Architecture By Train

October 13, 2017
Source: Andy Osterlund

Watching architecture from the train always gets to me.  Riding through Spain, rolling through olive groves, we looked out and see castles on top of hills, unreachable, overlooking the plains, weathered to match the stone around them. 

In North Carolina, the view is mostly trees, tunnels of green, popping out regularly onto fields and farms and industry and then into the towns that were built along the railroad, or the towns that the railroad was built to connect.

The homes are common and mostly small, the homes and outbuildings on farms have aged the best, protected by rust or cedar, or perpetually negotiating with overgrowth.  The houses are spread far apart on the fields, and much too close to each other in the pocket communities.

The businesses on this line are industrial: warehouses and scrapyards.  Leaving the golden-days of tobacco in Durham, the warehouses transition from ornate brick palaces to ordinary brick shells with large linteled openings, to metal sheds, to the experiments in tilt-up concrete, back to steel frame and metal panels.

What strikes me first is the absence of form, the lack of expression.  Almost all of the industrial buildings and homes are one-directional roofs with gabled ends.  These are not barns with two-slope roofs and hay lofts.  These are sheds. 

There are no cornices, no extended heights, almost no windows, second floors only on the largest factories.  Even signage is scarce.  Operations inside the buildings are unmarked.

The yards are full of objects, narratives of activity and storage.  The industrial sites have so much material outside in the yard, that the buildings seem accessory.  Wide open garage doors show the warehouses mostly empty. 

The few workers on site pace inside the buildings – too big to be offices, open enough to drive through with trucks and forklifts.

And the houses are the same.  Yards are filled with materials – trampolines, lawn art, furniture, cars and trucks parked outside.

There’s history here.  Longstanding dialog about landowners and laborers, markets and industries coming and going.  Bad politics.  Mixed education.  Hazardous crops.  Passive religion.  Highways and railroads. 

The businesses and homes endure without being repaired, without being repainted – you see the scars of every decade, you see the bespoke additions and modifications, even the signs of demolition and ruins left in place. 

You can read the actual history of these towns and places and homesteads, more factual than books or newspapers, signs of nature and generational decisions.

But before all this, and enduring around it, there is the weather.  In the absence of ambition, Architecture is formed by weather.  In Carolina, we’d rather be outdoors, until the sun gets too hot and we need the shade. 

Until the building gets too hot and we need to get outside in the fresh air.  This is where the pacing comes from, and the open doors. 

Windows would have created hotboxes.  We pace from outside to inside and let the breezes blow through.