Portland Metro Edition SENIOR NEWS
August 2002 e 13
Historic architecture subject of author/illustrator's
By GLORIA CLARK
Alice Cotton's first book is destined to become a dog-eared coffee table enticement that will be irresistible to family, friends, visiting relatives, party guests, and anyone else who begins casually leafing through it.
The 72 pages' of "When Buildings Speak: Stories Told by Oregon's Historical Architecture" reel you in slowly. Let us count the ways you become attracted and stay hooked.
The 20 black and white sketches grab your attention immediately. Talk about detail! Twin lamps visible through the open‑curtained windows of a Canby Victorian house. The decorative relief panels adorning a Portland school. The landscaped setting of the governor's residence in Salem. The almost readable gravestone inscriptions outside an old Hillsboro church. Etcetera, et cetera, et cetera.
"All the places in my book are in the National Register of Properties," says the author and illustrator. Actually, Cotton is hardly the kind of person who merely speaks. She vibrates with enthusiasm. "In New Orleans, in my 20s, that is when I started discovering my artist within, my appreciation of architecture, the magic that can pervade being when we look ‑really look ‑ at beautiful buildings' "
If the reader moves gradually from one aspect of her book to another, Cotton
approached it in a similar manner. "At Artemis Publishing, we often have
businesses and people who want black and white sketches of their buildings and
homes," she says. "That got me started doing historic places. My first idea was to
make a sketch and sell it individually. " When she sold one, she spent a half hour or more talking to the buyer about it. Getting a book together made better and better sense.
"I wanted to visually document some of the wonderful historical architecture in Oregon," continues Cotton. Each sketch occupies a 9‑by12‑inch page. Opposite the drawing is a replay of those customer conversations. A paragraph of 100 to 300 words paints a verbal picture of Cotton's experience with the building. "I love trains, and I love train stations," begins the description of Portland's Union Station.
Skip over the rest of the writing on the same page. Come back to it later when you have time to settle down and review the sketches for what you missed in them the first time. Then read about the
location, architectural style, builder, date built, owners (original and subsequent), and anecdotes. Albany's Hochstedler House in the Hackleman District was built by pioneers in 1889 "who knew little about historical architecture," you are told.
What they built, however, was "handsome. "
"The history of a building, the people who lived in it or were connected with it, the culture of the time when it was designed or built these things are what is so wonderful about architecture:' says Cotton. "And they are only the beginning of the multilayers that are part of a structure. Someone asked why 1: had not included a log cabin, in my book. That would be' another layer of historical architecture." She suggests that her book is a sampling of styles rather than an all‑inclusive tome.
"I searched the historical archives in libraries for buildings that interested, me as an artist," says the Cleveland, Ohio, born art teacher. Her mother was an artist and a writer, her father a musician and a political activist. Their daughter plays guitar in a dance band. "There are eight of us, all over 50 years of age." She builds model airplanes with her husband, David. She observed her 50th birthday last year. She discusses every subject with the same air of excitement and expectation.
“Researching buildings as I saw them and sketched them is how I discovered that ancient architecture came directly from patterns in nature, and the ancient human ability to see those patterns and make a leap through imagination to formalize those observations into a building," says Cotton. "Vitruvius, a Roman architect, was the first to write about architecture. The golden mean is briefly explained. So is the place of Vitruvius and the importance of his "Ten Books on Architecture." The prose in this section is less exuberant, more impersonal, as perhaps befits its topic.
When Cotton mentions on page 55 that a house "winked" at her, she details why and how and in what way. The reader's eye travels back and forth from her words to her sketch and eventually shares her experience,vicariously anyway. Incidentally, keep in mind as you read about the "winking" that the author herself lives in a 1912 Craftsman bungalow, the style of the English cottage depicted here.
"When Buildings Speak" has something for almost everyone: entertainment for the browser, information for the curious, definitions for the inquisitive, and enjoyment for all of the above. Besides the appendix, a glossary, a bibliography, an index, and "opening" and a "closing" provide as much or as little interpretation of the main contents as a reader might wish to delve into. Resist delving if you can.
Just a few more remarks about those multi‑layers of architecture. Notice the reason on page 45 for taking artistic license on the preceding page. Be put in mind of Tara on page 52 ‑ you know, the mansion in "Gone With the Wind." Cotton also mentions the music layer, something about a tuning fork and wind currents deciding the location of a house, its rooms, its doors, its gardens and its structure.
"The purpose in my classes is to integrate math and art," explains Cotton. "The 10 by 10 grid in a tile design, for instance, has 100 points. Maybe 50 percent of them will be one color, a quarter of them a different color, and point 15 of them still another color or even blank." The percentages, fractions, and decimals of math and its reference to art becomes more obvious to the uninitiated among us.
"The three components to architecture include function or utility and structure or form the materials and technology available at the time of building," says the author of "When Buildings Speak." The third one, it seems, is beauty. That's the one that readers of her book will notice immediately.
The Oregon (Senior) Author Series is a bi‑monthly feature of Northwest Senior News.