When Mohamed Atta flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he was expressing his resentment towards everything symbolized by that building: the triumph of secular materialism, the success and prosperity of America, the tyranny of high finance, and the hubris of the modern city. He was also expressing a long-standing grudge against architectural modernism, which he had already voiced in his master’s dissertation for the University of Hamburg architecture school. The theme of that dissertation was the old city of Aleppo, damaged by Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad in his merciless war of extermination against the Muslim Brotherhood, but damaged far more by the skyscrapers that cancel the lines of the ancient streets and rise high above the slim imploring fingers of the mosques. This junkyard modernism was, for Atta, a symbol of the impiety of the modern world and of its brutal disregard towards the Muslim city.
The old cities of the Middle East, recorded in Edward Lear’s delightful drawings and watercolors, were places where tightly knit communities huddled in the shadows of the mosques, and minarets punctured the sky in a constant attitude of prayer. They were places of pious industry, and their romantic alleyways, courtyards, and bazaars—the familiar background to Arab storytelling, from the Thousand and One Nights to the novels of Naguib Mahfouz—have an immovable place in the longings of Muslims, especially those, like Atta, who find themselves drifting among strangers in the concrete wastes of a modern Western city.
Those old cities of the Middle East are very different today, with mosques squeezed pathetically between giant skyscrapers, jerry-built apartment blocks squashing the old courtyards, and alleyways torn asunder by highways. And, although the causes of this social and aesthetic disaster are many—over-population being one of them, corruption another, and, in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s family of speculative builders a third—it is undeniable that architectural modernism must take some part of the blame. It was Le Corbusier’s insane plan for Algiers which first suggested that the old Muslim cities could be entirely refashioned in total disregard of the religious and social needs of the people. Although only one ghastly section of the plan was ever built, the plan itself is nevertheless studied assiduously in schools of architecture as one of the great “solutions” to a problem that, prior to Le Corbusier, no one had ever perceived. The “problem” is that of packing people into a city while allowing free movement across it. Corbusier’s solution was to put highways in the air, with the people shoveled into apartment blocks beneath them. Ancient homes and corridor streets were to be demolished, and huge tower blocks were to front the ocean, dwarfing mosques and churches. The plans were opposed by the elected mayor of the city, which led Le Corbusier to approach the unelected French Governor of the province, asking him to overrule the mayor. “The plan must rule,” he wrote. “It is the plan which is right. It proclaims indubitable realities.” And when he led the Vichy Government’s commission on national building in 1941, Le Corbusier insisted on putting his plans for Algiers at the top of the agenda.
It never occurred to Le Corbusier that the congested nature of the Muslim city is the natural byproduct of a way of life. Courtyards and alleyways express the very soul of this community—a community which stops to pray five times a day, which defines itself through obedience and submission, and which retreats into the family whenever the going gets tough. Highways and tower blocks are precisely the things that kill the Muslim city and send its children abroad, raging like Atta for revenge against the modernist attitudes that have uprooted them.
When, in the aftermath of Atta’s dreadful crime, the city of New York began to consider the rebuilding of “ground zero,” many suggestions were made as to how it might be done. My own preference was for the scheme of Alexander Stoddart and others, as proposed through the pages of City Journal. This involved a return to the scale and density of the old lower West side and the restoration of a mixed-use neighborhood, in which the main public space would be the street rather than the sanitized park or square, and in which the old warmth and geniality of the New York villages would grow through the fruitful intermingling of business, residence, and leisure. Such schemes no longer attract the attention of city authorities, however, almost all of whom are looking for symbols of their own enlightenment, and most of whom have swallowed the doctrine that architecture is an artform, which must be led by its own avant-garde. Cities that can rely on high-spending and high-profile corporations to fund their projects assign them to an ever-dwindling band of “starchitects,” chosen for their ability to shock the tastes of ordinary city-dwellers with buildings that become causes célèbres by ostentatiously refusing to belong to their surroundings.
