Original Green Discussion Group

London streetscape with Big Ben at end of street

   Dr. Matthew Hardy of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment established the Original Green discussion group last week. Judging from the first few days, it promises to be quite lively. Please join us for enlightening discourse that promises to push the Original Green forward in ways we can’t anticipate yet. Here’s the group’s webpage, or you can just email here to join the conversation.

   The Prince’s Foundation has long been a great ally of Original Green ideas, and long before that, I’ve been a huge fan of Prince Charles’ work, dating back to the 1980s. I first worked with the Prince’s Foundation in 2005, during the first Rose Town charrette in Kingston, Jamaica. I was a consultant during that charrette, which Prince Charles commissioned to DPZ. The Foundation ran a follow-up charrette in November 2008, and I had the privilege of working on that one as well.

children in Rose Town neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica singing from an architectural code

   While we explored a good bit of previously uncharted territory in the 2005 charrette, the biggest breakthrough occurred at the end of the 2008 charrette, when this group of little children provided a breathtaking leap forward in the understanding of living traditions. You can read their story in this post.

potter in Rose Town neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica working on a pot

one of the Rose Town potters

   There were other notable advances as well. The potters are a group of artisans living on the north side of Rose Town trained by the Foundation; they craft useful and fanciful work, but they have problems: Rose Town has been wracked with such violence for decades between one political party on the north side and another political party on the south side that most Kingston residents don’t get anywhere close to the neighborhood. As a result, nobody buys the potters’ wares. I’ll blog soon about a novel proposal to solve this dilemma, and help knit the neighborhood back together again.

   The Foundation’s support of Original Green ideas continues in a number of ways: Hank Dittmar, the CEO of the Prince’s Foundation, has included me in presentations to the Congress for the New Urbanism on more than one occasion, for which I am grateful.

Steve Mouzon and Prince's Foundation craft apprentice in New Orleans

   Last year, Ben Bolgar included me as one of the faculty in the Foundation’s Building Craft Apprentice training program in New Orleans, which is an outgrowth of the Prince’s visit to the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and mirrors the Foundation’s program in the UK. You can read more about the 2009 program here.

2009 Craft Apprentices posing for portrait on steps of historic house in Treme neighborhood of New Orleans

   One more thing from last year... on my final day, Ben asked me to say a few things to the students. For a spur-of-the-moment thing, it turned out pretty well, and I later wrote it down as well as I could recall it. I call it the Curse of the Craftsman, and you can read about it here.

Prince Charles presided over the
graduation of the class of 2009-2010
craft apprentices in London

Prince Charles presided over the

graduation of the class of 2009-2010

craft apprentices in London

   Last year’s class worked through the winter on projects assigned by our New Orleans partners. They graduated in March in fine fashion. After touring Britain for several days and visiting the work sites of their apprentice colleagues in the UK, they came back to London for their graduation, which was presided over by Prince Charles.

   While in the UK for the graduation, I had the privilege of teaching a Masterclass at the Foundation. I was a faculty member in a symposium there a few years ago, but had never taught a Masterclass until this year. It was quite a treat for me, and I believe the students enjoyed it as well.

   This fall, Ben restructured the faculty so there would be fewer of us, on longer engagements. Ben, Edith Platten, Ann Daigle and I took the building program all the way through, with other instructors for geometry, life drawing, and watercolor.

Mary Beth Alhart of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment New Orleans craft apprentice training program class of
2010-2011 presenting her work

Mary Beth Alhart of the class of

2010-2011 presenting her work

   One of the things I do is to take the students on walking tours of the city. I ask them to identify things they see happening again and again. These are patterns. Next, they’re asked to figure out why people repeated these patterns, and if there might be a reason to repeat them again today. If so, then they have to tell a story that is rational. compelling, and inspiring as to why we should repeat each pattern.

   One of the students came up to me at the end of the second day and said “I have lived in New Orleans all my life, but I’ve never really seen New Orleans. Thanks for giving me a brand-new city in which to live!” I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but she’s right... really seeing a place opens up so many things.

lens of eyeglasses through which napkin sketches are visible

expect forthcoming discussions of the

Original Green viewed through a

number of different lenses

   Dr. Hardy had asked me back for another Masterclass, so while returning from a charrette in Mauritius recently, I extended my stay in London in order to do the class. While preparing for this class, I finalized the “lenses” idea I’d been considering for some time. It resulted in the largest single remake of the presentation that I’d ever done. Look for many more posts exploring the Original Green through various lenses. Better yet, join the discussion group and be a part of the development of the ideas!

   ~Steve Mouzon


The Wellness Lenses of the Original Green

massage table at Hotel Shandrani in Mauritius

   The ways we build our places and our buildings have effects that range from the notable to the profound upon our wellness. Specifically, this is wellness of body, wellness of mind, and even wellness of spirit. Our places and our buildings aren’t the only things that affect our wellness; many things affecting wellness operate completely outside the realm of the built environment, of course.

lens of eyeglasses through which napkin sketches are visible

   It is often helpful to look at an idea through the lens of a different set of ideas. Today’s post lays out the framework of the Lenses of Wellness through which we’ll look at the Original Green a number of times next year. We’ll also look through other sets of lenses, including the Lenses of Value, Meaning, Delight, and Connectedness.

Wellness of Body

runner in a footrace along Decatur Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans

   Before getting into specific types of wellness of body, let’s consider that while the people watching the race above might be well, the runners running the race are not only well, but also fit. Wellness is the threshold below which we are ill; fitness occurs by getting well above that threshold. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider fitness a higher form of wellness.

   Wellness of body begins with the things that we put into our bodies. We will look at how Nourishable Places contribute to our wellness of body in this way, and also the ways that the processed foods (or “food-like substances,” according to Michael Pollan) that come to us from around the world can rob us of our wellness.

   Wellness of body can also be enhanced or lost by what we do to our bodies. Accessible Places are great places to bike, walk, and run, which enhance wellness. Sprawl, on the other hand, is where you have to drive everywhere, and the resulting sedentary lifestyle is arguably the single largest contributor (just ahead of processed foods) of our obesity epidemic.

   Finally, wellness of body can also be impacted by where we put our bodies, such as in harm’s way. Automobile accidents account for tens of thousands of deaths each year, and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries in those who survive.

Wellness of Mind

entrance portico to La Universidad de la Habana

   This image of the entrance to a university represents the fitness of mind, which as noted for the body, is a higher form of wellness. There are at least four attributes of the built environment which contribute to wellness of mind: Community, Balance, Nature, and Love.

two women visiting at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama; one leaning on her porch rail and the other leaning against the front picket fence

   A community is a group of people united by an idea, a place, or some combination thereof. Mental wellness has been shown time and again to be enhanced by being part of an identifiable community. The estrangement that comes with lack of community is often a precursor to mental illness. The built environment doesn’t create community, as any ghost town clearly shows, but it can set the stage for community to occur.

black-clad man walking across red stepping-blocks at the end of an infinity-edge pool facing the Straits of Florida in Havana

   Balance is achieved in many ways that have nothing to do with the built environment, but there are ways it can contribute to or detract from our balance. Variety in the places we inhabit and the people that inhabit them with us allow us to experience life more broadly.

deer grazing on a hillside adjacent to the Broadway Tower in England

deer grazing on a hillside

   Nature lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from community, because non-human forms of nature flourish most heartily when there aren’t so many humans around. But we can’t do without it. We have known for millennia that humans have a great need for connection with the rest of nature that is not human. Places that allow us the occasional immersive experiences in nature without too much difficulty or distance clearly contribute to our wellness of mind.

two lovers kissing on a bench at the Louvre in Paris

   Let’s be clear about love: the built environment typically does not elicit the ardor of these two young lovers. Love for places and buildings is softer, most often something akin to a gentle resonance rather than a love to die for. But because those with no love in their life are particularly at risk of mental illness, it’s possible that a most-loved place might be just the thing that keeps them above the threshold of wellness.

Wellness of Spirit

mists rising off the land just after an afternoon rain at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   I have hesitated for years to speak of wellness of spirit for two reasons: most issues of wellness of spirit are far beyond the scope of influence of the built environment, and also because of the value of time. Value is a function of time in this way: If two things do good at the same rate but one lasts twice as long, the longer-lasting thing is twice as valuable. So anything that lasts forever is incomparably more important than everything that passes away.

   Everything in the built environment will someday pass away. If you believe that humans have a spirit that can live on beyond our bodies, then the importance of the spirit is incomparably greater than anything our bodies might build. 

   Speaking of matters of the spirit alongside matters of the built environment therefore seems like a colossal mismatch. But if the built environment can affect wellness of spirit, then it seems like an essential conversation. Here are some of those influences:

traffic sign with slash across silhouette of a horn, and with the word "Silence" in Port Louis, Mauritius

   Every system of spirituality I’m aware of requires times of quiet contemplation or meditation. Are we building places of respite where we can truly be alone for a time?

group of friends having dinner at a restaurant in Embu, Brasil

   On the other hand, spirituality also requires times of togetherness, or fellowship, with those who share and can help strengthen or restore our spirituality. Unfortunately, the sprawling world we’ve built recently usually fails on both these counts because in most places there are people around us most of the time, but normally in meaningless relationships like waiting on a red light side by side. So it doesn’t usually set the stage for either profound togetherness or profound aloneness. Is this part of the reason so many spiritual communities have struggled in the modern era?

man standing atop a short stone wall, working in his small front garden at the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   Wellness of spirit increases when we love our neighbors... but the co-inhabitants of countless subdivisions aren’t really neighbors because the places are designed in such a way that people seldom meet and speak with each other. So how can we love our neighbors if we don’t have any?

