The Problem of Language

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curious building detail in Florence, Italy

   "Architect-speak" basically means "words that are unintelligible to anyone besides the author and (maybe) a few groupies in their inner circle," and this is a huge roadblock to the hope of building sustainable places and buildings. Four of the terms that I've seen abused most often by architects are "sustainability," "natural," "vernacular," and "tradition."


UNESCO World Heritage town of Pienza, Italy sitting in the distance in the Tuscan landscape

   I wrote about sustainability a couple years ago in the Original Green book. Essentially, the word should mean "keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future." If you don't do that, then your LEED credits and your industry accolades are meaningless.


Tuscan hillside with mountain in background

   Like "sustainability," "natural" has been twisted to mean almost anything. But things that mean anything actually mean nothing. The common-sense, plain-spoken definition of the word should be "without artifice," and it should be used to describe things that occur naturally.

   Nature produces unintended poetry in countless ways. Nobody scripts birdsong at the dawn of springtime, or the crinkly fade of yesterday's blossoms. No Disney Imagineer ever conceived a single Tuscan hilltown street, nor did some ancient master painter sprinkle the stars across the night sky in winter.

   Intentional poetry can move us in powerful ways, but it cannot be said to be "natural." It is artifice in the extreme, crafted carefully by human hands. And that is good.

   But one human can only create so much poetry, and only so many humans are capable of the profound. So if you're one of the 1% that can move us to tears, then by all means, keep doing what you're doing. But if you're one of the rest of us, then maybe your time might be better spent helping cultivate naturally-occurring things because nature is one of the most efficient machines we've ever seen.

clusters of grapes hanging from an arbor at Villa Medici in Florence, Italy

   It takes a highly skilled painter, with extraordinary effort, to create an image of a cluster of grapes that is indiscernible from the real thing. Extraordinary scientists might at some undetermined point in the future be able to create artificial grapes in a laboratory at great expense. But if you partner with nature, you only need to plant a grape seed, water it, and fend off the pests, and almost anyone can do that.

group of people standing on grass-covered hillside at La Bandita in Tuscany

   But how do we partner with nature in building natural places? The best way I know to characterize it is with this question: "Are you giving orders or setting the stage for things to naturally occur?"

   Giving orders is the proper thing to do if you're operating in the command-and-control system. But if you're working within the organic paradigm, then it's better to set the stage for good things to naturally occur. The most moving and hopeful story I've ever experienced is the one where I first learned the principle of setting the stage for good things to occur naturally (scroll to the bottom of that post for the story of the song of the little children.)


ancient barn on Italian estate

   This word has been almost completely hijacked by the stylists, who conceive of the vernacular as nothing more profound than just one more style in their bag of tricks. If you're doing "vernacular style," then you identify a tradition that once lived in a particular place, resonant with the regional conditions, climate, and culture, and you do your best to ape the artifacts of that tradition. If you're really good, you're likely to make a lot of money. But in doing so, you have by no means reached the essence of true vernacular.

houses in Poundbury, England

   This building is built in a place designed by an architect and planner I admire deeply, and who just might be the best town planner alive today. He crafted the architectural code for this place, and the architects designing there followed it faithfully for the most part. But any code designed to produce a particular architecture by prescription can only go so far because prescriptions direct you to a particular solution.

   I wrote prescriptive architectural codes for years because I didn't know what else to do. I remember speaking at a Congress for the New Urbanism almost a decade ago with several of my heroes. We were discussing architectural pattern books. My concern was that architecture created from a style-based pattern book today or a century in the future would be exactly alike, whereas anyone with eyes can see just by flipping through architectural history books that architecture has always evolved over time, like any human does from birth to childhood to adulthood to old age. So how can we craft a document that allows architecture to live again? I had no clue at the time, nor did anyone else.

Bourton-On-The-Water street in England’s Cotswolds

   Here's a place created by a living vernacular tradition. It's not far from the one above that was created by prescribing a vernacular style. The differences are obvious. While the one above might be skillfully done, this one is alive with character and timelessness. The one above was created with carefully crafted by skilled hands whereas this one is simply one of countless towns built by the townspeople and which are the essence of a living vernacular tradition.


Spanish Steps in Rome

   The "T-Word" is arguably the most misunderstood word in architecture. You can set an entire room of architects ablaze by uttering this word. You think it's bad to drop the F-Bomb in public? Dropping the T-Bomb in a group of architects produces an even more visceral response. "We won't be handcuffed by any tradition" they howl, oblivious to the fact that there are two types of tradition. An historical tradition is one that once lived in a particular place but is now dead. History books list it with a beginning date and an ending date, just like birth dates and death dates on tombstones. And a dead tradition really can be a shackle because it has rules that can't be changed because they are the rules of the dead, not the rules of the living.

   A living tradition, on the other hand, is something we do today, with each other. We have many living traditions today, such as the blogosphere, which is a vibrant living tradition that has sprung up in less than a decade. But we don't currently have living traditions in architecture in large part because we're only beginning to learn how to restart them in the built environment.

Tudor buildings in English heritage town of Lacock

   We really must figure this out because sustainability depends on it. This book is my best attempt to date at showing how this might be done.

   A living tradition is the operating system of true sustainability because it spreads wisdom broadly across a culture. This is essential because sustainability doesn't come primarily from the laboratory, but from our behavior. The gains from doing differently dwarf any gains that might be produced in all the R&D departments across the planet. So sustainability isn't something we get by going shopping. It's something we get by doing things in different ways. It's high time we get started.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

How many terms can you think of that are part of "architect-speak"? This post covers four common words that are terribly abused by the design community.

Aug 10, 2012 4:50pm

Michael Behrendt · Tufts University

Well stated and wonderful photos, especially those illustarating the difference between the great Poundbury (?) and another truly natural place.

Aug 11, 2012 7:57am


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