Giornale di Critica dell'Architettura

Tradition§ Modernity in Contemporary Practice

di Lucien Steil - 25/6/2001

"...That between the traditional and the new, or between order and adventure, there is no real opposition, and that what we call tradition today is a knitwork of centuries of adventure."
Jorge Luis Borges

The practice of architecture remains essentially a pursuit of ideals. Architecture and city-building are necessarily imbedded in a desire of building; they encompass physical and moral changes in the built environment of human societies and propose the materialization of design visions. Architecture's main purpose is to conceive in a consistent way good buildings and good cities in a perspective of realization.
Compromising the ideals of appropriateness, beauty, solidity, permanence, etc., within the materialization of building, means abandoning the very realm of architecture. We know how much ruthless practice has in a few decades put shame on the profession of architects and city-builders .This has led to a substantial moral
and cultural crisis and has precipitated a serious loss of professional authority and credibility!

The Contemporary

Now what does it mean to define architectural practice in a "contemporary situation?" Is the practice of traditional architecture and city-building antagonistic to the contemporary?
Or should we consider contemporary practice as the acknowledgement of our building visions, namely the highly efficient practicability of traditional architecture and urbanism?
The issue of the "ideal world" colliding with the "real world" is not exclusively a contemporary one. It is a permanent struggle of mankind.
To address the "real world" is not to compromise ideals of excellence but to consecrate reality as a manifestation of an eternal and sacred creation. The production of architecture and city-building has to address the reality of contemporary construction, of contemporary technology, of contemporary programs, of contemporary social, cultural and economical conditions,not in a perspective of fatality but rather as an
opportunity of choices!(cf.Leon Krier:"Choice and Fate").
Any cultural achievement and any action is guided by choices transcending existing conditions. The practice of architecture and city-building is not locked into the contingencies of the "real world."
The architectural and urban projects inform the contemporary situation of other potentials, of broader perspectives, of sublime transformations.
The practice of architecture and city-building educates reality with inspiring visions and cultivated choices. In our time,many designs of traditional buildings, urban developments, towns and cities, have been successfully realized. They have been built in a "contemporary situation" contradicting the fashionable skepticism about their "irrealistic assumptions". To those who would still argue : "But you can't build this today!" Leon Krier would probably reply: "You can't but I can."
Now the essential purpose of all these built works has not been to reflect about contemporaneity, nor has it been a polemical statement against modernity.... These built achievements are merely concerned with building beautiful, comfortable and durable structures and places to be inhabited with dignity, pleasure and love!
I believe that ugliness, non-sense, and inappropriateness are not matters of personal opinion only, but identifiable features which can be sensed and shared by a majority of people. Good taste and good manners can be taught, but the intuition of beauty is an inherent propriety of man,as a microcosm of nature, in his perfect and indissolubleunion of body, soul, and spirit.
Contemporaneity cannot be possibly reduced to a permanent humiliation of our moral and esthetical judgement!
Contemporaneity is not a quality, not a style, not a religion, not a wisdom, not an experience, not a skill, not an esthetics, not a promise, not an ideal, not a deception.
What it is, is merely to be here, now!
It qualfies the moment we are living in...We can be enthusiastic or not about that, and we still, all of us, remain contemporary.
Questioning contemporary situations through nostalgia and revivalist projections has always been a quite healthy practice of recentering the cultural dynamics. Envisioning the future not as a hypothesis of salvation,but as a immanent part of memory, has proved to be far more rewarding and inspiring than any theory of futuristic revolution.
Anyway, the future has never been that anticipated exhilarating experience...the "shock of the future"- when the future gets to us, it is no longer future,-it becomes present and then quickly past! The romantic utopias which consider the contemporary as the
doorway of a new historical dimension: "The Future"- they might be wonderful and even attractive nostalgias....They might be as natural and human than the nostalgias of past Golden Ages. They probably contribute to a constant reevaluation of our cultural heritage, to the redefinition of our world and our values,to the reappraisal of reason and imagination.
Paradoxically too much paranoiac obsession with futuristic utopias expresses a serious conflict with contemporaneity. It probably reveals a failure to transcend reality in a perspective of a better world.

