Let’s Stop Using the Terms ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’
A 2021 interview on this website with the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa reminded us that “architecture is a verb.” It’s true: Good architecture arises out of the context of place over time and involves all of the senses. As I have gotten older, I am irritated by designers who define themselves under the umbrella terms of “Traditional” or “Modern” (aka “Contemporary”). These terms—somewhat arbitrary and confusing—treat buildings as nouns rather than as verbs. Using them denies the historical continuum of any building and gives it a limited definition that serves no real purpose, except to satisfy the increasingly tedious and irrelevant style wars. Architects, students, and even clients would all be better served without them.
Those who take up the mantle of Traditional would have you believe that true architecture derives its antecedents from Greece or Rome and that there is a language of parts and proportions that cannot be transgressed, or that Traditional architecture also has its roots in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the profession of architecture flowered here and abroad. For those who take up the mantle Modern architecture, it arrived on our shores when Gropius took up a position at Harvard, now known as the GSD. Their language is more relative, generally sparse, and often subject to the personal vision of the designer. One language is old and looks back; the other looks forward and today seems to be defined only as new or different. Both positions have become so calcified that most architecture seems to now hang on to those definitions for legitimacy rather than adhering to the basic principles of good design. Neither side seems to consider the other a meaningful form or expression. I would like to propose that we abandon both terms and begin to admire and teach a form of architecture that can and should be both.
To make my argument, let me start with the real source of all architecture: the client. That client can be a single person or a body of people, but it’s the client’s enthusiasm and faith in the architect that provides the spirit and capital to build architecture. Here we must tread lightly since so much of what is built (in the U.S., anyway) is not really architecture but an expression of unbridled commercialism. Nonetheless, on occasion the stars align with a well-meaning client and a decent architect, and a work of architecture is born. It is here that the problem of defining architecture as either Traditional or Modern begins, since clients are not generally well-versed in the nuances of architectural history. They will often rely on a kind of history-lite to determine what they prefer. They may have preferences for what we call Traditional or Modern, but their ability to define or analyze those terms, or why they might prefer one over the other, is often not so clear. Over the years, I have had some clients define our firm’s work as modern, others as traditional. I often wonder what they are actually seeing. It seems that if we keep promoting the idea of strict adherence to architectural categories, we run the risk of settling on a half-baked architecture, with superficial references that not only allow the client to settle on a predetermined style, but also limits what the building can truly be. It was Frank Lloyd Wright who said, “Do not begin with a style, end with one.” But style for Wright was not a historical precedent—it was something more akin to the terms “stylish,” or “distinctive,” because in the first instance the building came out of the site and its form expressed the client’s real needs. Wright was once described by the historian Russell Hitchcock as having one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th. He meant it as a criticism. I would argue it was actually a compliment, since Wright was able to look back and forward at the same time. We do a disservice to clients—and promote cliches—if we try to convince them that Traditional or Modern are a fixed starting point for the design of any building.
Both the media and schools are also too quick to choose and to promote the terms. There is, of course, money to be made in the publishing world in the strict adherence to one or the other. After all, how would Dwell or Dezeen or Traditional Building look and feel if there was not a full-throated dedication to one camp or the other as we currently define them? It’s cleaner, easier, and more profitable to stick to that formula. My favorite American magazine these days is Residential Design, since it at least tries to bridge the chasm between the two terms. Imagine a magazine dedicated to examples of good architecture that derives from a site, a plan that fits current needs, and elevations that are reflective of the first two. Such a magazine would always examine the context in which a building sits, perhaps also placing it in some historical perspective, never showing a building standing alone. A new or different form wouldn’t be enough without these references. Would it sell? Who knows. Would it serve to educate everyone, clients, and architects both, on the real nature of architecture in our time? Absolutely.
Imagine, too, schools of architecture that also taught these fundamentals of design, instead of boasting that they somehow know better, and that we must first declare our allegiance at the throne of Traditional or Modern if we’re to learn anything about design. Most schools in this country are dedicated to Modern architecture. But we also have some programs dedicated to Traditional architecture, such as Notre Dame. I’m guessing an absence of dedication to one or the other wouldn’t be good for image, branding, or even enrollment.
Architects are integral to the issue. It’s popular to blame architects for the lack of respect in our culture for architecture. Certainly the percentage of projects done by architects is frightfully small—and, in part, we’re to blame for our standing. But I would like to suggest a partial solution. Let’s stop talking about Traditional or Modern architecture as definable, separate entities. It is disappointing to see buildings that are trying too hard to be one or the other because these buildings tend to be less than they could be. Let us begin to promote the idea to clients, the media, and schools that good, indeed, great architecture starts with the site, the plan, sensible elevations, and details that reflect all three, devoid of any preconceived style.
History is not static. If it teaches anything, what seems definable today will likely not seem so in time. Modern is fleeting. Even the great architectural examples used to promote Traditional and Modern architecture were built at a point in time. The best of them look back and forward at the same time. Didn’t Borromini break through the Renaissance to the Baroque, making him both a Traditional and Modern architect? Was Saarinen only a Modern architect, or does the MIT Chapel also refer to 18th and 19th century Boston brick architecture? Both architects were clearly ahead of their times, but I would argue that both were truly great because they could look back and forward at the same time. You can certainly also say that today all buildings consist of traditional or modern elements such as fireplaces, double glazing, or open plans, blurring further any distinction. Convincing anyone to build a true piece of architecture is hard enough, but pigeonholing that effort into increasingly empty categories only makes it harder to reach the full potential of a building. Isn’t it time to promote a definition of design that is all inclusive and doesn’t rely on shallow labels? Our profession, our buildings, and our culture will be better off if we did.
Featured image: Borromini Chiesa di Sant’Ivo. All photos by the author.