Traditional Building Portfolio

Breaking the Rules

By Alvin Holm

"Breaking the rules," oddly enough, has always been presented as a mark of genius throughout my growing up and lengthy education. From a conservative middle-Western community to a couple of Eastern establishment colleges, I have consistently been encouraged to "break the mold" at every opportunity, to "find my own voice," to "express myself." All the heroes of history, we were told, had looked beyond the conventions and dared to dream new schemes, new ways of doing things and expressing new notions of things to do. Maddeningly, in recent years the expression has morphed into "thinking outside the box." Having been well brought up, and thereby dutiful, I bought into all these things and developed into a happy Modernist with appropriate approval along the way.

At a point, I noticed that Modernism had been operating for a very long time without having produced more than a handful of incontestable masterpieces while the vast bulk of contemporary architecture had failed woefully to produce anything of value at all. So much for breaking the rules. Modernism struggled with tradition in the first half of the 20th century and took over the field exclusively after World War II, eliminating altogether the forms passed down over the previous 2,500 years. By now, a half-century later, it would seem that there were no more rules to break. Yet the avant-garde still survives to surprise with yet more preposterous challenges to our exhausted expectations. Hadid, Gehry, Koolhaas and company are all good (or bad) examples. Innovation however quirky, or equally however bizarre, creativity, however strained, the fundamental Modernist cult of novelty remains the dominant mode. Long past the point when there were rules to observe the breakage goes on. Long before the rules were dismembered, T.S. Eliot was already impatient with the Modernist carnage. In The Waste Land, written in 1922, he warned us repeatedly, "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME."

My thesis here is not about the architectural dreariness that Modernism has wrought, though my position on that is probably clear. The tide is beginning to turn, and by now there is a small but growing army of neo-traditional architects and planners out there creating the New American Renaissance. And what surprises me is that even there the issue of "breaking the rules" persists. We are returning happily (some of us) to traditional forms derived entirely from age-old conventions, proportional systems, and, yes, rules that govern the shapes and deployments of moldings and members. And yet many of us are still dithering about when and to what degree we may "break the rules." It comes up in casual conversation among practitioners and with laity too. It is rampant on the Trad. Arch. listserv. A young man interviewing for a job asked me recently about my position on "breaking the rules." Thirty years ago, already long out of school, when I returned to my old architectural school to tell the dean about my new decision to learn and then teach the Classical Orders, his very first reaction was to say "and then you must teach them to break the rules." Needless to say I was disappointed.

What made the architecture of every earlier age more harmonious than anything we build today, more coherent in ensemble, and more useful and therefore more economical over the long run, was that it was all rooted in tradition and designed according to the rules. And the rules of good practice were learned and understood by everyone involved in building, all speaking the same technical language as developed and passed on by the guilds. And again, because all the buildings were based on the common language of the trades and master builders, the laymen as well could perceive and come to understand the language embodied in the buildings and towns where they lived and worked. The result was a harmonious environment over very long periods of time. Old cities still exhibit that coherence and humanity; modern cities seldom do.

The lesson must be obvious by now. We must all get back in that comfortable box, re-learn the rules that we all once knew, and resume designing a beautiful world. Let the New American Renaissance begin!

Some time after I composed this little essay in praise of tradition I came upon an unexpected ally in The Water-Babies, a 19th-century children's story by Charles Kingsley. There he recounts the myth of the boastful, forward-thinking Prometheus, demonizing him while praising his brother Epimetheus "who always looked behind him and did not boast at all." To this familiar story of Prometheus who defied the gods by bringing the gift of fire (and light) to mortal man, Kingsley has this to add:

"Well, Prometheus was a very clever fellow of course, and invented all sorts of wonderful things. But, unfortunately, when they were set to work, to work was just what they would not do, and now nobody knows what they were, save a few very old archeological gentlemen who scratch in queer corners, and find little there..."

Prometheus, always eagerly creative, excitedly forward-thinking, ended sadly, badly, chained to a rock tormented forever. On the other hand, his far less glamorous brother, Epimetheus:

"Went working and grubbing along, with the help of his wife Pandora, always looking behind him to see what had happened, 'till he really learnt to know now and then what would happen next… He began to make things which would work, and go on working too: to till and drain the ground, and to make looms, and ships, and railroads and steam ploughs, and electric telegraphs…and to foretell famine, and bad weather, and the price of stocks… His children are the men of science, who get good lasting work done in the world, but the children of Prometheus are the fanatics, and the theorists and the bigots and the bores, and the noisy windy people who go telling silly folk what will happen, instead of looking to see what had happened already."

Scorn Prometheus, always "thinking outside the box," and let's embrace old Epimetheus who helps to build our future on knowledge of the past.


Al Holm is the principal of Alvin Holm A.I.A. Architects, Philadelphia, PA, specializing since 1976 in residential and institutional design in the Classical tradition. Holm was the first architect to receive the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center Award for Excellence in the Arts. He received a 2008 Arthur Ross Award from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA) for excellence in the Classical tradition and he was also the inaugural winner of the 2009 Clem Labine Award for contributions to humane values in the built environment.(See Traditional Building, August 2009). He can be reached at or 215-963-0747.


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