For my part I prefer to look at the future as a part of a wholesome vision guiding our actions and projections in a perspective of continuity, wisdom and emulation.

Challenged in his apparent lack of enthusiastic "contemporaneity," the traditional Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy wrote :
"Now,if we are to reconcile time with the architect's definition of contemporaneity, we must say that to be "relevant to it's time," to be "contemporary," a work of architecture must fulfil these conditions: it must be part
of the bustle and turmoil, the ebb and flow of everyday life; it must be related harmoniously to the rhythm of the universe, and it must be consonant with man's current stage of knowledge of change."
"For all great architecture is contemporary of its time, relevant to its situation in space,time and human society-but also eternal.
Without being eternal - that is in harmony with the cosmos and the evolution of life - no architecture can be called contemporary."

Hassan Fathy


Though the "moderns" do not own exclusively this century, as often they seem to pretend, I doubt that any
other moment in history has been so concerned about its modernity. So many individuals, institutions, schools, especially art and architectural institutions seem to be so anxious to express an image of modernity. They often forget about the fundamental issues of their "raison d'etre."
"Modernity" has become a self-justifying label without any connotation of quality and comfort. The sectarian
understanding of modernity is finally a matter of nostalgia of some reliquarian and fossilized avant-gardes.
This kind of abusive modernity canonizes itself in a set of esthetical conventions and formal habits, the requirement of disruption and confusion,collision and disharmony.
It is complemented and encompassed by the absurd relativism of recent deconstructivist philosophy,
a completely revolting doctrine of cultural Nihilism.
This orthodox modernity maintains and entertains a small but powerful elite whose main task is to justify its own uselessness.
Most of schools of architecture, art institutions, and art schools are now like emperors without clothes. Blinded by vanity, they don't notice their nudity. Abusing historical authority, they offer little beyond academic confusion. They celebrate their metaphysical hollowness and their artistical miseries and cultivate proudly large junkyards of ignorance and ugliness!
Then, should we care about modernity? Aren't those who prioritize this issue engaging themselves
in a fake world of relative values and frivolities,in a world of fashionable senselessness,in a world where
common sense does not make sense anymore and where reason has lost its reasons?
Now I can agree to some fascination of modernity as an intellectual and cultural issue worth of investigation.
In reality the contemporary situation fits me quite well.
I am not terrorized by modernity though I think that this imposed attention to the originality of our time
is somewhat despotical. I admit that I am looking backward quite often: It is the better view!
Besides, I am nostalgic too, not of any particular historical period but of the accumulated and simultaneous sum of historical culture as a potential of our time! I like to be a militant nostalgic in the sense defined by J.W. von Goethe:

"There is nothing past for which one may yearn, there is only an eternal newness which is shaped by the wider elements of the past and true nostalgia has always to be productive to create a new excellence."

Now true modernity, in my understanding,is a positive acknowledgement of one's time. This does not mean
a blind enthusiasm and uncritical support. It means being aware of the difference of this time to preceeding ones, without implying that the preceeding ones have to be rejected. It is the consciousness of a different sensibility and perception of time and space. It does not need to oppose continuous values and paradigms of beauty, comfort and permanence.
Modernity is thus an acute sense of originality of a particular culture in a particular moment of space and time. This contemporary originality is only meaningful in its relationship to the originality of past cultures. Modernity in this understanding has to be contrary to amnesia, because something cannot be measured as different, original, innovative, new to that which is not acknowledged or deliberately forgotten or ignored!
So modernity being the vibrant experience of uniqueness of any moment in history, is simultaneously the intricately bonded experience of a contemporary present with its historical memory.
Consequently modernity cannot be contradictory with the contemporary practice of traditional architecture and city-building. This is an artificial and useless polemic within the obsolete debate of tradition versus
The quality and value of an architectural practice can ultimately only be judged by its efficacy to create good buildings, good cities, gardens and landscapes in design visions and built realizations.
Now if there are any more reasons to giving some thoughts to modernity one might be the following: To challenge some of the routine, self-contemplation and self-contentment which threatens any endeavor of mankind: entropia is a natural phenomena, a tendency towards stagnation, the only organical situation where no change occurs.
The modern has always presented itself as an alarm-bell for stagnating culture...
But what matters more is the ever-present opportunity to question thoroughly the contemporary situation and its potential, and to recuperate, in the perspective of a better world, its operational knowledge, its highly sophisticated instrumentation of information and communication and its perfected logistics.
Besides the numerous problems of the contemporary world, there is definitely a humanistic program, genuine progress in tolerance and social justice, a popularization of international solidarity, a strive for peaceful coexistence and humanitarian policies, a new attitude to nature and the acknowledgement of the richness of human diversity etc.