Miss Mary, a beloved but homeless
woman on South Beach who sweeps sidewalks incessantly by day

Miss Mary, a beloved but homeless

woman on South Beach who sweeps

sidewalks incessantly by day

   Wellness of spirit grows when we do good for others less fortunate. Unfortunately, the American development paradigm has become excruciatingly efficient at separating classes of people in a very fine-grained way so that it is now possible to go interminably through one’s daily life in many places in sprawl without ever seeing anyone notably less fortunate. So how are we going to do good for others less fortunate if we never see them? Licking an envelope with a check inside is a very poor substitute even if the needy received more than a tiny fraction of our donations.

horse hitched to small wooden wagon with Jeep tires in Trinidad de Cuba

poverty of physical means has long

been believed to be a path to spiritual

wealth by many religious traditions

clock set against glass wall & metal grillwork at train station in Madrid, Spain

   Most would agree that wellness of spirit can easily be at odds with natural wealth because the natural things that are visible can so easily crowd out the spiritual things that are invisible. Yet the focus of our built environment in recent decades has been all about getting bigger and getting more. And we’ve mortgaged ourselves within an inch of our financial lives... or beyond, as many have sadly discovered. Which means that we have to spend countless hours working to pay for it all.

   So it all comes back to time: spending all our time working break-neck for natural things assures that there’s no time left to build our spiritual wellness. But paradoxically, it’s the spirit which can carry the greatest value... or not... simply because it goes on forever. So maybe it’s time to reconsider the things we’re building and the things we’re buying in light of the things that last the longest, and begin to show a bit more frugality concerning the things we’ll someday have to put away.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, December 20, 2010 - 10:50 PM

Wanda Mouzon

Wellness of spirit indeed should be our utmost effort.  Such a thoughtful, well structured blog Steve.  Thanks!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Kaid @ NRDC

What a fabulous essay, Steve - one of your best, and that's saying a lot.  I'll be referring to it.  Best wishes for a well, fit, and nourishing 2011!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 08:57 AM

Steve Mouzon

I appreciate that, Wanda! And thanks so much, Kaid! If anyone hasn't read Kaid's blog you really should... it's highly useful stuff.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 10:46 PM

Hazel Borys

Steve, thank you for the beautiful words and images! The connections are powerful and invigorating. I'm with Kaid, I'll be returning to them in the new year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:05 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much, Hazel! Kaid, when you and Hazel blog in connection with this post, please remember to post links here so that everyone can read your posts... thanks!

Saturday, December 25, 2010 - 08:20 AM

RSS Unsubacriber

Congratulations, you just overloaded my bullshit meter. At least you managed to use 400 words to say nothing, you'll always have that to admire.

Sunday, December 26, 2010 - 12:30 PM

Steve Mouzon

Not sure how to respond to this, since you didn't give any indication what in particular you're objecting to. If you've done what your name implies and unsubscribed, we won't ever know, either. I do think unsubscribing was probably a good move on your part, because if you regard everything in this post as worthless ("...say(ing) nothing...") then you'd likely be unsatisfied with future material here as well.

Sunday, January 2, 2011 - 01:21 PM

Geoffrey Mouen

Wonderful essay Steve.  I am especially appreciative of your discussion on the wellness of Spirit.   All too often we avoid this discussion in fear we might offend or be politically incorrect. Too think that we are going to be spiritually healthy by driving to church once a week is like thinking we are going to be physically healthy by driving to the gym once a week or eating a salad with our super-sized meal. Just as sprawl has proven to cause obesity and other environmental healthy problems, maybe sprawl is undermining our moral stability as well?  I wonder if there are any studies on this?

Monday, January 3, 2011 - 11:28 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Geoffrey! I'm not aware of any such studies, but neither is this a question I often hear asked. There are a lot of intertwined issues here that it may take awhile to unravel. For example, there are many communities of faith that are now almost completely sprawl-based, and their facilities can often be mistaken for mega-schools or super-malls. How hard would it be for them to ask the question "is the physical form we have built actually undermining the message we are trying to spread?" Tough question to ask oneself. There are several others like this that are equally tough to ask.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 05:48 PM

Scott M B Gustafson

I think that this essay brings up several great benchmarks with which to measure a project by. The distinction between wellness and fitness is particularly interesting as it defines wellness as only a threshold, a line between fitness and illness. Being well just isn't good enough! If you haven't seen it already, the Sabbath Manifesto has some great things to say about time, community and balance. See also "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space"

Thank you,


Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - 02:20 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks, Scott! I hadn't heard about the Sabbath Manifesto until you mentioned it somewhere else recently... can't recall where right now. But it's excellent material... others should check out the link.

   Tangentially, it's a classic example of how a pattern-based approach can achieve broad appeal that a packaged approach cannot. Here's what I mean by that: In architecture, style is a blunt instrument; you either like a style or you don't. But when we get down to talking about individual patterns (eaves, porch railings, etc.) then those are small enough bites that most people can generally agree about the ones that are most appropriate to a place.

   Religion is similar in this regard: if you're talking about a religion as a whole, then you're either a believer or you're not. But if you're talking about individual principles, such as the ten principles of the Sabbath Manifesto, then we find that we can reach agreement upon the individual principles much more easily. Matter of fact, every reader should take this challenge: no matter what your faith, go to Scott's link, which advocates a weekly day of rest. Let's don't quibble about which day of the week for the moment. But if a weekly day of rest is something that can fit into your worldview, then have a look at the ten principles and tell me which you really disagree with. Except for number 7 and non-drinkers, I can't see anything that doesn't in principle sound like a good idea, right? Comments, anyone?

Hazel Borys · 

Managing Principal at PlaceMakers

Steve, I enjoyed your essay again this morning. Thanks! I'm wondering if there are recent updates you've written that I've missed?

Nov 9, 2012 10:38am


30 Years After Adopting a Mystery

front door with benches to either side and flag flying from wood-frame wall beside door at Mooresville, Alabama post office, which is the oldest continuously operating post office in the state of Alabama

   The day after Thanksgiving this year marks the 30-year anniversary of the uncovering of a mystery that changed many things for me, and hopefully has helped others as well. The unlocking of that mystery, I believe, just might play a central role in the delivery of real sustainability because sustainability isn’t something you get by going shopping. Incremental changes in efficiency are dwarfed by changes we could make, for better or for worse, in our behavior. This mystery, I believe, carries the key for unlocking positive behavior change for entire cultures.

   The first step has long been a shrouded enigma: how, specifically, do living traditions of places and buildings transmit Original Green wisdom to newcomers, and to the next generation? I was first confronted by this mystery on the day after Thanksgiving, 1980.

Palladian window in gable of mansion on High Street in Mooresville, Alabama

detail of High Street mansion in


   I was in the middle of architecture school at the time, but home on break at my parents’ house. My wife Wanda, my sister Susan, her boyfriend at the time, and I decided that we’d eaten too much turkey the day before, and that we needed to go for a walk. But where? I grew up in a sprawling town built almost entirely after World War II, and there were very few places you’d want to walk. So we decided to drive out to Mooresville and walk there. Mooresville is a little planter’s hamlet, built just a stone’s throw from the Tennessee River. It was founded by simple farmers and tradespeople only three decades or so after American independence. The town is a tiny square, only three blocks wide and three blocks deep. We spent several hours walking every street and photographing every building on those nine blocks.

brick church building in Mooresville, Alabama

Mooresville brick church building

   Our professors told us that we were going to be the greatest generation of architects ever because we now had computers, the contractors building our creations had bigger power tools, and the clients buying our creations had increasingly clever mortgages. In other words, we were going to be better because our tools were better. Yet, I came face to face that day with a startling fact: It’s likely that no architect set foot in Mooresville for several decades after its founding, yet those farmers and tradespeople, without computers, power tools, or mortgages, had built a better place than any architect had built from the end of World War II until that day. How could this be? What great wisdom did they possess that allowed simple farmers and tradespeople to build a better place than all the highly trained architects and planners working from World War II until 1980?

front porch on High Street in Mooresville, Alabama

typical Mooresville front porch

   I finally came to terms with the fact that once people possess great wisdom like this, those same people can keep using that same wisdom to build in the same way. But that didn’t solve the bigger mystery: how did they come to possess that wisdom in the first place, and how were they able to pass it down to the next generation?

   I had no clue, but I didn’t leave the mystery in Mooresville. Instead, I took it home with me; I gave it a place to live, and fed it with questions. Years of travel have revealed that this mystery didn’t belong to Mooresville alone. I’ve found great places like this everywhere I’ve gone, obviously built mostly by the townspeople, but not by Walt Disney’s Imagineers. And most of the medieval quarters of the towns of Europe were built at a time that most people didn’t even read or write.

mansion on High Street in Mooresville, Alabama

one of Mooresville's finest homes

   I began calling this mysterious way of transmitting the wisdom of sustainable places the Transmission Device of Living Traditions and hoped that it would be rediscovered in my lifetime. I feared, however, that it might be something mystical, or otherwise unintelligible to post-industrial people. But now, I believe the Transmission Device has been found.

   The discovery occurred on the evening of July 21, 2004, almost 24 years after the mystery of Mooresville. The New Urban Guild held an architectural charrette, designing homes and other buildings for the town of Lost Rabbit, near Jackson, Mississippi. The charrette concluded that day, and after the celebratory dinner, the design team headed to our B&B, the Millsaps-Buie house. Most of us stood around the parlor, finishing discussions started over dinner.

front of brick church in Mooresville, Alabama, with one door
for women and another for men

front of brick church, with one door

for women and another for men

   Late into the conversation, someone asked Milton Grenfell, one of the Mississippi natives on the design team, why so many of the houses between Jackson and the Coast had “bell-cast eaves,” which is a curious term for a roof that turns shallower around the edges. Milton said “We do this because moderately steep roofs resist hurricane winds the best, but we need something to break the force of water rushing off the steep roof during our torrential rains...”

   I’d been searching for the key to the mystery for many years, but it took a few seconds for Milton’s comment to sink in. “We do this because...That’s it! That’s the key! If every pattern in a language of architecture is framed by “we do this because...” then it opens up the underlying reasons for the architecture, and everyone is allowed to think again! “We do this because...” is the Transmission Device! Architecture isn’t just some collection of historical styles, but it actually becomes a living thing again! 

