Traditional building methods can re-establish connections to meaning, cultural identity, and nature that have been lost in contemporary practice.
Texas has long been known for its strong sense of identity — an identity defined by the diversity of its cultures and landscapes. Even before the Spanish conquistadors set foot in Texas in 1521, Texas was a land of mixed peoples from many different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, and traditions. Over the centuries, these people have come together in both conflict and collaboration to become the collective culture that defines who we are today. Our histories, our mythologies, our identities, and our relationship as a people with our tierra remain strongly intertwined to create a singular definition of what it means to be Texan. Yet today, we find what we have always known to be Texas shifting. Our built environments, our landscapes, and even our identity as a people are quickly transforming because of rapid development and mass social migrations.
In San Antonio, we use the phrase, mi tierra — the idea that home is more than a place, more than the land on which we live. Mi tierra embodies everything that we are as a community. It’s the soil, the landscape, the climate, the water, the plants, the birds, and other animals. It’s the unique food, music, and traditions. It’s family. In this, Texas is unique. There are few places that share such a strong understanding of their common identity and an enduring nostalgia for home. Whether Texans are claiming the title for best margarita or breakfast taco, admiring a field of bluebonnets, enjoying a familiar Tejano tune, or boasting about how tall Big Tex really is, our braggadocio for all things Texan is known worldwide. This “dirt” under our boots is in our DNA.
Decades ago, chefs from around the world rediscovered the virtues of their own local connections to the dirt. They realized that food locally grown in our own soil — a soil that has been carefully understood and cultivated — could create better, more nutritious, and even more flavorful food. They rediscovered traditional methods of farming — allowing them to use the best of what the land has to offer. Through these efforts, an old way of understanding how to grow food locally was renewed in modern popular culture.
In 1949, Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” described a movement centered around a land ethic, questioning our relationship with the earth and its plants and animals and demanding a holistic ecocentric approach to cultivating the land. Years later, and by virtue of a similar land ethic, chefs looking to better connect ingredients with their origins forged new relationships with nearby farmers, spawning the local food movement that brought the focus back to producing food nurtured at home by hand. Using traditional methods and re-establishing existing interconnections within organic ecosystems, they created food that was not only healthier and more delicious, but naturally more sustainable.
Chefs like Dan Barber, who documented his own path to understanding sustainability in his book “The Third Plate,” created both popular interest and subsequently a movement that grew beyond high-end restaurants into local markets and even into our own backyards. They worked to bring the relationship between the food we eat and the natural world back into balance. This movement wasn’t codified or based on performance data. It wasn’t a system that depends on more sophisticated technology, software, or products. It was a movement toward common sense. It argued that the industrialization of our food supply not only destroyed our food culture but was also destroying our health and the world in which we live. It recognized the need to get back to basics to find a better, more humane way to feed our communities. And it worked.
As in the case of growing food, we once created buildings that were close to nature and built with an understanding of local materials fashioned by hand. Buildings had meaning to those who built them and those who used them. They were passed on for generations — often changing use, but always connected to our values. They reflected who we were, who we wished to be, and how we wished to live — together as a people and together with nature.
The Greeks built on three basic principles: the nature of materials, human interactions with form and space, and beauty. The term they used for this philosophy of the “art of making” was techne, derived from the root teks, meaning “to weave.” Techne was the basis for building for millennia. Beginning in the 17th century with the onset of the scientific revolution, philosophy became increasingly secular; architects began to look to science as the foundation of architecture; and techne became technology. Later, in the 20th century, after wars devastated Europe and reordered traditional European social constructs, architects like Walter Gropius and the Deutscher Werkbund sought to align architecture and building with industry and the production line. They aimed to streamline the fabrication of building components and create an architecture that was universal. Architecture was absorbed by industry and technology, and the local became the international.
As architects today, we struggle with this relationship between the buildings we design and modern industry and science. Their gravity has become inescapable, and the technology too seductive. We have grown to believe that technology can solve the challenges we face. Architectural pedagogy has replaced the human mind and hand with simulation and product. Now, we struggle with how to use technology to defy the fact that we have created one of the greatest forms of consumerism known to mankind. We attempt to make the building industry “green” — to make it “sustainable” — while it is clearly anything but.
