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THE CULTURE OF BUILDING

by Howard Davis

Oxford University Press, New York, 1999

 

 

The Culture of Building is an essay into the causes of contemporary building practice and its positive transformations. It is based on research and observations concerning the idea of process: that making large numbers of buildings and places which have quality and beauty can only come about with serious attention not only to the form that things take, but also to the way they are made. The human processes that operate at a wide-scale societal level, involving architects, builders, clients, developers, contractors and many other players, is the culture of building. These ideas are connected to those of Alexander, and to other authors in and outside the field of architecture who are concerned with the emergence of order through "bottom-up" rather than "top-down" processes. The following excerpts explore some of the central ideas of the book.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Introduction: two billion buildings

 

Part I: Buildings as cultural products

 

Chapter 1. Building as a unified social process: traditional villages and informal settlements

Chapter 2. Four building cultures in history: from medieval London to modern New York

Chapter 3. Building cultures of the contemporary city: the making of the everyday built world

 

Part II: Rules and knowledge about building

 

Chapter 4. Connections to the larger culture: autonomy and interdependence of the building culture

Chapter 5. Builders, architects and their institutions: transformations of traditional practice

Chapter 6. Shared architectural knowledge: tradition and innovation in building form

Chapter 7. Value and the flow of money: the economics of quality

Chapter 8. Agreements, contracts and control: human relationships in construction

Chapter 9. Regulation: implicit and explicit rules

Chapter 10. Shaping buildings and cities: a modern view of craftsmanship

 

Part III: Transforming modern building cultures

 

11. Post-industrial craftsmanship: innovations in process

12. Culturally appropriate buildings: innovations in design

13. Human-based institutions: emerging frameworks for building

 

Conclusion: cracks in the concrete pavement

 

INTRODUCTION: TWO BILLION BUILDINGS

 

The Built World

 

There are between one and two billion buildings on the earth. How did they come about, and how can the knowledge of how they came about help us in improving buildings in the future?

 

This book argues that large scale improvements to the built world do not depend only on the individual acts of architects and city planners, but instead largely on the gradual transformation of the building culture – the coordinated system of knowledge, rules and procedures that is shared by people who participate in the building activity, and that determines the form that buildings and cities take.

 

It is only recently that there has begun to be systematic exploration of the nature of the built world, and the beginnings of a general understanding of just how it comes to be the way it is. We understand quite a bit about various components of this world, taken individuallyabout architectural styles, or the prices of building materials, or the history of zoning regulation, or the ways in which building plans have evolved hand-in-hand with social life, or how the craft economy was replaced by modern manufacturing, or the role of building developers in the emergence of land use patterns.

 

What is lacking is a general framework of thought in which all of these things are related–a framework in which the process of building production as a whole is understood in terms of the various components which make it up.

 

Such a framework is needed not only from an academic point of view. The built world is not in very good shape, and the responsibility for this state of affairs cannot be laid at the hand of any one profession. It is counterproductive to lay blame primarily on architects, or banks, or an uneducated public, or any one sector of society. Architects are right when they say that they are at the mercy of building codes and client committees and have no time to do a good job within available fees. Builders are right when they say that architects leave too much out of drawings. Ordinary citizens are right when they complain about the lack of affordable housing and cities that are without life. Building officials are right when they are strict in their enforcement of codes. Insurance companies are right when they exert pressure on the building codes. Bankers are right when they base their lending decisions on appraisers, who are right in they way they base their appraisals on the current market. Architectural educators are right in their criticisms of the profession, and the profession is right in its criticism of the schools.

 

Everyone is "right," yet the built environment does not really get better. It satisfies the quantifiable and separate needs of individual institutions, but as many people have pointed out, much of it is fragmented, lacking in humanity, without real depth of feeling. The extent of agreement that these problems do exist makes it critical to look at the history of their cultural and institutional sources.

 

The Culture of Building

 

The culture of building is the coordinated system of knowledge, rules, procedures and habits that surrounds the building process in a given place and time.