Mooresville, Alabama wood-frame post office, which is the oldest continuously operating post office in the state of Alabama

Mooresville's wood-frame post office,

the oldest operating post office in the

state of Alabama

   This breakthrough changed many things for me. Without it, the story of the Original Green would have been impossible to tell, for example. And precisely 25 years to the day after the mystery of Mooresville, I finished A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture] which is a handbook, or “pattern book” for starting a new living tradition. That book is self-published, and because we print it in-house, it’s very expensive ($150,) but it led to the award-winning A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] two years later, which was printed the normal way and therefore widely available.

   But I’m not the only one who has been helped by the Transmission Device. Thinking leads to invention to address new needs, and those inventions free architecture to finally evolve again, as it has always done from the dawn of time until architectural evolution faded into the Great Decline that began in the mid-1920s. And the answer to “we do this because...” shouldn’t simply be “it’s faster,” or “it’s cheaper.” Those are the specialists’ answers, focusing only on one thing. Generalists through the ages have taken a more holistic view.

porch detail of mansion on High Street in Mooresville, Alabama

Mooresville porch detail

   Several curious things happen as a result: first, it isn’t just about architectural style or fashion anymore, but rather about things with deeper meaning: that which works best for this people, and for this place. Living traditions produce architecture that is simply the best set of ways to build for a particular region’s conditions, climate, and culture.

   Architecture that allows everyone to think again instead of just following an old set of rules becomes something similar to open-source software because countless people can participate in its development. And it can change the behaviors of an entire culture in positive ways.

side yard of Mooresville, Alabama house

side yard of Mooresville house

   There are other benefits: today, many homebuilders persist in building many regrettable details because that’s their normal way of building, even though there are far smarter ways of getting the job done. Until the discovery of the Transmission Device, those of us who were promoting the smarter details could only say “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you.” It was a demeaning proposition, but it was the best we had. But when those discussions were re-framed to begin with “we do this because...”, everything changed. Once the builders discover why the smarter details are smarter, they’re delighted to build using them instead, and actually become advocates for the smarter ways.

tiny cottage on High Street, near mansion shown above - a huge range
of home size is normal in Mooresville, Alabama

tiny cottage on High Street, near

mansion shown above - a huge range

of home size is normal in Mooresville

   They aren’t the only ones. The townspeople often have vague good feelings about certain things they can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s the way a front porch sits watching the sidewalk, or the way a chimney meets the sky. But in any case, just as soon as someone explains why those elements are the way they are, the townspeople’s “warm fuzzies” are transformed into hot-blooded advocacy for the good stuff and they, too, become champions of the smarter and more sustainable ways of building their towns and their homes.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Thanksgiving’s coming, so what’s it to you?” I obviously took that question in a somewhat different direction, looking at the sustainability implications, as I usually do.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - 11:29 AM


Interesting blog.  I come at this as a cabinetmaker.  I get my share of compliments, but I don't let it go to my head, because I know entirely too many people who make me look like a boy scout.  Also, I am too aware of the many masters who did this work for centuries with only hand tools!  I do think you have the right on it about asking questions.  I've always said you can't get the right answers unless you ask the right questions.  And the other part that really struck a nerve with me is examining the work of people who worked at a time when a man worked for the pride of it, not how much money someone in a distant office could make off his labor.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - 12:14 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve: inspiring story about transmitting knowledge between generations. I just re-read A Timeless Way of Building this week end; Christopher Alexander was pursuing the same issue. how do we cultivate society so that everyone knows why and how to create excellent architecture and cities? b/c of mobility and technology, local knowledge was destroyed during the last century. perhaps we will rediscover it, thanks to our new ways of communicating and learning. thanks for your brilliant ideas. I highlight your book Original Green in my post today on being thankful. http://urbanverse.posterous.com. Cindy @urbanverse

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 - 08:48 PM

Steve Mouzon

Joseph, that's interesting... both my father and my grandfather were cabinetmakers. I learned just enough of the trade to do a bit, but have never been anywhere as good as either of them. My grandfather worked for most of his career with hand tools; my father was the generation that began with hand tools and finished with power tools... vaguely similar to the fact that I'm the generation of architects that started out hand drawing before moving to CAD. A major transformation in both cases.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 - 08:52 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much for the mention, Cindy! I owe a great debt to Alexander's work; I finally had the pleasure of meeting him at the CNU a few years ago when he won the Athena Medal. Interestingly, just a month after the Thanksgiving in this story, I discovered The Timeless Way and A Pattern Language at a now-defunct bookstore in my hometown named Books As Seeds. I devoured them both over Christmas break, laying on my parents' couch and doing little else the entire two weeks except reading and re-reading those books. Somehow, I've lost my copy of The Timeless Way somewhere in the intervening years. Need to buy another.

Friday, November 26, 2010 - 02:48 AM


Very Interesting.

Friday, February 25, 2011 - 03:50 PM

Steve Mouzon

   A tragic footnote... the morning after the rediscovery of the Transmission Device, I rode to the airport with two very dear friends: Michael Barranco and Julie Sanford. I couldn't stop talking about the stunning implications of this discovery.

   Michael was just killed in a tragic auto accident; he apparently fell asleep at the wheel returning from a meeting with clients a couple hundred miles from home. His funeral is tomorrow in Jackson, Mississippi.


A Time for Healing

deteriorating houses in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

   The years before the Meltdown were a time for building, but that is clearly over now. We’re now in an era where banks are so traumatized that most of them aren’t lending money for new developments no matter what. Future greenfield developments will be few and far between. The wreckage of the housing bubble is all around us, but not always where we can see it easily, as most of it is located out on the suburban fringe in places nobody visits. Some of it is too far gone, possibly including the houses pictured in this post, which have been sitting half-finished for months unprotected in the weather. But there are countless inhabited subdivisions where the houses are finished and inhabited, and where those inhabitants have seen the value of the biggest investments of their lifetimes shredded by the Great Recession. They can’t afford to walk away; what can be done to help them?

unfinished houses left open to weather in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

Inlet Beach, Florida subdivision lying

in ruins

   I believe that while the previous era was defined in large part by what we built, this new era desperately needs to be defined by what we heal. Simply put, the suburban sprawl we’ve built since World War II is simply too large to discard. And it’s not ours to discard in any case; it belongs to the people that live there.

   Sprawl, in its current form, is unsustainable almost everywhere. I remember when I was a kid, and gasoline just before the first Arab oil embargo would occasionally go as low as $0.199 a gallon during what was quaintly termed “gas wars.” Funny how that phrase has taken on a different meaning in recent years, isn’t it? But in any case, gas recently reached $5.00 per gallon in much of the country. That’s a 25x increase in less than 40 years. So it’s no big stretch to imagine a fourfold increase (less than 1/6 as much as what it’s done in those years) to $20 per gallon. And with billions of people now moving from low-impact agrarian lifestyles into the cities of China, India, and other nations, $20 per gallon gas may be closer than we think.

ruined street in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

entire street of ruined houses

   If you live in sprawl and have to drive everywhere to do anything, what happens when that day arrives? I’d strongly encourage everyone to test their Web of Daily Life... it’s an easy self-diagnosis we should all do, so that we can start preparing now.

   One solution, of course, is to move to a walkable place, which is what I did. But that only works for just so many of us, because we’ll run out of places to live in the walkable places. For most of us, the better solution is to help to heal the places where we live. I believe that the healing of sprawl is going to be the great challenge of this new era.

rotting house in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

when financing fails, housing fails

   Many of my colleagues are already working on this problem; some of them for years. I have, too. My Sky Method is a proposal for a new development paradigm that can either start with open land, or with an existing subdivision. Because it makes the current landowners partners in the system, there’s no need for a master developer to have to come in and buy up a lot of houses. Rather, everyone benefits as sprawl is turned into compact, mixed-use, walkable places.

   Others are working on the problem, too. For years, it has seemed so vexing as to be possibly insurmountable. I recall Andrés Duany’s keynote at the Congress for the New Urbanism several years ago, which focused on suburban repair. He closed by saying that “New Urbanists have met many challenges over the years, doing many things that were at the first considered either illegal or impossible. But I worry that this problem is too big. I really hope we don’t fail.”

a terrible thing to have as a neighbor - a failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

nobody wants failed places next door

   The great thing about seemingly impossible things is that if you think about them long enough, you eventually might figure out how to do something about them. That’s what has happened here.

   The first New Urbanist book on the problem was Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. It’s a book of principles and procedures. You really should read it; it was published at the end of 2008. Galina Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual was just published, and is a stunning toolbox of techniques for doing exactly what the book’s name implies. I consider it to be essential to anyone involved in sustainability, urbanism, or architecture today.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 12:39 PM

Baltimore Slumlord Watch

When I see pictures of empty suburban developments, it makes me sad.  With the number of homeless people -- some recently homeless due to the mortgage meltdown -- what sense does it make to have all of these empty homes??? Not that we can talk in Baltimore City -- we're one of the most blighted cities in America.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:08 AM

Steve Mouzon

Actually, in many places, homeless people are colonizing lost subdivisions. But these houses aren't complete enough to provide much more shelter than they would get sleeping on the street, as there's obviously a lot of rain getting in. And because these places are usually far from any other services or any pedestrians, homeless people living here wouldn't have any way to survive because there are no shops nearby selling inexpensive food, nor are there pedestrians from which to beg.

Ginger Mazzadi

Having a European background while being raised in the US... I have often wondered why the housing developments in the states that have been built as bedroom communities... are always without a heart. Meaning a little central plaza... some shops for necessities, milk, bread, a book store, an ice cream parlor and a little cafe... a place to walk to, know and connect with your neighbors.

The more we are alienated from each other, the more outside forces separate us, living together amicably makes us more accepting of differences and wiser because of it... and more able to confront outside forces and possibly brain storm for solutions in solidarity.

These areas can be saved if banks start being reasonable and help people buy them as fixer uppers at realistic prices. But don't forget the heart.

Feb 22, 2012 8:38am


The Coming Golden Age of Great Necessities

anvil at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Many are asking today “is there reason to be optimistic?” My own profession of architecture is lying in smoking ruins, as I wrote recently. And the end is not in sight; we’re likely to endure even further decline until the remaining firms have very few people left within them. The thieves of circumstance, it seems, have stolen our futures. But in the middle of all this gloom, I believe there’s a reasonable chance that we might be on the threshold of a new golden age. Here’s why:

wooden bowl and ladle at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   One would think that we would build the best places and live the best lives when we have the greatest resources, but that assumption is broken on so many examples we can see with our own eyes. Is it possible that when we have it good, we get it wrong, and when we have it bad, we get it right?

