One of the great architectural mysteries of our time was the identity of the Transmission Device of Living Traditions. What was it? Where could it be found? Did it still even exist? I was optimistic, so I believed it would, and hoped that it would be rediscovered in my lifetime. I assumed that when it was rediscovered, it would be something really mystical, like the connection of the original Americans to the land. But we had no idea where to look. The questions that led to what I believe was its rediscovery were first asked twenty-eight years ago today, and the story goes like this...
The day after Thanksgiving 1980, my wife, my sister, her boyfriend at the time, and I had a problem. We’d eaten too much turkey the day before, and desperately needed to find a place to walk. The city where I grew up was built almost entirely after WWII, and was therefore highly unwalkable. So we drove about 20 miles to Mooresville, Alabama.
Mooresville is a little planters’ hamlet of only nine square blocks (3x3) that was built beginning in 1818 a stone’s throw from the shores of the Tennessee River. People farmed the land around them, eating from its bounty and shipping the rest downstream to market. They met their daily needs on the little town square, the shops of which had all the basic necessities, from the post office to the cobbler’s shop to a tavern and inn, amongst other shops.
The citizens of Mooresville lived sustainably there for probably forty years before an architect ever set foot in town. Yet, twenty-eight years ago today, as an architecture student halfway through school, I had to admit that the town these simple farmers and tradespeople built was a better place than any place designed by architects since World War II. How was this possible? Our professors told us that we were going to be the greatest generation of architects ever because we had computers, the people that built our designs had power tools, and the owners could get mortgages. In short, we were going to be better architects because we had better tools.
But if that was true, then why were the best in my profession incapable of doing as well as people with no computers, no power tools, no mortgages, and not even any flush toilets? In 1980, there was no New Urbanism; Seaside was still only a design, not a place. And in fairness, Mooresville isn’t a nationally-significant great place, either. It’s not on par with Charleston or even Beaufort. Nobody outside of north Alabama has likely heard of it. But still, it was better than every place we had built since World War II. Place; not building. Architects had designed plenty of better buildings since World War II, but not a better place.
Walking around town that day, photographing everything, I was unable to answer the question of how they did it. But here’s an even bigger question that immediately cropped up: You can imagine how, once people learn to do something, they can keep on doing it. But how do you take a wisdom so great that its results could not at the time be replicated by the best architects, and then transmit that wisdom down to the next generation? This is the Transmission Device.
I puzzled over this for years. In the early years, I didn’t know what I was looking for, as I said earlier. I didn’t know where to find it, or if it even existed anymore. The search back then was something akin to walking around in the dark hoping you’ll bump into a clue.
It was over twenty years later when, I believe, the Transmission Device was rediscovered. Late one night, after the celebratory dinner at the end of the Lost Rabbit charrette in Jackson, Mississippi, the design team was standing around in the parlor of our B&B, which was the Millsaps-Buie House on State Street. Milton Grenfell, one of the architects, said the fateful words while describing why eaves in this part of the world were designed the way they were. He prefaced the answer with “We do this because...”
Could it really be that simple? “We do this because...” Looking back, it almost had to be an oral tradition because the residents of the old towns didn’t draw. And if you go back far enough in European history, they didn’t even read and write, yet people travel halfway around the world every year to visit medieval towns, the town-building wisdom of which was passed down using the Transmission Device.
We now believe that “We do this because...” is the Transmission Device. If you put every pattern in a language of architecture in these terms, then people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. And you turn warm fuzzies about the places and buildings people love into heated advocacy. And you turn the wisdom of great place-making back to the people again. Most great places are not built because some architectural historian says “in 1845, window patterns were such and such because of these glass-making techniques...” Nobody cares about stuff like that. But if people understand why they love what they love, then you can build a real Living Tradition on that.
I believe that the Transmission Device was rediscovered in the summer of 2004. It would be another year before the first tool was developed to implement it. I finished A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture] on the day after Thanksgiving 2005, precisely a quarter-century to the day after first asking the questions about Living Traditions and the Transmission Device. That first book was self-published and printed in-house, so it was very expensive, and very few people have ever seen it. But one year later, I finished A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which uses the same model, but expanded the patterns. It’s on Amazon, if anyone is interested. Click on the image for the link.
What does this have to do with sustainability? Plenty! I’ll write more about this link in a later post, but the short answer is that we’re nowhere near knowing how to live sustainably today, even though millions of people around the world are working on the problem, and more will soon join them. Once we discover how, then we need a robust Transmission Device to transmit all that wisdom to the culture at large. Because if we don’t, then the actions of the specialists just aren’t enough to make a difference. So if the wisdom of how to live sustainably can be bound up in things that people love, and if they know why they love them, then we have a serious chance…
Wise words, written by a man who can see what he's looking at, and then explain it like that favourite teacher you had long ago who taught you not only how to read and cipher, but how to teach yourself. Sounds easy, but it isn't.