Most of these starchitects—Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas—have equipped themselves with a store of pretentious gobbledygook with which to explain their genius to those who are otherwise unable to perceive it. And when people are spending money that belongs to voters or shareholders, they will be easily influenced by gobbledygook that flatters them into believing that they are spending it on some original and world-changing masterpiece. It was not surprising, therefore, if the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the then-governor, George Pataki, and the leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, were all attracted by Daniel Libeskind’s design to replace the World Trade Center towers with a fanciful collection of asymmetrical glass boxes, one of them graced with a twisting “Freedom Tower” topped by an off-center radio transmitter reaching to 1,776 feet.
Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, is well known for proposing buildings that are expressionist sculptures, built in defiance of gravity, stability, and community, and involving enormous and usually quite unpredictable costs in their construction. It was this last factor that persuaded Bloomberg, Pataki, and Silverstein to put the project in the hands of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, with instructions to make the design structurally and economically feasible. This SOM did, by scrapping Libeskind and starting from scratch, to produce a boring array of unsightly towers around a pointless open space—the old Bauhaus solution that has depressed everyone from Vladivostok to Los Angeles, and from Cape Town to Aberdeen.
Libeskind is one of the targets chosen by John Silber, in Architecture of the Absurd, an outspoken attack on the starchitects and their wasteful and self-vaunting projects. Silber is well known as an authority on Kant’s moral and religious philosophy, and as an academic politician whose distinguished leadership of Boston University, during which he never concealed his opinion of anyone who stood in his way, served to put that university in the forefront of American academic achievement. He is also an architect’s son, who spent many of his formative years in his father’s office, learning the skills of a trade that he never practiced. Now, in retirement, he has returned to this early interest to produce a lively and convincing case for the view that the cult of “genius” has exerted a damaging influence on modern architecture.
Architecture, Silber argues, is not a private art like poetry, painting, or music, whose innovations can be offered to the cognoscenti without disturbing the perceptions and expectations of the rest of us. It is a public enterprise, which inevitably has an impact on everyone who makes use of the city and its streets. It must serve the client—but it must also serve the public, whose principal desire is for an architecture that fits in to its surroundings. Silber is not hostile to modernism and has good words (better words than I could ever muster) for Mies van der Rohe’s much praised Seagram building, which set the pattern for the black glass office blocks that are everywhere to be found in Europe and America. His real target is egomania, and in particular the kind of egomania that pursues originality at the expense of fittingness and which throws all humility to the winds in its urgent need to stand out. It is this, he believes, that has led to the cult of genius—a cult that may have had a purpose in revitalizing the arts of poetry, painting, and music in the late romantic period, but which has no place in architecture.
Sure, there are architects who are geniuses—Michelangelo, Palladio, even Frank Lloyd Wright. But a city is not the work of geniuses. It is the work of humble craftsmen and also the byproduct of its own ongoing conversation with itself. A city is a constantly evolving fabric, patched and repaired for our changing uses, in which order emerges by an “invisible hand” from the desire of people to get on with their neighbors. That is what produces a city like Venice or Paris, where even the great monuments—St. Mark’s, Notre Dame, the Place Vendôme, the Scuola di San Rocco—soothe the eye and radiate a sense of belonging. In the past geniuses did their best to harmonize with street, sky, and public space—like Michelangelo at St. Peter’s—or to create a vocabulary, as Palladio did, that could become the shared lingua franca of a city in which all could be at home.
In contrast, the new architecture of the absurd, typified by Gehry’s bombastic and insanely costly Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, is designed to challenge the surrounding order, to stand out as the work of an inspired artist, who does not build for people but sculpts space for his own expressive ends. Silber does not conceal his rage at this kind of presumption, and has harsh and telling things to say about Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT, a building which, precisely because it takes the old ideas of wall and window and holds them up to ridicule, is already springing leaks and cracking at the joints. Silber’s ferocious denunciation details all the faults of the building, including its enormous cost overrun, and the expense of maintaining it. But by far the most telling criticism is one that recalls Le Corbusier, who had the same a priori approach to construction as Gehry, and also the same image of himself as a revolutionary genius. Gehry decided that, since the Stata building was to house all those high-powered researchers that MIT collects, he should design an interior that encouraged them to interact, to share their ideas, to amplify each other’s creativity by throwing concepts like footballs from room to room. So he got rid of inner walls, made all boundaries transparent, opened everything out in spaces that are made stark and bleak by the childish supermarket colors that shout from the open corridors. This kind of a priori thinking, by an architect who has never troubled to observe another member of his species, recalls Le Corbusier’s plan for a hospital in Venice, in which there would be no windows, and all doors would open inwards, since this would further the utter tranquillity from which (according to the architect) convalescence springs. In fact, researchers need walls, privacy, solitude if they are ever to produce the ideas that they can then bounce off their colleagues, just as invalids need light, air, and a view of the life outside, if ever they are to get better.