   I think that’s often so, and here’s why: as I wrote over a year ago, when times are tough, we can’t afford to be wasteful. Prosperity and wastefulness often go hand-in-hand, as do want and frugality. Usually, these relationships follow the ups and downs of the economy, but nothing really changes structurally. This time, however, the meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession have been so severe that they likely could have caused serious structural changes on their own. But they’re not alone.

drying frame at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   We have two other massive change agents at work in what Jim Kunstler and others call the Great Convergence. One is Peak Oil, which appears to be happening just as 2.5 billion Chinese and Indian citizens are moving into the city, where many of them will need cars. And that’s not even counting many millions in Brazil, Bangladesh, and other nations who are in the middle of the same migration. The third leg of the Great Convergence is the environment, and the growing realization among the great majority of the population that climate change is real, and that it is changing the world we once knew... and that we must take measures to stave off far great consequences.

   So now, many systems are dying, or being irreparably altered, by all this thunderous change. But most are the very things that had to die in order to usher in the golden age. Follow me on this one, as I attempt to tell four two-century-long stories in a couple minutes each... they’re the stories of how we shop, how we work, what we eat, and where we live. Similar stories could be told about other aspects of our life as well.


earthenware and barrels at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Before the Industrial Revolution, most things were made by local craftspeople and sold by local merchants. The railroads changed all that by making it easier to sell things further away. This allowed more efficient manufacturers to grow to great size and sell at great distance, putting many local craftspeople out of business. Trucks were introduced later and only amplified the effect.

   These early manufacturers, by today’s standards, made fairly simple stuff. A window manufacturer, for example, might use the exact same knives to make the exact same window components as another window manufacturer; they would just do it more efficiently, and therefore win the business. In effect, they were manufacturing commodities.

   Clever manufacturers began to realize that “getting commoditized,” or making something that someone else could duplicate was a death knell for all except the single most efficient company in the market, which would then drive the others out of business. And so the battle cry became “proprietize!” In other words, build a proprietary product that you could patent and that nobody else could make. If you did so, nobody could undercut you; your biggest challenge was to convince customers to buy your stuff.

keg, axe, lantern, and hammer at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Proprietary products, however, had an unintended consequence. Grocery stores that sold only commodities like black beans, rice, milk, tomatoes, bananas, etc., could be very small. There are several groceries within a couple blocks of my office that are less than 3,000 square feet each. But just as soon as groceries had to stock Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and 60 other proprietary cereals, the stores necessarily ballooned. Today, a 40,000 square foot grocery is considered small in the grocery industry.

   Mega-stores have an unintended consequence as well: they must attract customers from many miles around, rather than just a few blocks, because there aren’t enough customers within just a few blocks to keep them in business unless they’re in a very highly-populated urban setting. So when proprietary products proliferate, the neighborhood store becomes impossible. This condition requires sprawl. Let that sink in a moment: proprietary products can’t survive in neighborhood retail; they can only survive in sprawl, because they can’t get on the very limited shelf-space of the neighborhood stores. When New Urbanist retail expert Seth Harry introduced a similar idea years ago, I resisted it, but Seth was right, for similar reasons as these.

   Today, the likelihood of much higher gas prices due to the convergence of Peak Oil with the industrialization of the world’s most populous countries means that the core driver of big box retail in suburbia may be ending, and in its place, it’s not unreasonable to think we might see a resurgence of local craftspeople and local shops. But without the Great Convergence, local craftspeople and local shops would be nothing but a romantic memory of our culture in most places.


keg and tools at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Work before the Industrial Revolution was almost always done at home or very near home. The idea of having a job and working for wages didn’t even exist in most places beforehand. But with the advent of the factory came the need for many workers. During most of the 19th century, the majority of these workers couldn’t afford to live anywhere other than right around the factory.

   The years surrounding 1900 saw two major changes to this arrangement: the first modern planners realized that if the “dark satanic mills” were separated from the rest of the town, the people would live healthier lives. This new mandated distance from home to work now meant that you could no longer walk to work. The rise of powerful labor unions during the same era produced higher-wage workers with greater means available for the cost of getting around, and the automobile’s advances in the early years of the 20th century sealed the deal: we would henceforth commute to work.

tools at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   But work didn’t sit still. Rather, workplaces began moving around madly, abandoning the central city, especially after World War II, for a raft of reasons. As did the workers, especially beginning in with the civil unrest of the 1960’s. And so work and home grew much further apart. Today, the Compulsory Commuting of many Americans tops two hours per day.

   Three things are poised to change this as well: First, the Great Convergence will quickly render many of those commutes unaffordable. Next, the character of work has changed dramatically as most of our factory work has gone off-shore, and there are few factories left. But when the Great Convergence brings jobs back onshore as we become unable to afford to ship stuff all around the world to build a shirt or a shovel, don’t expect it to come back in giant factories. Rather, look for smaller workshops that fit much better into the fabric of a town. Finally, we’ve built some really massive pipes for the internet over the past twenty years. These will allow work to be done from home in quantities we haven’t seen in 200 years. Again, working from home or near home would be only a romantic memory if not for the Great Convergence.


carrots at Pike Place Market, Seattle

   Once, most food came from very close around, even in major cities. Look at old maps of London, Rome, or Paris, and you’ll see gardens and orchards built tight around the city. Most food was still raised close to home until the advent of refrigerated transport around the end of World War II. Enterprising industrialists realized this meant that the dynamics of industrialization could apply to food as well, and modern agribusiness was born.

   Government cooperated heartily. Earl Butz, head of the Department of Agriculture in the mid-1970’s, harangued farmers with “Get big or get out!” The family farm shortly was swept into history, replaced by farms of a thousand acres or more in many places.

Pike Place Market vegetable & fruit display, Seattle, Washington

   Originally, agribusiness was a mostly a regionalized operation, with fields, processing plants, and customers all located within a few hundred miles of each other in most cases. But the epic battles between migrant farm worker unions and agribusiness a few decades ago prompted a massive move to “export the guilt” to other countries, where entire families can work for a few cents a day in some places in Central and South America and most in the US don’t worry about it one bit. The primary plant agriculture left in the US is grains (corn, wheat, oats, etc.) and soybeans because these can be tended and harvested industrially with huge equipment, rather than hand-tended by an army of agricultural workers, like most vegetables require.

   But this “food that needs passports” had some unintended consequences as well. Sitting in a refrigerated truck for three weeks before getting to market was more than most fruits and vegetables could take, so we had to genetically engineer them to be able to endure the trip. The price we pay in taste and nutrition is substantial. If you doubt that, slice open a locally-raised heirloom tomato and one from the supermarket and see for yourself.

   Today, the Great Convergence is poised to make the entire industrial food chain unworkable, because it depends so heavily on oil. Couple that with the growing local food movement, and it’s entirely possible to imagine much of America living on food raised nearby... a completely unthinkable thing before the Great Convergence.


fireplace at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   The history of the American home is bloated in recent years. We’ve doubled the average size of home since World War II, during which time the average household size has nearly been cut in half. But we have so much excess stuff that won’t fit in houses twice as large inhabited by half as many people that we’ve made the mini-storage industry a $17 billion/year business!

   Not only have our homes grown twice as large, but they’re also much more poorly constructed than they once were. This is because we’ve discarded the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum as humanity’s longest-running cost control device and insisted on building in certain styles, even if we have to do it with vinyl and duct tape!

strainer & pan at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Couple this with the fact that because we moved so much, most homebuyers’ sentiments went something like this: “I’ll only be living here 8 years or less; why should I care if the roof doesn’t last more than 15 years?” By taking this attitude, we’ve condemned each American generation to bear the burden of building their own homes. Doubt that? Talk to your friends. If you talk to 100 friends, unless they’re all very young, you’ll likely find more than 100 new homes built or bought between them. This great burden of insubstantial housing doubtless helped bring on the Meltdown.

   We cannot afford this insanity any longer. We need to build for centuries, not just for a decade or so. We need to be able to hand things down through generations, not just use things up. We also need to be allowed to build very small at the beginning, and grow our buildings over time. Much of the charm of traditional buildings comes from their incremental growth over generations, and the history it embodies. But our ancestors didn’t do this for charm; they did it out of necessity, as home mortgages didn’t exist at the time, so you built what you could afford, and added on later as you needed.

   Fortunately, I firmly believe that if we’re wise, we’ll see the Great Convergence as the motivation we need to build substantially again. Like the ways we shop, work, and eat, this paradigm shift in the ways we build our buildings could not have occurred without the Great Convergence.

The Golden Age

balances at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Massive systems were set up to run the world as we know it: FHA, VA, volume builders, Euclidean zoning, agribusiness and the industrial food chain, payroll deductions, the health care system, and all the other structures of the modern workplace, for example. All of these things produce, as their natural end results, strip centers, shopping malls, sprawl, placeless workplaces, ever--increasing consumption of processed food leading to our ever-increasing obesity and ill health, and bloated houses in suburbia that fall apart more quickly all the time.

   All of these systems are fueled in varying degrees by things put in jeopardy by the Great Convergence. All of these systems had to fail or become irrelevant before we could reach the threshold of an age when people live more simply, sustainably, and happily with the resources available to them, surrounded with great necessities that make us great, rather than being surrounded with the recent overabundance of things that have made us fat and not so smart. I really hope we have the wisdom to land gently and safely into that golden age, rather than crashing into some unimaginable dark age. It’s up to us... what will we choose?