 

•••

 

Within a building culture, construction is rarely a solitary act, isolated from the material, social and aesthetic world around it. A building's construction is almost always embedded in a recognizable web of human relationships, among many participants: contractors, craftspeople, clients, people who use buildings, architects, building officials, bankers, materials suppliers, surveyors, building appraisers, real estate brokers, manufacturers. This web of relationships, in turn, is characterized by predictable ways people carry out their jobs, and predictable ways they deal with each other.

 

•••

 

The product of the building culture is the built world as a whole–the world of houses and warehouses, churches and libraries, schools and factories, barns and shops, the monumental and the everyday, the imported and the vernacular, the famous and the unknown. This world, much larger than the world with which architects usually concern themselves but intimately tied to it, is what makes up people's everyday experience of buildings and towns, and toward the construction of which which vast quantities of money are spent and resources used.

 

..."architecture" and "building" are aspects of the same phenomenon. One of the characteristics of any building culture is that it links all buildings together–large and small, domestic and public, architect-designed or not–so that from a very real point of view, the word "vernacular" itself loses meaning, and it makes more sense to seek understandings that do not make such distinctions. It is the inherent conservatism of building knowledge and technique, combined with the diffusion of knowledge and technique over time and geographical space, that leads to the continuities and variety of the world of building.

 

...Ultimately, this understanding goes beyond an understanding of form and social context, and depends on the process of building. The continuities of building form that exist between the vernacular and the non-vernacular (and between one place and another) come about because buildings are built in a world in which most of the various players --craftsmen, building inspectors, architects, masons--do not fundamentally change the way that they work because of Pevsner's distinction between "architecture" and "building". They tend to do the same things, although perhaps to different degrees, on different kinds of buildings.

 

This leads to a different view of Lincoln Cathedral and the bicycle shed. The cathedral may share features with a parish church, for example, for a very simple reason: the same people, or people trained in the same craft, were working on them both. These people were doing what they knew how to do, some applying their knowledge to a cathedral, others applying their knowledge to the church. The parish church shares features with a smaller manor house. The manor house shares features with a merchant's house. The merchant's house is similar in some ways to a smaller house, similar to a farm building, and so on, down through history to the bicycle shed. And this continuity of the built world points up the importance of process –what people know and how they work–as the mechanism through which the building culture operates to produce the built world.

 

... if these ideas are to be useful for positive change in the contemporary world, we need to be able to make judgments based on value. As the built world is the product of building cultures, we need to be able to critically look at building cultures in terms of their effectiveness in making good environments and improving the lives of people who work in them.

 

This leads to the idea of healthy building cultures.

 

In a healthy building culture, buildings of meaning and value are being made by people who are themselves improving their lives through making those buildings. The various parts of the culture reinforce each other and make it stronger, its customs and rules are understandable and make sense, and the culture has a balance between stability and the ability to change according to new conditions.

 

 

1) The long-term value of buildings and types

 

The health of a building culture lies partly in its ability to produce artifacts of long-term human and spiritual value, or to maintain building knowledge that has such value.

 

By this definition, we have no trouble seeing the building cultures that produced the churches and palazzi of Renaissance Florence, or the religious buildings of early Ottoman Istanbul, or the squares and crescents of Georgian Bath, Bristol, London, or Edinburgh, as having aspects of health. The buildings that were made lasted, have stood the test of time, and continue to be aesthetic paradigms.

 

With buildings that are in more of a state of change--tents of nomadic peoples, mud buildings in villages that may in continuous states of slow but steady transformation--although the building itself might not have permanence, the village as a whole might. The building may last just a few years, but the village a lot longer; the members of the building culture are collectively and continuously producing the village.

 

Long-term value may also come from the strength of the type or rules of design and the resultant flexibility of the type over time. Examples are courtyard houses, row houses, and many other vernacular configurations which are maintained as culturally shared design ideas even as the buildings themselves change. But in a building culture where the artifact and the type both have transient value, the artifact is not contributing to the health of the building culture. This is the case with contemporary building types like "superstores" in American suburbs: these buildings not only drain life out of cities, but become obsolete once their original use is ended–an end which may come in a matter of only a very few years.

