Traditional Building Portfolio

Build Local

By Michael G. Imber

Rancho del Cielo, a new project in Jefferson County, TX, by Michael G. Imber Architects. Photo: courtesy of Michael G. Imber Architects

Who are we? It used to be that we could look at our homes and we could answer this question clearly. A home was a reflection of our culture and community; it was a reflection of our history, and of our aspirations. It's difficult to say these days what our architecture reflects. In a world that is dominated by a global economy that is driven by mass media, are the houses we build today a reflection of home, are they fashion, or are they simply product?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in Texas in a time of transition, a time when our modern lives had not yet tipped the balance against the past. Traveling as a child with my family through rural Texas in the '60s, there was a lot of the old world left – signs of a charming, romantic life shaped by rugged European immigrants. Texas was a rough country and these people had hewn out their lives and communities from what its land had to offer. Our buildings and towns were still authentic in the sense that they were real reflections of the lives of their inhabitants. The pace of life was slow, and main streets were still the center of commerce.

Neighbors owned the stores we frequented and sold us the goods we needed. There was a center of commerce where a square would be the center for BBQs, bands and celebrations. Our homes were within walking distance of the store where we bought our food, and beyond our homes were the farms that grew it. Buildings and homes were most often reflective of the local building materials, built by someone in the community. It had been this way for hundreds, and in some form thousands, of years.

Then, sometime around the last mid-century, our world expanded. We no longer bought local and we no longer worked for our neighbors. Products became mass produced; our food became mass produced, and our homes and buildings became mass produced. We were no longer eating tomatoes from down the street, but from Holland – because as the brand told us, they were "sweeter."

Our original streetscapes and landscapes have more recently given way to a modern commercialism, a world where restaurants and shops are no longer locally owned, but part of great national chains built coast to coast, their recognizable brands populating every American cityscape. The sharp definition between town and country has now been blurred by suburban sprawl and worn buildings that were the fabric of our past are quickly replaced by brightly illuminated corner gas marts and mega-stores. Farm and ranch lands are bought up in great swaths to be developed into neighborhoods, where "density" is a term used by a far-off boardroom to reflect a level profitability for shareholders.

These developments are insular and are built purely for maximum land sales. Houses are simply product used to sell more land. They contribute nothing to our cities' character or future; in fact, they stretch our resources by demanding ever-expanding road systems and infrastructure, and choke access to our community centers with traffic. As this ever-expanding growth consumes us, our environment erodes, and so does our local character. The very character that reflects who we are as a people and as a culture is quickly diminishing; our struggles and accomplishments, our past and our future, our collective memories and dreams are lost to a homogeneous landscape shaped by those who know nothing of our lives. We have been absorbed into a great collective global economy; our buildings are no longer a reflection of who we are, but of a mass-produced corporate efficiency.

Our homes are meant to be the most comforting physical realization of our lives and of our communities. They are what nourish our spirit and soul. They are who we are, and they should embody both our personal and our cultural memories. They should bind us to the generations that have brought us here to this place, and they should form the deep personal memories of the generations that will follow. It is this continuum that informs us as to who we are as a culture, and without it we are simply a mass collective of consumers without past or future.

It is the cultural memory of our past that informs us, and it is what forms the genetic code of our built environment. Buildings and homes should say to us: "This is our history and our aspirations. This is our landscape and environment, our resources, our craft. This is how we build." By these principles, buildings and places become authentic to their nature and to their place – they become "local." This is what makes them cherished and valued by the people that populate them and gives us pride in who we are as communities. Buildings should not arbitrarily reflect style, but should reflect the architectural language that expresses a community or culture – it is this that makes our buildings and cities meaningful and sustainable, for it is the building that can be loved by generations that will last for generations.  

Michael G. Imber is the principal of San Antonio, TX-based Michael G. Imber Architects.

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