The Wood Frame House
Thomas D. Le

When You See a Wood Frame House

Teetering on the brink of collapse, it stands there, two stories tall, weather-beaten and proud, mocking our poor humanity with its longevity, and its know-it-all, see-it-all kind of solemnity that inspires awe and wonder. The wood frame house (which the French call maison à pans de bois) is to me the most captivating sight in my wanderings across the land that the Vikings of the 9th century had terrified in northern France.The wood frame house is a rhapsody, a romance whose exquisite poetry lives on eternally.

Today I want to take you on this journey into beauty, and share with you my boundless excitement. Are you ready? Come with me.

The Poetry of the Wood Frame House

A vestige of the Middle Ages down to the sixteenth century, the wood frame house was built by the common people for the common people.

It has a peaked roof, a sturdy dark wood frame of time-wizened oak that constitutes the structure of the building, with spaces in between filled with light materials, such as clay mixed with chopped straw, generally of a neutral color.

Structural timber is clearly visible both from the inside and the outside. Crosspieces, uprights, diagonals, girders, and beams invariably in dark color accent the exterior and lend an unmistakable air of rusticity to the entire edifice.

Erected along narrow medieval lanes, the wood frame house shows the crudity of unsophisticated building techniques. None of the vertical pieces or horizontal beams are plumb, and no piece of structural timber is straight.Their charm derives in part from this defiance of the rectilinear pattern.

This is precisely where its poetic quality resides.Like a verse in a poem each wooden piece is hand crafted and has its own personality, its own imagery, its own rhythm, its own voice, its own music, and its own message.

These timbers speak to you from the depths of centuries. They are not insensate, utilitarian supports for someone’s home. No, they are alive. They are a love letter, each and every one of them, delivered with a string attached to your heart.

They cling tenaciously to your sense of wonder, sending your muse soaring to heights of inspiration you never suspected is possible.

To the touch they feel strong, rock-hard, solid, and indestructible because they were meant to last as they have lasted for centuries. They inspire awe for their continuity, and permanence amidst the impermanence of life.

Then just as you think you have exhausted their charm, they jolt you with a deafening cry of joy, and reveal their essence as the link between you, past generations and the generations to come.

To reflect on their immortality against your own mortality, and their immutability against your eventual demise adds perspective to man’s works on earth.  Man may be fragile, but his creations extend his presence long after he passes from the scene.

The Wood Frame Houses of Rouen

On this spring morning of 2001 my pharmacist friend from Caen, whom I will call the Duke, and I found ourselves in Rouen, Normandy’s capital 123 km northwest of Paris where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 during the Hundred Years War between France and England.

Rouen is a curious blend of old and new. Studded with Gothic cathedrals and churches, it still preserves centuries-old buildings. Wood frame houses appeared everywhere interspersed among newer constructions. All the ones we saw had been renovated, their timbers painted in many different colors, and looked as if they had been touched by modern technology. Some of their charm as relics of the medieval past had, to me, diminished to the extent they incorporated modern renovations. The building opposite the sidewalk café where the Duke and I had espresso coffee served in demitasses had timbers painted green. Others’ were painted red. To me this is a regrettable innovation.

Fortunately, in the old town section enough authentic models remained to enchant visitors.  Not too far from the Place de l’Horloge, a clock tower square in the Old Market Place dating from the 16th century, stood a restaurant with an attractive store front. The Duke and I went in for a typical Normandy lunch.

The interior was the paragon of wood frame construction. All structural timber was dark, rough-hewn, thick, and heavy. One ten-foot long diagonal girder, about a foot thick, showed the heavy texture of its wood grain so conspicuously it looked like a muscular Hercules.  What attracted my attention was its unusual shape: starting out straight from one end it terminated in a curve at the other.  Spanning at an angle the space between two equally sturdy uprights this misshapen truss kept them firmly in place. It so captivated me that I could not take my eyes off it. How did this heavy truss, which seemed so haphazard in its inclination, strengthen the structure? There was something magical, even mythical, about its power and beauty.

Other heavy timbers, equally rough-hewn and solid, supported the ceiling and the walls. All exuded a time-venerated aura of permanence. They had witnessed the changing fortune of men and the nation, yet remained unchanging.  As I looked around I was seized with a sense of awe, for this fine specimen stood as an eloquent voice from the distant past that boggled my mind.

This is not just a restaurant.  It exists among us like other buildings of its ilk as if with the mission to strengthen the bonds between man and his creations. Its interior is anything but ordinary. An indescribable charm reigned in this cozy and esthetically pleasing space, and communicates such a sense of belonging, closeness, and intimacy that you feel irresistibly attached to it. This is a perfect setting for a romantic dinner for two, the darkened room, the quiet charm, the discreet atmosphere, the hushed ambience of privacy, the silent respect of your space. No one bothered you. In fact, every one seemed to revere their own privacy so religiously that everyone took it to be their private world, their own castle or manor house. I was so charmed by this little microcosm that if we hadn't other places to take in I would have stayed until the restaurant staff shooed me out.

Crude, resilient, enduring, these buildings seem to have been designed to capture your heart immediately and infallibly.

The Wood Frame Houses of Troyes

The medieval city of Troyes (168 km southwest of Paris) in the south Champagne region earns fame as the stained-glass capital of the world, claiming in its possession one-third of France’s stained glass treasures embedded in its Gothic cathedrals and churches.This charming town on the River Seine shelters innumerable wood frame houses on its many medieval streets that seem still to echo the life of these far-off times.  My psychiatrist friend Jacques calls this town home. For days, Jacques and I walked the cobbled streets to the many timber buildings that, whether renovated or not, bore the unmistakable imprint of authenticity.

