Roof Cresting: Architectural Ornaments Connecting Earth and Sky

In October 2011 a few bulldozers crushed one of my favorite buildings in Knoxville into a pile of rubble. It was a small brick building just past Knox Rail Salvage on Jackson Avenue, almost lost in the kudzu. The roof was so seriously dilapidated that there wasn't much of it left, except for a long decorative piece of metal that ran from gable to gable, capping a swaybacked roofline. This piece of metal is the reason I liked the building so much. Roof cresting.

In this case, it was a simple repeating pattern of small squares, like the crenelated ramparts of a castle. Black roof and white sky fit together like puzzle pieces.

It's visually important to integrate a building with the surrounding land. Equally important is its connection to the sky.

In A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Christopher Alexander and his team of architects write, "There are few cases in traditional architecture where builders have not used some roof detail to cap the building with an ornament.... The roof is important, and the caps emphasize this fact."

They also prevent the roof from appearing too homogeneous, Alexander says. Weather vanes, dormers, cupolas, and chimneys serve to "relieve the roof from being a single uninterrupted thing."

On a simple gable roof, cresting fits roof and sky together in geometric harmony. Sometimes, as in the case with a church steeple, the roof ornament pierces the sky on its quest to touch the heavens. The bell tower on the courthouse also seeks, in a less pointed way, this looming quality, this sense of importance and association with divine authority. Even the small ridges of clay tiles overlapping at the peak of a house on Emoriland Boulevard improve the connection of the building with the sky, making it seem substantial, well-established, and a little grand.

With imaginative Victorian architects like George Barber as local figures, roof cresting also connects a building with the historic architecture of Knoxville.

Even in neighborhoods with a lot of large, ornate buildings, the small houses in between are usually pretty sterile—no-frills aluminum window trim against easy-maintenance vinyl siding. Flat asphalt roof shingles complete the disposable look. It makes sense, vinyl and asphalt are the materials available today at the most economical price. It's the way the world of construction is set up now. I understand, but my eye slides off these buildings; there is nothing to hold my interest, no little snags for my heart to catch on. Highly ornamented small buildings are thrilling because they are rare. The building on Jackson was a ridiculously humble building to warrant such (any kind of) ornamental roof decoration. And yet there it was.

Almost no one roofs their house in slate or clay or pressed-tin shingles anymore, materials that lend themselves to textures, ridges, and patterns, places for the eye to linger. Older buildings are reroofed in cheaper 25-year asphalt shingles. The cresting is removed, sometimes small sections of it are sold in antique stores at astronomical prices. The subtle but important link between earth, building, and sky is lost.

The two tallest buildings in Knoxville—First Tennessee Plaza and Riverview Tower—built by banks in 1978 and 1985, respectively, make no effort to connect with any of their surroundings. They are called skyscrapers, but the tops of the buildings do not pierce the sky. They stop short in an anticlimactic flat roof. The mirrored glass facades, like the shades of a highway patrolman, emote nothing, and let nothing in. In an effort to look exceptional, the architects ignored the sky, the land, and the history of the city. The hubris of banks, responsible for some of the economic problems lately, are reflected in the architecture of these unsustainable buildings. The current main occupants, also banks, are not the ones that built the towers. The first banks collapsed, the bankers convicted of fraud.

Immensity does have its place and can be inspiring in our buildings and monuments. This is most effective when they represent something greater than ordinary human life, something spiritually awesome. And even the humblest buildings should acknowledge the immensity of the sky.