Silber is convincing in his negative judgments of Gehry and Libeskind, and yet more so in his savage dismissal of Josep Lluís Sert, former dean of Harvard Design School, clone of Walter Gropius, and follower of Le Corbusier, who littered Boston and Cambridge with his grotesque and unfriendly monuments to himself, and who destroyed Boston University with the hideous tower of the law school. This led me to wonder why, in his function as president of BU, Silber had not had the tower demolished. Although the demolition of a modernist building is expensive, the loss is soon recuperated in the reduced maintenance costs of the traditional building erected to replace it. And, refreshing though Silber’s book is, far more refreshing, and far more necessary to the cultural climate of modern America, would be the sight of a modernist “masterpiece” being demolished with impunity. It is not as though President Silber was ever stopped from doing something by the knowledge that others would oppose him. Few people are currently likely to have the courage to do what the future of BU so obviously requires, which is to wipe all trace of Sert from its restricted campus, so as to house its law school in a building genuinely obedient to law.
The disasters that Silber records have come about partly because, as he points out, the disciplined education demanded of his father has been wilfully destroyed. Few schools of architecture now teach students to draw townscapes, façades, or the human figure; few teach students to compose using the classical Orders, or to draw such deeply meaningful and transient phenomena as the fall of light on a Corinthian capital—necessary skills which train the hand and the eye, and which teach architects to observe things more interesting than themselves. Engineering and isometric drawing have replaced all that, and the rest is hype—deconstructionist gobbledygook designed to sell whatever piece of space-sculpture you can come up with.
But what is the alternative? As Nathan Glazer argues in From a Cause to a Style, the constraints on modern architects make it all but impossible for them to behave as their predecessors did, veneering buildings with some eclectic reminiscence of the classical or Gothic styles, placing dressed stone over iron frames, and crowning the street façade with a Vignolesque cornice in tin. What was once a cheap solution to a shared public demand for ornament and order has become a forbidding expense. The old ways of building are no longer affordable, now that space is limited, skilled labor rare, and gargantuan engineering well understood and relatively inexpensive.
Glazer is a sociologist who has devoted considerable attention over the years to architecture and its social effects, and his book brings together well-crafted essays documenting his own steady disillusion with the modernist styles and archetypes. Like many a well-meaning socialist (as he then was), Glazer at first enthusiastically endorsed the post-war planning mentality that took root in Britain and which sought to sweep away the crowded and insalubrious slums, so as to gather up their populations into hygienic towers above open spaces filled with light and air. This recipe for improving the conditions of the urban working class was more influenced by Gropius and the Bauhaus than by Le Corbusier, but at the time all architects seemed to endorse it, and the fact that it coincided with the socialist program, according to which housing is really the responsibility of the state, meant that it had an insuperable advantage over the old recipe, which was in any case more a by-product of freedom than a conscious choice, according to which houses should lie side by side along a common street.
As Glazer notes, however, the real opposition to the modernist housing project has come not from critics but from the very people that the projects were designed to serve. To the surprise of our planners, people have resisted the attempt to demolish their streets and to sweep away the familiar and domesticated diseases that thrive in their cluttered backyards. They don’t like living in the air: nor do they like to stand at a window and stare at nothing. They want the life of the street; they want to feel life around them and at the same time to know that they can shut it out and let it in at will. They want neighbors beside them, not above them or below. And most of them want a home of their own, rather than property that belongs to the local Council and which they can never pass on to their children. The bauhausing of the working class was therefore rejected by the workers who, in this as in so many other ways, refused to do as the socialists told them until coerced by the State.
