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« A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Three | Main | A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Five »

May 06, 2003

A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Four

2Blowhards is taking a break from the usual to devote a week to a conversation with the architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. This is Part Four of Five. Part One is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here.



2B: I take it that as a scientist you've been helping Christopher Alexander make sure that his science is good. What's your own proudest contribution to this kind of approach?
Wait a minute. Alexander doesn't need my checking. Alexander is a scientist. My role is not to check his science. My role is to be a friend, and to edit the text and to bounce ideas off of. I will describe the role for posterity. (Laughs.) For the last 20 years, I've been working with Christopher Alexander on The Nature of Order (here). I realized early on that his book is going to be as important as "The Origin of Species" and the "Principia." I didn't want to mix myself up in it -- this is Christopher's baby. But I will help him with editing. So I would visit with him in Berkeley or England, or he would send me the manuscript. And I would go through it and edit it, and cut out redundancies, or suggest rewriting to get the thought across. Strictly editing. The next time I would get it back and it would be double the size! However, I would compare and I would feel that he had in fact followed my suggestions for deletions, but had also written brilliant new material. I kept pruning it in order to encourage him to develop his ideas, and we would have conversations about how to present his point of view in the best possible way.

2B: That must have been great fun.
Great fun. So Alexander did not need my checking in the science, he's every bit as good a scientist as I am. Now, for these 20 years I have been having my own ideas and jotting them down on yellow notepads. And when the dam overflowed I thought, Well, it's time to publish all this stuff -- ideas that I have gotten from my collaboration with Alexander that are different, because I'm a different person and think in a different way. I think it will be very complementary to Alexander and will certainly help. I'm saying different things in a different way but supporting exactly the same goal.

2B: I was most struck in your work by the way you'd worked out the question of scaling and hierarchy.
The number should not be taken as too exact. The important thing is the existence of hierarchy, not the number. Hierarchy is such a key feature in nature and the universe. It's so important, and it's another thing the modernists erased, both on the architectural scale and on the urban scale. And that has done much damage everywhere.

Luxembourg's Heritage District shows hierarchies of scale; the new Arts Museum lacks them
(Photo by Lucien Steil for Katarxis, here)

2B: What do you suppose their objection to hierarchies is?
I have no idea. The word "hierarchy" is misused all over the place. It's used in a totally false way to say that there is a power structure, and the hierarchy on top controls the one on the bottom. Whereas a mathematical hierarchy is just the existence of different things on different levels of scale. You have something on the big scale, something on the intermediate scale, something on the small scale, something on an even smaller scale. All the way up, all the way down. That's what "hierarchy" means. There's no power. That's a total misinterpretation.

2B: That's hilarious.
It's the same misuse of words. The decons take the word "fractal" and use it all over the place. They use it to mean "broken," but "fractal" does not mean "broken."

2B: What are your hopes for the web-'d universe?
Well, let me answer your previous question now. My proudest achievement is putting both Christopher Alexander and Leon Krier on the web. I did it first. I put a web page up on Alexander (here), linking to the existing material from the computer-science community. And I kept saying, "Christopher, I've just done this and already I have 3000 hits a month. People are starving for information. You need to have your computer-science people help you to put up a web page." After a few years he did. He put up his, which is enormously successful. He has me to thank for suggesting that. After I met Leon Krier (here) many years later, I realized this was a brilliant classical architect, very different from Christopher. Christopher is a universal scientist who presents universal rules that encompass all of architecture.

Leon Krier: His fantasy city of Atlantis; his real town of Poundbury; his Windsor chapel

2B: Krier seems like much more of an aesthete and a poet.
Krier presents correct rules for a human architecture within the Western classical context. It's very restricted but the results are fantastic. And the intent is the same -- it's a slice of the whole pie. But I have tremendous respect for Krier, who has been beaten up by all the architectural establishment for the last 30 years.

2B: He's regarded by a lot of them as a fascist.
Any way to discredit his vision of a humane European city.

2B: But on the web, the old bottlenecks vanish. People can get to the information they want and need.
Right. Now somebody can go and connect with Alexander through the web -- directly through his own Web site, which has two parts, a free part and a subscription part. You can find it, and you can find out who he is and what he has to offer, which was not possible before unless you came across a copy of "A Pattern Language." This is tremendously important to people in South America, for example, who keep writing to me. A copy of "A Pattern Language" in South America costs the equivalent of two months' salary. There's a Spanish translation, but it has long disappeared. But anybody in a small town in South America can now log on and read Alexander's work.

2B: Are you in fact hearing from South America much?
Yeah, they keep translating my articles.

