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Development Traditions in the Built Environment
by Katy Purviance on 08/30/07 @ 07:46:55 pm
Categories: Class Notes, Observations | 890 words | 1228 views

We started off the semester with a discourse on the four traditions of architecture design. They are:

1. The vernacular tradition, which is environmentally-friendly;
2. The high style tradition, which is nice if you’re rich;
3. The speculative tradition, which is the bastard son of capitalism; and
4. Participatory design, which is not yet a tradition, unfortunately.

The vernacular tradition is evolutionary, meaning that designs were derived through trial and error, meaning that you didn’t just start out with hardwood floors and a jacuzzi and 6,000 square feet, no, you started out with the basic essentials, such as a roof. Designs, although rife with cultural symbolism, were strictly functional and were only changed when someone could figure out a better way to accomplish the same task.

The high style tradition was a real great way to go if you were obscenely wealthy and/or the Government and/or the Church. These buildings were designed by world-class architects and constructed by top-rate artisans. The materials, yes, were of the highest available quality, but had to be transported from long distances, often by slaves. Symbolism, decoration, and refinement were more important than pure usefulness; consequently, these are the world’s most beautiful structures.

The speculative tradition and its profit-motivated design are responsible for all of those boring boxy cookie-cutter subdivisions spreading like a cancer across the land. There is a special place in Hell for those who thought that it would be a good idea to disregard the social and environmental impact of manufacturing thousands of soulless, generic, mass-produced, nondurable, nonrenewable-resource using houses for a fickle, volatile, and often uninformed market whose decision-making skills are not much more developed than those of selfish children who insist on constant entertainment and instant gratification.

A developer rues the day

Participatory design, while not yet a tradition, may very well be the thing that saves us from an entirely ugly landscape. This is the most democratic of the traditions in that it is architecture for the people, by the people. Design professionals educate the public such that their decisions about the nature of a proposed place are socially and environmentally conscious of long-term effects. Designers, too, become educated, learning how to better respond to the needs of every day people and their community. It is my sincerest wish that this heralded tradition-hopeful is ushered in with Godspeed.

Some points I’d like to make:

1. Thanks to the uglification of American architecture and all its wasteful ways, people are beginning to realize how wise our uneducated, primitive ancestors really were.

Using Local Materials

It was by necessity that folks used locally-available materials, but how’s this for a flash of brilliance? Maybe, just maybe, the materials that already exist in a particular location are probably the best suited materials for building in said location. Maybe it is ostentatious and foolish to insist in importing materials from far-away lands. Maybe the exponentially-growing environmental and social ramification of shipping building materials great distances should be causing people to reconsider their selfish, petty wants. We can learn much from indigenous cultures, but, the question is: will we?

2. While the high style tradition is responsible for some of the world’s greatest architecture, it is also responsible for planting the seeds of conspicuous consumption, which is an abomination against nature and common sense.

If you’re a king or the pope or a Hollywood director, you probably have the means to put together a real swell pad. That’s great. It’s wonderful to go to Europe and feel like you’re in a large living museum of awe and splendor. It’s nice to read glossy magazines full of saturated photographs of people who have obscene amounts of money who are able to import Italian travertine for their bathroom floor. But let’s talk about jealousy. If you see something pretty in a home decorating mag, it’s as good as porn for setting yourself up on a vicious cycle of desire and disappointment. You do not make 1.2 million dollars a year. You work at Walmart. You can’t even afford to go to the dentist. You will never rest your feet on Italian travertine while you are taking a dump. No. These are empty dreams, designed by cruel marketing people to make you want what you do not need. But you will go to Target anyway and put some Michael Graves teakettles on your Discover card. It will be satisfying, but the feeling will go away. You will buy more, more, more, but it is never enough. You feel suave and sophisticated, but your credit card debt will be passed on to your children. This is not success. This is being a victim of the games advertisers like to play with your mind. Resist.

3. How ridiculous has our system become when talking to actual people about planning their own town is seen as a new and novel method of development?

It seems like common sense, doesn’t it, to actually meet with the people most directly effected by building design? Wouldn’t it be helpful to an architect to gather the unscripted, candid opinions of townsfolk who know, better than any developer, what it is that their town does and does not need? Wouldn’t a place designed by democracy and yet guided by design professionals prove to be a culturally satisfying and meaningful place to live? I think so.

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