I had the opportunity to tour George and Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, in Virginia, for the first time this summer. Before my visit, I was vaguely aware of the house’s history: a simple, one-and-a-half-story, farm-style structure built in 1735 by Washington’s father, Augustine, and acquired in 1754 by the younger Washington, who would expand it significantly over the next half-century. The tour of the mansion revealed a bit of information that I’m surprised to have never learned in any history class, architectural or otherwise: The house’s original façade finish is intentionally faked. Although the building has always been clad in wood siding, George Washington—who directly supervised each renovation—wanted it to look like stone. He therefore called for the process of rustication, in which pine boards were cut into panels and beveled to mimic stone masonry before being surfaced with two coats of paint, the latter of which was topped with cast sand.
This material revelation concerning one of America’s most beloved historic buildings is intriguing. And the awareness of the practice raises several questions: Could Washington not afford stone, or was it not practical for use in Mount Vernon’s expansion? Was rustication emblematic of a young nation’s inferiority complex in light of Europe’s architectural gravitas? A more profound and unsettling question follows: Did Washington not apply the same standards of authenticity to architectural expression as he did to verbal and written expression?
This topic invites debate, given the long and murky history surrounding the concept of architectural authenticity. As Washington is often credited with saying: “There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.” Would this principle not apply to the built environment, particularly in its visible expression?
What is architectural truth, anyway?
Despite the wealth of information available on materials in architecture, the literature is surprisingly silent on the topic of material authenticity. In 1964, the late architectural historian Jean Labatut wrote that “the detail tells the tale”—a phrase that the late Italian architect and historian Marco Frascari then borrowed for the title of his influential 1984 article “The Tell-the-Tale Detail.” Yet these essays focus on topics like architectural composition and the relationship between drawing and building, not the sincerity of material representation. Much of the writing about architectural details is largely a tribute to craft, as one can infer from Louis Kahn’s “adoration of the joint” or Labatut’s statement that “it is the precise study and good execution of details which confirm architectural greatness.” Washington himself aimed for a high level of execution, as evidenced by a 1796 letter to his farm manager James Anderson, in which he articulated careful instructions for the rustication process (its contemporary execution is shown in the video below).
Buildings convey meaning, and so exhibiting sound craftsmanship is not the only aspiration we have for them. In this sense, to borrow from Labatut, what tale does Mount Vernon’s rustication tell? For one, it chronicles the story of Washington’s pursuit of a particular material effect. But at an elemental level, the detail aims to beguile: “I am stone,” the wood says with impunity.
Washington was certainly not the first—nor the last—to masquerade one material as another. This practice has likely existed as long as architecture has been a product of culture, since buildings became valued for more than just shelter. Evidence of trompe l'oeil murals are found throughout the records and ruins we have of Ancient Greece and Rome, for example, as is the practice of emulating foliage using non-living materials (for example, the Acanthus plant in a stone Corinthian column capital). In Cheap, Quick, & Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870-1930 (University of Tennessee Press, 1999), historian Pamela Simpson traces the lineage of prominent building materials that were mass-produced during the Second Industrial Revolution. Rock-face concrete block, tile-mimicking linoleum floors, and sheet-metal cornices were emblematic of the increasing popularity of inexpensive, utilitarian replacements for more costly materials. In one instance, the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable attributed the growing demand for concrete, in particular, to a mixture of embracing technological progress and “the tastelessness of a new middle class society that accepted substitute gimcrackery for traditional materials and ideas."
Material deception is not only limited to the emulation of traditional materials, but it is also seen in the development of new architectural forms. Perhaps the most famous modern architectural example is the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe’s 1958 office tower on Park Avenue, in New York. Van der Rohe intended for the tower to express its structure—an idea fundamental to the International Style—but building codes required the structural steel to be protected with a fireproofing material such as concrete. Rather than express the fireproofing, van der Rohe clad the façade in non-structural wide-flange beams as a pretense for structure. (Perhaps Labatut would argue that these elements tell the tale of the internal structure, even if they are purely ornamental.)
Today, material substitutions pervade building construction. Vinyl floors and siding mimic hardwood, plastic shingles resemble slate, concrete floors copy ceramic tiles, engineered stone stands in for actual stone, and high-pressure laminates imitate metals and other materials. There is widespread acceptance of material deceit in contemporary society, and as a result we can’t always trust our initial impressions of our material environment.
Material decisions are rarely black and white, however, and so I am not advocating a purist approach towards material expression. The sheer complexity of today’s building construction—an intricate mixture of layers, assemblies, and systems—challenges notions of unadulterated material expression. And architects may wish to use entirely new materials or create novel forms of material expression for which there are few precedents. Even the Mount Vernon rustication resulted from several competing agendas: according to historian Joseph Manca, the author of George Washington's Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), Washington was critical of wood houses yet believed that they made more salubrious dwellings than those of stone. Furthermore, the sand-casting technique preserved the wood longer than did paint alone.
My biggest concern is not that materiality in architecture is corrupted. Rather, it is that we seldom discuss the question of material sincerity in architectural expression. After all, what does material authenticity mean? Is it tied to architectural value? Should society be materially literate? How does architectural communication compare with other forms of communication, and when do similar ethical and moral principles apply?