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Is there a reason to be optimistic?” I obviously took that question in a somewhat different direction, looking at the sustainability implications, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller  @modenus  Modenus Community

Paul Anater  @paul_anater  Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg  @dogwalkblog  DogWalkBlog.com

Becky Shankle  @ecomod  Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson  @bobborson  Life of an Architect

Bonnie Harris  @waxgirl333  Wax Marketing

Nick Lovelady  @cupboards  Cupboards Kitchen and Bath

Tamara Dalton  @tammyjdalton  Tamara Dalton Studios

Sean Lintow, Sr.  @SLSconstruction  SLS-Construction.com

Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse's Posterous

Madame Sunday  @ModernSauce  Modern Sauce

Saxon Henry  @saxonhenry  Roaming by Design

Brian Meeks  @ExtremelyAvg  Extremely Average

Denese Bottrell  @Denese_Bottrell  Thoughtful Content

Chamois Green  @chamwashere  Cham Was Here

Betsy De Maio  @egrgirl  Egrgirl's Blog

Steve Kleber  @stevekleber  Marketing Home Products

Allison Bailes III @EnergyVanguard Energy Vanguard Blog

Ami  @beackami  Multifarious Miscellany

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:37 AM

Cindy Frewen Wuellner

   Steve: you made a book here, I think, the outlines of a very good long read. I hope you will write the full blown version. Those are the key points, at least from a built environment story - how we use cities. You’re right, the shape of these buildings are dependent on sprawl; part and parcel. so without cars, they dont work.

   I hope that you are right, a golden age ahead. That is optimism indeed. I really think that suburbs were going to implode regardless of the convergence - which is undeniably sending them off the deep end. Our growth slowed too much. What I wonder is what will we do with them now? They are part of our legacy, what boomers left for the next gens to fix. A sustainable makeover or dismantling?

   Such an important post, thanks for thinking it through.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:47 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much, Cindy! As for the suburbs, check out the Sprawl Repair Manual by my good friend Galina Tachieva. It's really a landmark book. As for this post, I hadn't thought of making it into a book, but there's really so much potential content lurking in each section that it really could become one... thanks for the idea!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:49 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... if you're trying to comment, please copy the comment before clicking Add Comment, and if it doesn't post, please email it to me at steve@mouzon.com and I'll put it up. iWeb is having issues today; Apple is having a product keynote address in less than two hours; I hope this is a harbinger of a new version of iWeb with the features I've been asking them for. iWeb is excellent, but could get better.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 04:27 PM

Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

   Wonderful post, Steve! You've eloquently described the structural changes in how we live, eat, work, and shop that were brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Now that we're going through the Great Recession and the Great Convergence, those changes are being undone. The structure is changing again, which I mentioned in my LetsBlogOff post, and we have a great opportunity before us.

   Although the pessimists and Luddites among us might see a future that looks preindustrial, I don't believe it's possible for the post-peak oil world to unwind symmetrically. You've pointed out one factor that will make a huge difference, and that's the "really massive pipes for the internet" available to us. Yes, this "series of tubes" that I'm using now has tremendous power to ease our transition into a better future (and I'm not just talking about videos of laughing babies, piles of puppies, and naughty teen threesomes).

   And I'm with you in the optimism department. Anyone who's aware of what's really going on now and the huge changes that are coming has to make a choice - Work for positive change or run and hide. I choose the former and, like you, hope that we can avoid a dark age.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:45 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Allison! And I agree... I don't see us going back to exactly like we were in 1750. What future conditions hold isn't clear right now, but it's almost certain it won't be an exact repeat of the past.

Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 07:38 PM

Hal O'Brien

   I know it's the conventional wisdom of Kunstler, et al., that Peak Oil will result in two things: 1) phenomenally high prices for oil, 2) a corresponding collapse of the global economy.

   The problem is, supply and demand strongly implies you can get one or the other, but not both.  Consider that in 2009 we saw a 5% slackening of demand for oil, but a 50% drop in price.  Oil is very demand sensitive -- which is why OPEC keeps the taps open.  If merely reducing supply could significantly raise the price of oil, OPEC would have done it long ago.

   Kunstler has said we're sleepwalking into the future.  If so, OPEC is sleepwalking right alongside us.  Or, to put it another way, Kunstler and the Peak Oilers keep acting like the 1973 embargo was the defining event, and supply could go away at any time; OPEC keeps acting like the oil glut of the 1980s was the defining event, and demand could go away at any time.

   All that said {ahem}... I very much liked the insight about brand-items causing the physical growth of grocery shops, compared to raw commodities.  Makes me wonder if there isn't already a "no-brand" niche out there that could be served by smaller shops.  {pause}  Which, arguably, Trader Joe's is already doing.

Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 07:50 PM

Hal O'Brien

   Ms Bailes: "Although the pessimists and Luddites among us might see a future that looks preindustrial..."

   Only because of widespread ignorance of history. Consider this description from 1919: "The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth ... he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world."

   That's a world notably pre-petroleum, but post-industry. (The writer is Keynes, by the way.) My point is, industrial society existed from the 1830s or so until the gusher at Spindletop in 1901 with no oil at all.  Even after Spindletop, oil didn't become a major force in society until the widespread adoption of the automobile, which didn't take place for decades. Oil could disappear tomorrow, and industrialism would still be with us -- didactic nostalgic moralists to the contrary.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks for the really insightful comments, Hal! And please visit often! A few thoughts in response:

   A. Until now, the oil supply side has had the ability to respond to the demand side by ratcheting supply up or down, according to what's going on. Kunstler and the Peak Oilers are saying that once Peak Oil conditions are firmly in control, there won't be the ability to open the taps further. In other words, their predictions are based on future conditions we haven't seen heretofore. Will the economy be slammed so badly that demand drops enough to actually bring prices back down? Who knows? But we shall see...

   B. I personally don't believe that there's any way we'll ever go back to some idyllic past. Somewhat akin to the core idea of the Heaths' Curse of Knowledge, we can't just forget what we already know. Some might say "but wait, what about the Dark Ages?" During the medieval era (which wasn't necessarily all so dark) knowledge was kept by the select few, and passed on through the torturous means of writing everything by hand on paper, making knowledge much more tenuous. Today, an average eighth grader arguably knows more facts about the physical world than almost anyone in medieval times. So knowledge is much more firmly embedded. So even if there is the failure of major systems, I believe knowledge will survive much more intact. So the question we should be asking ourselves today isn't "will we go back?" but "what works best?" That question has always been at the core of the Original Green, and the answers it generates are framed by "We do this because..."

Thursday, December 30, 2010 - 12:39 PM


What you are trying to say is we went from a wealth of poverty to the poverty of wealth. BTW your anvil (18th century is my guess) is a poor example to show as its working edges are all smashed over or chipped out. Show one with sharp clean working edges. We have forgotten so much.

Richard O. Byrne www.richardobyrne.com


What Should Students Do Now?

volcanic foothills on the Big Island of Hawaii

   The profession of architecture lies today in smoking ruins. Most students don’t have a snowball’s chance of getting a job in this environment. What should they do?

   Many architecture firms have closed their doors entirely, and many more have been reduced to little more than the partners. And there is no end in sight for anyone taking a realistic view of the carnage. Simply put, 2006 isn’t coming back. We’re in the middle of a major structural shift, and it isn’t immediately clear where things will stabilize.

steam rising from burning shore where lava meets the sea on the Big Island of Hawaii

   Fortunately for students and recent graduates, this is the one time in their careers that they can withstand such a jolting upheaval, for reasons I described here. Simply put, this is the one time in your career that you can afford to do something else for a living while building your ideas away from work. Because the meltdown is sweeping away many of the architects of older generations, it is clearing the way for students and recent graduates to become the leaders of the profession much sooner than they would have ever dreamed... if they do certain things.

   The first necessary thing, if you haven’t started already, is to begin building your networks. If necessary, build them in advance of knowing exactly what you’re going to do with them. For example, I have a network of over a thousand people on LinkedIn, and I haven’t decided yet how best to use it... but it’s there, waiting for me once I figure it out.

lone tree standing at the border between two lava flows on the Big Island of Hawaii

   I’ve built a network of over 3,000 people on Facebook, mostly centered on those who have an interest in the Original Green... pointing out the fact that once you do know how you’re hoping to use the network, it’s much easier to grow because you stand for something. There’s an Original Green cause on Facebook that has over 11,000 members from all over the world. Somewhat over a thousand people currently follow me on Twitter. Some of my Useful Stuff blog posts have had upwards of 3,000 readers. And several hundred people regularly read this blog, and not all at once, either. There are new readers all the time for blog posts over a year old. I’m even building a network of sorts around the images on my Zenfolio site. The point is that you shouldn’t build just one network, but several... because you’ll find significantly different circles of people in each.

orchard and farmland on North Shore of Big Island of Hawaii

   Networks are of very little use, however, unless you have something useful with which to feed them, because without something useful nudging them in a particular direction, you’re left with nothing but conversational static about completely random and likely non-useful stuff.

   You can feed your networks in the beginning with little snippets of useful information, even if they’re gleaned from other sources. But sooner or later, you’re going to need at least one big idea. Why? There’s an external reason and an internal reason: From the outside, it’s the big ideas that attract like-minded people to you. Those who want to know about the Creative Class seek out Richard Florida. Those who want to know about sticky ideas seek out Chip & Dan Heath. Those who want to know what’s wrong with suburban sprawl and how to fix it seek out Andrés Duany and Galina Tahchieva.

   The internal reason for a big idea is that everyone needs a taxonomy of their work. “Taxonomy” is a fancy word for putting things in order. Your big idea informs your taxonomy. Lots of things fall in place when you have a big idea with which to organize them.

streams coursing through pastures near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Does the idea need to be your own? Let’s think about that a moment. It is completely fine to be a student of other people’s ideas, contributing none of your own, and simply using their ideas to organize what you do. Nothing wrong with that. Matter of fact, that’s what most people do.

   Some people, however, aren’t satisfied with just hearing about the truth; they want to observe it. Working directly with empirical observations of the way things are, unfiltered by numerous commentators over the years, can be a bit scary because you don’t have the confirmation of all those other wise people who have thought about these things. But if you’re curious enough, then this may often be the path you find yourself on. This is where the thought leaders emerge.