2B: What kinds of response do you get from architects?
I have correspondence from all over the world with people who agree with me. Architects tell me how much they've enjoyed my papers, that they're using my papers to design buildings, how liberating this is, and how they're grateful to our group for offering a human architecture. Many people tell me they have been sort of in the closet, they have been terrified of actually doing the things we suggest. And they say, "In reading your papers there is support for what we want to do, and thanks to this support we are doing it now."

2B: I have the impression of an architectural underground, people who are frightened but who feel and think these things anyway.
I get emails from people all over the world who feel this is liberation. I don't want to overemphasize my role. But people who stumble into my writings, because they're all on the web (here), then they find Christopher and Leon Krier, and the rest of the loose group. It's like falling into a swimming pool full of honey, a tremendous discovery for them. All my friends in this group, we all have things to offer, all slightly different, even though we're all marginalized and excluded from the architectural establishment. So once somebody stumbles into this, there's a whole new world that opens up.

2B: What are your own publishing plans?
I'm slowly moving from publishing short articles in serious architecture and design journals to publishing more polemical articles online. It seems the stakes are being raised.

2B: What kind of impact do you find you're having?
Well, Leon Krier ten years ago published a beautiful book of all his projects till then (out of print, but sometimes available here). It made, unfortunately, not the slightest impact on the architectural establishment. What has changed since can be measured by what is actually happening to me. For example, I was asked to give the keynote speech at the Conference for European City Planners. I accepted because I was replacing Rem Koolhaas. I was asked to be a guest on NPR to discuss preserving modernist architecture. I argued against the establishment policy. (Laughs.) I argued that one has to do this on a case-by-case basis. I was also asked to be a speaker at the Congress for the New Urbanism (here), which I couldn't do because I was in Europe. Still, these invitations are my measure of success. But it's not coming from architects. It's coming more from urbanists, and it's coming more from Europe.

bordeaux koolhaas.jpg new urb01.jpg
Housing a la Koolhaas; housing a la New Urbanism

2B: So, European urbanists, and in the U.S., the New Urbanist movement.
Urbanists in Europe are in general very receptive to this, but so far nothing from the architecture world. It's been individual architects and especially architectural students who are responding. In the United States, the New Urbanist movement seems to think very highly of me.

2B: It's great to hear that more people are opening up as time goes by.
The Congress for the New Urbanism itself (here) did not exist a few years ago, so this is a completely new development. As far as European urban planning goes, some European cities have realized that they have destroyed themselves by applying the old postwar planning model. Many cities now realize they have to apply a new model. A stew is brewing there, and there is movement, and an openness to new ideas. I find that I am co-existing at the cutting edge -- and this is very curious -- with people like Rem Koolhaas, who I don't agree with on many things, and other people who are considered brilliant visionaries who are proposing the Network City, how to build a city for the new millennium without destroying what's wonderful about the old city. The only common dimension is, Just get rid of these modernist monstrosities that were built after the Second World War. There's this curious co-existence that is being more and more accepted. So far the city planners and decision makers in Europe have not found out how to distinguish between me and my friends and those people who are saying wild and crazy things.

2B: You're all visionaries in their eyes.
But it's a step forward. It's a realization that the monolithic bloc of postwar modernism has failed and has destroyed much of Europe.



* Nikos Salingaros' website is here.
* Christopher Alexander's "Pattern Language" website is here.
* Alexander's book "A Pattern Language" is here; his "The Timeless Way of Building" is here.
* Alexander's "The Nature of Order," vol. 1, will go on sale shortly here and here.
* Leon Krier's "Architecture: Choice or Fate" can be bought here. You can read a review of the book here. Nikos Salingaros interviews Leon Krier here.
* Lucien Steil's webzine Katarxis is here.
* The Congress for the New Urbanism is here.
* Richard Gabriel's "Patterns of Software" is here.
* Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House" is here.
* Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities" is here.
* Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck's introduction to the New Urbanism, "Suburban Nation," is here.
* Philip Langdon's intro to the New Urbanism, "A Better Place to Live," is here.
* Langdon and Duany collaborated on this discussion for The American Enterprise here.
* You can sample the work of the busy New Urbanist firm Merrill and Pastor here.

posted by Michael at May 6, 2003


Has Professor Salingaros ever noticed the similarities between the ideas of Christopher Alexander and John Ruskin? I'm going through Ruskin's "Seven Lamps of Architecture" and I would point to at least four such similarities: (1) Ruskin's insistence that architecture and architectural ornament ultimately should derive from organic or at least natural forms, and that beauty is a function of the representation of natural/organic forms (2) Ruskin's discussion of proportion, which touches on the notion of hierarchy, (3)Ruskin's argument for craft (hand) building technologies and suspicion of industrial building materials and (4) Ruskin's insistence on a "religious" context linking architecture to human life. While I'm not familiar enough with the writings of either man to tell how close the overall fit of their ideas are with one another, this degree of overlap struck me as at least rather interesting.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 6, 2003 11:11 AM

In Part 1 the professor said that the architectural establishment awards the prizes, and then the recipients of the prizes get the plum assignments, which perpetuates his disliked notions of architecture. How does Leon Krier get his big jobs then, if he's been so beaten up by the architectural establishment? It looks like he's gotten some nice assignments.

