quarry stones, milestones

Architecturefarm has been offline while we relocate our main offices to our new ‘east coast’ location (in the words of an Iowa neighbor, to whom Illinois might as well have been Massachusetts when we moved in). Still, lots to report and ponder about the last semester, which was sort of bookended by two righteous quarry visits.

Our hotel studio this year was based in Rome, amongst the Nervi Olympic projects–full details to come, but the highlight was a field trip that we felt needed to make up for our students’ two years of being stuck at home. In addition to Rome, we took them to Florence and (split-squad) to Venice, Bologna, and Mantua, exactly the sort of whirlwind tour that I’ve usually tried to avoid. In this case, though, we agreed with the studenti that an antipasti tour that whetted their appetites for more, future travel was only too appropriate.

My teaching partner, Lee Cagley, offered Carrara as a day trip. This has always been a bucket list stop for me–picturing Michelangelo stomping around picking the perfect piece of marble is irresistible (even if apocryphal), but Lee’s background in high end hospitality design came with connections that made a day there even more extraordinary, with a Land Rover tour throughout the mountains, lunch in the foothills, and a back of house visit to a shop that let us see the marble get gradually refined from massive blocks into architectural and sculptural pieces.

My seminar class on building history puts stone construction near the very start of the syllabus, comparing it with timber in the way that materials not only have to be fabricated and assembled but also harvested. Timber is relatively easy, but stone obviously requires another orbit of technology–cutting, shaping, transporting, etc. Seeing the scale of the operation and how challenging it is even with giant machinery puts a lot in context and makes it clear that proximity and the existence of good paths or roads to get the stuff off the mountain and into the shops were determinant factors in stone architecture. (Watching giant trucks hauling multi-ton blocks down cliffside gravel roads from the back of a Land Rover drives this home rather well…)

Base camp included an open-air museum of quarrying techniques, replacing those giant tractors with…wedges and water, an ancient technique still used into the early 20th century that relied on the expansion of wetted wood to crack large pieces into more manageable sizes:

A slightly different vibe this past month at the 2022 Biennial Meeting of the Construction History Society of America at Kennesaw State in Georgia, where tour day involved descending into the pit of an aggregate quarry. At Carrara, aggregate is what happens when they hit a bad vein or a stone breaks poorly–a way to salvage what they can out of what would otherwise be an expensive bit of rock. Marietta is all gravel, all the time–one of hundreds of local quarries that provide the raw material for roads and highways instead of finish stone for buildings. And while the scenery wasn’t quite coastal Italy, the scale was still impressive.

Both places naturally spur questions about extractive industries and renewability–seeing the amount of earth carved away and scaling it to a century in Marietta’s case or a couple of millennia at Carrara makes it clear both how abundant the raw stuff of building is in the earth and the expenditure of raw power it takes to remove it. Students on the tour in Italy asked a lot of hard questions about the impact on the local environment, and that pipe in the middle ground of the Georgia quarry is there to pump a pretty toxic brew of ground water out of the pit and into a treatment facility. The scale of the equipment also makes it clear why building and buildings account for 50% of our energy consumption:

Any chance to get students, in particular, to see the roots of their choices is an important part of understanding the larger contexts of what we as architects do, so Carrara was a great moment. It was also part of a milestone semester, in that it was the last time Lee and I will teach our integrated hotel studio together; he’s off to enjoy a well-earned retirement. He and I have enjoyed five years of coaching teams of interior designers, architects, and landscape architects into working together, finding overlapping interests, subtly clashing value systems, and the frustrations and rewards that come with trying to meld all of those into coherent pieces of design. Have we swept a few Hospitality Design student competitions along the way? Made wrong turns and ended up on the wrong continent? Hiked bands of students up a volcano or along the shoulder of an Italian autostrada? We have. I’ll miss watching Lee at work, as he’s been a truly brilliant studio instructor, someone who has taught me as much as he has our students.