Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snow: architecture's arbiter and advocate

The Big Blizzard of 1/11/11 clearly demonstrated a characteristic property of snow: its ability to give buildings new form. It does this not merely by leaving its snow-white imprint on them, but by accenting and accentuating the distinctive forms the buildings already possess as it brings their reliefs into further relief.

By outshining its burial victims with its sheer whiteness, snow prompts us to take fuller notice of them in the context of the familiar visual beauty of the White Christmases we dream of and the Winter Wonderlands we're happy to walk in. Thus snow can be three things to architecture. It can be a standard by which to judge a building's innate architectural merit, an enhancer of an edifice's existing merit, or an awarder of new merit to a structure easily overlooked in the off-season.

Take, for instance, the Greek Evangelical Church (1902, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, left) and Trinity Episcopal Church (1916, George W. Chickering, below) in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. Their snow-blanketed landscape heightens the holiness their architects intended them to convey to the public, given the color white's association with purity, holiness and cleanliness in the Bible: 

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
— Psalms 51:7                                
His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.
— Matthew 28:3                         
O how glorious is the kingdom wherein all the saints rejoice in Christ.
Clothed in white robes they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth...

— Revelation 7:9,12
Architecturally, the snow's accumulation on the churches' prominent Gothic elements forces us to see them in a more monumental light.

Newly cloaked in white, Battlement, Buttress, Crocket, Finial, Lady Chapel, Lancet Arch and Ridge are now brought out in full force, as the architectural symbols of God's followers, perfectly regimental, not straying from the flock.

Here are more examples of snow falling afresh on buildings in Newton:

Baptized in snow

The blizzard brought out the Richardsonian Romanesque features of the First Baptist Church in Newton (1888, John Lyman Faxon). As it accumulated on and in the crevices, fissures, pits and promontories of the craggy granite blocks, the rose window mullions, the sandstone relief carvings and the buttresses and gargoyles, it highlighted them, in the vein of the bare suggestions of bricks, stones and ornaments that were typically drawn in a turn-of-the-century architectural rendering. We thus see the trees for the forest more clearly and get a rudimentary architectural education in the process. The white spots also add a fourth dimension to the already three-dimensional effect of the church's asymmetrical composition. As the snow melts, it becomes the true fourth dimension — time — that causes the parts to diminish into the whole once again when winter passes into spring.

The Polar Express

"Eyelid" dormers, high hipped roofs and deep eaves characterize the Newton Centre MBTA Station (1892, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge), according to the master plan set forth for all such stations by the architects' predecessor, Henry Hobson Richardson.

However, the blizzard's "snowbrow" effect gives the eyelids actual eyebrows, the roofs a snowy mountain presence, and the eaves the feel of a cozier shelter from the snow. Therefore, the Richardsonian roof form is stronger and bolder.

Alpine altitude

Here the snow has encrusted thickly on the Queen Anne house's super-steep roof, as well as its towering evergreen, its high hillside terrain and its surrounding tree branches and bushes. Even its telephone wire has caught some of the white stuff, in the tubular fashion of a corn dog.

All of these elements give the house's high-pitched roof gable the suggestion of the steep soar of a ski slope in the Swiss Alps. The snow-wrapped wire adds the tensile "ski lift" or "cable car" effect that is most familiar in the Alps.

With the enrichment of snow, the house's architectural, natural and utilitarian features collectively convey the mixed emotions and effects of scenic serenity, mountain awe and fear of heights we may experience while traveling, skiing or chair-lifting in the Alpine mountains. 

Queen Anne is truly the "Snow Queen" and the "Mountain King" here.

River deep, mountain high

Just when the geometric modernist style of the inverse hipped roof of this 1960s Brimmer and May School building was no longer hip, along came the snow to cast it in a fresh mold. Now the gym's up-cornered eaves and central pyramid crown abstract the triangular forms of a range of snow-capped mountains, enabling the building to spread its wings and soar again on the skyscape. The frozen downspout at the "river valley" adds a waterfall effect to the building's new-found naturalism, which is enhanced by the original pebble-pressed skin and the newer forest-green paint job.

Medieval mystique

The snowy landscape, the snow-seasoned evergreens, and the bulbous snow-topped bell tower give the Chestnut Hill School the wintry wonderment of a medieval clockmaker's village. The mountain-peak gables express the spirit of the surrounding woods in their half-timbering, and the clustering of buildings articulates the interactive community nature of the school's program, according to its mission: "Within an active community of students, faculty, and families, The Chestnut Hill School promotes respect between individuals and involvement with the larger community." Snow magnifies this community spirit by making the buildings seem more closely huddled together for warmth from the cold.

