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« A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Four | Main | Packing and moving »

May 07, 2003

A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Five

2Blowhards is taking a break from the usual to devote a week to a conversation with the architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. This is Part Five, and the last installment in the series. Part One is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Part Four is here. Many thanks to Prof. Salingaros.



2B: What makes you sure you're right and the orthodox architectural establishment is wrong?
I'm trained as a scientist. Incidentally, so is Christopher Alexander. And scientists are trained to discover facts about the universe. When we think we have discovered something and it is tested by scientific methods, as opposed to political methods, then we are absolutely secure in our convictions. We are aware of entire fields of civilization based on myths and superstitution. So we are ready to defend a scientifically-derived idea against millions of people, and certainly against other so-called established disciplines, because we know that ideas are selected, like in a Darwinian process. The scientific arena is a fierce and highly competitive arena in which ideas are selected by means of verification and reproduceability of results. All the scientists attack the ideas, but those that survive, that means they are verified by the scientific method.
The method of selection of ideas in the architectural world is chiefly authority. Architects and architectural students believe something because it is given by a figure of authority. Scientists, on the other hand, believe something because it has been attacked by other scientists and it has survived. It has survived because you can do an experiment and test it, or because 60 other people have done the calculations and said, Yes, this is correct. That's totally different. After it has passed this process it goes into the textbooks and it becomes authority.

2B: You, Leon Krier and Christopher Alexander could be seen as thinking that you know better than people do themselves how they prefer to live. Who's to say they don't like living the way they're living right now?
It's true that Alexander, Krier, myself and our friends, who are a considerable number, we believe very strongly that we know what most people would prefer if those people were not brainwashed. Now, many people around the world have been brainwashed by these images and by their education. For the last 60 years or so our schools have been saying that modernist architecture is the future, and they have been propagating the propaganda of the modernists, linking modernist architecture with progress, with hygiene --

2B: With beauty and glamor.
Sure. And with personal economic success, rational thinking -- also mathematically pure forms. All this is very positive stuff. They have made a very strong political linking between their kind of architecture and freedom, with emancipation from the tyranny of previous years. Of course, all this is phony. All these are lies. But they have made their way into our culture. We, on the other hand, claim to know what most people are like because of the inherited biological structure of human beings.
Now, many of these human beings have swallowed this propaganda. They have been conditioned psychologically. So if you ask somebody on the street, there is a probability they will say "I like this stuff! I like the tall buildings made of crystal cubes!" We don't expect that everybody will have the same likes and dislikes. However, we are convinced enough of the biological basis for structure that we expect that when the media stop this indoctrination people can once again find what they really like, and they will agree more with us. And we believe they will connect better with the earth, and with nature.

2B: What kind of new architectural work strikes you as promising? The New Urbanism, for instance?

2B: Alexander apparently sees himself as being on their side but has some quarrels with their approach.
Well, Christopher is a perfectionist. I am glad to be part of the New Urbanism, and I'm proud of what they're doing. It's not perfect. But I prefer to see the glass half full rather than half-empty.

Courtyard of the Rue de Laeken in Brussels, by various architects; Carriage House by Duncan McRoberts; Florida House by Eric Watson.
(These photos and many more can be seen at A Vision of Europe, here.)

2B: You're thinking mainly about buildings, but your lines of thought strike me as full of potential for thinking about the other arts as well.
It's going to be a chain reaction. But I try to ignore that.

2B: I'm surprised more people in the other arts haven't grabbed hold of this already.
Not that many are aware of it yet. But it's a big thing, it's going to occur, and it's going to be a chain reaction. But one cannot even predict when the first phase in the revolution in architecture and urbanism will be finished. And urbanism is occurring before architecture. That was unexpected. But the next stages of the revolution, which will be in the visual arts, music, literature? That's impossible to predict.

2B: Is there any reason to think that these general principles don't apply in all the arts?
They do apply in all the arts. So I'm confident of the revolution spreading. But there will be many battles to fight. Other people will have to fight them, though.

2B: You've compared the ideology of modernism to a virus. While we could say that a virus is, from our point of view, a bad thing, couldn't we also say that from a Darwinian point of view the virus is brilliant?
You cannot discuss architecture with me without coming back to value. Scientists like to put value on things. We spend all our time verifying things. Only when you go out to the wilder ranges of cosmology, for example, where there is no way to verify things, can you maintain parallel theories. But anything you can get your hands on here you want to verify. So the idea of right and wrong is a central pinnacle of the scientific method. Also within science there is the question of moral and ethical values, with just a slight stretching of the term. Because we know what is good and what is bad as far as promoting human health, the health of human beings, of society, of ecosystems. And we classify what destroys that as harmful. So in that sense a virus is harmful. At the same time we recognize that it's highly successful in its biological nature

2B: What has getting involved with Alexander and these ideas been like for you?
I see things with a new depth now. I see people and relations and cities and social structures -- even my wife and children -- in a richer fashion. I see antique artifacts with a new appreciation. It has been a tremendously enriching experience.

