For more than 50 years, Cultured Stone by Boral has continued to innovate and develop products to meet the latest design trends. It can enhance the aesthetics of a project, as well as add value and maintenance-free performance while helping protect the environment.
Boral introduced its Cultured Stone product to the Australian market in 2011, to something of a mixed response. The product is a form of cladding, which is designed to imitate various kinds of stone construction.
It consists of something between 40% and 70% pumice, which means it is essentially a kind of lightweight concrete, mixed with a range of stabilisers and colouring agents. The concrete is poured into moulds that have themselves been modelled on actual stones. Once set, the surface is coloured to closely resemble the stone it is designed to emulate. Boral claims that it has a very extensive line of these moulds, which means they can provide unique surfaces for 70 square metres of cladding before the pattern would repeat itself.
The product is, of course, much cheaper than real stone construction. It is lightweight, which means construction is easier, and it provides a very resilient, long-lasting surface, which will survive even Australia’s harsh conditions. It needs to be sealed only for some specific uses (such as in a water feature), and, once installed, requires minimal maintenance to retain its good looks. It’s even environmentally friendly, with Boral claiming the product contains a minimum of 54% recycled content.
All that sounds pretty good. However, it’s not uncommon to find architects and interior designers who regard the material as something of a travesty. For example, Katrina Malyn, architectural designer at Design Projector in Sydney was quoted in a July 2016 story for the Domain.com.au website as saying:
“I would never have stack stone or cultured [engineered] stone cladding in my house or in houses I design. If you would like to use stone in your interior or exterior design, it is preferable to go for solid stone, rather than stack stone. Of course, a large feature wall may be beyond budget but you can introduce stone in other ways that will create a similarly powerful visual effect.
“It is the imitation that robs stack stone of the power of natural stone. Once the stone is reduced to just a thin cladding it loses its structural strength and the stone, in my view, loses its appeal.”
The point we imagine Malyn is making is that if you can’t afford the real thing, it’s better to find an alternative “non-fake” material. Which, of course, taps into a very long-running dispute in architecture and elsewhere. Is it somehow more “authentic” to use real granite instead of a “quartz” composite such as Caesarstone on kitchen countertops? If you do use granite, is it OK to use granite veneer instead of a solid slab? What about wood veneer versus solid wood? Then there is the whole issue of laminate flooring, “plastic” outdoor decking, and so on.
Is there really any difference between using these “cultured stone” panels, and using those thin slivers of stone facade to dress up the edifices of tall buildings? Of course, for the latter, the stone is “real” stone, but the impression it is designed to produce is that the entire building is constructed from stone — which, today, and for tall buildings, would be utterly impractical. Just as it would be impractical for many home owners to afford real stone-work on their small suburban homes.
It’s helpful in thinking about issues such as these to get back to the origins of the cladding material we now call “Cultured Stone”. It’s actually, by now, quite a familiar product, at least in North America, as it has been around since the late 1960s, and has been quite popular both in the US and Canada.
Its “mission” at the time was to help deliver the promises of what later came to be termed “mid-century modern” architecture to the suburban reaches of major US cities, mainly along the West Coast, but also in some locations in the East Coast. While the general characteristics of mid-century modern (MCM) seem clear to us today, in the 1950s and 1960s there was a less clear sense of what it actually was.
The style’s real origins date back to the 1920s and 1930s, with those early developments being “frozen” by both the 1930s Depression, and then by World War II. As ever, one of the major influences was the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His main contribution was the aesthetic that houses should sit “in” the landscape, rather than on top of it. He also pioneered some of the designs that sought to make gardens — and the outdoors in general — a part of the house.
His work intersected with the work of various European architects, many of whom had fled to the US as war broke out across Europe. Much of their work culminated in what became known (in the US) as the “International Style”. This style put a premium on the idea of “transparency”, and making houses seem light, almost floating above the landscape where they were built. It relied on post-and-beam and cantilevered construction techniques, which, like the techniques used to construct skyscrapers, relieved walls of the function of structural support, meaning that they could be, for example, vast sheets of glass.
In domestic construction, these ideas — making the house part of the landscape, merging the outdoors with the indoors, and transparency — came together and wound up making the key characteristics of what we now think of as MCM: single-storey houses with open-plan interiors, a conjoined outdoor area, high ceilings, walls of glass, and the use of earthier materials such as wood, stone and rough brick.
