The Role of Tradition and Innovation in the City

This article was written by Rodrigo Bitencourt and Gláucia Dalmolin, and translated from Portuguese by Rodrigo Bitencourt.

The city and civilization are concomitant phenomena. The city can be seen as a receptacle that both accommodates and transmits civilization. In fact, as man differs from other creatures in his ability to learn indefinitely, his perfectibility (ants that lived six thousand years ago had the same features of current ants: they are confined to a narrow range of behaviors dictated by their genetic programs), he acquired the power to extrapolate nature and thus build in his own way, creating history. As every human life is unique and no one can predetermine how it will be carried out, it could be said that the human being bears a historical duality: the individual history, or education, and the collective history, or culture.

Both dimensions, education and culture, constitute the conceptual basis of all human action, defining values and the most appropriate means to achieve them. These dimensions can be viewed materially in cities through the urban landscape, the preservation of buildings and other heritage. Thus, the city is a record of human actions that remain in time, and architecture is a concrete example of the knowledge accumulated by countless individuals over successive generations. For that reason, architecture is a tool for understanding a certain period of time in the history of a people, culture or even civilization, since it shows the evolution of mankind's ingenuity, as well as its sense of harmony and values.

Via Kostof, 1993, p. 13

Tradition and Innovation

The city is seen as a record of human actions, and is thus among the category of complex social phenomena that generate spontaneous orders. These phenomena can be defined as organizations that result from a series of individual and voluntary human actions, which by seeking the satisfaction of an individual's own interests end up serving the interests of others, and creating collective formations that were not intended or planned by any particular individual.

In fact, most of the social institutions (language, currency, etc.) are spontaneous orders that evolve over time through a process of social selection, allowing the continuity and improvement of those collective formations that help to ensure the success of individual actions. As these institutions enable individuals to achieve their own ends, there is an incentive for other people, to a certain extent, to obey the rules of operation of these institutions, enhancing their effectiveness and further increasing the potential of human actions. So, there is a strong evolutionary component in institutions and social systems; that set of traditions and customs that, although not subject to rational understanding, hold the foundations for life in society.

However, as society changes over time, blindly obeying traditions and customs can cause it to become static, or even dead. In that sense, innovation is an essential factor for the establishment of a dynamic culture and is part of the evolutionary process described above. Therefore, an important feature of the rules of conduct is that they are voluntary and allow visionaries and pioneers to disobey them and experience new possibilities, which at their own risk may either prove inaccurate or lead to important discoveries that enable new possibilities of action.

That being said, the city is a complex scenario and therefore, it is rich in possibilities. On one hand, society changes, new objectives arise, new needs appear, customs and habits are transformed. On the other hand, accumulated knowledge and experiences are materialized in all buildings and spaces; they are memories of the city.

The combination of inherited traditions and adaptive innovations can be best observed in the transformations of urban settlements created by the expansion of the Roman Empire. Cities created by Roman conquerors generally followed an orthogonal grid pattern, with two perpendicular main roads whose meeting point indicated the civic and commercial center, the Forum. In general, such settlements relied on public structures in order to meet governmental, religious, and cultural needs. With the collapse of the Empire, the forces, traditions and customs that kept and created the urban environment were changed or even disappeared. Thus, it is instructive to notice the subsequent modifications of the urban form according to the type of society that replaced the previous one.

Via Kostof, 1993, p. 49

The figure above shows, in the center, a typical Roman city in the imperial period and two subsequent transformations in later times. On the left, in the Eastern region of the former empire, the Islamic population appropriated public spaces and the orthogonal streets are replaced by a network of narrow streets and alleys that define residential clusters gathered in superblocks along ethnic and tribal divisions. On the right, Italian feudal society gathered several blocks to recreate the typical fortified complexes of the feudal tradition.

Ancient Greece also offers important examples of the spontaneous development of the city and of the cultural content that architecture holds. Throughout their history, the Greek people have undergone major changes that required new spatial solutions as well as the adaptation of existing structures. During the Bronze Age the monarchical regime predominated in Greece, centered on the figure of the King, which concentrated the roles of warrior, priest and administrator. The center of urban life was the palace-fortress, generally located at strategic locations of easy defense: the acropolis.

