Some History Behind Architectural Veneers

We’ve made a pretty big deal on this blog about the use of brick veneer, specifically, the way our Redevelopment Agency has always insisted on slathering it on to stuff to try to give the false appearance of historic structure, or under the guise of matching what is supposed to be the building material par excellence of downtown Fullerton: red brick.

We thought it was about time to get an historical perspective on the uses of architectural veneer – particularly masonry veneer, and so we have once again called upon the good offices of Dr. Ralph E. Haldemann, Professor or Art History (Emeritus) at Otterbein College, and our adjunct Arts and Architecture Editor. Doc?

haldemann-500x332
When you want to find out, go to the best...

The question of the role of veneers in architectural history is really quite fascinating, but requires an amount (admittedly minimal) of erudition. I will try to sum up some thoughts on the subject. 

In pre-modern times the nature of building materials basically necessitated that structural materials were de facto finished materials as well – although historical exceptions are not uncommon: we know of course, that the Romans during the Imperial Era were fond of using stone veneers on brick buildings to dress them up. Such uses of marble veneer were often used in the Western Mediterranean basin countries in Romanesque and Italian/Venetian Gothic buildings.

The use of plaster cement or lime-based coatings on brick, especially non-fired brick, has an ancient lineage that reaches forward into the adobe buildings of California’s own Mission period; however neither this application nor the modern use of lath and plaster on studs can be considered a veneer. 

Medieval Europe, particularly in the  non-deforested climes of the north, saw a rise in timber construction in which the structural members were exposed and the interstitial areas filled with plastered wattling. Again, such fill even though non-structural, cannot rightly be called a veneer.

With the advent of structural iron and steel, fill materials in modern commercial architecture remained brick (for practical and fireproofing reasons). However, terra cotta facings with ceramic finishes attached to the underlying structure became the norm from the 1890s through the 1920s; the wide adoption of moderne styles in the 20s and 30s often replaced highly detailed terra cotta with simpler and smoother concrete and even ceramic tile finishes. These uses generally applied a finished masonry surface over an unfinished substrate of common brick. These are veneers.

It was really in American domestic architecture that brick veneers (almost exclusively brick) captured the imagination of a growing bourgeois sensibility. After the industrial age had ushered in standardized lumber, machine made nails and mass produced balloon-frame wood houses, a longing for the perceived hominess and historicity of brick set in. This was aided by several cultural American Colonial Revivals, particularly in the early 20th Century that coincided nicely with eras of vast suburban expansion. It was all mostly a real eastate come-on.

The use of phony brick surfaces continued unabated in the little cracker box houses of the ’50s and persists happily to this very day, particularly in subdivisions where an emotional attachment to American historical antecedents is being peddled.

The use of fake brick fronts in commercial areas followed the same suburban trajectory as the use of the material in domiciles. It too persits today, particularly where city fathers and chambers of commerce wish to deal out a conjured up historical image for their otherwise unremarkable and humble burgs.

Modern architectural theory held that this sort of use of non-structural masonry veneer is fundamentally non-truthful, meretricious and basically a middlebrow (or lower) affectation. And so it is!  And yet the Robert Venturi school of Post-Modernists embraced such use for its exuberance, color and tactile properties, as well as potential (often ironical) historical connotations. However it must be said that when the historical connotation is wrong, or the deployment is meant to be deceptive or even slavish, a real aestheic problem exists; and can, if left uncontrolled, lead to real civic embarrassment.

Ralph E. Haldemann, Ph.D.

Arts & Architecture Brick Veneer, Fake Old, And Other Horrors Downtown Fullerton Fullerton's Design Standards

40 thoughts on “Some History Behind Architectural Veneers

  1. That is an interesting read. Thanks for the new perspective. Just the same, I still feel that new construction should blend with the old structures in areas of some historic significance. Sometimes, that historic significance is invented. Other times, it is the common perception of a society. So the conclusion implied by the good doctor is that all new construction in downtown Fullerton should be of real red brick with a coat of plaster and 1900-styled detail. Interesting.

    1. “So the conclusion implied by the good doctor is that all new construction in downtown Fullerton should be of real red brick with a coat of plaster and 1900-styled detail. Interesting.”