Posted by: annette on May 6, 2003 12:47 PM

Hey Annette -- Sad, but until recently Krier had made almost nothing. Lots of proposals, lots of plans, lots of consulting and designing and writing. He became the intellectual godfather (or one of them) of the New Urbanism, and became pretty widely known, in a fringe kind of way, as a theorist, dreamer and polemicist. But almost none of his proposals actually got built until very recently. (I have no idea how he got by financially during all those years.) If I recall right, a house or two in New Urbanist towns, and this (very small) chapel in Windsor. Not much else. He was then put in charge of masterplanning -- laying down general rules for -- this town of Poundbury by Prince Charles, whose land it's on. The project was mocked mercilessly in the British press and by mainstream architects as Disneyish, retrograde, reactionary, etc. But then, when houses started going on sale and people started moving in, it turned out to be quite a popular success, and visitors came back talking about what a pleasant place it was turning out to be. The press has been somewhat kinder on him since. But he's still a lightning rod for criticism, and still gets very few commissions.

On the other hand, New Urbanist towns and neighborhoods have turned out to be quite a roaring little success story in this country. There are a couple of hundred of them underway. It's a genuine up-from-underneath phenomenon, too -- the architectural mainstream is still having a hard time accomodating it, even while developers, fringey and traditional architects, local builders, and people who want to live in traditional-esque houses and neighborhoods are driving it forward. The big practical challenge is wrestling local governments into letting these neighborhoods be built -- getting them to allow variances, to loosen up zoning laws and relax regulations. (Bizarrely, most places have codes in place that prevent traditional neighborhoods from being built.) But when they do manage to get built, they generally sell out quickly and even command a premium -- people are willing to pay something extra in order to live this way.

You'd think the architecture mainstream would say, hey, they're onto something here! But they don't. My own druthers would be to see the architecture mainstream accept all this Alexander/Krier/Salingaros/New-Urb stuff as a legitimate part of "architecture" -- I find it bizarre that they don't: it's happening, people like it, there's a market, it's got quite an enjoyable and impressive intellectual pedigree. I mean, what's not to respect about it? And what's not to find interesting? (Plus, hey, it's a great business opportunity.) What would follow, I think, would be the good discussions: What makes for a good traditional neighborhood? What makes for a bad one? What is this developer bringing? What does this particular block offer? Which variation on (say) Arts and Crafts works, and which one doesn't? Which parks work? Which downtowns work? Why? What's to be learned and improved? How best to deal with a hilly site, or where best to locate schools? All good conversations that would actually serve the cause of people and how many of them seem to prefer to live. Instead, the architecture mainstream resists and jeers, and the conversation turns 'round and 'round on the question of whether or not this deserves to be recognized as architecture at all. Boring.

But it's also a sign of how bizarre the accepted and established architecture thing has become. You can read pages and pages in magazines and books of criticism and theory and never encounter discussion one about whether or not people -- users, dwellers, passersby, workers -- actually like these modernist/po-mo/decon buildings and neighborhoods. Do they use them? Are they comfortable? Does this plaza work or not? No such thing. It's all theory, zeitgeist, art-appreciation, personalities ... It's as though the automobile industry were only concerned with style, and the people discussing and reviewing automobiles only discussed them in terms of style -- with no attention whatsoever given to comfort and pleasure, or to users' likes, dislikes, and preferences.

It's bizarre that a user-centric approach to buildings and neighborhoods -- which is essentially what the bunch Salingaros is part of and represents -- is considered to be radical, nutty, fringe-y, and reactionary, isn't it? The more I looked into the contempo architecture world (especially the more star-oriented and "artist"-oriented part of it), the more I found it loonily self-absorbed in issues that matter not a bit to the people who are actually stuck working in and living around what they create.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 6, 2003 02:57 PM

I'm sorry to hear about Krier---I like his stuff, based on the pictures. I can understand why people would pay for it. I guess here's one thing the world owes to Prince Charles---who, as I recall, has also been made fun of by the press for his interest in architecture.

