City Journal Home.      
Autumn 1995
City Journal Autumn 1995.
Click to visit City Journal California
Get the Free App on iTunes
 
  U rbanities

Tradition and the Modern City
Robert Adam
EMAIL
RESPOND
PRINT
SHARE

There is so much about the modern city that is wrong. Insecurity and isolation have marred the quality of life; beauty and community are in retreat. When we look at how our cities have changed in the last 50 years, we cannot escape the conclusion that our physical surroundings must have had a part to play in this decline. Post-war buildings and planning are the product of the failed modernist ideal that transformed most aspects of twentieth-century life, from politics to painting, and that gave rise to our urban social ills and to urban ugliness. In architecture, modernism—the cult of abstract rationality and change for its own sake—has given us sterility and inhumanity instead of its promised progress and liberation. Utopian ambitions and professional arrogance have left our cities with decay and dereliction, the perfect breeding ground for the alienation and brutality that have undermined community life.

Some of us look to the cities we admire from the past for a solution. In traditional cities like Siena in Italy or Bath in England we can see something that is not only beautiful but alive and humane—the very qualities that modernism seems to have destroyed. One can't help feeling we could make our cities more life-enhancing if we were to build them like these traditional cities. Out of this impulse, a revival of traditional architecture and city planning has grown up; it is flourishing from Portland, Oregon, to Paternoster Square in London, from Brussels in Belgium to Seaside, Florida.

We call the places that have inspired this movement traditional, but, other than the simple fact of being old, how do we define a traditional city? I confess I do not know.

Do any of us know? We talk about tradition and cities as if we all knew what these things were, and we make comparisons with the past on the assumption that we really can do something similar today. But what hope do we have if we are not even talking the same language?

The word "city" is derived from the Latin for citizen and originally meant a community of citizens. It does not mean that now. Any comparison we make with classical antiquity must also acknowledge huge differences in size. The average population of a pre-Hellenic Greek city would be a little over 5,000. A large provincial Roman city would have a population of 10,000 to 20,000. Not much changed in terms of size until the Industrial Revolution. Most medieval cities had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. Even major Italian Renaissance cities rarely exceeded 50.000. Today, London counts 8 million inhabitants, Chicago contains nearly 3 million people, Paris 2.5 million, and even a small Italian city such as Perugia has a population of 120,000.

These differences in size make for very different dynamics of city life. So, too, do differences in social and political organization. Democracy in Greek city-states or Italian communes was unlike modern democracy and was a fragile flower easily and often crushed. Throughout the history of the city, it was much more common to be subject to oligarchic or tyrannical rule.

Equally crucial to an understanding of the city is its economic base. Very early cities were fortified villages where people engaged in agriculture outside the walls. This did not last for long. Since antiquity, the city has been a consumer of goods produced in the countryside. It supported itself on trade or conquest. A city was a place where wealth free from the pressures of sufficiency could be enjoyed. Outside the city there was brute existence, the wilderness, the struggle for survival and danger; inside the city there was order, safety, wealth, and the leisure to pursue the finer things of life. This urban ideal may have been the lot only of some citizens, but it embodies the essential ideas that made the city a civilized place.

This ideal of civilization, however, is at odds with the modern concept of the city. The modern city is the wilderness, the urban jungle. The inner city is a dangerous place where brute existence is dominated by the struggle for survival. Anyone with sufficient wealth leaves the public city for a private place where there is safety, order, and the enjoyment of leisure.

In so many ways, the modern city is not the city of the pre-industrial past. The population, the social structure, the political organization, the economy, access to and from the city, and even the concept of the city are quite different. Above all, the citizen is a radically different creature. Modern aspirations and the understanding of citizenship have little similarity with any period in the past.

If all this does not define what a traditional city is, it certainly defines what a modern city is not. It is not an ancient Greek, medieval, or Renaissance city. We may wish to make it more like one of these, like part of one of these, or an amalgam of these types of cities, but to do that we must understand who will live in it and how they will live.

What has happened to all these people who no longer live in our city centers? They live in the suburbs.

