Mad for Mortar

Doting on architecture can be occupation and preoccupation

Audio Version

There's this guy, see, and he drives a bus all day long. Finally, after months and months of hard work, he gets a long-anticipated vacation—and what does he do? He signs up for a two-week bus tour.

That's what the term "busman's holiday" is all about: the inability—or, in many cases, the unwillingness—to completely set work aside and lose yourself in activities that have absolutely nothing to do with your 9-to-5 job. It's a condition I know well—and at this time of year, with summer vacation coming up, its impact on my life is particularly keen.

I'm a building lover. There, I've said it—with a complete absence of shame. The problem is, my "off" switch seems to be on the fritz, so I can't stop being a building lover. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I can't shed my fascination with bricks and mortar—not to mention glass and wood, steel and terra-cotta. My memoirs, when I get around to writing them, should be titled Beset by Buildings. Or maybe Assaulted by Architecture. 

It happened on my first and only visit to Glacier National Park in Montana. There I was, hip-deep in Purple Mountain Majesties, and the thing I couldn't tear my eyes away from was a building—a rustic hotel that sprawled on the edge of a lake. On another trip, to Oregon, I drove east from Portland—and although I remember being impressed by the natural beauty of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, I can recall almost every detail of the manmade landmarks I saw, like Timberline Lodge and Vista House. There was even the time when, relaxing at the beach, I became oblivious to the sun and surf because I was focused on the architectural shortcomings of a sand castle some kids were creating. 

Don't get me wrong—as long as it doesn't involve up-close-and-personal encounters with pumas or pit vipers, I enjoy The Great Outdoors as much as anyone. Walking in the woods, hearing the rustle of leaves and the tok-tok-tok of a woodpecker—I love it. But I love it even more if I happen upon a long-abandoned house where the dappled light plays on a broken windowpane and picks out every saw mark on the silvery wood siding.  It's not that Nature isn't enough; it's just that architecture makes it even better, more engaging.

You see what I mean: I'm caught in the building lover's bear trap—and since escape is unlikely, I've learned to accommodate. Once in Boston, what was meant to be a shopping expedition—I needed some shoes—turned into an all-day building-watching safari. I had such a great time looking at dormers and doorways on Newbury Street that I wound up walking all over Back Bay, and I never bought anything but lunch. The experience, and later ones like it, taught me a lesson: When there's hard-core shopping to be done, it's best for me to head for a strip mall, where absolutely nothing of visual interest will distract me from the task at hand.

My children adjusted to having a building lover for a father at an early age. They endured long hours in the back seat as I cruised old neighborhoods taking scores of photos of beat-up warehouses and depots. Today, I wouldn't be surprised to see them run screaming from the room at the very mention of "old buildings," but they appear to have suffered no permanent trauma. In fact, not too long ago, when my daughter and I were driving down an unfamiliar street, my head swiveling left and right as I tried not to miss a single structure, she grinned and said, "You really love this stuff, don't you?"

That meant a lot. When you're afflicted as I am, it's comforting to know that someone understands. 

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