With the dissolution of the monarchic period and after a gap known as the Greek Dark Ages, the Greek polis emerged and a new kind of government prevailed, the Republic. In this new order, power became collective, public and open. Its exercise took place in a new space, a square named the Agora, which coherently reflected the features of the new regime and the emergence – for the first time in history – of a new type of man, the citizen (one who knows that they are equal to their fellows concerning their rights, reason and, therefore, dignity, and actively participated in the decisions undertaken in the Agora).

Thus, the organic urban morphology of the Greek polis attests to the slow and spontaneous growth of the city - each space held traditions, myths and memories and to this material and immaterial heritage, successive modifications were made. In this sense, the Acropolis can be seen as an example of transformative pressure on the very strong and effective conservative forces in Greek society. In fact, with the change of regime, the Acropolis lost its political functions to the Agora, but maintained its ancient religious functions, serving as a link between the present and ancient periods.

The architecture of the acropolis and the Agora explain their respective moments in Greek society. In this sense, their cultural and historical features were embedded in their material expressions. Perhaps the best example is the Parthenon.

Designed to be the abode of the gods, the Parthenon does not represent only the religiosity of that society, but also their sense of constructive harmony. The Greek people believed that the universe was made up of perfect laws that created an order - the cosmos. The task of philosophy and art was to discover and express such laws and thereby produce justice and beauty, which were considered one and the same, and in Parthenon such aspirations are evident. As its interior was completely closed, religious rites were held outside, around the temple. So, the treatment of the facades included detailed columns, linear and figurative bas-reliefs, pediments and other elements that were positioned according to meticulous notions of proportion and geometry, whose aim was to maintain a semblance of accurate alignment. The lines, which seemed to be perpendicular and horizontal, were actually placed on curved and inclined planes, in order to correct the optical illusion of perspective distortion.

In contrast to the coherence of the ancient Greeks, one should also observe later eclectic times. When there is lack of innovation in the present, many architects search the past for themes that fit, functionally or symbolically, in contemporary buildings. Copies of Greek temples are easily found in various regions of the world and most of them have no architectural value as a reflection on the legacy of the society they belong to. Thus, this new architecture, which could represent current ideas, reflect new solutions, technologies, aesthetic aspirations and so on, is just the replica of a previous era. In these circumstances, it can be said that in order for architecture to help understand a certain time in the history of a people and its culture, it must be designed according to the time in which this people lives.

*     *     *

The still little-explored idea that individual actions can generate unintended results, which as a whole are able to produce ordered formations of character, has profound implications in the study of cities and their architecture. This idea highlights the urban area as a container of extensive accumulated knowledge, which for the most part is only partially understood and makes up the set of institutions whose existence and standards are the assumptions of all individual actions.

Tradition is seen as the set of past experiences that have proven effective for human purposes. Thus, any initiative to modify the built space comes from a cumulative state of experiences that should be taken into account with care and even humility, recognizing that the human mind has limitations that are unable to overcome all of the structures resulting from the actions of thousands of minds over time. Nevertheless, a professional attitude requires the commitment of the creative individual’s mind to use their rational capacities, albeit limited, to solve current problems, which always require some level of innovation.

Therefore, as a material record that will be part of people's lives over several generations, any building, even inert and silent, is in constant communication, by transmitting its aesthetic, functional and technological yearnings, social values and so forth.

In this sense, when there is concern about the efficiency of what is being communicated, the building may be consolidated, becoming subject to preservation over time as architectural heritage. In this scenario, it will overcome the barrier of time, meaning that its innovation was so important for the period in which it was executed that there is a common desire to allow it to communicate with people over the coming centuries, as in the Parthenon.

However, designing a space that is intentionally kept for centuries is a task that few will undertake. What the vast majority of architects can do is to act within contemporary society. Thus, their buildings will offer architectural value to the people who use them concerning beauty, housing, technology and so forth. Therefore these buildings are beautiful while they exist.

Understanding and respecting the architectural heritage of our cities, as well as designing according to the time in which we live is also a sensible way to think of future generations and assist them in understanding their origins.

Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped, Bulfinch Press, New York, 1993.

Rodrigo Bitencourt is an architect and urbanist graduated from the Federal University of Paraná (2007), specializing in Graphic Arts and Digital Architecture Visualization.
Gláucia Dalmolin is an architect and urbanist graduated from the Federal University of Paraná (2007), specializing in Design and Townscape at the same university (2012).


About this author
Cite: Dalmolin, Gláucia. "The Role of Tradition and Innovation in the City" [Cidade e Arquitetura: Tradição e Inovação] 05 Jul 2015. ArchDaily. (Trans. Stott, Rory) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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