As with the word "city," we have to be careful with the word "suburb," which originally referred to the place "suburbs"—below, under the power of, or just outside the city. As the population of cities has exploded in the last two centuries, and ever more people have spilled out into suburbs, "suburb" has come to mean a quite separate environment with its own way of life.

In fact, it can mean different things in different countries. In southern Europe, where denser patterns of living are acceptable, suburbs tend to be recently built, unregulated areas, no less dense than city centers. Often it is the suburb that is undesirable and dangerous and the city center that is desirable.

In northern Europe—and particularly in Britain—and in the United States, Canada, and other countries sharing an Anglo-Saxon inheritance, suburbs are quite specifically low-density areas of individual dwellings, each with its own lot. They cover large areas and sometimes, but not always, are a dormitory area for a city. In the Anglo-Saxon and

American world, unlike parts of southern Europe, it is the suburb that is usually desirable and safe and the city center that is undesirable and unsafe.

In southern Europe, suburbs often have arisen solely through population pressure. In the Anglo-Saxon world, they developed with the spread of railway travel and then of the motorcar, and were enthusiastically adopted.

The Anglo-Saxon suburb grew out of a very clear set of ideals. It began in England, where the social pattern of urban life is unlike that of most other European countries. The ruling aristocracy never really took to city living, and as a consequence English culture to this day is defined more by the country than by the town. The idea that to have your own house in the country is the best of all worlds is the Anglo-Saxon suburb's founding principle. Improved transport, the uncontrolled migration of rural workers into city slums in the Industrial Revolution (which affected Britain long before anywhere else), and the rapid increases in population and wealth that went with it, drew more and more people into the Industrial Age's version of the countryside—the suburb.

In the United States, the founding fathers (Hamilton excepted) inherited the English view of the countryside. When this ideal was added to the New World enthusiasm for the wilderness, the tradition of pioneering isolation, and the cult of the individual—and as the population grew unfettered by loyalty to historic towns-living in a suburban way seemed irresistible. In Britain and the United States, whole towns—Muncie, Indiana, for example, or Letchworth in Herefordshire—now conform to the suburbian model.

In one sense, both the Anglo-Saxon and the American suburbs have been a great success. Each household has its own lot where the individual or family can reign supreme, untroubled by the antisocial acts of others. The suburb answers one of the great social imperatives of the last two centuries—the increasing demand for privacy.

This demand for privacy can be traced through individual house design, mass housing design, and law. It extends from the detached house to the individual child's bedroom and to the proliferation of bathrooms. It has been enhanced by the private motor vehicle, the telephone, the television, and now the personal computer. In Britain it is being extended into laws on domestic noise and garden fires, and in California (always ahead) to smoking and even personal fragrance.

If we are to build cities today in the United States or in Britain, and if it is to be more than a minority exercise, we will have to design for the citizen who is now suburban or at least yearns for suburban amenities—for the citizen who will demand a level of privacy and will possess the technological means of isolation unknown to any citizen in history. We can no longer build on the classical ideal of the subordination of the citizen to the community. Suburban values are middle-class values, where the family and the individual take priority.

So building traditional cities, traditional modern cities, we have an interesting dilemma. We would not do this unless we thought it was a good thing. We must think that the city can be a desirable place, and yet the popular Anglo-Saxon and American concept of the city contains much that is undesirable. We can only think that the city is desirable because we have an ideal that differs from 112 the way that modern cities have developed. If the ideal is traditional and so necessarily historical, we know that in many respects it will not fit with present realities.

If it is our desire to reconcile the ideal of the traditional or historical city with the realities of modern life, we must realize that we will not be re-creating the past but creating something new. In doing so, we must first look beyond any superficial resemblance to the essential and desirable characteristics of the historical city that are missing from the modern city and then seek a mechanism for their introduction into a modern context.

