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)


Architecture in the Age of Austerity - 5

search the Original Green Blog


historic Tudor house on the outskirts of Lacock, England


   It turns out that buildings built in nearly all of the places we have loved the most and valued the longest were created by living traditions. They are also almost invariably the places and buildings we consider to be the most authentic.


Tudor Revival house in Birmingham, Alabama

   Similar to the mythical factory-built tomato, the best we can do today with a command & control system of construction is to create a likeness of those authentic buildings, and it's an extremely difficult proposition because we're using a mechanical tool to do an organic job. Town Founders, Town Architects, and the like go to great efforts to get the buildings right, but succeed only nominally and only occasionally.


Tudor-style building at the Ledges, Huntsville, Alabama

   Without those Herculean efforts, however, we're far more likely to get a cartoon of those most authentic buildings instead of a precise likeness because cartoons are the default setting of today's construction industry.


cottage under construction at the Waters, Pike Road, Alabama

   This problem arises from the fact that style doesn't arise from any particular way of building, but is only a skin-deep appliqué on the surface of today's wood-frame boxes.


5-bay gable-front house at the Waters, Pike Road, Alabama

   This house, for example…


5-bay gable-front house at the Preserve, Hoover, Alabama

   … could almost as easily have been this house with just a change of skin…


5-bay gable-front house at the Ledges of Huntsville Mountain, Huntsville, Alabama

   … or with just a few adjustments, it could have been this house. This was all fine and good before the Meltdown if you had the cash and the intestinal fortitude to make sure the builders got it right. Today, however, we can no longer afford the costs of a random collection of styles applied like expensive wallpaper.


storm clouds over Nassau, Bahamas

   Today, four storms are gathering, any one of which would be ample to change our world. But all four working together virtually guarantee that our world will be irrevocably altered:


aerial photo of unfinished subdivision in Atlanta

   1. The Meltdown continues to shake the development and construction industries like nothing we've seen in our lifetimes. In the US, for example, over 50% of architects are out of work, and thousands of them will likely never work in the profession again. Some designers and builders who have created wonderful homes for others are facing the spectre of homelessness for themselves.


apartment towers in Sao Paulo, Brazil

   2. In China and India alone, 2.5 billion people are moving from a low-impact agrarian lifestyle into the city. If they do 2-1/2 times as well as the US with their need for cars in the city, there will still be over a billion cars on the road in a few years that didn't even exist a few years ago. And there are other populous countries as well that are going through this same transition. Once, the American middle-class lifestyle was the world's biggest ecological problem. Today, the export of the image of that lifestyle has increased its impact by an order of magnitude. And with demand for fuel spiking like this at a time when supplies are stressed, there is little doubt as to the future acceleration of fuel costs.


the earth against black sky

   3. The Prince of Wales has been the most prominent world leader to vigorously push for altering our climate change trajectory, pointing out that irrevocable worldwide changes are just a few dozen months away. Soon, we may be faced with mitigating the unmanageable so that we don't have to face the unthinkable.


crowd in the streets in Vicenza, Italy

   4. The Demographic Bomb wasn't even on my radar screen until last year, but it should have been. We have had net purchasers in the US housing market since the end of World War II because the young are usually buying and the old are more often selling, and because we have been demographically young for decades. Beginning this year, we will have more sellers than buyers for the first time, continuing as far as the eye can see. This means that real estate price pressures will be downward for the first time in our lifetimes, and for the rest of our lives for most of us.

   Clearly, the existing system is broken, and its remains will be battered by these four storms for years to come. Paradoxically, this is very good news, because while the machine was running smoothly, generating untold wealth for millions, sustainable places like Seaside and Poundbury could never have been more than a tiny niche market. But the collapse of the Consuming Economy has opened the door for more sustainable ways of building to become the normal ways of building.


   ~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 (this one)

Post 6


Architecture in the Age of Austerity - 4

search the Original Green Blog


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


Architecture in the Age of Austerity - 3

search the Original Green Blog


English village streetscape with countryside beyond


   What is a living tradition? It begins with a great idea by one person about how to build something better. If the person builds it and it resonates with others, the others repeat it in the locality where it originated. If it is good enough, others throughout the region will notice and will say "we love this, and want to adopt this into our family of regional traditions." This illustrates how living traditions have nothing to do with the history books, but are instead driven by those things that are most worthy of love.


rooftop statue lit against deep blue sky of nightfall

   Put another way, a living tradition begins as an insight by one person. If they are committed enough and inspiring enough, then they can convert that insight into a cause that is shared by others. If that cause is strong enough that it spreads beyond the original hive within which it was cultivated to the culture at large, it becomes a movement. If the movement is vibrant enough that it spreads to the next generation, then it achieves the highest standards of ideas that spread, which is the living tradition.


angel sculpture atop tomb in Maple Hill Cemetery, Huntsville, Alabama

   Unfortunately, most architectural living traditions died in the early years of the 20th century, so most people today can't conceive of building places and buildings within a living tradition.


Maple Hill Cemetery, Huntsville, Alabama, with Monte Sano in background

   Living traditions died in part due to specialization, as we each became valuable enough at our jobs that we all became specialists and could afford to buy all our daily needs from other specialists. Unfortunately, that meant that we were no longer able to say to the others "that's not good enough" because they were the experts in what they did, and we were not.


tombstones in Maple Hill Cemetery, Huntsville, Alabama

   Living traditions also died by architectural licensing, which with one stroke of the pen took half of the creation of the town (the commercial part) out of the hands of the townspeople and put it into the hands of the architects (of which I am one.)


fossil on left, miniature dachshund

   It should be noted that there is as much similarity between a living tradition and a dead tradition as there is between a living creature and a fossil. The living creature and the fossil might have similar forms (although not in this illustration,) but one is alive and the other is not. We might re-create the past form of a tradition that once lived, but that doesn't mean that we have created something that can take on a life of its own and spread without us.


   ~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 (this one)

Post 4

Post 5

Post 6


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