 

2) Shared knowledge: rules and rule systems that are understandable and that make sense

 

In a healthy building culture knowledge is shared among many people, inside and outside the building culture, and there is common understanding of buildings and the way they are built. ...Another way of putting this is that knowledge and processes are "transparent"--one can see through them to their own intention; they are obvious in their ability to achieve an accepted purpose. Historic building processes like timber framing, and the bracing and cutting of joints they entailed, were transparent in this way---anyone could see the effect of the brace and the joint on the stability of the frame, and although skill of carpentry itself was restricted, what people were doing was commonly understood.

 

3) Cultural sustainability

 

Healthy building cultures have systems of knowledge, design, production and exchange that reinforce each other, even as the culture may have interactions with cultures outside it. For example, the building industry and artistic life are mutually supportive and the money spent on building helps to regenerate economic and cultural life. Moreover, a building culture that causes another culture to wither is not healthy: witness the Japanese building industry's use of hardwood, for concrete form work, from Malaysian rain forests and the consequent destruction of those forests and their cultures. Centralized Soviet control over countries like Ukraine had devastating effects on the building cultures of those cultures, wiping out traditional and useful knowledge. ... In none of these cases were the changes introduced from outside a natural evolution of the culture. Neither the culture being exploited nor the culture doing the exploiting could exist without one of them being destroyed.

 

4) A balance between stability and change; tradition and innovation

 

A healthy building culture can change even as it is stable enough to provide continuity. It can take care of new needs as they arise, without upheaval; it has the capability to learn from experience and not be destroyed in the process. During the eighteenth century, when a series of building laws gradually reshaped building in London, carpenters and bricklayer were able to easily incorporate these laws into their practice. During the nineteenth century, the introduction of electricity and central heating into buildings was able to happen as an addition to the normal practice that included many other trades.

 

But such gradual incorporation of change may have its limits. By the beginning of the twentieth century, as buildings had become very complex in terms of the number of building trades and laws, there was a fundamental change in the culture that divorced architects from direct relationship with craft. And one can only speculate about large parts of the contemporary building culture, in which the gradual build-up of well-intentioned rules that were based on the prospect of litigation has become so onerous that something will need to change again, in a fundamental way.

 

...

 

The notion of tradition existing as part of a dynamic process is made even more powerful when we consider its relationship to innovation. Once again, these are opposite sides of the same coin. Sometimes "tradition" is appropriate for conditions that do not change, or that change slowly enough that habit can still prevail; sometimes "innovation" is needed for conditions that have changed so that new responses are needed. In a culture that is functioning well, "tradition" and "innovation" may each be appropriate responses to particular situations that arise.

 

5) The culture supporting the life of its members

 

Finally, a healthy building culture is not something that is purely instrumental with respect to buildings. It is not like the machines and production system in a factory, that exist only to produce a particular product. Instead, there is a reciprocal relationship between the quality of the product and the increased health of the culture itself, as shown by the members of the culture being better off for having been a part of it. It generates its own life, and not purely in economic terms: it engenders a sense of self-satisfaction, of increased life, in the architects and builders and other people who are involved in it.

 

 

The Building Culture and Contemporary Practice: the Possibility of Improvement

 

The idea that increased knowledge about the building culture might lead toward the improvement of the built world is the central purpose of this book.

 

 

This book uses the experiences of history to help develop and expand on the model of a healthy building culture. Having such a model will help us understand how the ongoing transformation of contemporary building practice might be directed in a way that leads towards a building culture in use that is healthy--one that gives dignity to people making buildings, that is respectful of other cultures and of the environment, and that has the capability of producing ordinary buildings, all over, that can enhance and elevatethe spirit and lives of everyone in society.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10: SHAPING BUILDINGS AND CITIES: A MODERN VIEW OF CRAFTSMANSHIP

 

The institutional, typological, economic, contractual, and regulatory systems that have been described in the last several chapters all converge on the actual shaping of buildings: the processes through which drawings are made, brick is put upon brick, concrete poured into formwork, windows installed in a wall. These processes, and the character of the built result, are given their character by these systems: and what the systems determine, in the end, is the extent to which the making of the building is the product of craftsmanship, considered in a broad and modern sense.