      Greg, not sure how you came away with that. Haldemann offers no conclusions – only a warning against using “blend in” strategies for purposes that are either deceptive or just phony. Please re-read.

  2. The doctor stated:
    “Modern architectural theory held that this sort of use of non-structural masonry veneer is fundamentally non-truthful, meretricious and basically a middlebrow (or lower) affectation. And so it is!”
    Clearly, the use of a brick veneer is BAD and therefore the use of REAL brick is OK.

    Separate out the differences between the way it looks and the function it has. The doctor points out that the use of fake brick for architectural blending is bad. He never says that the use of real red brick is bad; therefore one must conclude that he is only concerned with artificial aesthetics and not the use of the real red brick for its beauty or structural integrity.

  3. So is Dr. Haldemann saying that there is nothing wholly wrong with veneers? That veneers are bad only when they are used to create an ungenuine historic effect? Just trying to understand, thanks.

    1. Actually he pretty much avoids aesthetic judgment except for the snarky bit about middlebrow taste; although you will note that he immediately launches into the use of brick veneers in contemporary architecture for various reasons.

      I think for us this gets back to the old issue of “fake-old” and the Redevelopment Agency’s bureaucratic manic impulse to create a weird phony-front environment along Harbor Blvd. mostly.

      The use of brick veneer on the proposed Santa Fe parking structure is a more subtle problem since there is precedent for the use of such materials by contemporary architects in certain contexts, and one of them, according to Haldemann is historical reference.

      FFFF did a survey a while back that admirably demonstratged that the vast majority of facades in downtown Fullerton are not brick, but other materials. Thus the use of brick on the new PS for “historical reference” is pretty obvously misplaced.

      And, finally there are the issues of cost: sticking fake brick on the side of a parking structure may please someone’s aesthetic preference, or not. But it is an added cost that certainly might find better expression – such as on photo voltaic panel arrays.

  4. Greg, Dr. Ralph E. Haldemann said “Modern architectural theory held that this sort of use of non-structural masonry veneer is fundamentally non-truthful, meretricious and basically a middlebrow (or lower) affectation.”

    The implication is that in modern times brick veneer whether it’s red, white, blue, or blurple manufactured or even “REAL” red clay brick veneer is inappropriate.

  5. The key word here is “veneer”.

    Main Entry: 1ve·neer
    Pronunciation: \və-ˈnir\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: German Furnier, from furnieren to veneer, from French fournir to furnish, equip — more at furnish
    Date: 1702

    1 : a thin sheet of a material: as a : a layer of wood of superior value or excellent grain to be glued to an inferior wood b : any of the thin layers bonded together to form plywood c : a plastic or porcelain coating bonded to the surface of a cosmetically imperfect tooth
    2 : a protective or ornamental facing (as of brick or stone)
    3 : a superficial or deceptively attractive appearance, display, or effect : facade, gloss

  6. Greg, you are confused. Haldemann implied nothing about using real brick and plastering it over with 1900 details as you first idicated in comment #1.

    As to using structural brick he implies nothing about that either. You did.

    Hardly anybody builds with solid brick anymore because to be structural (i.e. meet the modern building code) it has to be interwoven with steel reinforcement with grouted cavity walls. This basically renders even real, solid brick into little more than a veneer on a reinforced concrete core wall.

    CMU and structural clayblock (Look at the BoA building on Chapman/Harbor) provide masonry options for authentic architectural expression without crappy veneers.

    But the bigger issues really do have to do with the questions of “blending in” and what kind of design taxpayers should be subsidizing.

    Let’s address the second issue first. A plausible argument can be made that in a democracy the people who want non-descript “blend-in” architecture ought to be able to get that subsidized as readily as good, original design, if that is the goal of the majority of aesthetic consumers. I agree. And since I believe that the consequence will invariably be crappy (just like we have shown it to be on these pages) this is a supreme reason to get rid of public subsidies of architecture!

    The first issue has to to with the “blending-in” strategy – regardless of who is paying for it. While protecting historic buildingsis an admirable goal, timidly avoiding good modern architecture is a nonsense. The two goals of historic preservation and original design are not mutually exclusive and anybody who thinks they are is woefully uninformed.

    The challenge of adding on to an historic building is real; the challenge of creating exciting modern architecture in an historic district only exists in the minds of people who use words like “charming” and “quaint’ to define downtown Fullerton.

