Architecture in the Age of Austerity - 6

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horizontal diagram of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum, with most organic image (a barn) on the left, the most classical image (the Parthenon) on the right and the median image (brick house) in the center

   There are several tools that may be useful in giving birth to new living traditions. The Classical-Vernacular Spectrum varies from the refined to the organic, and for almost all of human history, it was construction's most effective cost-control device. Want to save money? Just dial the building down the Spectrum a bit. But today, builders say "I will have high style, even if I have to build it with vinyl and duct tape!" And so they do.

vertical diagram of the Classical-Vernacular spectrum with the classical ideal at the top and six vernaculars (Charleston, Cotswolds, Nantucket, Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Bermuda) at the bottom

   Interestingly, the Spectrum converges towards a classical ideal at the top end, but diverges towards meeting simple human habitational needs at the bottom end. The vernacular of the Cotswolds, of Charleston, or of Capri are very different because of regional conditions, climate, and culture, but the classical buildings of these places bear the unmistakable marks of their European heritage.

Wilton Crescent in Belgravia.

   The Spectrum has many useful capabilities. For example, on a scale of 1 to 100 I, as Town Architect, don't allow builders to move up to 35 until they've shown themselves capable at 25. Told the ground rules, even framers and carpenters get the Spectrum. At the top end, it allows us to recover mastery. At the bottom end, it allows us to recover craft. Put another way, Léon Krier embodies the classical pole, while Chris Alexander embodies the vernacular pole of the Spectrum.

High Street in Broadway, England

   Living traditions transmit using four simple words: "We do this because..." If you put every pattern in a language of architecture into these terms, it allows everyone to think again. Even the Modernists, who long have railed against the shackles of traditional rules, are allowed to invent... just within the principles of the regional tradition. The end condition isn't style or fashion, but simply "this is how we build here."

   Some might question how this system may work, but consider this: Working within the framework of the best architecture of a region, both the regional materials and regional crafts would enjoy an immediate resurgence. If there is an accepted best way of building in a place, many more people in a region will build that way, driving the market share of regional materials and crafts dramatically upwards in that region.

townhouses in Lacock, England

   Do we all have to become stone masons and carpenters to recover a living tradition? No. We don't all have to do these things; we merely have to know these things. "We do this because…"

   Some worry that recovering lost wisdom will transform us into our ancestors. This is rubbish. 19th Century Americans were not transformed into Greeks by embracing the Greek Revival. Nor were 20th Century Americans transformed into Victorians by participating in the little-reported (but very real) Victorian Cottage Revival in the late 20th Century in the US.

   The facts are these: Nearly all of the places and buildings we love the most were created by living traditions. The great sprawl machine that prevented living traditions and created soulless places is now broken. This is our best chance in at least a hundred years of getting these thing right. We should be celebrating this day!

~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

Post 5

Post 6 (this one)

Legacy Comments

Chris G Gallagher · University of Colorado Denver

Love it!

Jun 5, 2012 7:24pm


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018