 

The usual idea of craftsmanship has to do with handcraft, and the idea therefore sometimes seems an archaic reference to an earlier age. In a more basic sense, however, craftsmanship does not have to do with old processes but instead with characteristic relationships between the artifact, and the person or people who are shaping it:

 

• A sense of responsibility toward the artifact.

• Immediate feedback from the emerging reality of what is being made, as it is being made.

• The ability to make judgments about how tools are applied to the artifact, as a result of this feedback.

These ideas are not archaic, but twentieth century processes of production have eliminated them from the production of most artifacts. This is not to say that craftsmanship is not present somewhere in the process --in industrial design or the design of machine tools, for instance--but most contemporary buildings in the world, and modern cities themselves, are not themselves the product of craftsmanship.

 

This chapter will explore how the idea of craftsmanship may be generalized beyond the idea of old-fashioned handcraft, into the more modern ideas of judgment, feedback and control that might be applied to contemporary processes of design and construction. If the building culture supports such ideas of craftsmanship, then the notion that craftsmanship applies to an individual artifact can be expanded to a new idea that the culture might act as a "craftsperson" with respect to the city itself.

 

Discretion and human judgment: the essence of craftsmanship

 

At whatever scale, craftsmanship is characterized by implicitly understood and intuitively executed decision-making processes, that are allowed to operate locally, close to the actual site and building. Neither long-distance control, which removes the architect or builder physically from the reality of the building, nor explicitly determined decisions, which may remove the architect or builder mentally from the reality of the building, can wholly allow for this kind of discretion. Feedback may be a smooth and continuous process, between the emerging reality of the building and the person or people who have the responsibility for its emerging form.

 

One of the most essential aspects of craftsmanship is the relationship between decisions about the artifact and the artifact itself, and the fact that the craftsman is in a position to allow the present state of the artifact itself to be evaluated in order to make the next decision, large or small.

 

The traditional craftsman, who was working neither in isolation nor in a backward way, was part of an intense and complex system. The craftsman was solidly anchored in commonly accepted technique but was also, ideally, "clever," in that his knowledge of technique was deep enough so that he could solve small and large problems associated with the work, which have to do with reconciling type and context.

 

When the craftsman is solving small problems, he is already more than an automaton, and able to operate independently. When he is solving large problems, he is being inventive. If the invention is concerned with a problem that other people are also dealing with, then he may be inventing a new type.

 

So the craftsman may be essential not only to the fitting of type and pattern to context in the individual building, but also to typological invention. The flying buttresses at Notre Dame--among the first flying buttresses in Gothic cathedrals-- were solutions to particular constraints concerning the elevation that presented themselves to the builder. Brunelleschi was well enough schooled in the traditional techniques of building churches to know that he had to find a new way to make the dome in Florence. The builder Jacob Holt, who worked in Virginia and North Carolina during the nineteenth century was successful partly because he was prepared to introduce both technological and stylistic innovations into his work–innovations that were being demanded by the market. His ease in introducing these innovations came partly because he maintained a "hands-on" attitude to his own work, and because he was personally aware of the competitive market.

 

The shaping of a city through urban craftsmanship

 

A city may be no less the product of craftsmanship than a building or a piece of furniture. A city requires careful attention at every point of its development, at every level of scale. The placement of a building along a street may contribute the most to the life of the street if its height can be carefully adjusted according to the existing buildings, and if the mix of functions in the building can contribute the most to the vitality and economy of its neighborhood--in addition to making a profit for its developer. The decision to fill in wetlands at the city's edge for a new semiconductor plant is a delicate one, like the careful shaping of a room, to be done only with careful consideration to the urban ecology as a whole, to the patterns of development that would result, to the effect on the urban and national economy. The construction of a highway, the development of a residential neighborhood, the institution of a zoning ordinance that will affect the shape of new buildings, the redevelopment of Times Square, the closing of a busy city center to car traffic, the conversion of an old warehouse into apartments--all of these acts, large and small, contribute in very specific, non-abstract ways to the life of the city. If decisions are well taken, the city improves; if decisions are not well taken, the city worsens. And a well taken decision requires sensitivity to the reality of the effect it will have, feedback based on that reality, and skill in responding to the feedback. Each decision is an act of urban craftsmanship.