   Where do big ideas come from? Start by looking for “insight holes.” These are places in an existing schema where things don’t quite line up... places where your professors’ theories get a bit frayed around the edges. These are places in dire need of an insight... and that insight just might be yours if you’re looking for it. But if you’re not looking, there’s very little chance the insight will be yours. Nothing fuels insight so much as expectation.

streambeds cutting through rain forests near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Interestingly, you never know whether your insights will support the existing schema or break it. That’s part of the fun of discovery. At the very least, your insights will help explain those troubling little things nibbling around the edges of your mind about how things work. Or they may explain how things work in an entirely different way.

   Please note that this can be slow work. The day after Thanksgiving 1980, I visited the tiny hamlet of Mooresville, Alabama and encountered a great mystery which I described in Twenty-Eight Years Later. A brilliant person might have figured it out in short order, but I did the next best thing: I adopted the mystery. I took it home with me, fed it, and took care of it for years.

trees scattering across pastures from a streambed near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Late on the evening of July 21, 2004, over 23-1/2 years after first encountering the mystery, the Transmission Device of Living Traditions was rediscovered. The dominoes began to fall very quickly after that evening, and just over a year later, on the day after Thanksgiving 2005, precisely a quarter-century to the day after encountering the mystery at Mooresville, I finished a book (A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture]) which thoroughly incorporates the discovery, providing a roadmap for making the discovery work. Soon after, A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] built another roadmap for another place on the same framework.

waterfall plunging thousands of feet into a gorge on the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Since that time, insight has fallen quickly upon insight, culminating in the ideas of the Original Green. I never would have been able to tell the Original Green story today without adopting that mystery nearly thirty years ago.

   There’s another important thing to note here: Adopting the mystery helped me all through the years, because when you adopt a mystery, you’re continuously looking at everything with expectancy, not knowing which tree, which rock, or which street corner the answer might be hiding behind. But in the early years, outward progress was exceptionally slow because I had no network. I was on an architectural island in a small town where my colleagues were far more interested in architecture as an income-producing medium than an idea-producing medium.

floor of deep gorge near North Shore of Big Island of Hawaii

   Twenty years after the mystery at Mooresville, I began to actively engage with New Urbanists, first at the Seaside Institute, then at the Congress for the New Urbanism and elsewhere. Friends and colleagues sharpen each other’s ideas like they could each never do alone. It was less than five years from the time I started building my New Urbanist network until that July night when the Transmission Device was rediscovered.

   So start building your networks now. Had I started building mine in 1980, who knows how soon the Original Green story could have been told, and how much good it could have done in the meantime?

   One caveat: both the network-building and the idea-building are slow tasks. Don’t get discouraged. You will get very few follows in the beginning. And the beginnings of idea-building are where you make the slowest progress. Critical mass is more likely to occur in a several months or a few years than in a few days or weeks. But if you don’t get started, you’ll never get there at all. So get going now! And by all means, let’s discuss this... please add a comment and let’s talk about it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: See Social Media and Living Traditions and  The Importance of Blogging for ideas that dovetail closely with these.

Legacy Comments:

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 10:38 AM

John Anderson


In addition to the activities you listed, I recommend that newly minted architecture grads figure out a way to build something (or renovate something).  FourGrads+family&friends LLC might be the only outfit building small well-designed rental and work space during these tough times.  Take this time to learn the business side of the built environment.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 10:59 AM

Steve Mouzon

Excellent point, John! Plus, this dovetails with my long-held belief that every architect should have worked at least a year or two in construction. And not just for a contractor, but in the field actually putting stuff together.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:23 PM

Denese Bottrell

You've touched on so many important points here.  I know you're speaking to architecture students, but all professions at all levels could benefit from adopting a student mentality. Being open to learning new "ways," being patient with the process and comfortable showing vulnerability will be what drives success going forward. Your story is realistic, showing us we can't wait to figure it out before we start trying...Whether our efforts evolve into a big “business” idea isn't necessarily important. If the practice helps us become closer to who we are and find a community that connects.... then it’s worth all the late nights & weekends spent blogging & tweeting.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:30 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks, Denese! And yes, you're exactly right... these are things we all could and should be doing, IMO. It's just that students are in the best position to do so because they haven't gotten sucked into the machine yet, and burdened down with all the obligations that come with pre-meltdown success.

   Your point about comfort showing vulnerability is particularly valuable, IMO. In the old Fort Business model, everything coming from Public Relations was supposed to indicate that the company had it all figured out. Now, however, the admission that we don't have it all figured out is an open invitation to collaboration with others. Someone recently said "all of us are smarter than any of us," which makes that collaboration especially valuable.

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 02:20 AM

Brent Baldwin

Great advice! If where we are headed is fewer clients that can support the old model of architecture as high design for the discriminating, then the solution may be to open it up to the masses. Just as everyone I know goes to the dentist, maybe through blogs like this and a collaborative environment, one day we'll hire architects and designers for all sorts of problems, big and small.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

Exactly... we need to be open to all sorts of new possibilities, because the old systems clearly aren't working anymore... at least not for most of us. FWIW, I'm working on a post right now entitled A Time for Healing... it proposes some ideas for the current realities.

Thursday, November 11, 2010 - 02:33 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve, You are so right, in areas where much has been developed, like architectur, important ideas take a couple of decades of simmering to become fully realized. Sometimes we hit on a fantastic idea immediately, early in life, but those tend to be in areas with little completed - as Bill Gates, the Beatles, and now Zuckerberg found. they were creating transformational new domains. In architecture and cities, we are building on thousands of years of civilization. and the technology is complex. In school and the first five years of practice, we just see all the parts, another five or ten to orchestrate it in design or management. Most architects best work begins after 40. People have to love it or try something else. beautiful thoughts, Cindy @urbanverse

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:37 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Cindy! BTW, have you read Gladwell's Outliers? He makes the case that even with Gates, the Beatles, and others, their "overnight successes" were at least 10,000 hours in the making. So there's no doubt we've gotta build up to greatness. I'm just thinking that by harvesting the wisdom of many, networks can help make the path a little more direct... maybe?

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... for anyone interested in the Mooresville story, here's a more recent blog post that tells it in more detail.


The Importance of Blogging

two men debating in the shadow of a stone statue beside a long allee in a park in Madrid, Spain

   Blogging just might help bring us back from our current highly unsustainable condition. How? Let’s look at how we got there: The history of industrialization is one of increasing scales. As the individual became a smaller and smaller cog in an increasingly massive machine, it became easier and easier to think that nothing any one of us could do would make a difference.

clock with red glowing numerals and hands against early evening sky atop an office tower in Madrid, Spain

   Real change, if it can’t come from us, must therefore come from the machine. Want more efficiency? That’s the job of the machine’s genius-filled engineering department somewhere around the world. Here’s the first problem: efficiency increases “they” can deliver to us can’t keep up with our increase in consumption. This is partly due to skyrocketing population, but it’s compounded by the massive inefficiencies of sprawl.

   Here’s another problem: expectation of top-down sustainability solutions from the political arena are sure to be met with failure. Why? Because politics are increasingly crisis-driven, and poll after poll shows that while most people consider sustainability to be an important thing to aspire to, it ranks pretty far down the crisis pecking order. For much of America’s history, politics were driven more by ideals than crisis, but while ideals may carry the day in economically prosperous times, the Meltdown and its aftermath have swung the needle decidedly in the other direction for the foreseeable future.

nighttime protest just outside Plaza Real in Madrid, Spain

   Industry and government have collaborated in another way to make sustainability all but impossible: the very definition of our economy is based on ever-increasing consumption. A consuming economy is considered sick if it isn’t consuming more than during the previous quarter. What we need is a conserving economy, where things are valued by how long they last. A conserving economy values the act of passing something down. A consuming economy values the act of using something up.

   Compound all that with the machine’s effect on us: all that technology has made us fat, as we drive our cars instead of walk, and consume ever-increasing amounts of “food-like substances.” It has made us lazy, because pressing the Easy Button is so... well... easy. It has made us intolerant; we can only tolerate a couple degrees of temperature difference, for example, and therefore the equipment is always on. And it has made us passive, expecting our vast assortment of gizmos to do almost everything for us. It’s important to note that none of the effects above, in my opinion, were part of some nefarious conspiracy to ruin the earth. Rather, each step was the logical and (or so it seemed at the time) sensible response to current conditions of industrialization. So I find it much more useful to look for solutions than bad guys.

market just outside Plaza Real in Madrid, Spain

   What does all this have to do with blogging? Plenty. Because both government and industry are so heavily invested in ever-increasing consumption and therefore can’t provide true sustainability, that means that it’s up to us.  What can we do about it? We’ve started already: we’re turning to ourselves. We’re setting the stage for grassroots solutions to come from the blogosphere.

   Millions of people now get more of their information from blogs than from network news. Sometimes, the bloggers are trusted sources of original insights and opinions. Other times, the bloggers serve as curators of information from other sources, selecting the most useful stuff for their readers. Most blog posts are some combination of the two. This phenomenon is encouraging in at least two very important ways:

open-air bookstore on side street in Madrid, Spain

   The mere act of seeking out blogs to read rather than sitting on the couch and soaking up the network news is the first step to recovery from our century-long passivity. It means we have to think, rather than just absorb. And thinking, more often than not, leads to action of some sort. The act of blogging has a similar, but even more pronounced effect. If you don’t blog already, you should consider it. The mere act of harvesting the warm fuzzy thoughts in your brain and converting them into a coherent written form is enormously useful, in my experience.

two men walking through plaza in Madrid, Spain

   This is also good news because our hope of a sustainable society rests squarely on our own behavior. If our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us. We need a giant swap-fest of behavior-changing ideas, and blogs are the near-perfect vehicle for this task. We need millions of minds thinking, testing, and sharing green ideas that will spread. Please join the discussion!

