Meme, meme, tekel, upharsin

Why do we have horrible inhuman architecture? I’ve claimed that the issues are basically religious: “we want the world we build around us to look like the world we believe in. Otherwise it seems stupid, distracting, phony and aside the point.” So if you’re a modernist technocrat who makes a religion of the laws of physics, modern industry, and the triumph of the will, you build in the international style. If you’re a postmodern who believes in chaos, obfuscation, and the triumph of the arbitrary will, you build like a deconstructionist.

In his book A Theory of Architecture, Nikos Salingaros proposes a couple other thoughts:

  1. The international style is cheap to build, and you can churn out big glass boxes without much thought, so it naturally won out. Any excuse is good enough for what makes things easier for the people who run things. Pomo style is international style artificially made “playful,” so it seems less boring. Presumably computer-aided design makes pop pomo buildings equally cheap (although not the luxury starchitect constructions that give the style iconic legitimacy).
  2. Post-1920 architectural styles are viruses in the same sense computer viruses are viruses. They work, in fact, the same way a biological virus works. They are simplified scraps of information that are packaged in a way that enables them to enter a host system (like a human brain or culture) and take over the system so it becomes a machine for replicating and spreading the virus. So if you encapsulate the extremely simple international style in slogans like “hygiene,” “social progress,” or whatever, and spread it with the aid of modern means of propaganda like glossy architecture mags, then institutions and practitioners will pick it up as a quick, easy and prestigious substitute for actual thought and knowledge and become vehicles for its forcible dissemination. Soon it’ll be all there is. (Salingaros refers to intellectual viruses as “memes,” although I think the term is usually used in a broader sense to include all components of transmittted culture.)

He places much more emphasis on the second line of thought. It’s a frightening one because it can be applied to all aspects of human culture. The basic point is that current information networks, which make everything anyone has ever said on any subject whatever instantly available to everyone, are ideal settings for the propagation of intellectual viruses and thus for the replacement of thought and knowledge, which are difficult to build up and defend because the world is subtle and complicated, by flashy content-free slogans. On such an analysis the absolute unjustified dominance of empty and destructive architectural theories forced on the whole world by “experts” whose authority is only increased by their rejection of comprehensibility and common sense would be matched elsewhere in social life. The Harvard understanding of the humanities I’ve just complained about, that they are social constructions that could as easily be reconstructed by whoever is in a position to make his authority good, would become the whole truth.

Salingaros doesn’t discuss that line of thought, although in an article published in Telos that ended up in another of his books he’s applied it to the thought of Jacques Derrida. He does however suggest that arbitrary inhuman content-free architecture is an educational force that creates arbitrary inhuman content-free minds. We can’t connect to the built world, so we lose the ability to connect to the world generally. We suppress our natural reactions to our physical surroundings, so we become inhuman and willing to do whatever we are told no matter how destructive. We become, in fact, tools for those in power with no lives of our own. Sounds like yuppiedom.

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