Glazer, like Silber, has a residual sympathy for modernism, though, again like Silber, he recognizes that architects have become, through the easy assumption of competence that modernism bestows upon them, individualistic, eccentric, and self-referential. Starchitects are no more agreeable to Glazer than they are to Silber, and he has wise things to say about the damage that architectural egoism does to the fabric of a city—and in particular to its public monuments, where what people want is not “me” but “us.” Despite sympathizing with the Prince of Wales’s comprehensive complaint against the last fifty years of urbanization, however, Glazer is reluctant to defend the kind of return to classical principles that has been advocated by Leon Krier, the Prince’s architect at Poundbury. He attempts to explain and understand the public disaffection with the modernist building types, which have too often been experienced as assaults on the city. The alternative, he tells us, is neither Levittown nor Poundbury but something that has yet to emerge, we know not how, from the growing public perception that all is not well with our cities, and that much that we have lost was better.
This is where Nikos Salingaros steps in. Architecture, Salingaros argues, is governed by universal and intuitively understood principles, which have been exemplified by all successful styles and in all civilizations that have left a record of themselves in their buildings. These principles are followed by life itself, and govern the process that unites part to part and part to whole in a complex organism. Because these principles correspond to life-processes in ourselves, we intuitively recognize their authority, are at home with buildings that obey them, and uncomfortable with buildings that do not. The forms, scales, materials, and undetailed surfaces of modern buildings deliberately flout these principles, and this is a sufficient explanation of the hostility that they arouse. The solution is not to return to the classical styles (though Salingaros does not have the puritanical aversion to this that is so common among architectural critics); the solution is to return to first principles and build within their constraints, as Gaudí did in Barcelona.
Salingaros is not the first to believe that architectural principles can be expressed with something approaching mathematical rigor. He explicitly acknowledges his debt to Christopher Alexander, the Austrian-born British architect and theorist, now a professor at Berkeley, who has over decades consistently advanced the following idea:
There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way. And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.
Alexander supports that far-reaching claim (made in The Timeless Way of Building) with a kind of generative grammar of architectural form. He lays down rules which, when followed by the architect, produce results that can be understood by the ordinary user of the building, who unconsciously recuperates the process whereby the building is composed.
Salingaros is a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He is also a concerned and public-spirited intellectual, who believes that the errors enshrined in the modernist vernacular pose a serious threat to the possibility of dwelling in our cities. The evidence lies all about us in the modern world (and not least in San Antonio) that cities, unless held together by their ancient fabric of streets and quarters like the cities of Italy and France, or compressed by the kind of centripetal excitement that forms the boiling nuclei of New York and San Francisco, are increasingly alien to those who inhabit them, who are now fleeing from them in droves. And yet cities are the nub of social and creative life, and if we flee from them it is into a sterile solitude of the kind that has been described by James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of No- where, 1993) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 2000). For Salingaros, therefore, no cause is more urgent than a return to the natural order of architecture, which will enable us once again to be at home in urban surroundings.
The secret of this natural order is contained in the concept of scale. Successful buildings are not given size and shape, as it were, in one gesture, as though poured into a mold—though that is what happens in the cast-concrete monsters that have flattened our cities. Successful buildings achieve their size and shape, Salingaros argues, by a hierarchy of scales, which enables us to read their larger dimensions as amplifications of the smaller. The architect ascends from the smallest scale to the largest through the repeated application of a “scaling rule,” which requires that the increase in scale from one level to the next in the hierarchy should be by a constant multiple. The choice of the constant is not arbitrary, since life itself seems to favor, in the fractal structures of snowflakes and crystals, in the exfoliation of leaves and cells, a figure in the neighborhood of three, and it is the “rule of a third” which, according to Salingaros, has been applied by master architects throughout history—for example in requiring windows to be a third of the width of the wall that they puncture. In the end, for reasons partly mathematical and partly intuitive, Salingaros opts for the mathematical constant e (approximately 2.7), as producing intelligible scalar ordering in a building, enabling the larger wholes to be understood as natural expressions of the order contained in the parts. Any number smaller than this will produce a cramped and cluttered surface, in which higher orders are not clearly differentiated from lower, and any number much larger will produce vast vacancies, such as we witness in the blank walls of glass that are the ever more familiar background to city life.