  7. Ok, so FFFF appears to have an issue with red brick AND veneers. After all, plaster is a veneer. So are wood and aluminum sidings. In fact, by the definition offered above, paint could be a veneer. Personally, I’m not a big fan of red brick but it is a useful subject for this discussion. Obviously, we cannot use the traditional red brick of yesteryear due to its poor seismic integrity. However, there have been some newer materials introduced that are larger red bricks with holes to allow for reinforcement bars and mortar thereby making them seismically fit for most general construction.

    Getting back on my point… Sticking a modern glass and steel building in downtown would look absurd. Also, I think it is ironic that “modern architecture” needs to be all original without any “fake-old”. If you ever had an art history course or an intro to architecture course you spend a great deal of time looking at where you came from to get to where you are. Therefore, all architects have to have a thorough and deep knowledge of the history of various architectural revolutions. This is because people find comfort in familiarity. I’m sure we could ask a few psychologists about what makes aesthetically appeasing buildings appealing to our senses and get an answer that is along the lines of making all new building “fake-old”.
    I never would have thought that FFFF would condone the use of our down town for experimenting with “modern architecture” like that latest rendition of the Fox Block Massacre or most of Irvine. The last time the city did that, we ended up with one of the ugliest city halls in OC and a library right out of the Brady Bunch, just to name a few. UHG!

    So I present this question to FFFF and their architectural sympathizers: What should the ideal STYLE (be specific – not just “modern”) of architecture be to define our down town? Should it all be like the Disney Concert Hall, which I looks like a recycling center’s orgy, or should it have some resemblance of the buildings that currently dominate the area?

    1. If you were trying to show what a nice building the FCB is, you have found a bad example. That building is ugly. It figures that the business which occupies it would be a financial institution. The building is quite institutional and lacks imagination.

      The trees are nice but they are wrong for this region and will destroy the concrete walk and curb costing us thousands of dollars.

        1. Main Entry: 1aes·thet·ic
          Variant(s): also es·thet·ic \es-ˈthe-tik, is-, British usually ēs-\ or aes·thet·i·cal or es·thet·i·cal \-ti-kəl\
          Function: adjective
          Etymology: German ästhetisch, from New Latin aestheticus, from Greek aisthētikos of sense perception, from aisthanesthai to perceive — more at audible
          Date: 1798
          1 a : of, relating to, or dealing with aesthetics or the beautiful b : artistic c : pleasing in appearance : attractive
          2 : appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful; also : responsive to or appreciative of what is pleasurable to the senses
          — aes·thet·i·cal·ly also es·thet·i·cal·ly \-ti-k(ə-)lē\ adverb

          Nice=appreciative, beautiful, pleasurable to the senses, pleasing in appearance, attractive. Nice: the weather outside is nice. Nice.

  8. When one travels to other parts of the country and sees the many homes made of brick it makes sense. The bricks were usually made at a regional Brickworks, hence, one reason for using it as a material in older homes.

    While there were probably brickworks in California, I can’t say that it’s ever been a predominant architectural style in building history. Which is why it makes little sense to have entire parking structures and buildings covered in it.

    It’s true, architects do have a historical overview of building trends, styles and materials. As one well noted architect has said while pointing to the plans of two very different plans he’d drawn for development –one of which was modern for a plaza in Palm Springs, the other was colonial traditional for a hotel in Lexington KY, “This (pointing to the modern) would not have been possible were it not for this (pointing to the traditional. Both have beauty and the modern is as important as the traditional.”

    Okay, so Greg, I do take issue with this:
    “Sticking a modern glass and steel building in downtown would look absurd. Also, I think it is ironic that “modern architecture” needs to be all original without any “fake-old”.

    I’m not so sure this generalization is correct. I’d rather see something modern by a masterful architect using glass and steel, which is thoughtfully juxtaposed placed next to something old. Want evidence? Look at NYC, San Fransisco or many other cities where the two co-exist.

    What I really disdain is this same attitude that I saw at the failed move to turn my neighborhood into a historic zone (which is being raised again by one neighbor and Heritage board member who has blanketed only the homes around hers to get the city to raise the issue again).

