Wrought Iron

The Machine Aesthetic

by Don Friedman on December 1, 2017


In one sense, all building materials are artificial. Even the wood we use as lumber is shaped into geometries not seen in nature: rectangular in cross-section, straight, and identical from one piece to the next. But somehow metal seems artificial in a way that masonry and wood do not. You can see artists struggling with how to address metal structure and machinery through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, even as society was changing from the effects of industrialization. The machine aesthetic, as it was called, arguably reached its peak with precisionism.

The picture above is the interior stair of the Little Red Lighthouse. It was built in the 1880s at Sandy Hook, at the entrance to New York harbor, and moved in 1921 to its current location on a spit of land projecting into the Hudson River. Physically, it’s a tapered and hollow iron cylinder, with various projections, including a balcony and a lantern at the top. The obvious way to go up and down inside such a structure is with a helical staircase, as you can see in the picture.

There are some architectural flourishes at the lighthouse’s exterior, like the pseudoclassical door surround. But it’s really quite plain, as is fitting for a utilitarian structure. The stair, for instance, has no architectural pretensions, but is simply the most basic iron helical stair that the 1880s could have produced. But that stair is beautiful in the machine aesthetic sense. I think it helps explain where that aesthetic came from: the geometry and unornamented man-made nature of that stair structure is striking and, in its time, new.

Expounding on a Neat Trick

October 30, 2017

I talked a bit about this type of detail recently but I was surprised to learn that I hadn’t posted these pictures. This is a middle-third of the 1800s tenement in Hell’s Kitchen that was built with retail space on the first floor. The wood joists of the floors and roof span left to right, […]

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156 Years Of Dirt

March 16, 2017

Whatever that light-gray dust is – some combination of rotted wood, ancient coal smoke, and pigeon crap, most likely – it was damned difficult to wash off my hands and shirt. But that’s not the point. What is this thing? It’s the cast-iron arch holding up the rear wall of an 1861 loft building over the […]

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A Subtle Hint

January 24, 2017

That picture was taken in a mid-to-late-nineteenth-century industrial building, on the top floor with only the attic above. The exposed wood beam is about 8 inches wide and 12 inches deep but appears to span some fifty feet, which is obviously ridiculous. The building has a gable roof so the most likely bet is that […]

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Ironmongery

June 30, 2016

Know any blacksmiths? There’s a job opening right now with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. This might sound like a joke* but it’s serious. Blacksmiths shape iron and steel in complex three-dimensional configurations that are not easily achievable using other methods. The introduction of CAD/CAM cutters allows for extremely complex and […]

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Historic Structural Detail: Geometric Strength

May 26, 2016

Some structural forms are more efficient than others. For example, roof trusses tend to be deep (vertically) relative to their spans. Trusses can be examined at two scales: at a small scale, member by member and connection by connection, or at the overall scale, where they are analogues of beams. It’s at the overall scale […]

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Historic Structural Detail: A Composite Arch

March 16, 2016

One of the earliest challenges for structural engineers – long before the profession formally existed – was how to support masonry walls over openings. The tight column spacing of Greek and Egyptian temples, for example, was based in part on the limited spanning capacity of stone beams. Masonry arches, as used by the Romans, could span […]

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