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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Friday, February 25, 2011 - 03:50 PM
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.