Some thoughts on culpability

Here is the short essay I contributed to Nikos Salingaros’ book Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. They edited it a bit in the final version. The book is a recommended read, although I’m admittedly not neutral, and if you don’t like what I have to say in English you can also buy it in German:

The obvious method of dealing with the virus of deconstruction in architecture, as Professor Salingaros describes it, is no doubt intellectual hygiene: sunshine, fresh air, and a change in theoretical and aesthetic scenery. Get rid of the cultishness, accept the possibility of rational discussion with whoever has relevant knowledge, and open the doors to what people need and what actually works. A further necessity, as the author points out, is “stop[ping] its modes of informational transmission.” Presumably, that would mostly be a matter of the normal practices of education and serious discussion. Intellectual influence depends on reputation, so recognizing the problem is the greater part of exorcizing it. Every field has standard examples of disasters to analyze and avoid, and in architecture deconstruction should be one such example.

Still, something further is needed to contain and cure the infection. Anything as complex as architecture requires mutual trust, cooperation, and a degree of subordination, so it is difficult for those working in the field, and for the general public, to deal with highly-placed authorities who promote irrationality on principle. Leading deconstructivists are skilled at manipulation, and their theories and actions are designed to disable rational criticism. When a major figure in deconstruction is able to respond to criticism with the assertion that all third-person indicative statements about his work are inadmissible something very odd is going on, and when thereafter his prestige only grows the situation is evidently one that requires clarity and vigor.

Clarity and vigor means that the issue of culpability must be addressed. As described in this book, deconstruction seems less a style or theory of architecture or anything else than an attempt to disorder fundamental aspects of human life. It is viral warfare carried on against any possible intellectual order, and thus a crime against humanity. Since deconstruction is a wrong as well as a disaster in the making, one cannot understand and respond to it adequately without considering the question of responsibility. Formal legal penalties are not at issue. While there is evidently wrongful intent, and the damage is potentially immense, the crime is too general, and involves the participation of too many respected people, to treat like an ordinary con game or sale of adulterated goods. As Edmund Burke suggests, it is difficult to draw up an indictment against a whole people—or even the dominant group in a profession or intellectual class. Extent, numbers and social position obscure blame and confer impunity.

Justice is never perfect. Another 18th century Englishman comments,

“The law doth punish man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose,
Who steals the common from the goose.”

Human culture—which includes the implicit connections and implications that make coherent thought and action possible—is the greatest of all commons. It is the field in which all life, thought, and social cooperation play themselves out. An attempt to disrupt and destroy something so basic to what we are should be viewed as a crime. Nonetheless, a crime perpetrated by designing and propagating toxic memes to be embodied (inter alia) in the built environment and thus forced on the whole society seems too abstract to define and prosecute. Perpetrators infected by the virus they spread may not be fully responsible for their actions. Those not infected are likely to be adroit enough to adjust their conduct and avoid any system of legal liability. And if disordering of thought is the problem, prosecutors and judges may themselves be unreliable. With all that in mind, how does one sort out the blame, and what does one do about it?

The author touches on the issue, but does not develop it at any length. The most culpable, in his view, are the few theoreticians of deconstruction who act with a clear understanding of what they are doing and what is at stake. If the author’s description is correct, such people cannot be accepted as participants in intellectual life. The organized thought of an intellectual community is vulnerable to fraud, abuse and vandalism, and it will be degraded unless such actions and those who engage in them are identified, confronted, resisted, and condemned. Such policing must be primarily the responsibility of the malefactor’s fellow professionals. If they do not act, and the case seems egregious, the rest of us must form our own conclusions, both as to the specific acts and the degree of respect owed an intellectual community that tolerates them.

The culpability of others whose subjective purposes and degree of consciousness are more obscure is less clear. Perhaps they should be protected from blame by the principle that theoretical investigations should be free and each should say what he thinks, or perhaps there are grounds to condemn a man like Bernard Tschumi who leaves his meaning obscure but lards his work with sadistic images of violation in what looks like a game of psychosocial manipulation. It is difficult to pursue such issues closely in the case of most individual theoreticians, who may only be presenting their thoughts for public consideration or at worst attempting to provoke.

The officials, educators and institutions who promote bogus or harmful theories and back them with their authority are, as the author observes, a different matter. Those bearing practical responsibity for the built environment should be expected to exercise good or at least conscientious judgment. When they fail to do so they should be held responsible and suffer professional consequences. Those who push forward thinkers and projects that are at best modish and at worst toxic have the same culpability as anyone in a responsible position who adopts plainly destructive policies on account of stupidity, laziness, cowardice, frivolity, opportunism, or implicit sympathy with evil. The culpability of such people should be publicly recognized, and they should suffer the consequences accruing to any official whose willfulness or gross negligence brings on disaster. The same can be said of intellectual gatekeepers like architectural critics and those who sit on prize juries.

But what about everybody else—working architects, who must do the best they can in a professional world they did not create, and members of the intellectual and lay public in general? Here each must look to himself. We get the leaders and the public arts we deserve. The inhumanity of contemporary architecture could not have been perpetrated without the support, cooperation or acquiescence of a great many people at many levels of society. How has it been possible for outrageous or incomprehensible claims to be accepted and inhuman buildings built, acclaimed and imitated for so many years? Modern life pushes us all toward subordinating our duty of independent judgment to the pretentions of certified or self-defined experts who claim the exclusive right to determine what can be thought and said. That tendency opens the way for endless abuse and fraud and must be resisted for the sake of our humanity. To the extent we submit to it, we become accessories to our own victimization. If we are to consider culpability for conduct leading to something as pervasive as the current built environment, we should consider and correct our own as well as that of the most obvious evil-doers.