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Figuring out our situation

I’ve been reading Nikos Salingaros’ Twelve Lectures on Architecture: Algorithmic Sustainable Design. It’s a somewhat expanded set of notes for a series of lectures he gave a couple of years ago on architecture and urbanism. As such, it gives a clear if rather spare presentation of ideas he’s presented in his other books. (At the link you can watch the lectures online.)

Basically, his work is a continuation of Christopher Alexander’s work on the nature of architectural order, with more development of specifically scientific aspects. As such, it’s fundamental enough to show something about social order in general. Plato suggested studying the city to learn about man. In Salingaros and Alexander we learn about both by studying the city as built.

The basic point is that natural, biological, and urban systems have a great deal in common. In particular, they all function in complex, varying, and adaptive ways on a lot of different levels. For that reason, they can’t be designed in any very comprehensive way but must largely be allowed to evolve through a process of variation and selection. (The “algorithmic” and “sustainable” in the book’s title refer to the reiterated procedures needed to find a design that is adaptive and adaptable, and therefore able to sustain itself.)

Such systems have certain basic characteristics. One is a generally modular and hierarchical organization. That organization is always fractal, meaning that it has similar degrees of organized complexity at all scales. If you look at the system overall, it will have a few big pieces, more medium-sized pieces, and a great many smaller pieces. That appearance will repeat itself if you look at pieces of the system, and ditto for pieces of the pieces, all the way down to the smallest dimensions. Thus, biological communities are composed of of species, organisms, bodily organs, tissues, and cells; cities of urban quarters, neighborhoods, streets and plazas, and buildings.

The basis of such ordered systems is the binding of complementary units, a natural tendency that is strongest at the most elementary level: the particles that form an atom; the organelles that constitute a living cell; the roof, walls, and foundations that make a building. Those elementary unities then link up to form ever more extensive systems that work in a way that preserves their nature as systems and also furthers the functioning of their components. (A system that did otherwise would disappear, and something that works better would take its place.)

Such an account is persuasive, but it doesn’t have much to do with post-1920s architecture and urban planning, which tend to eliminate detail and emphasize the dominance of master images and concepts. So much the worse for the current approach, but why do people insist on it when it’s so much at odds with how things work and everyone hates the results?

Salingaros suggests a variety of causes, from architectural megalomania to media culture to the habit of cutting design and construction costs by ignoring the obvious, and I discuss some of them here. A novel observation he makes is that modernism acts like a computer virus that erases data banks and substitutes something much simpler and less functional, with collective social memory as the “data bank” in question. Where that data bank once held an array of useful solutions to the problems of building—one form for an office building in Midtown Manhattan, a very different form for a school in rural Thailand—it now presents an endless series of glass, steel, and concrete boxes, with arbitrary variations tossed in to provide the illusion of novelty and creativity.

Our environment forms us, Salingaros notes, so the current built environment helps make people clueless and nonfunctional. For that and other reasons it’s become difficult for us to do things normally even when we want to. We’ve lost the touch. That is why he—like Christopher Alexander—is driven to refer to Third World favelas for a present-day illustration of how normal human methods of design work. Everyone not in absolute poverty can afford something more expensive and (from a design standpoint) more inhuman. As he notes, “Almost universally, when people acquire the money to alter their environment, they invariably destroy what is most beautiful in it. This is most striking in our times of cultural disorientation.”

It seems though that it is not enough to say that modernism is an intellectual virus that knows how to infect and reproduce within systems it degrades. The description may be true, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why so many people have been so durably convinced that any alternative is unthinkable. As Salingaros observes, intelligent and cultured people today often react with fear and outrage to attacks on architectural modernity. (An example is cited here.)

It is evident that the attachment to the principles that have led to our current built environment is deep, and even metaphysical. The Turnabout discussion linked above notes that people cling to architectural modernity for the same reason they cling to modernity generally:

“if we don’t accept in love that we live in a world with a moral and aesthetic order that precedes us and validates our thoughts and purposes … then when that order of things impinges on us it will seem alien and oppressive and we will rebel against it by trying to destroy it and everything that reflects it—that is, everything good, beautiful and true.”

That still seems true to me, and it aligns with what Salingaros and others have said.

For such a big issue further development seems needed, and I’ll probably follow this entry up with several others. For now I’ll just say that part of the reaction seems to be due to the connection I mentioned between architecture and social order. To attack architectural modernity is to propose that tradition, a largely unplanned development held to manifest the implicit innate order of the world, be treated as authoritative. The implications of that proposal are quite general.

For example: if the built environment has to spring from the connection between complementary elemental units, because that is how complex functional systems arise, then the same must be true of the social order. That conclusion strikes people today as outrageous. It would put us back—for example—to the union of man and woman in marriage as the basis of society.

The current view, of course, is that such a view of marriage and society is irrational, oppressive, and hateful. The contemporary state justifies itself as a sort of universal absolute whose authority establishes individuals as independent of all particular connections and classifications. The autonomous individual is the basic unit, while marriage is a matter of personal taste and commitment and must be validated as such by state authority. Any other view would be grossly at odds with human dignity.

A view more at odds with the kind of hierarchical, bottom-up, unplanned, and somewhat inscrutable natural order presented by Alexander and Salingaros is hard to imagine. But that is the view required by the abolition of God, which makes a social order perspicuously based on formal logic, means/ends rationality, and arbitrary human will the only refuge from mindless natural necessity and thus the only system that can vindicate human dignity.

Modern architecture—including postmodern architecture—is an iconic representation of that social order. As such, it is an intellectual and moral necessity, just as modern architects say, as long as we remain attached to modernity.