Traditional Building Portfolio
Traditional Building Magazine

What is spirit? Clearly there are several distinct but related meanings of the word. One central meaning is "vitality." That term describes a living organism, and it is not much of a stretch to see, to feel, to empathize with some buildings (and cities) as vital organic creations to which we relate as kin.




Spirit in Architecture

By Alvin Holm, A.I.A.

"Old buildings exude spirit; few new buildings do." This simple statement is not likely to raise any serious objections because it seems so entirely subjective. Who would quarrel with someone's apparently sentimental view? And especially, who would quarrel about as elusive a quality as "spirit?" Yet there are dozens of ways this opening declaration can be supported. This essay will outline a few of them.

It must be acknowledged that all old cities on every continent, young America included, display a remarkable continuity, cohesiveness and spirit that modern cities largely lack. Paris, Rome and Vienna, absolutely have the "spirit," whatever the term may mean. Chicago as a youthful city certainly does, as does Center City Philadelphia and elderly Boston. New York, in spite of vast slashes of modernity, retains a marvelous sense of identity and spirit.

Okay. What is spirit? Clearly there are several distinct but related meanings of the word. One central meaning is "vitality." That term describes a living organism, and it is not much of a stretch to see, to feel, to empathize with some buildings (and cities) as vital organic creations to which we relate as kin. We "get their vibes," so to speak. We are comfortable there because they relate to us, and vice versa, somehow on an inner level, not just objectively. We see a modern building in an ancient context like Rome or Verona, and we recoil – sometimes with delight though often with horror – because it doesn't fit in. The effect of the intrusion is startling and not at all that feeling of sweet satisfaction we experience when we see that "everything is in its place."

There is a glorious little city in Peru, very ancient and altogether contemporary, that exudes a sense of "the way things are supposed to be." That city is Cuzco. It is of Incan origin, high in the Andes, and close to some of the holiest sites in South America. But however remote, it is an urbane thriving community where folks are happily plugged into the global economy, internet, etc., and yet still participating in an age-old tradition that imbues the town with "spir

it." Additionally, it is very interesting that the sense of "spirit" is immediately apparent to the visitor from somewhere else altogether. Another meaning of the word "spirit" is the Genius Loci, and the "spirit of the place" is very conspicuous in certain remote spiritual sites like Stonehenge, Easter Island, Orkney, etc., as well as hot urban centers like Chicago, New Orleans and Madrid.

Let us now turn to individual buildings to examine the inherent spirit we sometimes sense. For many of us (maybe most of us) modern architecture often seems chilly and dull, and ever so repetitious. How droll that early Modernists would complain of dreary repetition within traditionalist architecture, when no era in architectural history has ever produced so many totally repetitious and unimaginative buildings as our modern times since 1945.

Yikes! What have we wrought? Has there ever been an architectural era so dreary, so dull, so totally lacking in spirit as the last half century since the end of World War II? Wildly inventive buildings have appeared here and there, paid for by totally confused boards of directors, but do they live and breathe? Have we advanced? Where is the spirit? Thrashing around doesn't count!

What does count is something that has endured for thousands of years. It is not easy to define but it involves fundamental relationships, and a sense of identification with our ambience, our friends and fellows and our forebears. Increasingly, we are alienated today, and we must reconnect. This is vitally related to the Classical traditions of our vast cultural heritage. Let us not ignore it any longer. Let us instead renounce the Modernist rejection of all things glorious in our past, and strongly reinstate those universal principals we derive from ancient Greece and Rome, while never forgetting the wisdom of the East we have come to understand.

Yet another sense of the word spirit may be seen in the expression "the letter of the law versus the spirit." In this context the spirit refers to the intention and the fuller meaning of the law rather than a technical definition of the words. Here "spirit" is equivalent to "inner sense," or "fuller meaning." In architecture terms, I find that traditional buildings are fraught with "meaning" whereas Modernist buildings are largely abstract, very literal, and we look for "meaning" in vain. This is a very complex argument that can be addressed in a multitude of ways. Here are a few.

In the first place, any traditional building of any style immediately suggests a broad variety of associations with history, with memories and stories, etc. Modernist buildings are seldom evocative at all. Nor are they meant to be. Generally they differentiate themselves from the past (and even from other buildings) and seek to suggest somewhere we have not yet been. Memory, associations and a sense of relationship have been conscientiously expunged. Easy meaning is unavailable. If it is true that we all seek "meaning" in life, it is no wonder that Modernist buildings do little to delight.

Another way in which old buildings possess meaning (and therefore have spirit) is through an obvious display of the purpose of their parts. We might say, "Here is where we enter (and we are welcome), there is where the light comes in (how sunny the rooms must be!), and there are the several floor levels (how spacious it seems to be inside!). That is the massive lower level that holds the main floor high and dry, and there is the lofty eave line that shades the upper rooms." Old buildings tell their stories while new ones often mask their use. "Form followed function" far more clearly in the past than since it became a modern cliché.

And yet another way in which a building seems to be alive is through a hierarchy of elements, relating each to all as an organic unity. This important characteristic is most readily identified in exalted examples like the Greek Temple, the Gothic Cathedral, the Renaissance Palazzo, or the Georgian Manor House. But all good buildings, from cottage to castle, from library to barn, will display that sense of a total organism. And perceiving that quality we relate to that building, not through an intellectual analysis, but directly as creature to creature.

No discussion of spirit in architecture is complete without mention of "sacred geometry." The subject is ancient, vast, and growing today at an exponential rate. A notable example of the magic of proportional relationships is the peculiar sweetness of certain rooms in the villas of Andrea Palladio. The plain, almost barren, simplicity of some of these rooms rules out all other factors but the geometry itself to account for that particular quality we sense. These rooms have spirit that is almost palpable. We know how he worked this out because he told us so. This brief note will have to suffice for this vast topic.

One sense of spirit I have not addressed is the special case of a spiritual space. The design of places for worship is an exciting activity and one that is very close to my heart. It is also a subject of great contention ranging over the broadest spectrum of entrenched opinion. Modernism has only exacerbated a problem that has existed for a very long time. The careful reader will not be surprised to hear that my ideas on the subject tend to be conservative – that is, "traditional," whatever the particular religious tradition might be. All I have said about buildings in general in the earlier parts of this essay is applicable here and perhaps of more critical importance than elsewhere. My final word on this subject is, "Architect, listen carefully to your Rabbi, Pastor, Priest, or Guru." And honor the liturgy as best you can. Then the spirit will take care of itself.

Al Holm is the principal of Alvin Holm A.I.A. Architects, Philadelphia, PA. His new book, The New American Vignola: A Textbook for Drawing the Orders, will be published in 2010. In 2006 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.

Advertising Information | Privacy Policy

Traditional Building Period Homes Traditional Building Portfolio traditional product galleries traditional product reports
rexbilt Tradweb Traditional Building Conference Palladio Awards

Copyright 2014. Active Interest Media. All Rights Reserved.