Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Didn't Regulating Lines Get Passed Down?

In the more than 35 years that I've worked as an architect renovating old houses north of Boston, I've worked on houses as old as 1680 and as new as 2000. And because so much about existing construction is unknown until it is actually taken apart, I worked very closely with 'my' contractors - about 8 different firms - much as design-build teams work.

In the beginning I was lucky enough to work with experienced contractors who had grown up working for their fathers - so the knowledge we had access to was deep and broad. Later the crews pretty much knew each other and if there was a real problem we could ask everyone (and their fathers!) for their expertise.
In my experience neither they nor the men who did finish millwork had ever been taught about any kind of regulating lines being used to determine proportion or design. They certainly have been interested in the ideas.
Circle geometry is beginning to be taught at forums of the Timber Framers Guild.

I met architects 40 years ago who knew about the Golden Section. I know only one architect today who is familiar with the Golden Section as it applies to architecture, but have not been able to have in depth conversations about how he uses the proportions.

I would welcome information about who is using all the variations of regulating lines and where. Earlier posts outline what I know at the moment.

Why Didn't Regulating Lines Get Passed Down? Part 2

The simple answer is The Industrial Revolution. 
While I think that is true, the word ‘revolution’ assumes a quick change, not something that lasted over 150 years. So what happened?
Here is what I’ve managed to piece together:
In the colonies:
Before 1770, if a young man was not preparing the ministry, for college, he would be apprenticed to a craftsman to learn a trade, sometimes at as young as 11 years old. After as many as 7 years he would have skills and tools, a trade. If you remember Benjamin Franklin’s story, you know he disliked his apprenticeship and eventually ran away from Boston to Philadelphia to seek his fortune.
Especially after the American Revolution the system didn’t work very well. Many young men moved to new places, tried several trades and never finished apprenticeships. Housewrights and joiners couldn’t pass on their knowledge so easily. A man might need to teach himself the skills he lacked.
The pattern books of the period bear this out – their first plates teach basic geometry, knowledge a carpenter would have taught his apprentices as they worked. The books were very popular. One book - over 100 pages of geometry - was Peter Nicholson’s The Carpenter’s New Guide, published in England in 1792, and then in Philadelphia, PA. Published into the 1850's, it went through 16 editions.
The pattern books I have read (list supplied upon request) do not clearly spell out how to use geometric proportions and ratios to determine size and placement in design. I haven't yet figured out why.
An aside: Nicholson himself was self-taught. His biography on Wikipedia is fascinating.
more later...