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Making Room

By Dr. Mark Gelernter

This spring, one of our graduate architecture design studios led by my colleague Professor Keith Loftin explored traditional design languages for a project in one of Denver's most revered historic districts. Guest reviewers responded warmly to the work, noting the natural fit of a traditional building design in a traditional street. But as the reviewers tried to offer helpful comments to the students, several warning phrases popped up in the conversations. Paraphrased, they included:

"One must be careful of designing in traditional styles, because style is about superficial appearance. Good architecture is shaped by deeper ideas."

"Good architecture expresses its own age. Traditional design represents an age gone by."

"Using traditional design languages today creates replicas that are not authentic, like Disneyland."

"Traditional design is not progressive, because it does not move the discipline forward through innovation."

"If you are going to use traditional design languages, you must adhere strictly to the traditional rules or you will create a cartoon."

None of these comments came as a surprise. These ideas are commonplace in design schools and in design criticism. Anyone working with traditional design languages today will certainly have heard these. And because they are so familiar, they seem as reasonable and self-evident as the phrase "form follows function." Why would anyone object to the idea that "a building ought to express its own age"?

But at their heart, these ideas are fundamentally hostile to traditional design languages. If we accept these ideas, we have to view traditional design as superficial, out of date, inauthentic, hostile to innovation, and constrained by rigid rules. By implication, non-traditional design is significant, timely, authentic, innovative, and open to creativity. Who would possibly choose traditional, when it looks so negative in comparison to the alternative?

And yet, traditional design is enjoying a strong resurgence. New Urbanism is successfully promoting traditional town planning and buildings. The sustainability movement has rediscovered how traditional buildings often successfully adapted to their local climates with limited energy use, and used more durable materials and construction methods. We are even seeing something of a revival of traditional styles in Asia and the Middle East, where after the Second World War indigenous building traditions had given way to a Modern style representing progress and economic development. Traditional design is back, after its 50-year hiatus in the second half of the 20th century, and is likely here to stay.

However, our commonly accepted design concepts are not keeping up with this reality. The ideas mentioned above give us many reasons why we should NOT design in traditional languages. Choosing to do so anyway puts the traditional designer in the position of first having to overcome these common objections, on the defensive right from the start. Since these ideas seem so reasonable and fundamental, one feels compelled to accept them as starting points; but then one has to wriggle around them.

For example, one might argue: "yes, a building should express its own age, but perhaps the age is a century rather than a decade." Or, "if we express it, even if it is traditional, then is it not an expression of the age?" Trying to defend tradition within terms that are inherently hostile to tradition is much like trying to answer the question, "So when did you stop robbing banks?" This question does not easily leave room for the answer, "I never did rob banks."

Trying to justify oneself within someone else's terms is ultimately not very productive. Designers working within traditional design languages would be better served by discussing how best to design within a tradition, not constantly justifying why one would want to. In this spirit, it is time to look afresh at these common concepts of design used to discourage traditional architecture. Where did these ideas come from? Why are they so hostile to tradition? How valid are they, particularly in the context of today? I will attempt to answer these questions in detail in the upcoming February issue of Traditional Building magazine.

As I will show, these anti-traditional ideas are neither inevitable nor self-evident truths, despite their feeling so to us today. They were developed at the turn of the 20th century to serve particular purposes that may have made sense at the time, but do not hold true today. I will also show that these ideas were drawn from a number of different sources and then pulled together into what appeared to be a coherent theory of design; but I will show that there are a number of inconsistencies between these ideas, and inconsistencies with the evidence of the built environment. They seem like a coherent set of ideas in our minds only because they have so long been presented as such.

My aim is to show that these anti-traditional ideas should no longer drive our ideas about design in the 21st century. They were developed for a set of circumstances very different from our own; and they do not hold together as a coherent theory that can give designers reliable guidance.

I do not intend to promote traditional design at the expense of non-traditional design. There are many circumstances where modern buildings are the right answer, and great modern buildings add as much to our world as great traditional buildings. Instead, my aim is to provide room for both traditional and non-traditional, by ridding ourselves of ideas once created to slant the playing field very much in favor of modern only.

Freed from these conceptual prohibitions, designers and their clients can then freely choose which approach makes the most sense for their own situation, and we can evaluate buildings again on the issues that really matter, whether they are traditional or modern. Do they function well? Are they beautiful? Are they places to which we wish to return? Can they be built sustainably and durably?

I look forward to making this case for you in the February issue of Traditional Building magazine. TB

Mark Gelernter is the Dean and Professor of Architecture in the College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado Denver. He is the author of two books, which provide much of the background for this essay: Sources of Architectural Form: a Critical History of Western Design Theory; and A History of American Architecture: Buildings in Their Cultural and Technological Context.



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