Telling a New Story About Living Traditions

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the fire pit in the first square built in Alys Beach, Florida surrounded by all-white masonry homes with architectural heritage in Bermuda and Antigua Guatemala

Alys Beach has been building a new living tradition in durable coastal architecture for the past decade

   The heartbeat of a living tradition is four simple words: "we do this because…" If you put every pattern in a language of architecture in these terms, it opens up the "why" of each pattern, allowing everyone to think again. Modernists have long chafed at architectural pattern books, objecting that "they don't allow invention," but with "we do this because…" everyone can invent all they like, so long as it's within a set of agreed-upon principles.

chimney of house in Alys Beach, Florida set against scrolled gable - chimney is punctured by a thin window above and skirted by a wall of green at the street level

   For years, I referred to these four words as the "transmission device" of living traditions. Recently, Kaid Benfield told me that this term "takes something warm and personal and makes it cold and technical-sounding." And he's exactly right. For the last couple months, I've been looking for an alternative. I stumbled across a great candidate just the other day: "we do this because…" is the heartbeat of living traditions, as noted above. What do you think?

   It might sound a bit sappy at first glance, but please consider that it's fairly correct organically. The beating heart moves life-sustaining blood through the body, keeping it alive. "We do this because…" moves principles, which are the lifeblood of any living tradition, to all participants in that tradition. Without knowing why, a tradition is dead… it's just your father's way of doing things. But if we all know why we do what we do, we're free to adapt to new conditions. And when an entire culture knows why, you just might have millions of minds thinking of better ways of building.

heavy timber architectural detailing of home in Alys Beach, Florida

   This transforms a living tradition into a bracing paradox: On the one hand, if many people are thinking of ways to improve their architecture, that architecture is intensely of our time, because it's the latest thought on the matter. On the other hand, if the principles are based on regional conditions, climate, and culture, those things (especially conditions and climate) don't change very quickly over time, likely allowing the architecture to rise to the level of the timeless. This same principle holds in disciplines far afield of architecture as well… living traditions can thrive in everything from music to the blogosphere.

mahogany street light pole working with palm tree to frame a view of porch and courtyard of home in Alys Beach, Florida

   The error of high-design architecture of recent decades isn't that it's too inventive… it's that it throws out everything that has been proven to work. If architecture isn't allowed to learn from things outside our time, it becomes transgressional, rendering it highly unlikely to be lovable.

   Think what would have happened in the computer industry had Steve Jobs not allowed himself to learn from the past. Had he attempted to reinvent the Mac with each new version, it never would have gotten so much better over the past three decades. It's the same story in medicine, in aeronautics, in chemical engineering in space flight, in… the list goes on. If we're talking about core sciences such as mathematics and physics, it's the same story as well. Newton famously said "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The discipline of green building, above all else, needs to be able to learn from the work that others have done.

another view of the first square in Alys Beach, framed by all-white homes - even the roofing is white concrete tiles

   To be clear, inventiveness is great… I love inventing things. But I want those things to be lovable so that they have a chance of being sustained long beyond my lifetime. If we want to sustain things long into an uncertain future, we really should stack the deck in our favor by doing work that embodies principles proven to produce things humans love, and that can become part of a living tradition… one with a heartbeat… shouldn't we?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

I've just re-framed the story of living traditions because of a great comment by Kaid Benfield a couple months ago... do you like this better?

Mar 8, 2013 11:44am

Jeffrey Jakucyk · Project Designer, Photographer at Architects Plus

The issue with reinvention is that it's an artistic meme, but architecture is one of the disciplines that has to meld the artistic with the practical. The worst examples of starchitecture seem to be the ones where aesthetic concerns override functional ones. Maybe it would be worth analyzing that further, comparing architecture to some of the other creative and practical disciplines.  
I say that because even the most purely artistic endeavors like painting, sculpture, music, and writing still have some fundamental rules within which they have to work. No matter how abstract the painting, it's still pigments on a surface, sculptures have to stand up to gravity, music must be audible and seems unable to escape the discipline of maintaining a beat, and writing has grammar and story structure. Food is similar. It's a highly subjective and personal thing, but even with all the fusion cuisine and meddling with additives and processing, it still needs to be palatable and presentable. We're not eating paste out of a tube after all. 
Yes every field has their own way to balance the artistic and the practical, and some can go much farther in one direction than others. Maybe exploring what makes music beautiful, or food delicious, or a novel fun to read can translate to what makes a building lovable?

Mar 8, 2013 12:56pm

Brian Beezer Lemmerman · Professor of Mindfulness at Barry University

I recently watched Fiddler on the Roof, where the opening music number is a song about tradition. At the end of the song, the father proclaims that he doesn't know why the village does what they've been doing for generations. Throughout the film, he's challenged by the arrival of new culture and ideas because of this lack of understanding. It's essential for a people to understand why their culture, or in this case an architecture, is a certain way. Once the foundation is understood, then there is opportunity to experiment. Refusal to understand the foundation, immediately brings rejection and extremism.
As for the term "We do this because", it describes what the transmission device does, and it causes the mind to consider the reasoning behind a decision previously made, but I'm not sold on the name because it sounds loose. I imagine it used in a sentence like, "The we do this because of this eave design is because it prevents rainwater from entering the house." Let me know if I'm off on that one. Perhaps a more solid term could be something like "traditional reason" which describes a tradition as something established in the past to justify something that may no longer be a concern, and thus a challenge to the idea is welcome. "The traditional reason for this eave design is because..." What do you think?

Mar 9, 2013 12:35am

Frank Starkey · Owner/ President at People Places, llc

I, too, prefer the warmer, more organic term "heartbeat." Initially I thought "DNA" would be more analogous to a biological transmission device, but I think that term/concept would probably refer to the specific traditions themselves. As I understand it (feebly) DNA evolves slowly, by mutating randomly or by incorporating snippets from other organisms, both processes introduce a trial-and-error that improves the species overall by accumulating the successes. This is how I understand your description of Living Traditions.
I'm also reminded in this post of Nasim Taleb's term "antifragile" - things that gain from disorder. I would classify Living Traditions as antifragile, as the constant testing of their principles, their DNA, improves them over the long haul. That testing can come in the form of the question implied by your answer "Why do we do this?" 
"We do this because" also implies/initiates a second question among some: "oh yeah? Well can we improve on that?" This can lead to thoughtful inventive responses that may fail, or may succeed, evolving the collected knowledge of the tradition. In fact, it may be imperative for traditions to be thus challenged in order for them not to die for lack of questioning.  
I love the Fiddler on the Roof example: Tevye seems to have stopped questioning tradition, which puts it in the precarious, fragile position of a fiddler on a roof (though fortunately, through the course of the story tradition is refined and kept alive, it's shown to be antifragile.)

Mar 9, 2013 11:48am

Ian Manire · Architectural Designer at Union Studio Architecture & Community Design

The key distinction between all traditions and the accidental tradition of Modernism is that only Modernists answer the question "why" with the three-word declaration: "because we can". That's what differentiates "inventiveness" from "novelty," and mere change from true progress. It's why tradition is the best partner for progress, and Modernism just spins its wheels, dreaming up futures that never come to fruition.

Mar 16, 2013 3:01pm


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