Traditional Architecture

December 8, 2023 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 115

I was just up at University of Notre Dame to participate in final reviews for their Historic Preservation Program, which is designed as an advanced degree for architects, thanks to the support of the Duda Center for Preservation, Resilience and Sustainability. My friend Steven Semes crafted the program and was kind enough to have me as an advisor. Notre Dame’s architecture and preservation program celebrate the Classical tradition while most architecture schools eschew it. This is a reverse of the situation a century ago, when most architectural schools only taught the Classical tradition.

I first saw Professor Semes in 2006, debating Paul Byard at a Traditional Building Conference. I even commented on it in a blog at the time and later joined him at a Congress for New Urbanism conference in Madison. I blogged again when his book The Future of the Past came out and he joined us at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about it. He has brought me up to Notre Dame twice since I moved to San Antonio, and I learn something each time.

The Stoa at the Walsh Family Hall at University of Notre Dame

In my blogs I admired his approach to preservation as a way to understand how we built before. Humanity has forgotten more building techniques than it knows – Roman concrete, Chinese chrome, Mayan limewalks, Persian passive air conditioning, the alternating stones and wood lintels of earthquake-resistant Nepalese houses, etc.

Or the natural thermal qualities of the Shaanxi yaodong!

What really struck me this time was something he said about traditional architecture as a whole – not simply the Greek-Roman-Byzantine Classicism of orders and temples and stoas but also traditional Chinese architecture and traditional Indian architecture and traditional African architecture and traditional Incan architecture. Traditional architecture is not a style but a practice that is handed down over generations. Semes quotes Hannah Arendt about the “loving care” of tradition – the bridge between the past and present.

Semes made the point at some time during our discussion Monday that “traditional building” is actually quite catholic in its easy incorporation of motifs and principles from other traditions. This is why the orders have spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the world and in the other direction, why Saracenic architecture spread into Europe to help birth the Gothic. “Traditional building” is about building traditions, process, and continuity. Every society has its building traditions, which are in the realm of process and practice, not “Style.”

The students in the program – all degreed architects – are from Kenya, Costa Rica, Syria and Iran. They produce exquisite hand drawings, just like my students did during my 16 years at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why? Because the gesture of a hand drawing teaches something a click cannot. Just like building a dry stone wall rewires your brain to see dry stone walls in a way you never could before.

Actually dry stone walls are a wonderful example of the diversity of traditional building. I was just reading about the dry stone walls of Japan. I have experienced the dry stone walls of Ireland and the north of England, and I am aware of the tradition in Kentucky. I am sure I have encountered them in South America as well.

Marcahuamachuco, Peru

Another universal is of course the earthen building. We call them adobes here, and Professor Sue Ann Pemberton recently made a presentation about earthen architecture at our own adobe brick Yturri-Edmunds house in San Antonio. The World Heritage site of Bam, Iran is earthen. In fact, the majority of buildings in all of human history are earthen.

One of the most famous landmarks in the world is earthen architecture (with a veneer of stone in some places)

Speaking of veneers – Here in San Antonio we have caliche block – the South Texas version of laterite, which is what is beneath the stone veneers of Angkor. A muddy clay with enough calcium carbonate that it hardens into an artificial limestone when you dry it in the sun.

South Texas caliche – losing its protective plaster layer

Southeast Asian laterite losing its Angkorian stone veneer.

On the way back from Notre Dame, I read one of those marvelously complex articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, all about a Stoa (hey – I was in one in Notre Dame! See photo above) from Samothrace that had evidence of the use of a flat arch in the metope/triglyph section of the Doric entablature a century or two before it appeared in Rome. Now this is the third century BCE and the triglyphs themselves are already skeuomorphs of wooden antecedents, carved from the same stone as the metope and then cut at an angle to create the flat arch.

Non nova sed nove

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