Get a horse!

Clearly modeled on the carriage barns of yore, this gabled wooden garage with iron-hinged exposed-wood doors seems to call for a horse, rather than a car, to complete the Currier-and-Ives image of a quaint old New England barn the snowfall has given it, in the vein of Jingle Bells: "Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, o'er the fields we go..."

Fire and ice

This brief detour into Cambridge shows how snow can clarify the use of a particular building, here the fire station in Central Square. By clinging to the bell tower, the snow not only makes this Italianate campanile more monumentally visible at night — like the headlights, siren and white hood of the fire engine dashing through the snow — but also broadcasts the intent of the building's occupant: to freeze a fire. Thus the tower stands as a symbol of the clarity of cold water quenching the brick-red of hot flame.

Hot spot

Likewise (back in Newton), here the snow amplifies the advertising and the awning, which are to this eatery as the bell tower is to the fire station in terms of the most prominent, self-promoting elements. These contrasts of cold snow with hot pizza and snowy awning with dry shelter entice us to come in out of the cold for something hot — that is, if we can get past the white mountain that blocks the way. 

Furthermore, here is an example of how snow ornaments an ordinary building to give it more visual depth. By accenting a common sign to give its black relief lettering another dimension, the snow creates a black-and-white contrast that fittingly symbolizes the hot-and-cold one that will hopefully lure business in the colder months. Also, the dark canopy is encloaked in white for a kindler, gentler invitation into the warm shelter of a pizza shop.

White-bread blandness

But snow has limited effect on a building of limited architectural distinction to begin with. White-upon-white lacks the contrast necessary to produce the tension of opposites that creates visual interest. Also, this mid-20th-century split level's functionalistic, built-on-a-budget design has no ornament for snow to enhance and make prettier — unlike the elaborate Italianate Victorian in the background, where the mansard roof, the elaborate dormers and other ornamentation become "snow-peaks" as they catch the snow in the open air.

White beauty

But snow has a more enlightening effect on this late 19th-century white house. The wood shingles, bay window, bracketed hood, and roofed porches with exposed rafters and cross-stick rails animate the facade to contrast the uniform whiteness the snow has brought, which itself stands out with angelic purity against the ominously dark trees and deep blue sky.

White House

Of course, the white of the snow augments the White House image this grand Georgian Revival mansion projects with its classically columned, balustrade-topped porch-in-the-round similar to the one on James Hoban's famed Washington creation. 

Earliest known photograph of the White House, taken c. 1846
by John Plumbe during the James Knox Polk administration.
Furthermore, the snow's clustering on the trees gives them the fluffy fullness and lily-white luster of the lilacs that blossom in springtime in Washington. 

And both, like the fame of most White House residents, are fleeting. One melts, the other sheds, and both are gone at the height of their appreciation.

White planes

This newcomer to Newton demonstrates the planar power of roofs when snow casts them into pure geometric forms. Now they are exhibited as a solid entity of shelter from the snow, not an aggregate of asphalt shingles, a run of rubber or a turf of tar-and-gravel.

Winter weathering
Snow can bring out the rugged and rustic as well as the rich and refined. This image epitomizes the quintessential New England barn in the winter, where the snow creates the same contrast between bright white and dark brown as it does on the tree bark on which it accumulates.

This makes the barn's wood shingles seem woodsier, more in the context of the source of their material. The effect also conveys the hardship of winter, the necessity to gather firewood for the warmth the unheated barn cannot give on its own. The quirky asymmetry of the barn allows the snow to form odd shapes as it falls on its diverse surfaces, just like on the trees. The snow also gives the barn the sense of decay it goes through as winter upon winter, snow upon snow slowly returns its materials to the source from which they came.

Winter cottages

Here are examples of how snow can make sizable medieval-style houses appear more intimate by bringing out their iconic recollection of half-timbered cottages in the German or Swiss Alps or the Nordic regions of Scandinavia. Here the wooden timbers evoke the fuel that keeps us warm by the hearth in the winter, as well as the structure that supports and solidifies these shelters. The snow signifies the cold the woodburning fireplace protects us from, and the high gables symbolize the snow-peaked mountains of the European regions in which this style originated. Thus the houses appear warmer and more human-scaled when snowed upon, and even tempt us to seek shelter inside them.