 

In this respect a city is like a well-crafted artifact. But there is not a single artisan, but the building culture as a whole, that has the responsibility for shaping the artifact.

 

The building culture is the artisan of the city.

 

If the building culture is fragmented, with its various institutions working at cross-purposes with each other, even if they are individually effective, there is no reason to believe that "craftsmanship" can be effectively applied to the artifact as a whole. The reason is that none of those institutions is empowered to individually deal with the entire reality of a place or situation--only with some abstraction of it. But with effective craftsmanship, there needs to be a response to reality, and not necessarily to an abstraction of reality. In the case of a building culture, the job of which is the creation not only of individual buildings but the city as a whole, this means that its various institutions need to be working in ways that are consistent with each other, that represent some common intention with respect to the reality of the built result, and that can respond to the entire reality of places and situations.

 

As an individual artifact, a building in a traditional "vernacular" building culture-- a stone-and-plaster house on a Greek island, or a one-story, two-roomed, hall-and-parlor house in colonial New England-- is simple. It is made of a small number of materials; its plan can be described with just a sentence or two; from a formal point of view it consists of just one or two simple volumes. It is built through the culturally shared competence of craftsmen, and not the individual invention of architects. When compared to a building like Palladio's Villa Emo, or Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, it is "unsophisticated." It is this kind of comparison that helps to support Pevsner's distinction between "architecture" and "building"--one seems as if there is a great deal of knowledge, talent and aesthetic judgment behind it; the other seems almost as if a naive child could have done it.

 

Suppose however we look at the Greek island village or the New England town instead of just the house; and at the house and village or town types instead of just the individual artifact. Here, we find a high level of evolved complexity. There are many more levels of complexity than in the house alone; there are subtle adjustments among the different parts; there is continuity over time of the village or town, even as individual buildings within in it change and disappear. In these cases it is the configuration of many buildings –rather than the individual building–that contains the same amount and level of complexity as the individual building does in the "architectural" situation.

 

This comparison becomes even more striking when we look at the production of the respective artifacts: the individual piece of "architecture" and the vernacular town or village. Within a vernacular building culture that exists in the Greek island village or a New England town, any individual is not expected to take responsibility either for the formation of the entire artifact (village, town) nor for the evolution of the type. That responsibility lies with the culture as a whole, with all the players in the building culture acting in concert with each other.

 

There has been a shift in the locus of knowledge in many building cultures. The artifact that is the town or village itself was once a highly coordinated system, with the ability for very subtle adjustment, and a unified physical order. This high level of coordination came about as a result of the nature of knowledge contained in the culture as a whole, at the same time as the knowledge of how to make individual buildings was also contained in the culture, in the minds of individual builders. But individuals were not given responsibility for the complex artifact as a whole: that responsibility was reserved by the culture.

 

The shift had two aspects to it:

 

First, individuals (and individual architectural firms) became responsible for artifacts that had a complexity similar to those things which entire cultures formerly took care of. This by itself is not necessarily a problem, since the complexity of the new building types (public and institutional buildings, buildings with complex structural and mechanical systems requiring a good level of integration) was different from that of traditional building types and that difference required centralized control over design.

 

But second, at the same time, the culture as a whole absolved itself of responsibility over the things it formerly had taken care of. These included the artifacts that were made in coordinated ways by many people: the cathedral, the village and the town; and it also included the knowledge that represented collective understandings: the building type itself. Complex form, and complex decision-making, moved from the public to the private realm.