    What I dislike is the notion is an insistence that there has to be a uniform style. In this case, it seems that “McSpanish WhooHa” has been chosen. But it begs the question. If we can have a home or a building built by a master like Frank Gehry or Richard Meier, would this not go further to enhance the city than more McSpanish WhooHa, or brick veneer that falls onto one’s head?

    If we could have a sculpture by MayaLin, wouldn’t this be preferable to some of the mindlessly chosen like they’ve bought in the city of Brea?

    Here’s what I want. Modern, sustainable architecture that looks like it was built thoughtfully and is a benchmark for our time. I don’t want something that looks like it’s trying to be something it’s not. You want Spanish, then go for it, but allow it to be more expansive in interpretation than what’s being tossed down now. And that’s the key: broadening our architectural styles and knowledge so that we have interesting public spaces, and buildings that aren’t going to fall apart and –like the original Spanish-Mediterranean stuff, is going to be around for a long, long time.

    Do we love (the original) parts of Fullerton College and Fullerton High School? Yes, we do. And we clearly understood that had it not been for those, the development that just got torn down on Chapman near CSUF would never have been built in the 60’s. That was a product of its time as well.

    But it does seem to me, that this overreaching arm to “choose” a design style for the city has ended up obliterating much of our past.

    I also think it would be good for the leaders of this blog to start posting photos of buildings and homes that they like. They do not have to be in Fullerton, rather, looking around the world to see what’s being done now is very exciting and can give a simple example to the readers.

  9. Greg, I love Disney Hall. I disagree with your slagging it as a recycled. It shows how little you know about the building, and its construction. I will assume that you have never taken the tour. It’s breathtaking. It’s a masterpiece. Lillian Disney did a good thing.

    1. I don’t know much about the building or its construction, nor do I care to. I am giving you my knee-jerk reaction to the way I see certain buildings. I shouldn’t have to take a tour, read a book, and talk to a bunch of people to determine if the building looks good. I will admit, that the Hall is amazing and shocking the first time you see it. Disney Hall is great for downtown L.A.; it fits in with the other misfit buildings there. That is what I would like to avoid here. You can have a “green” building without it looking foreign. You can have an inspirational building without it being a shock on the senses. The fact that it has an all metal VENEER should put an end to defending it. Fake-futuristic doesn’t make it ok.

      1. Greg,
        My issue with your response and dragging Disney Hall in is that this is the same argument that the preservationists use to promote their McSpanish Whoo Ha aesthetic. “If you don’t go with McSpanish Whoo Ha, then THAT’S what you get!”

        It’s totally reactionary, and your admitting
        “I don’t know much about the building or its construction, nor do I care to
        show an aesthetic bigotry that most of us are trying to push past.

        1. Kanani,
          And that is why I am hear listening (ok reading) and involved in this discussion. I prefer to see buildings that have an older style or look while you seem to prefer to see buildings that have “different” or “modern” styles. At least that is what I’m reading from your posts. So the fact that I like blue as a color is an aesthetic bigotry? Or perhaps I like gothic architecture and therefore my likes are irrelevant? That seems ironic, perhaps hypocritical, that you would consider what I like to be a bigotry but not the fact that you don’t like older styles.

          I am open to the notion that there may be architecture that you would consider modern and aesthetically pleasing that I would also enjoy. What that building would like is unimaginable to me. Perhaps it’s my lack of imagination. I never could enjoy the impressionist paintings but I always loved those realistic Dutch paintings. I considered those classics until my art professor “corrected” me and explained how unimaginative and unoriginal they were and that real artists pooh-pooh on those. She used some artsy-fartsy words to convey the message, so forgive me if I am butchering the subject. Art is not my forte.

          Anyway, if you want to see more modern architecture in the downtown area, please explain to me why the Foxblock is a bad architectural idea. It certainly doesn’t resemble anything we have now and it looks modern.

  10. Kanani,
    You’re response is articulate and thought-provoking – thank you.

    Interesting view and it causes me pause to think, as rare as that may be… ;^)

    Let’s look at this from an economic point of view. What do the business owners want to see as their place of business? What style, if any, is important to their revenue source – customers? If the building’s architecture detracts from the business, the business will likely fail. Then we may be stuck with a really nice building sitting vacant because of its style and aesthetic turn-off. We must keep in mind, as has been well demonstrated here, that each of us have a different opinion on what we think looks “nice”. My wife likes lavender walls. I like them white.

