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What's Destroying Tradition?

By Stephen A. Mouzon

A nefarious idea is set to destroy tradition in architecture, just as it was struggling back to life after a decades-long near-death experience. And no, it's not the Modernists again. This time, it comes from within our ranks. In order to properly understand how treacherous this idea is, we need to paint a backdrop of the ideal for proper contrast. Visit any great town around the world, and you'll immediately see that they are dramatically different according to their regional conditions, climate and culture. But you'll also notice that there's a common thread you can't quite put your finger on. Christopher Alexander calls this the "quality without a name."

I haven't managed to name it, either, but here's an attempt to describe it: The quality without a name is something you find most pervasively in nature. Look at any group of humans, for example: unless there are identical twins in the room, we're all different, but we're all human. Nobody will mistake one of us for a horse, a tree or an eagle. You'll notice this same characteristic in groups of other species, and also in parts of plants, like the leaves on a tree. No two are identical, but they're all very similar. In other words, they have great variety, but within a narrow range.

You'll find this great variety within a narrow range within all things that have life. True traditions have life, also. When a place is created by a living tradition, its buildings will exhibit this same great variety within a narrow range. Today, the best we can usually manage is to create replicas of buildings that were created by traditions that once lived. This is akin to sculpting a statue of a person, in that it may bear a resemblance to them, but it's not a living thing.

A living tradition works by aggregating and distributing wisdom, and to work best, it needs many participants. The best living traditions are held by entire cultures of thousands or millions of people. Living traditions in architecture had been dying since the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Modernism got the credit for the death of tradition, but it merely finished the job. Today, we have living traditions such as the blogosphere that have blossomed in just a decade, and now engage millions around the world. But in architecture, there are only faint signs of life in most places, and the nefarious idea is poised to snuff it out.

This idea, while not created by today's Modernists, did arise at the beginning of Modernism a century ago. It's the "necessity of uniqueness." Requiring all design to be unique (if it is to be significant) sounds like a good idea, because it would seem to encourage creativity. But in reality, it prevents tradition because it means that your every act must be an act of giving birth to something new, and that you can't nurture any of the ideas over the years, eventually bringing them to maturity. The necessity of uniqueness also prevents the sharing of wisdom because you can't refine anyone else's idea, either. Today, working with someone else's idea is derisively referred to as "copying," or "plagiarism." News flash: If you can't copy, tradition is impossible!

Let's look in greater detail how tradition works in architecture: Today, most architects work in relative isolation, typically collaborating only with those in their own firms. The largest group working in collaborative fashion outside the corporate battlements is New Urbanists, where the architects number a few hundred. Within this cadre, a much smaller number (probably a hundred) works together regularly at charrettes and in other venues of close proximity. Sixty four of these are members of the New Urban Guild.

Ideas are passed around freely amongst these tighter groups of architects, and it's fascinating to watch them develop as they move from one to another. Years ago, Robert Orr developed a very clever bath for High Rustler at Seaside, which I use frequently, always referring to it as the "Robert Orr Bath." Eric Moser developed another clever bath at his Idea House at Habersham which I've also used and developed in my own work, as have many others.

Note that the Robert Orr Bath and the Eric Moser Bath have transcended single clever designs and have taken on the mantle of named types of baths. Types are highly important to tradition, because they are packets of complex and useful information. If you just say "build a bath with studs, sheetrock, tile, and a toilet," or whatever, that's not so useful because the information arrives in small bits. But if you say "build a Robert Orr Bath," then that's a very efficient way of passing highly useful information. That's what traditions do.

Types also work at larger scales, in particular at the scale of a building. Charleston couldn't have been built without the Single House, which is the city's dominant type. The French Quarter would be seriously impoverished without the Creole Cottage, which is one of only a handful of types with which the Quarter was built. Further afield, Pompeii could not have been built without the atrium house, nor could Antigua Guatemala have been built without the zaguan house.

Alarmingly, types are under assault in many places today, where well-meaning but misdirected people have fallen under sway of the necessity of uniqueness. It happens within New Urbanist neighborhoods, and it even happens within conversations amongst leading traditionalists. It is essential that we equip ourselves with the basic understanding of the operation of traditions and the crucial role played by types. Without this foundation, we are seriously at risk of creating places filled with buildings that are unique inventions, but which cannot achieve maturity because the designs can't be refined through many iterations. Great ideas deserve to take on a life of their own and become part of a living tradition, living again and again in design after design, helping create a great place. And that's what we want, isn't it?


Steve Mouzon is principal of the New Urban Guild, which promotes the study and design of true traditional buildings and places. At Mouzon Design he focuses on town-building tools and services. He has authored or contributed to a number of publications, and his most recent book is The Original Green. He is @stevemouzon on Twitter and blogs both on the Original Green site www.originalgreen.org and also at www.usefulstuff.posterous.com.

 

 

 
 

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