There is much of the pre-industrial city we would not wish to re-create—the fifteenth-century architect Alberti tells us that beautiful Siena was notorious for its stench of human ordure. There was disease, savage laws, oligarchic and aristocratic rule, internal faction fighting, little law enforcement, the threat of siege or warfare, and all the ancient ills. Such were normal aspects of life in all historical cities. What's more, so many of the amenities of a civilized life are vastly more widespread today than at any time in the past: facilities for communal care and the cure of disease, access to a varied and healthy diet, public utilities and the means for personal comfort, public and private transport, and leisure.

Despite these benefits, it is a common perception that something is missing from the modern city that we believe existed in the pre-industrial city. Greatly increased size, an ill-considered and unintelligible pattern of building, and an isolation consequent on the pursuit of personal privacy have led to a decline in city identity and the erosion of civic life and communal responsibility.

If we are to improve life in the city, it is these things that we must restore, but—and I cannot emphasize this enough—we will not do so if we try to recreate an idealized past that will not fit with the important changes in living that have taken place in the last two centuries. The benefits of the traditional and historical city must be reconciled with modern life.

Reconciliation between the past and present has been a constant theme throughout history. The means of achieving it are well established but often misunderstood.

Tradition itself is the bridge between present reality and our ideals of the past. Although the use of tradition has been presented as contradictory to the needs of the present in this century, it is precisely the changes that make the present different from the past—the changes that make the present modern—that create traditions.

To understand this, we need to look more closely at tradition, and to help us I will call on the archaeologist. An archaeologist cannot distinguish what is traditional from what is customary. The evidence for tradition and for custom alike is the discovery of objects or traces of practices that cannot be explained just by expediency, practicality, or function, and continue through several generations. Customs and traditions have to be something over and above mere survival or a response to the environment. For the archaeologist, they are the means of identifying a distinct culture. They are necessarily beyond function and will be ceremonial, symbolic, obsolescent, or decorative.

To discover whether an object or practice is traditional rather than customary, some written or reported evidence is necessary. Custom is habitual and unconscious, whereas tradition is conscious and deliberate. Traditions are often consciously preserved customs.

When changes in circumstances or social structure occur, customary practices are threatened with extinction. This threat makes people conscious of them and the role they play in their cultural identity. If the customs are then consciously preserved, they become traditions.

If the changes that take place are genuinely threatening to cultural continuity, existing traditions often get strengthened or modified, and new traditions get invented by the deliberate preservation of customs, by the elaboration of existing traditions, or by the invention of something wholly new, presented as something old. The purpose is always to preserve whatever is considered distinctive in a cultural group. It is the means by which a society maintains its identity in the face of change.

Change creates traditions, and the creation of traditions is most noticeable in times of the greatest change. It has been the sport of modernist historians to ridicule tradition by discovering the huge number of seemingly ancient, immemorial traditions invented only in the last two centuries. But the ridicule misses the point. We all live with many of these traditions: Christmas, Scottish tartars, American flag folding. The traditional Christmas is a hodge-podge of borrowed fables and commercial exaggeration. The much-loved code of Scottish clan tartars was invented by—horror of horrors—an Englishman in the early nineteenth century. The solemn ritual of folding the American flag was introduced late in the last century in an atmosphere of militaristic nationalism. The recent invention and continued use of these traditions, created in times of greatest change, demonstrates their potency, not their irrelevance.

The function of tradition in bonding society and giving a sense of identity has been used by the more recently created European nations, such as Germany; by countries with inherent political instability, such as nineteenth-century France; and by new nations of mixed populations, such as the United States. From 1868, the Third Republic in France established a universal French identity by institutionalizing the memory of the French Revolution. Hundreds of statues and busts of Marianne, the symbol of the revolution, went up throughout France, and in 1880, Bastille Day was anointed a national holiday. In the United States, founding father myths, such as the fictional account of George Washington and the cherry tree by Mason Weems, help to unite the nation by their constant repetition—at least as long as they were repeated. (Interestingly, one of the symbolic aspects of this tale grew irrelevant and dropped away—it was an English cherry tree.)

Military regiments throughout the world still use devices like these. Indeed, new regiments often invent counterfeit historic practices or purloin whole traditional systems taken from disbanded regiments, so vital is the need for a traditional framework. And it works: it saves lives by creating a loyalty based on shared identity. It seems to strike no one in a military context that this obsession with tradition is in any way at odds with the absolute necessity for modernization that dominates the thinking of all armies.

