Once the Mystery of Mooresville was unlocked, we discovered there is great power in architecture with purpose, in fields as disparate as affordability and lovability. Here’s a quick look at how this works:
Anytime I’d ever tried to get builders to “build different,” they always assign a “custom price” to patterns new to them, but a “standard price” to stuff they’ve done countless times. This is understandable. But it also means that the good stuff is always more expensive, even if built with less labor and fewer materials. But armed with the “we do this because…” of the architecture of this place, an amazing thing happens: builders eventually acquire a degree of shame over conventional stuff that made no sense there, along with an appreciation for what did, flipping the price equations, making the good stuff actually less expensive than the conventional stuff they no longer want to do. This doesn’t happen overnight, but once it does, building good stuff more affordably gets much easier.
Depending on the region, the “we do this because…” of the place may have a lot to do with the survivability of the architecture, like hurricane survival on the Caribbean Rim or earthquake survival in seismically active places like Antigua Guatemala. Put another way, architecture calibrated to a region tends to last longer than one-size-fits-all buildings.
A big part of the “we do this because…” equation has to do with the regional climate. Architecture that doesn’t let you get comfortable in a place without great expense means you’re unlikely to stay for a long time, whereas a well-adapted architecture can allow the region to thrive. And comfortable shelter that conditions itself at least partially in natural ways is less expensive to operate.
Regional appropriateness has always been one of the big mysteries to me. Here are my thoughts today, which are susceptible to change as I learn more: I suspect that people might be hardwired to resonate with buildings in harmony with their region because of a basic survival instinct. For most of human history, the place people chose to take shelter in a region they didn't know might have a lot to do with whether they survived until the morning. So I now believe we have a strong sense of architecture which is in harmony with where it’s built.
In the early days after the epiphany, I struggled with what the “we do this because…” process should be called. At first, I used “the transmission device of the vernacular mechanism” because I was trying to gain traction with the machine-based crowd, which I hoped to convert. That proved impossible, as they ignored all of it. Never mind that the term was a confusing mouthful. In any case, within a few years, I came back to a biological term instead of a mechanical term: a “living tradition” (more on that later).
A living tradition is a process that involves the people, not just the architects, hearkening back to Wanda’s long-ago incisive question about lovable architecture. And because it involves many minds, it produces the most modern architecture because with more people tinkering with or hacking a problem, more good ideas emerge. Indeed, a living tradition is the original crowd-sourcing.
What About Style?
Many people are more comfortable talking in terms of style because styles are known things, promoted by countless books, especially in the past two centuries. And there’s nothing wrong with style… so long as the styles are curated for the region. But a Cape Cod house looks as ridiculous in New Orleans as a Gulf Coast house does on Cape Cod, so curation is essential.
Building on Living Traditions
I wrote the Gulf Coast New Vernacular Book of Architecture in 2005, finishing it on the day after Thanksgiving, exactly a quarter-century after taking the Mystery of Mooresville home with me. We were deep into the Katrina recovery efforts by then, 3 months after the hurricane made landfall. I hoped the book might be useful in the Katrina recovery, but those in charge opted for a style-based pattern book instead.
Both living tradition and style-based pattern books go through a range of architecutral patterns having to do with walls & massing, doors & windows, porches & balconies, eaves & roofs, and attachments & sitework. There's a chapter for each style in a style-based book with only a couple pages in each of the five categories. A living tradition pattern book, on the other hand, is based on the best architecture of this region as it varies from rural to urban and from vernacular to classical (or plain to fancy, if you prefer). This means that in about the same number of pages as a style-based book, a living tradition book can have an entire chapter on walls & massing, another chapter for doors & windows, etc. Put another way, it’s a deep dive into the best architecture of here instead of just an overview of a selection of historical styles.
A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas]
By mid-2006, nearly a year of pro bono work on the Katrina recovery had left us nearly broke, and we weren’t sure what might be next. And then, out of the blue, legendary Bahamian developer Orjan Lindroth showed up. He had heard of the yet-unpublished Gulf Coast book, likely from Andres Duany, and thought it might be beneficial for his new town of Schooner Bay. Do a blog search near the top of this page for Orjan or Schooner Bay, and you’ll see just how much I’ve written about the man and the place.