While many of these ideals were possible when designing an estate house on one hectare or more of land, translating them into standard suburban housing tracts required different talents. Several US architects stepped up to that task, with one of the most successful being Joseph Eichler. Eichler successfully scaled down the ambitious dreams of the few to the practical demands of the many. His houses retained the high, arcing ceilings, often worked into an A-frame house, with large glass walls and significant outdoor space.
The floor plan shown here is typical of the design choices Eichler would make. Note the very modern combining of three rooms — multipurpose, dining and living — into a single, contiguous space, with the kitchen at the centre of the three. The back terrace attaches to the house via folding glass-panelled doors, and there is a central garden atrium — a key feature of many Eichler houses.
The “Eichler inspired” larger house shown here in photographs is on the East Coast, in New York, and was built in the late 1960s. Its design follows principles derived from Eichler, but with some important variations.
In particular, in the places where stonework has been used, Eichler would almost certainly have used the rough dark red brick that he favoured for these outdoor exposures, and it is highly unlikely he would have used anything like a stone finish indoors.
What is going on here? What it seems is that this East Coast rendition of what is essentially a West Coast style has made a callback — to Wright. Wright, of course, made extensive use of stonework, as seen in his iconic Fallingwater house. Even recent imitations of Wright’s style have kept stone features as a major part of their design. It’s as though the more abstract planes of the MCM houses have been “brought back to earth” by the addition of stone-like cladding.
In a similar response, the 1960s also saw the start of the now-familiar “ranch house”. Low and long, the ranch house recalls America’s frontier origins. Gone were most of the innovations of the MCM houses, including the integration with the outside, the open-plan interiors, and the sense of transparency and openness. What was essentially a European vision of how Americans could live in their new urban landscapes was swept away by a conservative return to a pretended historicity.
Cultured stone, of course, fit right in to this new style of ranch house, offering something that seemed a little primitive, rough and folksy.
Over the past 10 years there has been a gradual revival of interest in MCM houses, driven, it has been speculated, by the popularity of the TV series “Mad Men”, which detailed the doings of a Madison Avenue, New York advertising agency in the 1960s. This has begun to revive interest in some of the classic Cultured Stone designs — though not always to good purpose.
If you are not familiar with the work of Kate Wagner on her blog McMansionHell.com, you really should take a look. She includes diagrams of the worst McMansions up for sale in the US, and details their (multiple) architectural infractions. (A personal favourite is a two-storey Grecian column that goes directly through the roof of a cupola underneath.)
In a recent article Wagner wrote for real estate website Curbed.com, she pointed out that McMansions, influenced by the “Mad Men” swerve of popularity, had begun to dress themselves up as MCM houses. She calls these “McModerns”, and described the circumstances leading to their creation like this:
“The socioeconomic and technological development of the 21st-century McModern is strongly tied to the relentless pursuit of minimalism, beginning with industrial design: At the turn of the millennium, we entered the iPod age. Even more importantly, we fully embraced the internet age, and then subsequently the mobile age. These shifts triggered the beginning of the McModern.
“[I]t is the indulgent, inefficient, and architecturally botched nature of the McMansion that lies beneath the sleek surface of the McModern. In the eyes of McMansion builders, modern architecture is perceived by potential buyers as the culturally significant, high-brow form of architecture, revered by the educated and glossy magazines. To see something only for its superficial attributes or financial potential and execute it carelessly is perhaps the most “Mc” thing anyone can do.”
While Boral Cultured Stone has a 50-year history, the product has managed to innovate in recent years. In 2016 it brought its Pro-Fit Modera Ledgestone product to Australia. The Modera line offers a very modern take on the cladding product. Boral describes Modera like this:
“[O]ur Modera Pro-Fit collection offers a practical way to achieve a tailored ledgestone look with small-scale, low relief stones. It’s quick and easy to install because it isn’t applied one stone at a time. Instead, the primary building blocks are groups of small stones meticulously bundled together to form modular components of equal height.”
If the original stone has a place somewhere at the origins of MCM, the Modera line is a reach into post-modernism. It’s overtly a facade, but a very attractive one, adding a kind of “chunkiness” to sleek modern lines.
That means that, oddly, where the original Cultured Stone represented a reaching back to Wright through the screen of modernism, Modera is more like a connection between MCM style and the post-modernism that replaced it. For the fact is that, while house style evolved from MCM to ranch houses and then to an eclecticism that borrowed from multiple periods, that eclecticism never touch MCM at all. It has remained an island of design purity.