An expanded view of craftsmanship

 

The old-fashioned concept of craftsmanship has been extended in two ways:

 

• Craftsmanship is connected to the modern idea of "feedback:" it is the ability to make non-abstract decisions about design and construction, based on actual knowledge of the experiential, material, aesthetic reality of the situation.

 

• An individual within a culture may be a craftsperson. But the culture itself may engage in craftsmanship as well, and it has done so at times in history, when dealing with complex artifacts like villages and towns.

 

The ability to have a direct connection with the reality of the city, building or building detail was in fact present through most of history, in many different cultures and at many different levels of scale. Even the Roman urban grid, which is often cited as the precedent for more contemporary, abstract rectilinear systems of land division, was based on cosmology and helped to tie the city in with geographic features that themselves had strong cultural significance. The fundamental layout of a city was not an abstract act but a very real one, responding directly to the greatest structures of the natural world.

 

vvv

 

When the various institutions and systems of the building culture are operating well---that is, producing good physical results in the physical shape of the built world and its ability to sustain and improve human life, and in the personal and social fulfillment that comes through working in the building culture itself--then those institutions are operating in a way that is analogous to craftsmanship.

 

 

CHAPTER 11: POST-INDUSTRIAL CRAFTSMANSHIP

 

This chapter focuses on the idea that craftsmanship can be seen as a modern process, involved with more than just the production of individual artifacts. The idea of a process of careful shaping based on feedback from reality may be applied to client interactions, the construction of buildings, or the development of neighborhoods. This chapter deals with innovative processes and projects which share the idea that design and building are integrated in a continuous process. In these examples, the precise shaping of individual buildings and particularly the re-introduction of carefully shaped materials are valued as a critical affective part of building. In addition, the development of careful shaping and variety in the environment as a whole, and particularly the production of housing on a large scale, is based on the wishes and capabilities of people and communities.

 

These examples point to a new idea of post-industrial craftsmanship, in which large-scale production at acceptable costs does not necessarily require Henry Ford-like repetition, but in which the detailed and unique shaping of individual buildings may happen in the context of modern society and new industrial techniques.

 

CONCLUSION: CRACKS IN THE CONCRETE PAVEMENT

 

•••

 

The dominant culture of today, which works through the building culture to prevent the production of a humane and deeply felt environment, an environment of "belonging," is not completely monolithic. It has aspects of pluralism in which individuals and groups have been able to assert their own identities. Some unhelpful hierarchies are breaking down, and there is a mixing of different views and people. The culture contains within it attitudes and procedures, like cracks in a concrete pavement with little flowers poking up through them, that may point to the possibility of positive change.

 

What are these positive attitudes struggling to make themselves felt?

 

• The recognition of the importance of non-Cartesian modes of thought.

 

• Science dealing with complexity and whole systems, instead of purely reductionist models.

 

• The wish for local community even along with globalization.

 

• Serious concern for sustainability and the environment.

 

• A renewed appreciation of tradition and craft.

 

• Changes in the business world, with businesses becoming more client and worker-centered, and moving away from top-down management.

 

• Attempts to break down barriers between institutions.

 

• A desire for "plain speaking", common sense instead of bureaucratic gobbledegook.

 

These attitudes, which are shared by many people, act similarly with respect to the transformation of different social and cultural institutions. In health care, there is a new emphasis on the "whole person" and the employment of teams of professionals working closely together. In business, new management strategies allow for a decentralization of control within a framework of common goals for the organization. In law, there is a recognition of the need to incorporate common sense systems of legislation and administration. In education, there is a movement toward smaller schools in which people know each other, and where parents and members of the community can participate in policy and the everyday work of educating children.

 

In architecture and building, these attitudes have helped to seed the initiatives of the last three chapters, which together are the basis for new cultures of building that may emerge out of existing ones. What is the mechanism through which these initiatives can be taken seriously, supported and modified?

 

The mechanism is gradual and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Inside and outside the existing institutions of the building culture, an effective mechanism will respect helpful diversity and the tiniest hints of positive actions and experiments. Architects, builders, educators, and others in the building culture, sharing an intention of improvement, will be alert to, and act to support, helpful changes and innovations. In different communities all over, new building cultures will gradually emerge out of existing ones, in which each respects the realities of its own situation, that learn from each other, and that each has the capability of producing buildings that suit its particular place and people.