The architectural profession has now become the purveyor of industry, and we have become obsessed with one thing: the assembly of manufactured parts and the performance of those assemblies. In daily practice there is little mention of our cultures, our histories, our traditions, our craft, or even our landscapes. Our relationship with technology drives us on, to the next, next thing, reflecting society’s insatiable thirst for consumerism and building into the construction industry a planned obsolescence. “Place” has become a mainstay in our lexicon, but use of the term disregards local knowledge, traditions, and cultures, as well as an understanding of the cultural landscapes in which we build.
By allowing industry to define what is good, both for us and for the environment, we find ourselves aligned with the boardrooms of industry — just page through a professional journal or walk the floor of an AIA convention. As architects, we attempt to use technology to meet the challenge of building better buildings and better environments, and industrial systems to resolve the environmental impact of the building industry. Yet, the more we build this way in an attempt to produce better buildings, the more we aid — rather than abate — that pressure on our environments and on our communities. We replace mi tierra with a nameless and transient industrial landscape that possesses no soul or identity and lays waste to our natural landscapes.
But what of the old way of building local? Is it even possible today to build in a way that is in balance with nature, that uses local materials and local craft, and that considers local conditions in a lasting and sustainable way? By codifying and institutionalizing technology to the extent that we have, we have found ourselves, as a profession, painted into the proverbial corner. The near universal move to condition all buildings year-round regardless of place or climate has forced us to construct building envelopes that defy nature. To simply open a window could set in motion a negative chain reaction in a modern building system. Building naturally often pits architects against municipal and international building codes, and it can even leave us legally liable because it requires defying common industry and professional standards. Many homes and communities traditionally considered self-sustaining would actually be considered illegal today.
In recent months, we have been given a glimpse into a future world. Supply chains are disrupted; labor is in short supply; and a global pandemic has shut down the production of components for high-tech products (just try to find a smart refrigerator today). The effects of the recent conflict in Europe have shown us the precarious line we are walking. Steel and high-performance glass manufactured in Ukraine are now impossible to attain, and oil has become a commodity used as an economic weapon. As a result, fossil fuels used to manufacture and transport materials have become either too scarce or too expensive to stay within reasonable construction costs.
We don’t have to look back too far to remember a time when world economics forced us to rethink construction. During the Great Depression and as a part of the Works Progress Administration, Texas saw some of its most iconic structures built. Designing and creating these buildings retrained men to engage in techne. By craft and hand — with the unique materials they found readily available from the earth on which they built — they crafted enduring structures that continue to speak to who we are as Texans today. The idea that we could build this way again may seem far-fetched in today’s world of mass production, but there are still craftsmen, like Clay Chapman, who has created an entire community in Carlton Landing, Oklahoma, handcrafted with traditional brick construction. Unfortunately, despite the charm, livability, durability, and sustainability of its construction, the development would not meet most typical modern building codes or standards. There are others, too, who are also working against the well-entrenched commercial building industry, like Julia Watson, who writes on radical indigenism and vernacular infrastructure, and Johan van Lengen, who describes sustainable indigenous building techniques in his book “The Barefoot Architect.” We see international efforts led by organizations like Slow Cities, Low-Impact Building, and INTBAU and Pakistan’s first female architect, Yasmeen Lari, who argues for the value of tradition and the vernacular, declaring: “I was a starchitect for 35 years. Now I am making my atonement.”
With world conditions quickly changing, we must realize that technology and wealth cannot be the only solutions to the challenges we face. Instead, we must adapt to our natural conditions and use what the earth gives us to live in a balanced and more connected way. We must use technology to assist us in working closely with nature, and not continue to use it to overcome nature. If we, as a profession, wish to be socially responsible, we must return to the basics — to what is natural. We must turn back to mi tierra and embrace her.
Michael G. Imber, FAIA, is a practicing architect in San Antonio and the 2022 Robert A.M. Stern visiting professor at the Yale School of Architecture.