Architecture in the Age of Austerity - 4

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Chicago Modernist high-rise

   Some of my classicist colleagues suggest that those nasty Modernists were responsible for the death of living traditions, but those reasons mostly predate the Modernists, who were merely the coup de grace.

Pienza cathedral in shadow against Val d'Orcia

   We can clearly see this because in the Great Decline (1925-1945)…

postwar suburban house in Huntsville, Alabama

   … and during the Dark Ages of Architecture (1945-1980) most of us weren't living and working in Modernist masterpieces…

Kum & Go convenience store in Leadville, Colorado

   … but in some of the most banal and unsustainable buildings in human history.

3 avenues leading from Piazza del Popolo in Rome

   I have a great hope that we are in the early years of a new Renaissance. I believe it began in 1980, with the advent of Seaside which coalesced the work of several pioneers like no place in the decades before it. For the first quarter-century of the new Renaissance, we did little more than recollect wisdom, but recently, there are a few places where that wisdom is now causing architecture to evolve again, like a living thing, and like it has done from the dawn of time until the Great Decline, when we abandoned living traditions for a series of little personal revolutions. The High Renaissance will come when the majority of architectural schools say "this is a compelling body of work" and begin teaching it. I hope this occurs during my lifetime.

worldwide diagram of blogosphere

   Incidentally, many say that a living tradition is impossible with post-industrial people. Some of my more prominent classicist colleagues even insist that it is merely a fantasy that never existed. The blogosphere, however, is a vibrant living tradition that has sprung up in less than a decade, and millions participate every day, while tens or even hundreds of millions read their work.

worldwide diagram of blogosphere

   I believe that the New Media (including the blogosphere) is actually preparing us to have living traditions in architecture and place-making again because it is getting us accustomed to speaking to each other instead of just being receivers of top-down information such as the evening news and the daily newspaper.

Bourton-on-the-Water, England, New Orleans French Quarter, USA, Boston, USA, and Pienza, Italy streetscapes

   Look at each of these images. No two buildings are exactly alike, but they are all very similar. Living traditions produce a great variety, but within a very narrow range. Nature itself does it even better (snowflakes in a snowstorm, leaves on a tree, faces in a crowd,) but living traditions do a respectable job.

   Today, we're struggling to reproduce this phenomenon. We can produce great variety by simply allowing the architects to do whatever they wish. We can produce a narrow range by severely limiting details. But producing both at once is extraordinarily difficult using the command & control system, but is the natural product of a living tradition, where countless minds are allowed to think within the context of certain accepted principles of building in a particular place.

British soldier standing guard and streetscape in Hatfield, England

   Let's reexamine the mechanisms of command & control, and of living traditions. Command & control systems are perfectly suited for creating an army, or a factory. A living tradition would be a poor framework on which to build either an army or a factory.

   Living traditions, on the other hand, are more well-suited for creating sustainable towns and the buildings within them. Our problem arises from the fact that we've been using the wrong tools for creating our towns and buildings for almost a hundred years!

drug store products on left, Mount Vernon workshop on right

   The command & control system thrives on large numbers because it is best suited for mass-producing large quantities of items. Living traditions, on the other hand, thrive at scales too small to matter to the factory. Local conditions might change across the next ridge, or across the river, whereas the command & control system seeks a global customer base for its factories.

   The command & control system thrives on global trade, because the mechanisms of large numbers require markets of global proportions. Living traditions, on the other hand, thrive on local trade because, as we shall see later, a regional tradition based on regional conditions, climate, and culture, can be every bit as economically powerful as the hegemony of a global brand.

   The command & control system depends on petroleum. The Industrial Revolution was founded on fossil fuels, and will continue to thrive so long as they are available and inexpensive. Modern armies are almost completely dependent on petroleum. Living traditions, on the other hand, depend on ingenuity and human energy. Put another way, living traditions thrive on leverage more than amperage.

London skyscrapers towering over double-decker buses on left, Hatfield streetscape on right

   The command & control system imposes itself on local conditions because the ability to mass-produce means that the system needs to impose the products of mass-production on many settings. Living traditions, on the other hand, learn from and thrive upon local conditions because they are necessarily local or regional in nature.

   The command & control system leads to universal styles, because it works best when it produces countless instances of the same product (or soldier.) Living traditions, on the other hand, create countless local traditions that historians will someday chronicle as local styles.

British guard giving orders on left, debaters at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park on right

   The command & control system depends on us taking orders, from the highest general or CEO down to the countless privates and assembly line workers. Living traditions, on the other hand, depend on us talking to each other because they thrive only when everyone knows why we do what we do.

industrial equipment on left, plants on right

   But even more importantly, the command & control system is incredibly inefficient at creating things best produced in an organic setting. Consider, for example, the prospect of creating a tomato grown from seed versus a tomato created in a factory: one is natural and requires little more than good soil, water, and a fence; the other, if it were even possible, would be extraordinarily wasteful. Today, the best we can do is to create a likeness of a tomato in a factory. The motto of the organic world, going back to the ancient adage of the mustard seed, should be "plant small, and harvest large."

   ~Steve Mouzon

   This is one of 6 posts that contain my presentation to the joint INTBAU-Notre Dame conference in London, Architecture in the Age of Austerity, on April 30, 2012.

Here are the posts:

Post 1

Post 2

Post 3

Post 4 (this one)

Post 5

Post 6

Legacy Comments

Richard Bono · Owl Valley Studio at Richard J. Bono, Architect

It's not by chance that E. F Schumacher, called the new economics of living traditions..."economics as if people mattered". We have a long way to go...society itself will needs transformation...and sometimes I fear the most likely path to fundamental change will only be through crisis.

Jun 8, 2012 11:41am


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