The design — a simple, open space, framed by windows, anchored by a stone fireplace — requires steel: a foreign concept to my New England shipbuilder bones! I know how to fell a tree, limb it, debark it, and slice it into timbers. I know how to join the timbers. I know the limitations of that material. But steel?
Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.
– G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”
Large expanses of open space punctuated with large glass windows and a chimney push the structural limits of wood timbers. Steel enlarges possibilities. The sky’s the limit.
I learn new methods of work.
Like the city dweller unclear that the chicken arrayed in sanitary cellophane on the grocer’s shelf was once a feathered bird, steel production is, for me, an opaque mystery. Peculiar. Steel is common. Billions of tons are produced annually. It, and its malleable cousin wrought iron, have been with us for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Anatolia.
Steel production was a major employer in the US, but in the years from 1980 to 2000, over 200,000 people lost their jobs. Those jobs have not returned.
I should know this.
A half-remembered feng shui principle pops into my mind: metal chops wood. And another: fire burns wood. “Don’t do this,” I fuss inside. “It isn’t natural.”
Am I violating “The Way” of my ancestors? Is it possible that as soon as I introduce steel into my 1871 Victorian, I no longer have an 1871 Victorian?
Am I drawing a short-necked giraffe?
Maybe. But as this structure has reached the end of its useful life, I think it is time for a bit of gentle evolution. I steel myself for the inner battle.
“Metal produces water, which nourishes wood,” whispers feng shui. “Focus on the productive cycle.”
So, I tell my inner ancestors to calm down. Venerable steel has a much-deserved and justifiable place in this old New England structure. Wait until you see what it lets us do with stone.
“When a thing reaches its limit, it must turn,” the whisper circles back.
My inner stone masons high-five.