. You will also notice a patina developing over time on your bricks and the granite used in your landscape. These too are appreciated by most people, and better off left alone as mementos of sun, shade, rain and wind. And these, like the shingles, may move about slightly as they age and are used. People will often admire the center of a pathway or a set of stairs, worn down by and memorialising years of usage, like a vertical desire line6.

So, hopefully you and the other members of the association will have some tolerance of irregularity, especially in color. If you feel the need at some point to further seal any red cedar on your building, or desire to stop or slow the natural weathering process, please feel free to call us, and we will be happy to advise you.

  1. Ethology is the study of animal behavior
  2. One odd and true story is that the masons who laid Boston City Hall Plaza with these pavers took out the darkest ones, and made their initials out of them in one part of the plaza that was installed almost at the end of the project. The architects did not notice this from the ground, but perceived the initials from the top floors of City Hall, and made the masons rip them out. Both imperfections and eccentricities are part of any good human building process.
  3. Crazing and craquelure refer to the fine cracks in the surface of old oil paintings that comes from the contraction of the  paints caused by drying.
  4. Some people think, for instance, all Native American crafts contain one imperfection to show they are not competing with the creator. We have never built in a natural setting—we are frankly fearful of competing with god or nature. Some Middle Eastern rugs  will have one “splotch” of a different color, the maker’s sign.
  5. The bleeding out of darker resins and tanins in the aging process of red cedar outdoors, hastened by sun and moisture.
  6. A desire line is that path worn into the grass or landscape when people cut the corner at a turn in the sidewalk, and take the 45 degree shortcut.