   I blogged recently about related ideas in Social Media and Living Traditions. Please check it out and let’s discuss those aspects as well.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Are blogs as important as bloggers think they are?” I obviously took that question in a somewhat different direction, looking at the sustainability implications, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus Community

Paul Anater @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog

Becky Shankle @ecomod Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson @bobborson Life of an Architect

Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction SLS-Construction.com

Saxon Henry @saxonhenry Roaming by Design

Betsy De Maio @egrgirl Egrgirl's Blog

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 11:10 AM

Saxon Henry

I totally agree that real change comes from us and that nothing's going to be altered unless we make it a part of our behavior and patterns. Great post! I'm so glad we're all coming up with our own unique ways of saying what these subjects mean to us...shows how we're all individuals with great takes on life.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 12:27 PM

Hazel Borys

Well said, Steve! The "giant swap-fest of behaviour-changing ideas" is akin to the therapist's couch, on which behaviours can start to be recognized, analyzed and modified. So perhaps this process is part of the move away from the codependence on the Nanny State, and a sort of coming of age of the community. Keep bringing it on!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 02:38 PM


As a new blogger myself, thanks for the encouragement and validation that I'm doing my little part for us all. :)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 06:52 PM

Hollie Holcombe

This is a great post. Thanks Steve! Your view is uplifting and I hope more people start to think the way you do about blogging and social media.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 08:32 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve, beautiful words and images. that's exactly why we need to write blogs. Are you familiar with McLuhan's Tetrad? For every tool we make, we also lose something. As you said, gizmos made us and our cities fat. Do you suppose that we are finally ready to reverse that? that the tools now are so compliant , and our environmental mistakes so critical, that we will put people and planet first again? Perhaps with these megaphones, and with better data, we can regain some balance. 

thanks for sharing your brilliant ideas, 

cindy @urbanverse

Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 10:00 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, everyone! Cindy, I'm not familiar with the Tetrad, but will look into it. As for what's next, it's entirely possible that we'll be stupid until we get into situations where we have no choices... but I hope not. That's why it's so important that these conversations happen now, to help us with a soft landing rather than a crash.

Friday, October 15, 2010 - 07:22 PM

Jeff Dungan

   Steve I very much appreciate your thoughts and ideas and great efforts you put towards all things thoughtful and beautiful.  I have learned a lot from you over the years- and when I am trying out a new detail like say a "jack-arch" or some such traditional construction where I am not bending the hell out of it and actually want to get it correct- I have reached for your books on more than one occasion.

   I have recently begun a blog after thinking and pondering on it for maybe a year, and it has been a wonderful outlet for me- almost a therapy of words and pictures- so thanks for your insights into the collective efforts to make the world better in our own small but significant ways.

   Mostly I just admire how your brain works and your faithful passion and it has always seemed to me like some kind of courageousness.  So you also, keep up the good work... 

Very sincerely, 

Jeff Dungan

Saturday, October 16, 2010 - 08:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much, Jeff! If anyone doesn't know Jeff's work, you really should. He and his partner, Louis Nequette, do some of the most evocatively beautiful work you've ever seen. Check them out at www.dungan-nequette.com And the blog that Jeff has just started is the most beautiful blog I've ever seen... and that's just the superficial look and feel. Just wait until you get to the content!


The Mysteries of Lovable Buildings

infinity-edge pool at Strawberry Hill overlooking Kingston, Jamaica

   If a building cannot be loved, it will not last, and its carbon footprint becomes meaningless once its parts are carted off to the landfill. But how do you define lovability in clear enough terms that it can be repeated by others? More precisely, how do you code for lovability? One glance across the landscape of recently-constructed buildings clearly shows that this must be a vexing problem, because we’ve had so little success with building lovably recently.

   Ask most groups of architects, and you’ll quickly conclude that the term “lovable building” is as difficult to define without self-reference as the word “time.” This panel of starchitects concluded recently that beauty was not a concern of theirs. And beauty is only a threshold to lovability, because we’ve all experienced beauty that is cold and aloof, and therefore hard to love.

   But we have to start somewhere, if we have any hope of learning how to replicate it broadly. There are three general categories of buildings and objects that can be loved: those which reflect us, those which delight us, and those which put us in harmony with the world around us. We have varying degrees of understanding of each. I’ll be attempting to expand my understanding of the more mysterious ones between now and Thursday, October 21, at 10:30 AM on Navy Pier in Chicago, at which point I’ll tell you what I discovered at the Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference.

Things that Reflect Us

Leonardo daVinci's Vitruvian Man drawing is likely the most famous drawing in human history

daVinci's Vitruvian Man

   This is one of the more well-understood types of lovability. Clearly, traditional architecture has reflected the shape, proportions, and arrangement of the human body from earliest times. But architecture can reflect us in other ways as well.

   Certain building elements have become icons of a region; the classic American example is the Southern front porch. How might elements like this emerge in the future? There’s a developing story on one such element at Schooner Bay... I’ll share the latest with you next month in Chicago.

Things that Delight Us

colorful frontage garden tucked between tan stone wall of house and street paving in Bourton-On-The-Water in England

frontage garden

   Some forms of delight are easy, such as the pure sensual delight of this beautiful frontage garden. Others are tougher to get a handle on. How about “memory delight,” which is the solidity of being able to say “I remember what happened, and it happened right here.” Much of today’s construction prevent us from hooking our memories to a particular place because of a few fundamental errors embedded in our construction system. And how about the maternal “sheltering delight” and the paternal “challenging delight”? What can we do to enable them?

Things that Put Us in Harmony

Golden Mean spiral diagram

Golden Mean diagram

   This is the category most shrouded in mystery. Granted, most of us have rediscovered many of the secrets of classical proportioning systems in recent years. And we’ve rediscovered the pleasure of harmony with natural laws, like gravity and thermodynamics. There’s a solid pleasure in a building that looks to be capable of carrying the load. And many of us have grown beyond the adolescent desire to plaster glass all over a building, especially on the western wall in warm climates where the sun would be intolerable except for massive infusions of air conditioning.

   But what of the harmony with natural processes? I have a few hints about how this works, but there’s much work that needs to be done here.

   The biggest mystery, however, is one that I’m calling “harmony with the region.” Simply put, we might love a little clapboard cottage in Beaufort and a stone farmhouse in Tuscany, but putting that clapboard cottage on a Tuscan hillside would look absolutely ridiculous.

   I suspect that much of the mystery of lovable buildings may be embedded somewhere in the harmony with the region. I don’t understand it now, but it’s one of my top priorities, because we really need to figure this out. Please come and join the discussion in Chicago!

   ~Steve Mouzon


The Failure of Architecture to Learn

Frank Gehry bandshell behind classical balustrade at Millennium Park in Chicago

   Both sides of the “trad-mod” debate make serious blunders that prevent true sustainability. We really must get beyond both sets of errors if we hope to live sustainably someday. Here’s how each of these approaches fail:

How Modernism Prevents Modernity

Lake Point Tower, a curvilinear Modernist building in Chicago

   The classical resurgence of the past two decades has well-documented and bitter complaints against Modernism in all its forms, from architecture to town planning to art to music to pretty much any aspect of life today that you can think of. I join in this complaint to a degree, and for this reason: The “newer is always better” approach has recently carried with it, at least in architecture and many of the arts, a necessity of uniqueness. Superficially, the necessity of uniqueness would seem to be a good thing. It would encourage creativity, right? What’s wrong with that? Here’s what:

   When uniqueness is a prerequisite of significance, we’re effectively disallowing creatives from learning from those who came before them. This takes each of them back to the creative Stone Age, because everything about their design must (in theory) come from the fountainhead of their own creativity. By disallowing the acknowledged use of that which came before us, we’re essentially disallowing the transfer of wisdom.

Modernist sculpture in front of Chicago highrise

   If we can’t build upon the wisdom of those who came before us, then we’ll never achieve sustainability. Why? Because true sustainability depends not only on what others (manufacturers, government, and specialists of all stripes) can do for us, but primarily on each of us thinking and behaving differently ourselves. Any hopes that millions of people might behave differently depends heavily on the ability to spread green wisdom broadly and deeply. True modernity depends on a progression of ideas over time, where subsequent ideas grow better and better because they build on previous ideas. Requiring everyone to go back to the fountainhead of their own creativity prevents this, no matter how talented the hand that is doing the work. So the cruel irony is that Modernism prevents modernity, and leaves us with little more than eternal (and often juvenile) self-expression.

How Traditionalism Kills Living Traditions

poorly-designed classical portico at the Ledges of Huntsville Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama

   Some traditionalists take the approach that “older is always better.” This may sound like a polar opposite to Modernism’s “newer is always better,” but it paradoxically produces the same result: it renders those traditionalists, just like the Modernists, incapable of learning important things. Sure, they learn the classical canons. But that’s about the extent of it because to these traditionalists, they’re assumed to be closed canons, almost as if they had been handed down from Heaven itself. Actually, a few hardcore traditionalists believe precisely that: they propose that classical architecture is a divine gift directly from God himself.

   This view simply doesn’t square up with a broad view of history. A reasonable person would conclude that architecture has always evolved from the dawn of civilization, like a living thing, because the traditions were alive, learning and continually solving the problems of better ways of building in harmony with regional conditions, climate, and culture.

5-bay traditional front porch in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

   The last of the living architectural traditions died nearly a century ago. The first thing recovered thirty years ago were the styles of some of the last traditions to die: Bungalows, Colonial Revival, Beaux-Arts, Federal, Greek Revival, etc. This recovery culminated in the modern-day pattern book, which prescribed details for building each of these styles. I wasn’t one of the pioneers, but I wrote a number of these pattern books, beginning about a decade ago. I remember thinking “what I’m doing has no power to bring life back to architecture.” Rather, if people followed my pattern books for 40 years, the architecture produced at the end of those years would be pretty much exactly like that at the beginning. There’s no life to that. Rather, it’s something mechanical, like stamping out objects on an assembly line. And that mechanical reproduction of something that was once alive doesn’t allow us to learn; all we can do is follow the recipe book.

A Modern Tradition

outdoor seating at cafe in Embu, Brasil

   True modernity is the result of a living tradition held by a culture at large, not just a few specialists. Living traditions learn, like other living things. And they change over time. But they don’t change their character radically at the whims of fashion. An elephant doesn’t become a crocodile with the next fashion cycle. Rather, living things (including living traditions) change more slowly, and with good reasons that accompany survival.