    I would like to see what others think are nice styles of design, whatever the era.

    I agree with FFFF that our tax-dollars should NOT go towards pointless or misguided architecture. I am also a huge fan of individual property rights which may seem at odds with the above comments. However, we (as a community) need to have some order in the process of manifesting our future. That order SHOULD come from the collective neighborhoods and advisory boards. I have family and friends who think of Fullerton as a screwed up city simply because they allow for MONSTER MANSIONS on small lots. There are several Poorman Mansions in North Fullerton (my area) and they look ridiculous because they were given a variance by the city to ignore setbacks and build three-story manors extending very near the property lines right next to 1960’s ranch homes. Should property owners be permitted to develop their own land in such a way? Can we make a blanket generalization (something I’m good at doing) that we should not impose ANY regulations on aesthetics?

  11. Oh dear, dear me. Okay, where to start. At the top I guess.

    Ok, so FFFF appears to have an issue with red brick AND veneers [Incorrect. You are the only one talking about brick]. After all, plaster is a veneer [No it is not. It is an integral exterior skin]. So are wood and aluminum sidings [No, they are not. See comment above]. In fact, by the definition offered above, paint could be a veneer [Maybe by your definition. Not by mine!]. Personally, I’m not a big fan of red brick but it is a useful subject for this discussion. Obviously, we cannot use the traditional red brick of yesteryear [Please do not use this term anymore. I’m begging you!] due to its poor seismic integrity. However, there have been some newer materials introduced that are larger red bricks with holes to allow for reinforcement bars and mortar thereby making them seismically fit for most general construction [Yes, I already made this point in my previous comment about CMU and clayblock. I even cited an example – the BofA building that actually looks pretty good for DT Fullerton].

    Getting back on my point… Sticking a modern glass and steel building in downtown would look absurd [Says who, you? It wouldn’t look absurd to me. Check out the church on the NE corner of harbor and Wilshire. That looks pretty damn good to me and includes one of the most sophisticated open spaces in Fullerton]. Also, I think it is ironic that “modern architecture” needs to be all original without any “fake-old”[No, that’s not ironic, that’s just commonsense]. If you ever had an art history course or an intro to architecture course you spend a great deal of time looking at where you came from to get to where you are [Likely true, but what’s the relevance?]. Therefore, all architects have to have a thorough and deep knowledge of the history of various architectural revolutions [Well, okay, but what’s the relevance?]. This is because people find comfort in familiarity. [Eureka! I think we’re finally getting to the real point!]I’m sure we could ask a few psychologists about what makes aesthetically appeasing buildings appealing to our senses and get an answer that is along the lines of making all new building “fake-old”. [Hmm. You might be able to find a shrink who understands the tenets of aesthetics and classical proportion, but I think this person would conclude that you like fake old because it provides emotional, not aesthetic satisfaction; but you would have a real hard time finding ANY intelligent person who 1) believes that classical proportions are being pursued by any practitioners of brick veneered and fake-old buildings in DT Fullerton, or 2) that these self same proportions couldn’t be achieved in godd contemporary architecture].
    I never would have thought that FFFF would condone the use of our down town for experimenting with “modern architecture” like that latest rendition of the Fox Block Massacre or most of Irvine [We didn’t. Go back and read the recent post. We called it a train wreck. Also go back and consult an earlier post on “Circus Architecture”]. The last time the city did that, we ended up with one of the ugliest city halls in OC [Incorrect. The Fullerton City Hall was built in 1962 and fails mostly because of the way the Neo-formal building was crammed into a “Spanishified” style] and a library right out of the Brady Bunch [Have to give you this one: the library was following a misguided fad of concrete brutalism popular at the tail end of the 60s. Its design is just rotten inside and out], just to name a few [I can’t think of too many other real monsters]. UHG!

    So I present this question to FFFF and their architectural sympathizers: What should the ideal STYLE (be specific – not just “modern”) of architecture be to define our down town? [NONE – who says we have to have one?] Should it all be like the Disney Concert Hall, which I looks like a recycling center’s orgy [Well, degustibus non es disputandem], or should it have some resemblance of the buildings that currently dominate the area? [And what buildings “currently dominate the area” – stylistically? I’ll answer that one: none! And that is a real, real good thing].

