It’s a sad fact that the artisans and craftspeople who created some of the most beautiful, distinctive interior and exterior architectural elements for residential buildings are an endangered species. The proliferation of sleek, glass-and-steel architecture, combined with the rising cost of materials and labor have made the ornate, heavily-ornamented facades and interiors of prewar buildings truly things of the past. Now, the stonemasons, sculptors, and other craftspeople are aging or gone; fewer and fewer are taking up their trades as demand for them has dwindled.
“Stonemasons that used to carve stone,” says Joakim Aspegren, a principal with New York City-based Architecture Restoration Conservation, PC, “That type of person is very hard to find nowadays. There’s not as great a need as there used to be fifty or a hundred years ago.”
The Age of 3D
While the near-extinction of architectural artisans themselves is cause for concern, there is a silver lining here. The availability and affordability of old-fashioned architectural elements is changing, thanks to new technology and so-called '3D printing' that enables designers and architects to use digital imaging software and cutting-edge fabrication techniques to create not only exact replicas of ornate cornices, moldings, and other building elements, but to create them from scratch, custom-built for brand new construction projects. Indeed, in the future, the technology may be used to diversify and enrich residential architecture in ways that up to now have been cost-prohibitive.
The diversity of American architecture, from the ornateness of the early twentieth century, the celebration of modernism in Art Deco and contemporary styles in later decades gives urban centers their personalities. And preserving the older buildings has a great deal to do in maintaining that diversity. The artists who restore building elements, whether using 3D printing or more traditional methods, provide the elaboration that collectively makes cityscapes as interesting as they are today.
The technology has not made huge waves in the Chicago architecture preservation scene yet, but firms and entrepreneurs across the country are starting the process. With the city's vast historical housing stock, Chicago may soon be a large market for the application of this technology.