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Monday, September 12, 2011

The Ideology of Architecture

"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." -- Nikos Salingaros
(Hat tip to Rod Dreher.)

7 comments:

  1. Hmmm... Chris "Pattern Language" Alexander, and his work have been paradoxically the most influential architects outside the profession, and the least influential inside it. Alexander's work has been cited by the proponents of Computer Science's "pattern languages", and the designers of the game "The Sims", and pioneered a format familiar to wikipedia readers back in the 70's with its cross references of larger and smalller scale patterns that link the work into a continuous whole.

    It's something of a work of genius, but only the middle third is of real value. Tellingly, this third of the book is almost exclusively empirically derived. That is it is arrived at by noting features of buildings and public places that are repeatedly successful, or repeatedly present in successful examples. The first third of the book is too abstract, attempting to elaborate scant experience into a theory of worldwide urban design and planning. The final third is composed of bad ways of assembling buildings (often based on theory).

    As regards the history of architecture and builings, Salingaros appears to be something of a novice (he is a mathematician, after all), or a liar(not unknown among architects and designers). His discussion of communist and fascist architecture in the referenced article should be evidence enough of that. No, Hitler did not invent modernist architecture, thank you very much.

    Unfortunately, Alexander and his colleagues have been less successful in practice than in theory. Their greatest project to date has been the Eishin School in Japan...

    To be continued, I'm going to bed.

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  2. "the least influential inside it."

    Come on, one of the least influential? I thought the guy down the street with the tiny little office was the least influential.

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  3. "No, Hitler did not invent modernist architecture, thank you very much."

    OK, I call bullshit. I just went back to the interview to find Salingaros saying anything remotely like that. It just ain't there. The closest thing is when the *interviewer* says "fascists [and of course Hitler was not a fascist!] pioneered architectural modernism."

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  4. Well I'll continue my comment thread later. but I'll respond to your two points now.

    "least influential". You're right, I should phrase it differently. Alexander has had an outsize influence in inspiring people outside of the design professions. Despite his perennially selling books, his pattern language and later more process and theory oriented work have failed to make a dent in the architectural academy or in the profession at large. This is for several reasons I'll go into later.

    "Hitler"
    I was engaging in a little hyperbole, there, Gene. People have used Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect, as a bludgeon against classical and traditional architecture for a long time. This is unfair... But salingaros is trying to turn the tables in a silly way.

    I don't want to get into an argument about who's a real fascist. For talking purposes I'll limit it to the italian party. Anyway, this requires some elaboration, but the origins of modernist architecture can not be reasonably traced to Fascist Italy, nor Nazi Germany, Or communist russia.

    To be fair, Salingaros says that the left and right wing states adopted modernist architecture as it suited their symbolic program. This doesn't distinguish it from other architecture, since just about every style going was used by Facist, Nazi, and Soviet architects at one time or another.

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  5. "but the origins of modernist architecture can not be reasonably traced to Fascist Italy, nor Nazi Germany, Or communist russia."

    But Salingaros does not do any such tracing! The interviewer is the one who says something like that.

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  6. Gene is right. Salingaros makes no such claims about the origins of modernist architecture. I've read a few of Salingaros's essays and interviews and have never seen such claims.

    Though not by nor about Salingaros, I recommend checking out the following essay by Theodore Dalrymple called "The Architect as Totalitarian":

    http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_4_otbie-le-corbusier.html

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  7. "But Salingaros does not do any such tracing!"

    No, not exactly, and you're right that I shouldn't take for granted that the interviewer is correct in his assertion, "you (Salingaros) ...point out that the fascists pioneered architectural modernism."

    Salingaros replies in part that...
    "Actually, all revolutionary movements following World War I wanted a break with the past, and especially with the LOOK of the past, so they embraced buildings that looked sleek, white, and metallic like the machines of the time..."

    The problem I have with this statement is that you could just as well say ""Actually, all revolutionary movements following World War I wanted continuity the past, and especially with the LOOK of the past, so they embraced buildings that were symbolically ornamented, symmetrical, and clad with stone like classical or vernacular buildings of europe had been for centuries..."

    Knowing that this is the case, I think his statement is intended to associate modernist architecture (unfairly) with communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Furthermore, I think this is a crummy thing to do, and to the long term disadvantage of Salingaros and his compatriots, with whom I sympathise to a considerable extent.

    I was worried that I was just taking this guy out of context in a heavily edited interview, but no, here he is in another interview. http://americancity.org/magazine/article/respect-for-the-human-scale/
    He says of Le Corbusier (famous early modernist architect) "...he wanted to destroy the world that we know and love. He was not only a megalomaniac, but also a sadistic psychopath." That's not how you do it, Mr. Salingaros.

    Anyway, enough beating up on Nikos.
    as I said, I mostly sympathize with his aims, if not his rhetorical flair or conclusions.

    I'm going to renege on my promised discussion of Christopher Alexander's pattern language theories and their relative failure in practice. I know how much you were looking forward to it, but sometimes one has to do these things;). I think that in their own way they are equally as ideological as the modernist architects that they like to demonize.

    More productively, if you have much interest in the subject of ideology in architecture, you might like to read Morality and Architecture by David Watkin. 140 pages, and in clear english. Somewhat esoteric, but informative. Anything by John Summerson is also good.

    Knowing your interest in theology you might like to google Duncan Stroik, a roman catholic architect who works in the classical tradition, and has written several essays on the relationship between church doctrine and church design. He is a professor at Notre Dame.

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