Many looked to me the way they had always looked: ancient, crude, unsophisticated, unpretentious, yet quaintly attractive and intriguing. As a resident of Space City I am accustomed to the perfect verticality and horizontality of its towers and high-rise apartment buildings. So when these antiquated wood frame buildings confronted me for the first time, I was taken aback. They all seemed to challenge my sense of order and balance, the kind of sleek esthetics that is so characteristic of skyscrapers. They spoke a different idiom altogether, not simply because they hailed from a period centuries removed from ours, but more because they were creations of a different kind. They embodied an esthetics akin to romance and poetry, not one akin to efficiency and precision. They flaunted the strength of natural materials, not that of glass and steel. They might be small in size and height, but overwhelmed in inspiration and mystique.

Take the Silversmith’s Turret, built in the 16th century by an affluent silversmith by the name of François Roizé. By today’s standards the turret’s small proportions and imperfect shape offer little excitement. But when you contemplate its cone-shaped slate roof, its approximately vertical wooden beams accenting the roughly textured cylindrical wall, and its entire structure precariously overhanging the ground floor, almost touching the structure across the narrow lane, you know it has set your heart aflutter.

Farther down the way the Baker’s House stood at a street corner. Its timeworn darkened gable still sported a pulley on which sacks of flour might once upon a time have been hoisted to the upper floor. And through its half-open window I could still "see" the baker’s wife in her bonnet waving down to her Romeo on the cobbled street below. I was transported back to the time when the pillory stood at almost every street corner, and the streets were filled with echoes of ox-drawn carts.

Troyes wouldn’t be Troyes without its wood frame houses standing along a dark, spooky, narrow tunnel of an alley known as Cats’ Lane (Ruelle des Chats). After a hearty lunch of German pork in sauerkraut at Master Kanter’s, and drenched in wine, Jacques and I were traversing this four-foot-wide medieval walk early one spring afternoon when I had a distinct feeling that the buildings on both sides were closing in on us. Their heavy wooden beams, girders, and walls rising three floors from ground level had been drinking. Not me, mind you! Now they were vacillating, oscillating, tottering, and on the verge of toppling over. They seemed to have fun playing tricks of collapse on me.  They seemed to be saying to each other, "Let’s scare the daylight out of this stranger." When we emerged from the other end of the lane, I looked back, and in a moment of epiphany, found Cats’ Lane irresistible, tottering but still standing.

The Enduring Architectural and Esthetic Quality of the Wood Frame House

That a Gothic cathedral endures over centuries I find not at all hard to conceive.  A Gothic cathedral is a monument of stone; and although some have collapsed during construction and been rebuilt, none have fallen on their own for centuries. A Gothic cathedral is massive, and seems indestructible.

But a wood frame house is different. Its strongest material is hardwood, durable but still not immune to decay.  Structural, load-bearing members such as beams, girders, lintels, columns, and so on are fashioned from wood with centuries-old techniques and tools. Their walls are basically built from clay, mud, straw, and similar light materials.  By any reckoning these perishable materials and the constructions that they support should be ephemeral in relative terms.  They should rot and die to make room for more modern structures. Yet they stand the test of time as well as fortified castles.

Why were they not left to decay? Why were they not bulldozed out of existence?

To me there are two reasons. Their survival testifies to their architectural and structural soundness and viability. There is nothing fundamentally flawed in their construction.  The heavy columns, girders and beams are sturdy enough to support the weight of the structure, which is mainly made from light materials. And in spite of their crudity, these timbers can easily hold up their heavy slate or tile roofs.

In the final analysis, however, their endearing quality really centers on their esthetics, which makes for an inescapable and inexhaustible charm. There is a certain child-like quality about its simple, almost innocent, design, a design concept that is unadulterated by science and its rigorous precision. There is about them a sort of beauty akin to what some would term, perhaps rather in an unorthodox fashion, "primitivism." Primitivism, in my sense, is man’s instinctual and immediate response to his esthetic impulses, and to the rich environment around him, without the distortion of scholarship or sophisticated learning.

Look at the house.  Its vertical pieces slant every which way; its horizontal pieces rise, fall or sag; and its diagonals, well, they too seem to lean at any angle they want. And no two of them are identical. They are all individual pieces each with a distinct personality. Taken together they wield a seductive power beyond resistance.

With an exterior defined by crisscrossing timbers from top to bottom, the wood frame house is simply beautiful. Give me one these buildings that threaten to collapse the next minute, and I will sing its praise, not as a poet but as a no-nonsense resident of Space City bitten by the bug of love of beauty.

The Inextinguishable Voice of the Wood Frame House

Today the timber house is part of the modern landscape of many European cities, harking back to the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. It knows how to ingratiate itself with your heart, and dwell there as part of you never to leave again.

I hope, through this brief journey, that you have come to appreciate the esthetics of the wood frame house. The next time you get a chance, will you take time out to enjoy its beauty, even if vicariously, through pictures? Look carefully, and find in the seemingly unsophisticated wooden structure a seminally esthetic concept, one that shows the internal structure, ordinarily hidden in most constructions, to the outside world and still captures your imagination unfailingly.

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