We met in Coral Gables one July afternoon and I laid out the new pattern book proposition, and we spent several hours poring over every detail of the Gulf Coast book, which at that time I was still calling the “New Vernacular Book of Architecture,” as I hadn’t quite come up with the “Living Tradition” term yet. That would come in early May, 2007 during a late-night conversation with Mike Watkins while on a charrette in Fayetteville, Arkansas. But in any case, Orjan commissioned us to write what would become A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas].
I spent every available moment that fall completely rethinking every detail of the book, knowing that this one would likely be published widely in The Bahamas. Early the next spring, Orjan brought us over for an epic week-long photo safari to shoot all the best places remaining in The Bahamas. After processing the photos, I worked through the summer and fall, finally delivering the book in early December 2007 with massive help from Wanda and her sister Janna, who was working with us at the time. It won a CNU Charter Award the next year.
The Original Green
Soon after getting the book printed and in use in The Bahamas, I started trying to tell the story of the underlying principles as best I understood them at that time. I’ve always been a story-teller who loves to write, so when Nathan Norris introduced me to blogging, I quickly discovered it was a natural medium for working out ideas. The first post on this blog went live April 10, 2008. For the next two years, I blogged here frequently, working out what would become the Original Green book two years later. For those about to write, I found the blog comments immensely helpful. As a matter of fact, many of the best ideas in the book weren’t originally mine, but originated with comments from others. I wrote over a third of the content of the book as blog posts here, until I had to buckle down in early 2010 and do nothing but work on the book for a couple months to get it done.
Jumping two decades back in time to a month after the Mooresville Thanksgiving trip, I discovered Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language in the long-defunct Books as Seeds, a local indie bookstore. These two books profoundly influenced my thinking from that day forward, and helped me better understand some of the things I had seen in Mooresville the month before.
People often ask about the difference between A Pattern Language and the Living Tradition books. In a nutshell, Alexander’s Pattern Language is a foundation language, like Latin is to Western culture, whereas the Living Tradition books are calibrated to a region, like a regional dialect of a national language.
What I never realized until last year was the fact that Alexander had done the same thing I did: he wrote A Pattern Language first, which contains the particular patterns, then wrote The Timeless Way two years later, just as I did 3 decades later with my two books. Most people say “start with the principles and move to the particulars,” but for both of us, it seems that the deep dive into the particular patterns was necessary for each of us to see the underlying principles clearly.
The Second Edition
Orjan and I first met on a DPZ charrette in Nassau in February 2005. Orjan was one of the developers and I was by then a regular consultant on DPZ charrettes. We quickly discovered over dinner, possibly the very first night, that we had each long been curious about many of the same things having to do with sustainable architecture and urbanism. In particular, we each had a sense that, while neither of us were Einsteins, there was an underlying set of natural rules of sustainability, much like the unified field theory Einstein searched for over most of his career. That search bound us together in repeated collaborations until Orjan's untimely passing earlier this year.
We made bits of progress on the unified theory over the years, but when we decided in 2017 to publish the second edition of A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas], we dedicated ourselves to getting a clearer vision. This resulted in a complete rewrite of the first and last chapters of the book, including several advances such as the first substantive application of the Original Green Scorecard, meant to be a fast, friendly, and nearly free alternative to the LEED green rating system.
While there are mysteries remaining to unlock, the book made huge leaps forward on several counts which can be incapsulated this way: Truly sustainable architecture and urbanism must be built on a foundation of nature’s ways instead of the industrial paradigm. It’s much deeper than that, but that’s the first key to the unified theory.
Where To From Here?
Unlocking the Mystery of Mooresville opened many doors for Wanda and I, and numerous useful sets of ideas are already being built on Original Green foundations, which have spread far beyond just the two of us at this point, which was what we hoped for all along. It has long been our hope to build tools upon the Original Green foundations which may be useful to people we may never know, in places we may never go, both in our lifetimes and beyond our time. Please help us carry this on!