Tradition, Genuine and Spurious

Here is a very thoughtful list from our colleague Bruno Postle. He rightly points out that before we can make a declaration on traditional architecture, we need to unpack that word “tradition” and understand what is and is not involved….

Cheers, Michael Mehaffy
Hi Michael

…My observation is that this word ‘tradition’ has so many negative associations, you really need to roll all the way back to the beginning and declare what a ‘true tradition’ is relative to a ‘false tradition’.

So you got me thinking, none of this is specifically about architecture, it could apply to cooking or be pinned on the wall of a maker-space:

1. In a living tradition, we are allowed to copy what works and that meets human needs.
2. A copy is only a ‘fake’ when it is fraud – passing off one thing as something else.
3. In a living tradition, copying isn’t duplication, we are obliged to remix, to fit, adapt and improve.
4. In a living tradition, we share knowledge in common and pass on what we have learned.
5. In a living tradition, we are delighted to be copied, but we like to be acknowledged.
6. A false tradition has none of these things, though it may seem to be old.
7. A false tradition is a marketing device concocted to have the illusion of antiquity.
8. A false tradition is usually camouflage for the indefensible.


I’ll be tweet-casting next weekend’s proceedings from Charleston, even though some are complaining. Such a pity that they don’t realize that there are two parts to the story: the work that you do, and how you communicate the work that you do. In the old days, companies pre-cooked a perfect story, then launched it to their target audience. Today, the company isn’t the centerpiece of our work; the cause is. And a cause operates in the sunlight for everyone to see.  Hope they catch up someday.


Modern architecture has reached a crisis point.  The original intention of early modernists was to seek out an architecture that was non-traditional and free of historical precedent.  The mistake made by architecture schools was to abandon the teaching of classical architecture in favor of only modernism and thus creating the multi-generational gap in the continuous transfer of architectural knowledge and training from one generation to the next.  Just as the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution provides the right to bear arms, it also provides the right to NOT bear arms if one chooses.  Similarly, to truly be free of historical precedent in architecture, one should also be free to engage in historical precedent.  One is not free if they are restricted from pursuing a certain design solution that may seem relevant.  It was very unfortunate that this clear, logical way of thinking was not present when all the architecture history books and plaster casts were purged out of the architecture schools.  This anti-traditional architecture, with its lack of ornamentation and mouldings can only take you so far.


Modern Architecture has reached that point.  Considering the Form Follows Function philosophy of architecture, there was nothing that could be done that wasn’t done before.   With no where to innovate, the Form Follows Function philosophy was replaced by Form can be Anything philosophy.  Now modern architecture has reached the point where any shape or form can be passed off as a great work of architecture, worthy of publication in any of the architecture trade journals. There are no rules, no guidelines, no principles, therefore anyone can do it. Anyone who has Sketchup on their computer, and is proficient at it can do it. There is no longer anything that separates or distinguishes great modern architecture from mediocre or bad modern architecture. Of course the architect still has to make sure there are proper exits and the building meets the latest building codes, but the last time I checked, architecture was more than passing city and fire marshal reviews.

It seems like the ultimate design freedom, but without rules or design principles there is no way to evaluate one form as being better than another.  There is no where to go; there is no way to improve.  There is nothing to master.  Once you’ve learned the computer skills at generating the weird shapes you can’t get better at it.

Classical architecture is a grammar.  It can easily be taught, it can be learned, and it can be mastered. Unfortunately, there is the misconception that applying classical architectural principles to today’s architectural problems is regressive, or going backwards.  They think it is not progressive.  In fact, it is necessary to move the tradition of classical architecture forward using today’s technology and if necessary adapt it to today’s technology and needs.  This is what was done during all of the revival periods.  Greek Revival architects didn’t design buildings like they were transformed back into the 5 Century BC; they designed mid-nineteenth century buildings using motifs found on Ancient Greek architecture.  They built with wood “balloon” frames, used double hung windows with glass glazing, clad the exteriors with clapboard siding, and used ornamental cast iron railings, all of which are materials and techniques that were unknown to Ancient Greek architects.

Today’s modernist architects do not believe that classical architecture is the way to continue down the road.  They continue to think that it is going backwards, meanwhile they are all off the road, in a pasture doing donuts and getting stuck in the mud.

How the World Takes Its Tradition

Outside the garden of architectural elitism, the world is comfortably reawakening to good, old-fashioned tradition. Smart, big companies, quick to spot trends, have organized their products and their delivery systems around these murmurs of old-fashionedness, giving folks what they want, exactly how they want it. Architects would be wise to wake up and smell the coffee.

One new age behemoth of such systems is Starbucks. The blend of addictive ingredients (caffeine, sugar, fat), brilliant locations (usually on the righthand side along main commuter arteries with easy in-out), and a reasonably hip vibe, have driven sales, pricing, and stock shares all soaring.

Oh, but here’s the kicker: it’s 1) Natural, 2) Organic, 3) Handmade, and they attempt to be 4) Just. The Local part (the last of my personal 5-point mantra), they provide by serving as a neighborhood social hub. (And no, not every ingredient they use is exactly natural, but it’s the positioning of the product for mass acceptance that matters here – and that the tradition-based market is large and well defined.)

Importantly, Starbucks deploys high technology to produce and promote their “New Natural” experience, but, that technology (like barista-proof espresso machines, computerized payment systems, and social media networking) is decidedly not the product. They use technology behind the scenes to deliver a handcrafted experience out front. To me that’s brilliant, even explosive, and a model traditional architects can emulate.

Modernist architects are still stuck thinking the technology is the product. The world is telling us that’s not what they ordered. It turns out the future may not be so futuristic after all; the future may look far more like the past than what we’ve been led to believe.