James Marston Fitch is one of the most underrated architectural thinkers of the past century. While his contributions to the world of historic preservation were pivotal—he helped found the first preservation program in the country at Columbia University in 1964, among other things—less understood is how Fitch was a pioneer in sustainability, who helped shape today’s awareness of architecture’s environmental impact, how the natural world has long shaped buildings. As an architecture student in the mid-1970s, I recall Fitch’s seminal opus, American Building: The Forces that Shape It (first published in 1948) as required reading. Ironically, with today’s heightened awareness in architectural education and practice about architecture’s weight on the health of the planet, Fitch’s contribution in this realm appears unsung. The trajectory of his writing and teaching binds vernacular design and building to environmental awareness, and the importance of preserving architecture as an expression of sustainability.
Fitch was born in 1909 in Washington, D.C., grew up in Tennessee, and attended architecture school at Tulane. Financial difficulties prevented him from graduating, but he found work with a design firm in Nashville, where he began to study old buildings. In the 1930s and ’40s, he began to formulate a view that architecture’s primary role, its most important purpose, is to provide an environment in which people could most fully achieve their human potential. Fitch worked as a meteorologist while serving in the military, and later as a journalist for such architecture publications as Architectural Forum and Architectural Record. For Fitch, architecture was not about competing styles or modern ideology, but how buildings reflect their environmental context and peaceably coexist with it. American Building was prescient; its appearance at the cusp of modern architecture’s dominance in the U.S. makes it all the more visionary. Fitch was not into abstractions. His approach to architecture was practical, but it was based on a strong belief of building as a humanistic undertaking. “The ultimate task of architecture is to act in favor of human beings,” is how Fitch described his working thesis.
In American Building, Fitch celebrated the design of vernacular buildings as they responded to climate, lauding the native genius of those untutored in architecture who paid close attention to environmental forces and how design and construction should respond to them. Fitch was a modernist, but not a proponent of the International Style. He understood that contemporary architects should study older buildings to understand how they accommodated the fluctuations of climate, incorporated regional materials and construction techniques, and generally worked with the environment instead of against it.
Beyond this, Fitch pushed for architectural design in postwar America to be based in science—our collective knowledge of physical phenomenon—and not fashion. His position was that the science of building, and how architecture responds to natural phenomena, should be the foundation of architectural theory and design. He was an early critic of bad building performance in its many guises: structures that wasted energy, buildings that made people physically sick, architecture that despoiled the environment. He believed in the ethic of sustainability decades before that term came into common usage.
Yet Fitch wasn’t an architectural technologist. In his preface to the 1972 edition of American Building, he expressed his distress that “American architecture today pays less attention to ecological, microclimatic, and psychosomatic considerations than it did a quarter of a century ago.” For many architects, technology promised to take architecture to a new plane of sophistication and performance. But Fitch saw technology, ironically, as the root of the problem with our buildings. He was perceptive about how too great a reliance on technology could undermine architecture’s environmental performance. “The sheer ubiquity of equipment for the manipulation of the natural environment,” Fitch wrote, “has led architects, engineers and planners to behave as if this circumambient environment could be ignored as a factor in design.” He understood that we cannot “tech” our way out of the environmental problems we’ve created by ignoring the symbiotic way that architecture and nature interact.
Fitch pointed to contemporary materials and equipment as the culprits. Before their advent, he said, there was a very close correlation between climate and building; so close, in fact, that it expressed itself in “distinctive quality of all national and regional architectural styles,” in the ways that vernacular designers and builders used similar materials, at times, to tune the building to the particular climatic conditions.
Before Fitch, the preservation movement focused mostly on architectural landmarks. But he saw entire neighborhoods and urban precincts as worthy of preservation.
Today, awareness of Fitch’s work is most likely in the realm of historic preservation. His passion for it can be seen as a part of his overall worldview of architecture’s relationship with the environment. Before Fitch, the preservation movement focused mostly on architectural landmarks. But he saw entire neighborhoods and urban precincts as worthy of preservation. Retaining urban fabric is important, but today we know that often the most sustainable approach is to reuse existing buildings. Preservation can be seen as stewardship of existing resources for future use, transforming architecture sustainably for future generations.
How would Fitch, who died 20 years ago this past spring, appraise the profession’s embrace of sustainability today? He’d caution us against making the same mistake as modernists by placing too much emphasis on technological fixes for mistakes we make when we don’t design with environmental sensitivity. He would implore us to study the ways in which vernacular builders have used native genius to create architecture in natural equilibrium. He’d constantly remind us that preservation, restoration, and especially adaptive reuse need to be appreciated as larger expressions of environmentalism—not just as an homage to the past, but as pathways to sustainable neighborhoods and cities. And, in light of the world we now live in, he would remind us that architecture is not some abstract or purely aesthetic undertaking. Fitch saw the primary function of building and architecture as the modification of the natural environment so that people could fully reach their potential. He was an early proponent for the view that architectural design should be guided primarily by human comfort, and that building performance should be judged by this criterion. Fitch wrote almost 75 years ago that human health is the underlying measure of architecture. He still has much to teach us.