So says the architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros, in an interview with James Kalb (via Jerry Salyer at FPR). Excerpt:

Our educated world remains ignorant about the distinction between science and technology, unfortunately. Science helps us understand the universe and ourselves. Technology applies scientific results to master processes that we can manipulate so as to better our lives. It is also applied to kill people directly, destroy nature, and threaten our own survival. Or to save us from our stupidity. Tools can be used for either good or evil. Modernism, in my view, was a massive but unscientific application of technology to shape the world into an industrial image. It was unscientific because no thought was ever given to discovering how human beings interact with their environment, or whether we need certain specific geometrical features like we need nourishment and air, or to understanding how human being interact with each other to create a city. Modernist architects just drew forms on paper that looked like machines, and those in power built them. Again, to show the total lack of science here, when the first projects proved to be dehumanizing disasters, nobody was allowed to say that. And even if someone did, there was no revising those failed building and urban typologies because they were a central part of the ideology of industrial modernism. We still have them with us today. You dare not criticize them. This is not science!

Salingaros says that contemporary architects have to be trained to ignore their own physiological signals — that is, what their body tells them is beautiful. What is he talking about? The view most closely associated with Christopher Alexander and his concept of “Pattern Language” — basically, the idea that there recurs in nature, and in every successful building, certain patterns that resonate deeply in human consciousness, imparting to us a sense of harmony with the world. In every successful building or series of building (e.g., towns), no matter what the particular style, you will find the same patterns and proportions repeating themselves. This is because these patterns are embedded not only in Nature, but within us, because we are part of Nature. To deny them is to deny our own inner nature, and to create environments that generate inner disharmonies, as well as disharmony in social life.

A great popular exposition of this idea can be found in the best book I read this summer, “Harmony,” written by, no kidding, the Prince of Wales — a real hero of the cause of traditionalism, and not only in architecture (more on him and his work later — it was meeting him and visiting his farm this summer that helped convince me that I had to go back to writing). In his book, Charles traces the development of sacred geometry and its application in traditional architecture the world over. He writes:

Tracing this golden thread of wisdom and the inner need to maintain harmony in the world and within ourselves demonstrates how beautifully this principle has been woven into the fabric of Western civilization. Clearly the idea is not some wishy-washy, New Age invention of the late twentieth century. Far from it. It is a very precise priniple indeed acknowledged as central by some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen. From Pythagoras and Plato to Shakespeare and Ficino, from Giorgione, Bach and Handel to Wordsworth, Poussin and Blake, all of these great artists were very clear that there is a harmony to the world that must be maintained.

Charles goes on to say that it’s not simply a matter of deploying patterns, but rather “what matters is the quality and nature of the connections between the patterns, because these determine whether the collection produces a language or just a confusing babble. In other words, the relationship that all things have with each other is paramount.” Moreover, architecture can never be regarded as simply a matter of taste:

I have never made it my habit to go around criticizing the artwork that people choose to put on their walls, even if I do not like it. After all, that is their business. But architecture is a different matter. It, in large part, defines the public realm and therefore helps to define us as human beings. It affects our psychological well-being because it can either enhance or detract from a sense of community. I say this because I am convinced we are all profoundly influenced by the presence or the absence of beauty and harmony in the places we build and have our being.

OK, fine, but what about the claim that pattern language is scientific? For that, you might want to take a look at this rather technical paper by Salingaros. Alexander himself has written: “The principles that make a building good follow directly from the nature of human beings and the laws of nature, and any person who penetrates these laws will come closer and closer to this great tradition which Man has sought over and over again and comes always to the same conclusion.” In other words, he is claiming that in design, good aesthetics is grounded not in theories of art, but in systematically, scientifically observable facts about the natural world, which includes human nature.

Salingaros makes a bold claim in his interview with Kalb: that all architecture conveys a belief about the the way the world is beneath the appearance of things, and is thus in some sense religious:

That’s the whole point we learn from contemporary architecture: there exists a basic need for religious belief, and architects tend to follow a cult of images. It arose in the early 20th century from the desire to break with all elements of the past, especially inherited human culture. Ours is therefore not the secular world everyone pretends it to be, but instead a religious world (though in the sense of a pseudo-religion). Contemporary architects professing to be atheistic champions are in fact promoting an ideology with religious overtones. This ideology is detached from nature and from God, and therefore it is irrational. But that deficits doesn’t make it any less effective, something it has in common with all ideologies based on irrationality but supported by an extensive power structure. Christopher [Alexander] and I champion human freedom to choose a nutritive built environment. Traditional religions, despite their well-documented periodic failings and fanaticisms, arose out of the evolution of human culture and are thus far more grounded in real human needs. Most important, they celebrate humans as rich and complex beings, with capabilities far beyond those of a machine.

Do read the whole thing. And, if you liked my book “Crunchy Cons,” you’ll love “Harmony” — I’ll be blogging more about that later.


Advertisement