 

Because of the nature of this gradual transformation, we cannot invent a healthy building culture from scratch. Indeed, it has not been the aim of this book to encourage the invention of a particular, singular.building culture. Such all-encompassing experiments are bound to fail, because even as they seek change, they do not respect the realities of existing systems of production.

 

•••

 

How then can positive change occur? If the wholesale replacement of an existing building culture by a newly invented system of production is doomed to failure, then we must look to much more evolutionary changes, that have the following features:

 

• They do not reject the positive features of the existing system.

• They allow for their own evolution and change, by respecting the skill and intention of people who will take them up--people who may not have originally instigated the changes or invented the new technique.

• They are introduced gradually enough so that the building culture can tolerate the changes on its own terms.

• They support existing, positive social trends.

 

This is not to say that wholesale change in the system of building production is not necessary or possible. It only means that the reality of the existing building culture, no matter how objectionable it may appear to be, has nevertheless got to be taken very seriously, even as one looks forward to such wholesale change.. This can happen if the culture is seen not as a monolithic and unchangeable system, but as a system which includes all the attempts at change and resistance in and amongst the dominant institutions--the cracks in the concrete pavement.

 

The argument typically offered in support of pluralism has to do with its importance for its own sake–as if it is the most natural state of people and groups to be so different from each other that the most important thing that social institutions can do is to support those differences. Suppose however we see today's version of pluralism as not absolute and timeless, but instead as a timely and political accompaniment to post-imperialist anthropology and post-colonial social movements. Suppose we assume, in fact, that a typical pluralistic culture needs to recognize more common ground, and that it will do so. Then pluralism itself becomes the cultural vehicle through which appropriate shared cultural rules will themselves emerge through a kind of "natural selection," in which new ideas are freely offered, and then accepted or rejected in a marketplace in which many people participate. This idea of pluralism as a "genetic vehicle" through which the most valuable types and processes will gradually emerge and continue to evolve, through the actions of many people in the culture, might be regarded as the great and unique opportunity of modern pluralistic society. The encouragement of appropriate forms and techniques will lead not only to more appropriate building cultures, but to the emergence of differences among building cultures themselves.

 

•••

 

If there is a more commonly shared set of intentions about the deep meaning that the built world might have to people, and about the need for shared values of community in our buildings and cities, there need not be fear about new ideas and experiments--which will simply win or lose when measured against those intentions. If those shared intentions do not exist--and they do not yet exist in a common enough way--then there are no criteria for evaluation, arguments lose their grounding, and the debate becomes one based on power and will rather than on reason.

 

vvv

 

The first shared understanding might be that the two billion buildings in the world, and those still to be built, are all important. They are not just neutral containers for human activity, nor are they just the aesthetic icing on the cake of other things that are more legitimate to pay serious attention to. They are important in fundamental ways, intertwined with our lives and communities, so much so that it often becomes difficult to understand the changes that have taken place in the connection between buildings and the cultures which make them.

 

We have become accustomed to thinking about buildings as commodities to be bought and sold, in terms of the built "product," and to thinking about the process of making buildings as something that is only instrumental to that built result. That is the assumption of modern systems of production and consumption--and the legacy of architectural modernism, which is itself the result of several hundred years of changing thought. But in fact there is a reciprocal relationship between buildings and building, between the built world and the cultures which produce it. A healthy building culture produces beautiful and genuinely useful buildings; and the production of such buildings itself reinforces the health of the culture, in turn strengthening the ability of the culture to make more such buildings.

 

In the end, the beauty of the built world comes from the people in it, and they all have a stake in its beauty and in its ability to improve their lives. To the extent that this begins to be recognized by those concerned about the built world, then there is the chance that the hints of new and healthy ways of making buildings--the flowers growing through the cracks in the concrete --will begin to grow and develop into new and sensible building cultures, that can make beautiful things as a matter of course.