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On The Art of Traditional Building

The famous trilogy of commodity, firmness, and delight provides conditions we expect a building to satisfy. But are they enough?

The journal of Traditional Building is essential for traditional architecture. Without good traditional building, there is no good traditional architecture. Here in the first of two presentations I will touch on some differences between traditional building and traditional architecture, and in a subsequent presentation, I will discuss the art of architecture that it building facilitates.

brick building

Brick as wallpaper.

Traditional building refers to an art, a skill, a craft, an application of knowledge, experience, and talent to achieve a particular end or result. This makes it no different from any other art, whether singing, writing, golfing, banking, or governing. Like all arts, it depends on doing what has always been done when seeking a particular outcome, which can be taught and learned. But the world changes, and with it so do the arts, which absorb changes as new and better ways of doing the thing and new and better materials become available. And as in all arts, some people get better results than others, some of them because of their native talent, and others because of their commitment and willingness to work at improving their practice of the art.

As in the art of building so too in the art of architecture but with differences. The materials for one thing: for architecture, they are generally but not necessarily better in both performance and appearance. While brick will do for building, architecture generally calls for cut stone even if only as a veneer. A craftsman working on architecture is perhaps more careful to get something absolutely right. Sloppy craft can prevent good materials from performing and appearing at the level we expect of architecture. And, of course, poor design. I think any craftsman thinks that what he or she builds looks right, but to others, it may not. Others may think it looks like it kind of happened, or no one much cared what it would look like, or it aimed for architecture but missed the mark, or it has lots of ideas that don’t work together. My photos provide examples.

C'ville gas station

C'ville gas station.

Most people involved in the art of building know the famous trilogy of Vitruvius that describes what a building must satisfy. Here is how an early English translation put it: “In Architecture as in all other Operative Arts, the end must direct the Operation. The end is to build well. Well building hath three Conditions. Commoditie, Firmenes, and Delight.”

Elsewhere in his treatise Vitruvius discusses the criteria for architecture, and he makes it clear that these conditions that apply to the art of building are necessary but not sufficient for architecture. I will discuss the criteria for architecture in my subsequent contribution.

oddly designed building

Guess what it is.

The Vitruvian trilogy is straightforward.

Commodity: a building needs to fulfill the functions it is built to serve. It may serve functions that are likely to change, for example, a commercial office building or a factory, and need flexible interiors. Others are unlikely to change, such as auditoriums, courthouses, and homes. In both cases and in between, the return on investment is calibrated relative to the “end” to be served.

remuddled addition

New London Conn.

Firmness: a building needs to be structurally sound and able to last at least as long as it is supposed to. Different functions have different life expectancies. A tent rented for a wedding reception needs to be returnable to its owner, and a bricks-and-mortar functional building rented to others should return a profit to its owner. Others, especially those with a public owner and serving a public purpose, ought to be built to last for a longer term.

And Delight: This nettle is hard to grab and hold. It helps if we think of delight as a precondition for happiness, as a transient pleasure rather than an enduring condition, as a welcome if passing fancy rather than a lifetime companion.

poorly built house

Poor fit to lot and poorly built.

Delight is fleeting and quickly becomes timeworn. In the arts, it belongs to the avant-garde where the new is outdated and made passé by art’s next new thing. The delight is in the personal pleasure of being in on the creative, the innovative, the original, that trend setters in the styles of Modernism establish. Builders with attention to the bottom line accept as much of the avant-garde as they think will pay for itself. Very rich corporations looking for publicity and buildings devoted to the arts that patrons willing subsidize go whole-hog. Others, especially those wishing to be seen as good stewards of corporate or public money, follow with diluted versions that shine but do not flash. Even a tincture of the exciting palls over time and soon looks old fashioned, while the safety of the routine never seldom gets a second look.

This occurs at the expense of what tradition alone can provide, which is continuity across time. Tradition hardly gets a play in the other visual arts. Delight is the expected reaction to new works of painting and sculpture. They are expected to be, and are judged as, personal expressions or commentaries on conditions. But there are many new traditional works, works that address religious and political ideas or portray notable individuals and aspects of human character, which is the content of most works in our museums. But only rarely today does the art world glory in works that present a new insight into the beauty of what nature makes available to sight. This work is still being made, but we are more likely to encounter it at county fairs and local galleries than in prestige galleries or museums of contemporary art.

odd traditional house design

Too much of a good thing.

Those nontraditional works do not address the world that most people live in. They belong in the private world of the maker and the viewer who can and do take delight in what they see. Those same ambitions of the avant-garde have captured architecture where they make an ill fit with architecture’s buildings. A building is necessarily a public object with a higher obligation than delight, and it cannot be removed from public view. Indeed, a public act is required to permit its construction, and it must satisfy zoning and construction standards. But as anyone who has followed any controversies arising when design review is required, the role of delight, much less the happiness it portends, is a wide-open field of dispute.

Tuckahoe Fire Station

Tuckahoe Fire Station.

The dispute usually turns on how something looks: it doesn’t look right, and there are no agreed-upon criteria for how it ought to look. Lots of people can tell what needs to be fixed, but they are hard-pressed to give a reason why others ought to accept their fix. Those reasons lie beyond commodity, firmness, and even delight, which are addressed by private concerns. They lie in the realm of architecture as public art, the “end” that directs the art of building as the “operative art” provides the necessary conditions for a building’s architecture. Vitruvius noted what they are, and they will be the topic of a subsequent contribution.

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