Culture versus Personality

Each culture and each personality, informed or enthused by what they have seen from the past and around them at the present time, presents a uniquely different perspective through the physical work created in their place and time.  Some feel compelled to find solutions that must be their original innovation regardless of the timeless principles that worked available for their study.  Others build upon what “works” or inspires connectivity and infuse that continuity of culture with a personal contribution that is at the same time respectful of and innovative from the past work.

A Right to Define “Change”, or a Responsibility to Culture and Place?

For many contemporary designers and decision-makers (contemporary at their point in history), the espousal of a design methodology or illustration of a “right solution” has been a narrow-focus application in conservation and organized community effort without reference to attributes of “place”.  Often, such a “solution” has been accompanied by an individual vision of a personal “monument to change”, an invitation to congratulate the inventor even as the city is often further deconstructed by their folly. 

Even today, elements that are clearly organized and simply defined, universally applicable to both built and natural environments of every scale and scope, seem to easily “hide in plain sight”, and those who clearly comprehend it are often shoved off to the sidelines to keep them from stealing the honor for its rediscovery.  The “applicable” elements that have been inherited were thus typically not applied to the “real world” practice of architecture or its sub-discipline “planning”, or even respected within public discourse. 

Tradition Need Not be a Prison, Innovation Need Not be Destructive

Easily comprehended policies and procedures must be delineated to allow practical application in urban design, building design, and the interface between natural and man-made environments.  Such an approach must be careful that it does not stifle creativity or community individuality, but to the contrary encourages it within the context of the continuity of culture.  The approach can readily accommodate modern techniques and practices, new uses and societal needs and individual artistic contributions without proverbially throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  • Accommodate industrialized housing systems with their cores, panels, enclosure, connectors and nodes without destroying the character of a place.  These systems provide a building kit of so few “parts” which can be assembled in so many individualized ways, and accept very individualized, place-centered form, fenestration and detail.
  • Just as “Integrated Urban Open Space Systems” (R. Bosch, University of California, Berkeley, 1970) with its application to unique environments of Kevin Lynch’s edges, paths, nodes, landmarks and districts were applied in successful communities throughout history, the concepts universally mesh with the culture of each place.  Carefully considered, contextually responsive regional and urban open space systems provide a planning kit of so few parts which can be assembled in so many individualized ways without disassembling the healthy parts of the existing city.
  • Consideration of analogies between the natural and built environment can lead to appropriate “edge” designs for cities and buildings, as discussed in “The City, a Wilderness”, (R. Bosch, University of California, Berkeley, 1969) — yes, like a natural wilderness!  Natural wilderness (not man-manipulated) has a system which possesses the attributes that we are discussing.  If you study it, gain comprehension, know its parts and their rules of interaction, you find such order and simplicity, ease of understanding and communication, insight for predictability and for route finding, even though you are not the designer.  The system provides a kit of so few parts – air, earth, water, flora, fauna and fire – which can be assembled in so many individualized ways.
  • Not surprisingly, the construction of the universe, from the least assembly of sub-atomic particles to the greatest assembly of super-galactic groups follows similar systematic principles.  Particles orbiting together, creating larger particles orbiting together, creating…  All from a really well designed cosmic kit of so few parts.

The continuously ongoing design of cities and buildings can easily recognize the same precepts.  Be creative, and apply these remembrances at any scale, from fixtures to furniture, to work areas, individual rooms, to buildings, sites, neighborhoods, districts, cities, and regions.

Penetrate Tradition for its Substructures, Not its Superficial Effects

This comprehension is where Ian McHarg, Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edmund Bacon, Constantino Doxiadis, Louis Kahn…the list goes on, were also “coming from”, whether or not they communicated it clearly enough or we comprehended what they were trying to say!  Christopher Alexander’s pattern language told the story in one way, Charles Moore’s work from a different, quirky perspective, and Kevin Lynch as well.  Mario Botta, Rob Krier and the rest of the late-modern/pre-post-modern contemporary group continued the dialogue and enriched it.  The dialect, language or grammar some use, in the design and comprehension sense, is of course imperfect and often self-informed (not a criticism, just look in your own mirror — the challenge is simply human nature), but at least they tried, continue to try, and often excel at it in their own work.

As William Curtis noted in Contemporary Transformations of Modern Architecture (Architectural Record, McGraw Hill, New York, June, 1989, pp. 108+ff),

“To those who understand them properly, the Modern Masters offer many avenues into earlier traditions…Botta makes no bones about being a Modern architect, but this does nothing to stop him from drawing lessons from the Ticino Vernacular and Palladio…Tradition is penetrated for its substructures and not its superficial effects.” 

We are called to continue transformation of tradition over time into a vital new order that incorporates that tradition, with significant content and form, without losing tradition itself.

“The methods are modern, the mood is archaic, the content is perennial”, Curtis intoned.

My Style versus Your Vernacular?

Where does “style” fit into this picture?  The system works regardless of the “local language” or vernacular.  Like each of the written languages, whether Italian, Greek, English, German, Japanese, and so forth, has a different sounding word to represent the same object or action, each component or assembly of a design can be expressed in many different idioms or languages (read “styles”) while still being, for example, a node or a path, a room or a hall. 

What a concept – human beings are involved in them all, whenever or wherever they occur!

Of course, all must be expressed in the same larger-scale “language”, a language which includes “foreign” words adapted and adopted as one’s own, because they are all based upon human understanding and communication.  If not, a new “Tower of Babel” will occur, be it an actual tower, a building, a town or an alleged culture!

Vernacular (and also regionalism) is blended in and evident in the design; local “dialect” emerges.  It can vary even from village to village, valley to valley.  Contextualism is good and necessary.  It allows a design to fit the local ecosystem, natural and built, while the components perform the same functions within an appropriately fit to an  adjacent dialect or a distant language.

Successful modifications to form and function are part of a culture, and include the culture’s “code”, climate, site, and relation to existing or future components and impacts.  Local dialect is adaptable.  It and the “kit of parts” are assembled to meet need and desire, and together impart a sense of place to the user. 

As to pride of authorship over original thought, Curtis instead wisely encourages and applauds a search for substance, seeing great value in the fact that,

“…there are many architects who continue to draw sustenance from the seminal works created earlier in this century in confronting the new tasks…each architect has his or her own debt to, and dialogue, with, predecessors”.

Buildings that “read” do so because they follow the system – their syntax is correct and understandable within the “local tongue”.  Even casual lay-users sense it without specific knowledge of the system or comprehension of its “fit” into that place because each built component is in harmony with a larger plan, and smaller assemblies reflect its image.

A Call to Introspection, Study and Action

It is well worth the effort to go back and dust off these previously unperceived as unconnected components.  They are of the same body but expressed in different dialects and forms.  Translated into a dialect comprehended in your place and time, they can be synthesized, analyzed, solidified.  Then a design system, few in parts but great in the variety of individual applications, combinations and solutions, can be applied to each “design”, in time, from the smallest to the largest scale.

Practical application within a local dialect can occur only through careful study and precise translation. 

It also can be successful only with the consent of the constituency!


(This article is part of the continuing series, “Crafting Places”, begun on October 4, 2010, with a “Preface”, on-line at  Other posts in the series can be accessed from the “Urban Design” sub-page “Crafting Places” of this site.)

About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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