  12. Ok, this has been a very good topic of discussion. I cannot agree with FFFF on the premise that all veneers are bad or that fake-old is bad simply because it uses a style that reminds some of the colonial period, but it has been good for debate and has made me think a little more about the building in downtown.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get back to my real passion, handing out scholarship checks! $25K+ this year and it hass been a bad year!

      1. Yes, it was a VERY noble, VERY self-serving, and most certainly a non-sequitur COMMENT. The distribution of the money, however, did serve several students who now have a “free ride” in an engineering program! Oh and I loved every minute of it!

  13. A fun discussion! But there is clearly more to the topic of a veneer. Fake brick stuck on a series of metal studs is also a “skin.” Could it be that the term “veneer” at least as we are using should also mean something that is meant to look like something else, i.e masonry that isn’t real, or a finish product stuck on top of a structural one for aesthetic reasons? Think of the veneers they stick on people’s teeth.

    1. Veneers are an expensive add on –especially for publicly built structures. While it can be noted that several modern buildings have veneers in some locations on the building, they tend to add drama and increase its beauty. They also usually don’t fall back on what’s found at Home Depot, rather, they are chosen carefully to fit a theme by an architect or designer.

      I’ve never thought of the blog as necessarily getting into what Average Joe does with his or her own house –however no doubt Admin and others have opinions!

      But what “Admin” has always tried to do is look at how the public dollars for the same project might be directed differently to promote sensible, environmentally sustainable architecture that serves a functional purpose, is a benchmark for the times, and is also aesthetically pleasing.

      The issue seems to be that we get into a mindset of what is aesthetically pleasing. So what someone “within the wire” inevitably does is bring in something like Disney Hall, which is a unique building!! But we don’t have to go that far to see more commonplace examples.

      As Harpoonaroni has pointed out, the Fullerton Community Bank has been sitting there all along –steel and glass. Sure, it was “different” when it was built in the 60’s, but we’ve grown accustomed to it.

      (Btw, there’s another great little gem –glass and steele i-beams, over on La Habra Boulevard in the old part of La HabraI think it’s got junk in it. Completely under appreciated. Admin, if you don’t own it yet, talk to me.)

      Granted, aesthetics change over time. What’s cool now, might be horrifying 40 years from now and vice versa. But the issue now is trying to make Fullerton into something that it isn’t. Sure, we have old buildings with charm, but putting up publicly built buildings with veneers that fall off make it look –cheap!

      Isn’t this a waste of public tax dollars? And, if we are using public money, shouldn’t we be looking at quality? And isn’t this a chance to up the ante, not settle for “Rancho Santa Margarita,” but really rock and get excited about the architecture of today and tomorrow?

      I’ll take a Martini, shaken, not stirred.

      1. Ok, I have to admit, I agree with you on most of what you said. Yes, public dollars on cheap veneer is bad. Public dollars should be spent on quality – whatever for that may take. Veneer on a concrete structure sounds silly. I would think that an architect could, without unreasonable added cost, come up with a design that works well for the area. There is a monster structure at CSUF that has some sort of ivy or green vegetation on it that does add to the appeal, at least to me.

        The FCB building looks dated and misplaced. In my architectural-unawareness-opinion, it lacks imagination or style. To me glass and steel don’t equal style, the Cristal Cathedral being an exception. Most glass and steel structures remind me of Legos and erector set, fun to play with but soon destroyed to build something better.

        The Senior Center looks great compared with City Hall or FCB which isn’t saying much. Like the detective bureau building attached to the PD. It’s like buying a mobile home and attaching it to your 5000sqft house; they just don’t work well together. The recent addition to the PD looks pretty good though. I know, I know; apples and oranges; new construction vs. addition/remodel.

  14. dr haldemann, downtown fullerton’s brick veneer is straight out of sinclair lewis’ novel Babbitt, the sad tale of an affectatious low brow who sold out his humanity to belong to the right social club

  15. Chamber Star, if you are still a member (big waste of money) of the Chamber of Horrors, please tell your landlord to do something about the brick veneer that keeps popping off the chamber building (S.E. corner of Harbor & Commonwealth).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.