Tradition, then, is not only a product of change but can comfortably coexist with adaptation to change. Modern life does not preclude tradition. Indeed, the great changes we are experiencing seem, rather, to demand it.

Tradition is the way that we can further the cultural identity that we see missing in the modern city without seeking in vain to make people more like ancient Athenians or Renaissance Florentines. It does not matter that the tradition we appropriate (or invent) may not be wholly authentic. Tradition, to suggest cultural continuity, must suggest history. No use of history can, in any logical sense, be authentic. Tradition has to represent history with conviction, and it has to create a sense of continuity with a history that could have been real. If our invocation of tradition is wholly fictitious—if it isn't a conscious preservation of a custom or a re-enforcement of a preexisting tradition—it must at least invoke a fictitious past that looks recognizably consistent with known history.

All these ploys are quite normal in traditional architecture. After the Greeks and Romans, classical architecture, drawing its inspiration from ancient sources, has always depended on a deliberate relationship with the past for its identity. This past can be represented quite literally by making the buildings look the same as ancient ones. But even literal invocations of the past usually come embedded in layers of myths and fictional ideas of antiquity. The whole foundation of the Gothic revival in the nineteenth century relied on romantic and highly inaccurate ideas about the architecture of the Middle Ages: that it was built by anonymous masons and inspired by the northern forests, fallacies that persist in popular history. As with all architecture, classical and Gothic buildings answer contemporary functions, but unlike modernist architecture they are overlaid with symbols, decoration, and formal arrangements that are conscious references to real and fictional traditions.

These are the reasons it isn't reactionary but very much in tune with the needs of the present for architects to look at historical cities that have some relevance to our culture and use selectively from them the features that can most effectively inculcate a sense of tradition. These features need not have any overt function; as with all traditions, they are more likely to be merely ceremonial, symbolic, or decorative. Nor, as the history of tradition demonstrates, is there any requirement for truth in communal identity.

Let me briefly illustrate what I mean with two recent projects of my own.

My firm won a competition this year to re-create the center of a small, run-down town in the English Midlands called Rocester. The town center had been destroyed by the demolition of its historic houses in the 1960s and their replacement with grim, anonymous apartment blocks. Other than the demolition of these apartments, we did very little, except to realign the streets slightly and to build rows of new houses just like the old houses. But the most important thing we did was to put in a new market cross. This is pure fiction: there is no market in this town. If there ever was, no one remembers it. But it does not matter—Rocester could have had one. Our market cross is like other market crosses in the region. In years to come, people may tell you that there was a market here. What is important is that it is distinctive, decorative, and memorable. It will give an identity to all the inhabitants where identity had been lost.

Building will start this year on our design for a new district in Shepton Mallet, a small rural town in western England. The development will have 360 new houses, a school, a public hall, and a shop. The new district has been designed like the historic villages in this region, with their pantiles, stone, and stucco, and their winding lanes. These ancient villages are well known for their public greens, which even today act as the symbolic center. Originally enclosures for villagers' livestock, these informally planned open grass areas served from time immemorial as places for ceremonies, meetings, even executions. One of the public areas in our design is a new village green. Like the new district itself, it has no history. But people will recognize the tradition of the region, and use the space in the traditional way (except for executions, one hopes). The green will give a focus and an identity to the new district.

While politicians deal with the wider social and economic issues, we designers have at our disposal the means to provide a real, tangible civic identity to villages, towns, cities, and districts. And the localized identity we create by means of a different pattern of building that draws on history to create traditions is a prerequisite to any restoration of civic life and communal responsibility.

 

 


Home |  About City Journal |  City Journal Books |  Archives |  Links
Contact Us |  Subscribe Print |  Subscribe Online |  RSS |  Advertise |  CJ Mobile

CONTACT INFO:

subscriptions: (800) 562-1973 • editorial: (212) 599-7000 • fax: (212) 599-0371

Copyright The Manhattan Institute