“Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark.” ~Zen Proverb
There is a mystery woven into the very fabric of modern life that is rarely given more than momentary pause. Captured in a homebuyer’s casual question, the enigma is basically this: “What makes the older homes we see consistently more appealing than the newer ones?”
It is generally agreed that the quality of our homes, neighborhoods and towns has diminished significantly since World War II, yet the cause of this decline mystifies even the professionals. Surprisingly, this frustration over creeping mediocrity is not new. From the earliest days of modernism, in articles dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, architects lamented a decline in aesthetic appreciation and building quality. Each generation believed the previous one had built with more care and forethought, and that older homes were intrinsically more beautiful than their newer counterparts.
Traditionally, the genius loci, or spirit of place was linked to man’s awe of an omnipotent power—whether God, nature or inner essence. Industry however, with its grand marvels of energized iron, seized that elusive power and made it material. And expediency—the Achilles’ heel of the machine age—eventually dethroned Mother Nature altogether.
The techno-industrial machine driving our current economy may be the leading culprit in the character loss of the built environment, but still deeper causes remain. The progress paradigm of modernism inadvertently created this colorless environment, yet it also sits on the necessary tonic.
Western society has come to believe that progress moves always forward along a linear path, but frequently it follows the cyclical pattern of the East, which views extremes not as ends but as mere shades of a single attribute or concept. Light and dark are only relative to their opposites—as are good and bad, poor and rich. Thus it is in ancient wisdom, the polar extreme of modernism, that we find a golden key, with the potential to lay bare some of the mystery surrounding character of place.
Historic documents based almost exclusively on mysterious arcana of design knowledge and lost building traditions, pointed overwhelming to one conclusion; that eloquent designs, natural or manmade, originated from and were regulated by a very small number of creative principles.
Even a partial understanding of the significance of the architectural orders can help shape future environmental policy; make stronger neighborhoods; reduce construction waste; and add a new level of beauty and harmony to our living places. Enhancing the meaning of place could be as simple as overlaying currently uninspired suburbs with ancient ordering systems, and harnessing rich traditions of the past to energize current building practices.
A collective knowledge, gained from a global survey of sacred canons and key architectural models, when made accessible to the public holds the potential to impact not only how we build today, but how we inhabit our homes in the future—how we relax, eat, bathe, play, entertain—and how we start and end each and every day of our lives.