The Failure of Architecture to Learn

Frank Gehry bandshell behind classical balustrade at Millennium Park in Chicago

   Both sides of the “trad-mod” debate make serious blunders that prevent true sustainability. We really must get beyond both sets of errors if we hope to live sustainably someday. Here’s how each of these approaches fail:

How Modernism Prevents Modernity

Lake Point Tower, a curvilinear Modernist building in Chicago

   The classical resurgence of the past two decades has well-documented and bitter complaints against Modernism in all its forms, from architecture to town planning to art to music to pretty much any aspect of life today that you can think of. I join in this complaint to a degree, and for this reason: The “newer is always better” approach has recently carried with it, at least in architecture and many of the arts, a necessity of uniqueness. Superficially, the necessity of uniqueness would seem to be a good thing. It would encourage creativity, right? What’s wrong with that? Here’s what:

   When uniqueness is a prerequisite of significance, we’re effectively disallowing creatives from learning from those who came before them. This takes each of them back to the creative Stone Age, because everything about their design must (in theory) come from the fountainhead of their own creativity. By disallowing the acknowledged use of that which came before us, we’re essentially disallowing the transfer of wisdom.

Modernist sculpture in front of Chicago highrise

   If we can’t build upon the wisdom of those who came before us, then we’ll never achieve sustainability. Why? Because true sustainability depends not only on what others (manufacturers, government, and specialists of all stripes) can do for us, but primarily on each of us thinking and behaving differently ourselves. Any hopes that millions of people might behave differently depends heavily on the ability to spread green wisdom broadly and deeply. True modernity depends on a progression of ideas over time, where subsequent ideas grow better and better because they build on previous ideas. Requiring everyone to go back to the fountainhead of their own creativity prevents this, no matter how talented the hand that is doing the work. So the cruel irony is that Modernism prevents modernity, and leaves us with little more than eternal (and often juvenile) self-expression.

How Traditionalism Kills Living Traditions

poorly-designed classical portico at the Ledges of Huntsville Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama

   Some traditionalists take the approach that “older is always better.” This may sound like a polar opposite to Modernism’s “newer is always better,” but it paradoxically produces the same result: it renders those traditionalists, just like the Modernists, incapable of learning important things. Sure, they learn the classical canons. But that’s about the extent of it because to these traditionalists, they’re assumed to be closed canons, almost as if they had been handed down from Heaven itself. Actually, a few hardcore traditionalists believe precisely that: they propose that classical architecture is a divine gift directly from God himself.

   This view simply doesn’t square up with a broad view of history. A reasonable person would conclude that architecture has always evolved from the dawn of civilization, like a living thing, because the traditions were alive, learning and continually solving the problems of better ways of building in harmony with regional conditions, climate, and culture.

5-bay traditional front porch in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

   The last of the living architectural traditions died nearly a century ago. The first thing recovered thirty years ago were the styles of some of the last traditions to die: Bungalows, Colonial Revival, Beaux-Arts, Federal, Greek Revival, etc. This recovery culminated in the modern-day pattern book, which prescribed details for building each of these styles. I wasn’t one of the pioneers, but I wrote a number of these pattern books, beginning about a decade ago. I remember thinking “what I’m doing has no power to bring life back to architecture.” Rather, if people followed my pattern books for 40 years, the architecture produced at the end of those years would be pretty much exactly like that at the beginning. There’s no life to that. Rather, it’s something mechanical, like stamping out objects on an assembly line. And that mechanical reproduction of something that was once alive doesn’t allow us to learn; all we can do is follow the recipe book.

A Modern Tradition

outdoor seating at cafe in Embu, Brasil

   True modernity is the result of a living tradition held by a culture at large, not just a few specialists. Living traditions learn, like other living things. And they change over time. But they don’t change their character radically at the whims of fashion. An elephant doesn’t become a crocodile with the next fashion cycle. Rather, living things (including living traditions) change more slowly, and with good reasons that accompany survival.

   This, I believe, is the high ideal of both tradition and modernity: the ability of architecture to learn and adapt towards meaningful bettering of humanity. But both Modernism and traditionalism as they are often known today are corruptions of that ideal, and those corruptions (as corruptions often do) have led people who really ought to know better into often-warring camps. We must be better than that. Sustainability requires it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 - 05:56 PM

Jonathan Miller

Embracing absolutes is shaky ground for us modern kind.   Because in the end it means we might be lost and the creators of harm.  Could not the hardcore classicist argue with a strong defense that classicism is a universal living tradition who’s expression of order has adapted to thousands of years of human history and myriads of cultures only to reappear stronger than ever?  Can any other understanding make such a claim? After reading this article I left saying… crap, do better than that?  Does that mean modernist and traditionalist alike compromise convictions to build some peaceful consensus for the sake of sustainability?

Monday, October 4, 2010 - 03:22 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Interesting, Jonathan... it all depends on which view of classicism one takes, IMO. Every classicist I know agrees that the classical should be considered a language rather than a set of fixed solutions. With languages, a dictionary's worth of words can be used to create unlimited expressions. I have no debate with this approach.

   My question revolves around another aspect of language: some words fall out of use, while new words are developed. Some feel that the "words," or patterns, of the classical tradition are fixed. It's this approach with which I have a quarrel. If it's a living tradition, then it evolves over time.

   Look at classicism's roots in antiquity... it clearly evolved over time. Early in its Renaissance recovery, there was a simpler understanding of the canons, but architecture soon began to evolve again, as even a casual flip through Banister Fletcher will show.

   Today, we're in the early years of the New Renaissance. One could argue that our recovery of the canons of antiquity and the canons of the Renaissance are, if not complete, at least robust. It's therefore time for architecture to evolve again, as it always has from the dawn of time. Fixing the canons achieves nothing except to confirm what the Modernists say about the classicists. It's our choice.

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 01:53 AM

Brent Baldwin

With all due respect, Mr. Mouzon, it seems to me the problem with this line of thinking is that it embraces the belief in the perfectibility of humankind by our own power. This faith in the power of infinite Progress is what led us to fall in love with the perpetually unique. It's not difficult to make a case that things have gotten progressively worse throughout history, not better. I am not sure about that, but I do know that I for one have come up short. As you say brilliantly in your new book (which I hope everyone reads), the responsibility lies with each one of us.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:36 AM

Steve Mouzon

Brent, upon reflection, I see how you might get that impression from this post, but that's not the intent. I've never met a perfect person, nor do I expect to for the rest of my life. Rather, this is an exhortation to be better, not to be perfect. It's clear we can be better, as humanity has forever gotten better and then worse, and then repeated the cycle over and over again.

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