There are numerous other challenges, not to be addressed because they document the contemporary failures and shortcomings, but because they are the real opportunities to invest the "Real World."
They are the real territories of creativity and invention.
They are the real frontiers of imagination and poetry:

The preservation of natural environment and the economy of natural resources
The issues of labor, crafts and skills in a context of education, training and employment alternatives
Th enabling of dignified housing (private and public) sustainable neighbourhoods and vital city centers
The evolution of real estate development and building industry in a perspective of territorial economy, of equilibrium between city and country-side, of regional emulation
The promotion and strenghtening of regional and local identities and the support of multicultural conviviality.
The reconstruction of a popular culture of art and architecture opposing elitist practice, opposing the promotion of architecture and city-building as a social privilege. Architecture and city-building have to reintegrate civitas and the realm of public life as well as deal again with the reality of human communities.

The Practice of Traditional Architecture

Practicing traditional architecture requires a high ethical commitment to the people, their places, their beliefs and their particular traditions...
This commitment is not a slavish one,nor is it a servile opportunism!
Ethical attitudes are not reducible to the uncritical acceptance of dominant sets of values and moral conventions.
They require the distinction between civic and private virtues on one hand and willful customs and obsolete practices of false morality and corrupted policies on the other.
Traditional architects are committed to a modernity contributing to discern the most appropriate and the most efficient,the most human and the most ecological aspects of the contemporary potential.
Traditional architecture and city-building are based on a positive philosophy of life, on faith in humanity, on respect of environment and historical cultures as a common heritage of mankind, and on an inviolable legacy of genius and know-how from preceding generations of craftsmen and committed citizen. Traditional architecture and city-building imply a sense of modesty and humility of the individual creator within the sacred creation of the universe, as well as the powerful intuition that concepts of beauty,harmony,
justice, truth, rightness are imbedded in permanence and universality.
Tradition forwards a selected knowledge, a tested experience as well as an heritage of models, types, techniques and formal vocabularies. It is a dynamic process, an ongoing effort and development, not a static heritage of dogmas and immutable recipes. Tradition shoulders the responsibility of carrying on an inherited culture beyond the contingencies and improvisations of the moment. In order to remain vital, alive and relevant it needs to be earned, consolidated and enriched by each single generation in the perspective of universal ideals of civilization. It implies a constant effort of appropriation of knowledge, experience and cultural values, a permanent effort of intellectual, artistic and material reconstruction.
"What you have inherited from your ancestors,earn it in order to possess it."
J.W.von Goethe

In his introduction to Hannah Arendt's "Crisis of Culture, "the French writer René Char comments: "Our heritage has been handed over to us without a testament," suggesting the creative and inventive effort required to operate within the context of tradition. Clearly, tradition has nothing to do with "easy copying of past formulas" as the relentless critics of traditional architecture and city-building sarcastically pretend!

Traditional Architects and Urban Designers

They are not thriving to officialized fame signature buildings. They cannot rely on prestigious support of universities and institutions.
They are excluded from most of contemporary art and architecture magazines, which are reserved as the propaganda machinery of modernism.
They remain craftsmen, apprentices of their art, masters, however, of a popular historical culture. Their merits, they share them knowingly with whole generations of preceding architects and craftsmen. If most of
them remain anonymous like the medieval "Baumeister," their anonymity is glorious...
Traditional architects and urban designers find the outstanding rewards of their profession in the pleasures of their work, in the delights of their design, in the prestige of popular acceptance, in the excellence of their buildings and urban developments.
Their work is consecrated by public evidence and popular approval for its beauty, comfort and efficiency, not by professional honors, academic awards, or other notarized guarantee label of modernity.

Vedi la replica al testo di S. Lazier
Questo Tradizionalismo č scenografia

(Lucien Steil - 25/6/2001)

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