One of the first site-based jobs I ever did was in St Helier, the capital of Jersey. The project was the refurbishment of a Victorian bank building known locally as 'the wedding cake'. It had earned its moniker thanks to its somewhat over-the-top, ornate plastered facades. My role was to arrange for the plasterwork, which had become badly cracked over the years, to be repaired.
The project was interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, I was on Jersey for the whole of the summer, and I was single with time on my hands. As far as the job was concerned, I only had one problem to solve. There was nobody to tell me what to do or how to do it. I had the opportunity to learn how to do one thing well. And how often does that happen?
But I was curious. I wanted to learn more than just practical crack-fixing techniques. As an architect, I recognised that technical expertise was important but so too was the need to understand the social and aesthetic context. In the case of my building, people thought the cracking was just ugly, and that something needed to be done about it. It was the physical manifestation of a mistake that had been made many years earlier; namely to build in a form of rigid construction on ground that was susceptible to movement.
So I opened a file and named it 'The Philosophy of Cracking'. I learned about how people's appreciation of defects varies and how it is different in different cultures. I re-discovered the concept of 'wabi-sabi' that had been introduced to me in architecture school. That facet of Japanese culture, of 'beautiful imperfection' that is so intrinsic to the way of life in Japan. And I remembered the concept of entropy from my school days.
I looked into the arts and recognised how the concept of ‘flaws’ is important to many artists. How in some cultures it is normal practice to deliberately introduce a defect into a work of art in the belief that only God is perfect. How the cracking of oil paint is used to determine authenticity and provenance in fine art, and how cracking is used in pottery, particularly in techniques such as raku, for aesthetic effect.
I remembered from my engineering studies the subject of fracture mechanics and how, in material science, materials are described as being brittle, ductile, hard, soft, malleable, or tough. And I realised that the characteristics of materials are not unlike those of people; that some are more likely than others to crack when stressed.
You tap the area that surrounds a crack, and the loose material falls away to reveal that, underneath, everything is connected to everything else.
I became particularly aware that my new-found knowledge had changed not just how I saw the world, but also what I saw. Once seen, it was difficult to unsee. For months, and possibly years afterwards, wherever I went I couldn’t look at something without seeing cracks. If you concentrate for a while, you will be able to see them too and when you do, you will be forced to conclude that the whole world is cracked; that our man-made environment is continually on the verge of crumbling. It takes great care and constant attention to maintain the facade.
Soon after my sojourn in St Helier, I remember visiting the house of a new client for the first time, and part way through our meeting they stopped me to ask if everything was OK. I realised that I'd been inadvertently studying the cracks in the walls of their home as they explained their project to me.
I couldn't go for supper with friends without my mind wandering off at some point during the evening to follow a hair-line crack in the ceiling. 'Everything alright?' they might say. ‘Oh, err, sorry. It's nothing' I might reply. But it wasn't nothing, it was something. It was becoming a real problem.
But gradually knowledge and know-how fade if not used, and all of that was a long time ago. I think I'm over it now. I've moved on. These days I prefer to keep my crack-fixing expertise to myself. It's under control, and I only allow it to surface when strictly necessary. I no longer trace crack patterns when in social contexts but, if I did ever suffer a relapse, I’m confident that you wouldn’t notice.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
- Leonard Cohen
This article was written by Andy Foster for the November 2017 edition of The Sherborne Times.