   This, I believe, is the high ideal of both tradition and modernity: the ability of architecture to learn and adapt towards meaningful bettering of humanity. But both Modernism and traditionalism as they are often known today are corruptions of that ideal, and those corruptions (as corruptions often do) have led people who really ought to know better into often-warring camps. We must be better than that. Sustainability requires it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 05:56 PM

Jonathan Miller

Embracing absolutes is shaky ground for us modern kind.   Because in the end it means we might be lost and the creators of harm.  Could not the hardcore classicist argue with a strong defense that classicism is a universal living tradition who’s expression of order has adapted to thousands of years of human history and myriads of cultures only to reappear stronger than ever?  Can any other understanding make such a claim? After reading this article I left saying… crap, do better than that?  Does that mean modernist and traditionalist alike compromise convictions to build some peaceful consensus for the sake of sustainability?

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 03:22 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Interesting, Jonathan... it all depends on which view of classicism one takes, IMO. Every classicist I know agrees that the classical should be considered a language rather than a set of fixed solutions. With languages, a dictionary's worth of words can be used to create unlimited expressions. I have no debate with this approach.

   My question revolves around another aspect of language: some words fall out of use, while new words are developed. Some feel that the "words," or patterns, of the classical tradition are fixed. It's this approach with which I have a quarrel. If it's a living tradition, then it evolves over time.

   Look at classicism's roots in antiquity... it clearly evolved over time. Early in its Renaissance recovery, there was a simpler understanding of the canons, but architecture soon began to evolve again, as even a casual flip through Banister Fletcher will show.

   Today, we're in the early years of the New Renaissance. One could argue that our recovery of the canons of antiquity and the canons of the Renaissance are, if not complete, at least robust. It's therefore time for architecture to evolve again, as it always has from the dawn of time. Fixing the canons achieves nothing except to confirm what the Modernists say about the classicists. It's our choice.

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 01:53 AM

Brent Baldwin

With all due respect, Mr. Mouzon, it seems to me the problem with this line of thinking is that it embraces the belief in the perfectibility of humankind by our own power. This faith in the power of infinite Progress is what led us to fall in love with the perpetually unique. It's not difficult to make a case that things have gotten progressively worse throughout history, not better. I am not sure about that, but I do know that I for one have come up short. As you say brilliantly in your new book (which I hope everyone reads), the responsibility lies with each one of us.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:36 AM

Steve Mouzon

Brent, upon reflection, I see how you might get that impression from this post, but that's not the intent. I've never met a perfect person, nor do I expect to for the rest of my life. Rather, this is an exhortation to be better, not to be perfect. It's clear we can be better, as humanity has forever gotten better and then worse, and then repeated the cycle over and over again.


Social Media and Living Traditions

worldwide diagram of the blogosphere

worldwide diagram of the blogosphere

   Social media are some of the most vibrant traditions alive today. Is it possible that they are preparing our post-industrial culture for a return to living traditions in architecture and place-making? The Original Green book makes a vigorous call for the return of living traditions in design and construction, arguing that true sustainability won’t be achieved without them. But living traditions died in most places in the early 20th century, and many people feel like they’re impossible today. Social media are telling quite another story.

dining room in restaurant in Embu, Brazil

   A decade ago, nobody had heard of blogging, and neither Twitter nor Facebook would be conceived until a few years later. Today, hundreds of millions of people around the world participate each day. There are over 50 million blogs, and they have hundreds of millions of readers. In each of these media, rules of participation have been organized, and while the specific writing of a particular blogger on any given day might be unpredictable, the operation of the blogosphere as a whole is quite foreseeable.

   Living traditions in architecture and place-making once worked in very similar fashion. The townspeople were able to build the town because the best ways of building for that people and for that place were well-understood by pretty much everyone.

   Over the past 80 years or so, however, we’ve given up our place-making to the experts, from the transportation engineers to the architects to the mechanical engineers to the construction consultants of a thousand stripes. Just listing all the specialists involved in building a town would be longer than this entire post, so I won’t tire you with that.

front porches along sidewalk in the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   This parallels our abdication of other basic needs, too. Our food is now produced by a thousand specialists, and its source is so distant that when most kids are asked where food comes from, they look at you like you’re crazy and say “the grocery store, of course.” Our clothes are made halfway around the world by people we’ll never meet. Even our bodies are in the hands of countless specialists. If you’re ever sick enough to go to the hospital, you’re likely to lose count of all the specialists that will bill you over the next few weeks.

   What’s wrong with specialists? Doesn’t our modern world depend on them? Wouldn’t we be moving back to medieval times if we dispensed with so much specialism? Social media are opening a window to a very different view.

   The “Comment” button has changed our world in profound ways that aren’t fully comprehended yet, I believe. Beforehand, most people swallowed what the specialists dished out, because “the specialist is an expert in that and I’m not.”

rambla with many people walking, flanked by post lamps and large trees, in Tarragonna, Spain

   But once the Comment button made a conversation possible, we began to discover that other people know useful things about the subject, too. And because they’re speaking in a human voice instead of “expert-speak” or “corporate-speak,” they’re often more credible than the official sources... especially when several of them agree. It’s easy to disregard one or two crazies, but when there’s widespread agreement amongst us, it carries weight.

white stucco chimneys and cistern at the end of a house in Bermuda

   What does all this have to do with architecture and sustainability? Lots. Living traditions of the built environment thrive when the townspeople know what to build and why to build it that way. Social media provide precisely the vehicle for people to share place-making wisdom in a common-sense, plain-spoken way. Real sustainability won’t happen unless everyone’s involved, because making our equipment more efficient won’t make us sustainable... our behavior has to change, too. Put another way, if our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us. Social media, I believe, may be just the ticket for spreading the wisdom of sustainability broadly.

   Look at what’s happening in other parts of our lives. Childbirth is a great example. A half-century ago, the process had become so specialized that women gave birth sedated to the edge of consciousness... or beyond, and fathers were banned to the waiting room. Today, after decades of struggle with the medical establishment, childbirth takes place in a far friendlier and more human setting in most places. Most people don’t dispense with the perceived safety of the hospital setting entirely, but they have insisted on major changes. So the specialists are still there if they’re needed to do our bidding. But we’ve ceased taking orders from them.

streetscape in Pienza, Italy

   We’ve taken back other parts of our lives as well. People would usually follow the doctor’s orders years ago, and they prescribed a growing raft of medications. Today, more people are taking responsibility for their own health, and many self-medicate with vitamins rather than pharmaceuticals, going to the doctor only in the rare instance that something serious is wrong. The growing local food movement is driven in part because people are tired of the massive industrial food chain, and want to know where their food is coming from. “Know your farmer” is a growing cry from these quarters.

   It’s happening in architecture as well. Look at the plethora of shelter shows, for example. Home Depot and Lowe’s thrive because “you can do it; we can help.” Millions of copies of $49 CAD software have been sold. The only thing missing is the wisdom of knowing where to draw those lines. That’s where social media can help... and I believe it will.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Do social sites like Facebook connect the world or isolate people?” I obviously took that question in a different direction, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus Community

Paul Anater @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog

Becky Shankle @ecomod Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson @bobborson Life of an Architect

Nick Lovelady @cupboards Cupboards Kitchen and Bath

Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction SLS-Construction.com

Amy Good @Splintergirl Thoughts of a Splinter Girl

Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Green Rascal Design

Cheryl Kees Clendenon @InDetailSays Details and Design

Saxon Henry @saxonhenry Roaming by Design

Jane Frederick @JaneFredArch Low Country Architect

Denese Bottrell @Denese_Bottrell Thoughtful Content

Chamois Green @chamwashere Cham Was Here

Ami @beackami Multifarious Miscellany

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 11:59 AM

Paul Anater

Great post!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:09 PM


Well said. And optimistic! I agree we're all starved for community. The specialist thing has fragmented us socially pretty much every way you can think of. Family unit? What family unit?! I think you're right that social media is reconnecting us in positive ways. My only concern is how it will separate those who embrace it from those who either can't or choose not to.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 12:48 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Paul! And Becky, I've seen people join the conversation recently that really surprised me... never thought they would. Some just take longer than others.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 09:41 PM


Your comment on the production of our food being so far removed from us today reminded me of a child who visited my neighbor's farm.  My neighbor, the farmer, had mentioned that they don't milk their cows (they're simply for the enjoyment of having the animals around for a while, and eventually providing a delicious steak or two later on).  The child gave him a funny look and said, "What's milking cows?" Farmer looked at him with an even more quizzical brow and asked, "Where do you think milk comes from?" To which the child replied, "The store." I nearly smacked my own forehead in amazement.

Great post and here's to getting back to the roots of all things - be they groceries, vitamins, or blue prints!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 10:36 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Cham! And if you haven't already, check out yesterday's post... the Web of Daily Life It's another look at how things are connected.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 09:48 AM

Hazel Borys

Thanks for the ideas and images, Steve. Beautiful, as always. And all 3 spheres of sustainability are impacted by these ideas of yours, more on that here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 12:29 PM

Chad Cooper

Great post Steve… I've recently begun throwing myself into Social Media more regularly, after dabbling in it for a while.  (Actually, I first entered into the Social Media craze upon receiving your recommendation to check out the possible benefits of Facebook several years ago.)  Although I've been making greater efforts in exploiting Social Media, Twitter in particular, I've recently wondered what I could do, more specifically, that would be most beneficial to my work/self-employment. Look forward to your additional posts on this topic.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 04:21 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks Hazel! Good article on PlaceShakers!

   And good work, Chad! I've seen you lots in the Twittersphere recently. One thought... Twitter is great because it requires you to condense a thought to its essence, being limited to 140 characters. But I'd also suggest blogging, because it allows you to more fully develop an idea. Within the constraints of 500-750 words, that is, because if it gets longer than that, most people won't read it. So I find both very useful... even if nobody read any of them... because they help me get ideas clear in my mind.

   One other thought... I'm also finding that I now get probably 90% of my information from other bloggers rather than from "official" news sites. At least the bloggers are the portal to, or curator of, that information. So don't just write... read, too!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 04:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... I'm working on a follow-up post for (hopefully) later today.


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018