Added value

Here the snow adds to the old-fashioned character with which the architects attempted to mollify the mall monotony of this chintzy chain-store — namely Consumer Value Stores (CVS) — and give it the feel of a friendly neighborhood drugstore and grocer. The pseudo-medieval aesthetics of broad hipped and humped roofs, deep bracketed overhangs, a crowning finial, red brickwork and Queen Anne-ish transoms try to recall Richardsonian depots like the one above, but come off as Howard Johnson's roadside kitsch. However, the snow and icicles make the fakery a shade better by masking the asphalt shingles with a temporary winter-cottage charm. And this does entice the consumer in from the cold to stock up on the Campbell's, the Contac, the Kleenex and the Vicks for the winter. Like Café Nicholas above, snow has advertising power here.

Snow sculpture

Snow can add to a house's ornamentation and thus draw more attention to its style. Here the snow happened to melt in the form of the "broken pediment" that's common in the neo-Georgianism this house typifies. The new "ornament" lines up almost centrally with the peaked dormer and curved pediment, for a fuller Georgian effect from top to bottom.

As it melts and detaches itself from the balcony rail of this Queen Anne home, the snow becomes a decorative "banner," like the white part of the red, white and blue banners that emblazon house railings on July 4. Here's how architecture sculpts snow with no helping hands.

Likewise with these "snowballtops," which needed no hands to add this touch of colonial class to common picket fence posts. Part of this class is the contrast between the roundness of the balls and the squareness of the posts the snowfall has created.

In addition to adding sculpture to structure, snow can augment the sculptural qualities a structure already has. The "humping" of snow on this unusual octagonal stone wall sets up contrasts between white snow and dark stone and between rounded and flat, squared surfaces. Like a round scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a brown wafer cone, this effect animates the wall with a higher third dimension. This contrast also brings out the stone octagon's linear geometry by making its darkness more visible to us against the white of the snow, whether in light or in shadow.

Clapboard clarity

Here, snow collects in the pattern of a house's exterior treatment and puts it in higher relief. At sundown, when the sun no longer clarifies the clapboards through light and shadow, snow takes over that role. 

Sun and snow may be hot-and-cold competitors, but here they perform compatible roles in bringing out a facade's architectural attributes.

Mansard magic

Icicles dangling from gabled or hipped roofs are nothing new under the sun, but the mansard roof isn't hip to that trend. Invented by the French to reshape the roof into a full level of living with no attic rafters to bump your head on (and no taxes to pay on that level, according to theory), the mansard intercepts the icicles as the snow melts off the upper hip. This forces them to run down the steeper slope, freeze on it in interesting patterns (here the ice congeals on the fish-scale shingles, giving them some of the metallic sheen of actual fish scales when the sun hits them), and thus disperse on their way down so the icicles thin out at the bottom eaves. In this way, the mansard's steep slope acts as a safety shield against icicles getting too long and heavy and posing a hazard to unsuspecting heads. In both headroom and heads-up, the mansard is the best headgear since the hockey helmet.

Time of the season

This image of Crystal Lake on the cusp of the Winter Solstice (my holiday e-card this season) shows time's passage from the colors of fall to the cool of winter. The houses and their occupants enjoy their last impressions of bare-bones building and their last breaths of milder climate before Old Man Winter engulfs them in a cloak of cold such as the one on 1/11/11.

Homeward bound

I'll conclude my saunter through snowstyles with this image of my snowbound home. The snow accents the eave and gutter lines, the roof planes, the porch edges and the stone retaining wall, making each element more distinct and noticeable.

So, what can we conclude about snow's effect on architecture? In general, as oxygen supports combustion but does not burn, and as clothes and blankets contain body heat without actually giving us any, snow brings out and augments a structure's existing, inherent and unique qualities without giving it any quality it does not already have. With few exceptions, snow can't give what architecture hasn't got.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!


  1. The images are great and the snow really does make each one of the buildings stand out and shine. I love all the Richardsonian Romanesque buildings in the Newton area, in fact, Richardson has a church over there as well.

  2. Hi Todd, I just read about this exhibit on Historic New England's webpage and I thought of your blog. Bill

    White on White: Churches of Rural New England

    When: April 4, 2011 to June 5, 2011
    weekdays 9:00 a.m. -3:00 p.m.
    weekends 11:00 a.m. -4:00 p.m.
    Where: Groton, MA (Dillon Art Center at the Groton School,282 Farmers Row)
    Cost: Free

    A new exhibition, White on White: Churches of Rural New England presents forty images representing early churches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from photographer Steve Rosenthal. Please call 978 -448 -7ART for more information