Salingaros develops this and related ideas in an intriguing manner, arguing that modernism went wrong from the start, with Adolf Loos’s famous dismissal of ornament—a dismissal which effectively left the lowest end of the scalar progression undefined, so that everything larger became free-floating and ungrounded. Likewise, the use of poured and molded materials that are without their own deeply embedded fractal structure is responsible for much of the lifeless quality of modern buildings, whose surfaces are without those textures that we recognize in flesh, rind, and cliff-face: textures that themselves yield to scalar analysis. Similarly, the narrow boundaries that frame modern buildings—the edges of steel girders, the abrupt stumps of pilotis, the alloy frames of windows that cannot be opened, and the invisible edges of revolving doors—all serve to render boundaries weak, machine-honed and inflexible, as well as costly to produce and usually manufactured off-site, without reference to local conditions and irregularities. (The “wide-boundary” idea is due to Alexander, whom Salingaros generously acknowledges throughout.)
Salingaros invokes cognitive science and evolutionary psychology with a view to showing that traditional ways of building conform to constraints laid down by our own cognitive powers. Architecture without meaningful detail or grainy textures estranges us because it frustrates the visual and cognitive capacities whereby we explore our surroundings. Like Christopher Alexander, however, Salingaros regards his theories as showing deep and perceivable analogies between architecture and life. Many of the ways in which architectural cells unfold into buildings imitate the ways in which plants and animals grow, and in attempting to give a comprehensive theory of this kind of unfolding Salingaros is repeating a theme broached in his writings by the Prince of Wales.
In a series of learned and moving critical essays (Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction), Salingaros and various close associates argue that we understand life in architecture as the background to human community—the preparation for our dwelling place. Salingaros associates the radical modernism of the starchitects less with egoism than with a nihilist desire to negate the togetherness of communities, and to infect our surroundings with objects that forbid us to take comfort. For him the problem is not the cult of genius, but rather the spirit of deconstruc- tion, which has spread through the intellectual world like a virus, undoing all the normal forms of thought. Architects like Gehry and Libeskind are not building for the city, but against it—and the same has been true of the starchitects since Piano and Rogers first struck the decisive blow against Paris with the Centre Pompidou. In a vivid essay on Libeskind, Salingaros goes further, diagnosing the entropic disorder of Libeskind’s designs as the “geometry of death.” They appear in our cities, when they appear, as a kind of curse, vampire-like structures that feed on the life of their surroundings.
It is impossible in short compass to summarize all the arguments that Salingaros adduces in his attempt to describe what went wrong and how it should be rectified. He is not always persuasive—there is an element of a priorism that is only half redeemed by his recognition that his theories must be established by our visual intuitions and not by mathematical proof. Nevertheless, no reader of A Theory of Architecture can fail to recognize the seriousness of tone, and the profundity of observation that went into the writing of this book, or to appreciate the many insights, both into the beauty of the old vernacular styles, and into the empty offensiveness of the modern. It is indicative of the desperate state of architectural education that this book and its companion essays are obtainable only thanks to an obscure German publisher (distributed by ISI), while the rubbishy writings of Le Corbusier and Sigfried Giedion are published by standard university presses and prescribed on just about every course in every school of architecture. One day, perhaps, Salingaros will be required reading for architects. If that happens it could just be that a new orthodoxy will emerge, in which humility, order, and public spirit—the virtues which have been chased from the discipline by the starchitects—will be the norm. And maybe, when that happens, it will not need a John Silber to order the demolition of every building by Sert.
- Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art, by John Silber; 128 pages, Quantuck Lane, $27.50. Go back to the text.
- From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, by Nathan Glazer; 310 pages, Princeton University Press, $24.95. Go back to the text.
- A Theory of Architecture, by Nikos Salingaros; 278 pages, ISI Books, $31. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 6, on page 4
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