The fact that "legit" architecture doesn't ask and answer all those questions you listed---and won't even consider alternatives,apparently--really undermines it as a serious discipline, doesn't it? Very odd. I guess I appreciate more what the Professor was saying about people in high places within the field wanting power. And they certainly do not seem to be wielding it benignly. It really does make you wonder about the agenda. Almost as if the people in legit architecture are so dysfunctional they really can't participate in life the way many lead it, and this is their way of taking revenge on the world that won't accept them socially--to pretend that comfortable architecture is too bourgeious (sp?). Is that too melodramatic? Maybe it is. But I have tended to conclude that there is always a hidden agenda (and usually not a healthy one) when the obvious,simple thing doesn't happen.

Posted by: annette on May 6, 2003 06:46 PM

This is very fascinating, but it's still _theoretical_. Salingaros rightly pillories Corbusier and his ilk for making broad theoretical assertions (and acting on them!) without ever empirically verifying them. But I would like to see some real-world examples of how Mr. Alexander's theories work: why some well-known modern buildings are right (and wrong). Preferably some in Chicago that I could go look at. I do look forward to part 5.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 6, 2003 08:31 PM

The commenter who wondered how Krier ever got a commission should understand that "architecture" is several worlds. In one world, the professors and critics spew archibabble and give awards for weird things that get built by governments, colleges, museums, and infatuated rich people. In another world, homebuilder Jack Pulte has built _hundreds of thousands_ of homes, all designed by his company's architects and none of them "post-modern". In yet another world, megacorporations hire architects to build immense luxury hotels and apartment towers and office buildings. In still other worlds, architects are building strip malls and warehouses and industrial parks and bank branches and motels.

The modernist cult architects control only the first world, which has the most prestige, though only a tiny fraction of the work. Their influence on the other worlds is constrained by the refusal of the unwashed public to buy their stuff.

There are other influences at work. Cities were redesigned for the automobile not to please Corbusier, but to accomodate millions of car owners.
The trend to architectural flash is less the result of bad theory than of not thinking - the same way people take to gorging on candy and french fries.

To continue the food analogy... On the one hand, a school of nutritional theorists who think we should be living on tree bark and raw squid seasoned with gravel and rose petals, because that's what their philosphy of eating dictates. On the other hand, McDonalds.

Though to be fair, McDonalds has a much better idea of the effects of its food than commercial architects have of the subtler effects of their work. If that work was food, it would be reasonably tasty and filling (unlike the bizarre messes served up by the academics), but it would have vitamin deficiencies and traces of toxins.

What I hope Alexander will do, and Salingaros seems to think he will, is put aesthetic design on as rigorous a basis as nutrition.

Krier's difficulty was that he fell outside of both schools. He was a theorist arguing against the ideas of the academic architects and also against the practices of commercial architects and builders. And he couldn't prove his ideas would work, as Alexander intends to. So he had to wait until he persuaded some important patron, and he eventually won over Prince Charles.

Alexander will face similar battles, but if his theories are strong enough, he should win, and in much less than thirty years.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 6, 2003 09:39 PM

The comments on this part tie in nicely with a series of thoughts I was prompted to share, but hadn't gotten around to, when Nikos mentioned sky scrapers earlier in the series.

For quite some time, I've been interested in arcologies, as a stepping stone in learning about self-contained, large living environments on the way to long distance space craft. Typical arcology designs in fiction and otherwise, seem to always tend towards the disconnected monads of a sky scraper type design, except writ large in 3D.

Various advances in materials recycling (down to the sewage waste) and related disciplines make a more self-contained arcology design possible (where energy and communications are the raw materials who's flow is still most concentrated by the archology), but I'd be interested in anyone's thoughts in light of Salingaros and Alexanders work on how to make such a large structure more psychologically nurturing to it's inhabitants.

For those here who might not be familiar with the idea, an arcology is a large, generally million person plus, self-contained building (think the giant pyramid type buildings from the movie Blade Runner for the most widely known example of the form).



Posted by: David Mercer on May 7, 2003 12:08 AM

Where, or more importantly, How do people who appreciate these ideas of human-scaled/human-centered environments help bring more of it into our community? What different things can we as individuals, and like-mided groups, do?
I'm trying to add what I can to my small world of influence, but sometimes I feel over-whelmed, since the ideas, science, and understanding are still in the process of being developed and presented. It's hard to make a logical arguement for the importance of life/beauty/order in structures, our overall environment, and it's generative processes when you only have a glimpse of the bigger, developing picture. I apologize if I sound overly frustrated, but I know it's a feeling shared by many others out there.
Thank you very much to the Mr. Blowhards, for this forum and everyone's lively dialogue.

Posted by: Chris Derrington on May 7, 2003 02:33 PM

Thanks to everyone for comments, questions, etc here. We'll bring them along with us when we do our followup q&a with Prof. Salingaros. Stay tuned.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 7, 2003 03:56 PM

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