2B: What would you like to get other people to see? What is it most people aren't getting?
They're not seeing the beauty of the universe. We have to switch to religious terms now. The universe has a certain beauty, and we are creations of the universe. If you're a religious person you'd say we're God's creations. There is a profound beauty that links us to the universe. And most people are not getting it because they have been cut off by these silly ideas and silly images. They're missing all this fantastic stuff.

2B: And you think your work can help?
I know that with my work I've helped many people. Even if it is just to let them know that Christopher's books exist. That's a tremendous achievement just by itself.

Paris block by J.J. Ory; Social housing in Gassin, France, by Francois Spoerry; Luxembourg townhouse by Mulhern & Steil

2B: There's a mystical or religious side to a lot of this. Doesn't that make you and Alexander vulnerable?
It doesn't make me vulnerable. It makes Christopher vulnerable.

2B: In what way?
Volume four of "The Nature of Order" is a profound philosophical/religious work. Alexander started 30 years ago as a hard-nosed scientist who was not particularly religious to write this thing. And he kept coming up against the same brick wall. And to get across the brick wall, he found he had to swallow something, like bitter medicine.

2B: Which was what?
It was to accept that some parts of philosophy and religion have something to offer. And of course his curiosity took him across the barrier. So he wrote Volume Four.

2B: When I got a look at "The Nature of Order" (here) what I was reminded of was Augustine's "City of God." And Christopher Alexander's own buildings have a meditative gravity about them. (A page of photos of them can be seen here.)
Exactly. And this is profound, because it was unexpected to Christopher, and he had a Herculean struggle with it -- with himself and with it, and with the concepts. Finally he gave in and then it just flowed. And he himself accepted it. I predict that when Volume Four appears Christopher will be awarded the Templeton Prize for connecting religion with humanity. And he will probably be completely shocked by it! But I cannot think of anyone who deserves the prize more, other than the previous winner, the physicist Freeman Dyson, who wrote a beautiful book, "Infinite in All Directions" (here).

Christopher Alexander's Julian Street homeless shelter

2B: When "The Nature of Order" starts coming out, bullets are going to fly. How will Alexander take it?
He's a very brave individual. He's not afraid of going first into battle. It's one thing I like about him -- he'll take it. I'll get shot at too.

2B: You aren't shy in your own writing about religious matters.
I'm a moderately religious person, initially more than Christopher. But I never made the connection. Being with Christopher it struck me that this is really profound, and that the time has come after several centuries to accept what historical religion has to offer, being extremely careful with all the detritus and negativity that has gone on through the centuries. Some religions at some point have attacked science. But we have to go beyond that because some truths that religion has to offer are inevitable. And they have come from Christopher's understanding of science. If you get something coming out of science and it points toward religion, I'm buying that one hundred percent.

2B: Modernism, as many have argued, presented itself and came to be accepted by many people as a kind of religion -- a replacement for the old religions that so many people had cast aside. You guys have developed a different way of looking at the arts, yet it still has a religious component. But the religion seems to me a kind of glow on the outskirts, rather than a fanaticism at the core.
Well, the fanaticism is unhealthy. But I just received fan mail from a Catholic bishop who said he enjoyed my latest article. I was absolutely thrilled.

2B: The University of Notre Dame, which to my knowledge is the only university in this country that gives its architecture students a classical architectural education, is finding jobs for them building new churches, and renovating older ones.
That was the article that the Catholic bishop noticed. I said that the modernists are incapable of designing a church that has a religious spirit in it because all their ideas are anti-religious. It's even worse now, because the prominent decon architects are being asked to design churches, and they're absolutely atrocious. But they have managed to sell the goods to the established churches, and the churches are paying millions of their parishioners' money to build these monstrosities.

2B: They're brilliant p-r people, and brilliant advertisers.
I take my hat off. It is the p-r success of the century.



* 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 7, 2003


OK, I think the first question gets to the real meat here. Salingaros says that he's "scientific", and that "The scientific arena is a fierce and highly competitive arena in which ideas are selected by means of verification". I prefer the Popperian notion of ideas being selected by means of falsification: that an idea isn't scientific unless it can be falsified. Hypothetically speaking, what evidence could persuade Salingaros that his ideas are wrong?

It seems to me that the general process here is that Salingaros proclaims that "good buildings have property X", which he "proves" by looking at lots of good buildings and determining that they have property X. (He also looks at buildings he considers bad, and shows that they don't have property X.) If you show him a building without property X, he simply denies that it's a good building, and therefore manages to keep ahold of his theory. In what way is this scientific?

Posted by: Felix on May 7, 2003 03:48 PM

Absolutely fascinating interview. I don't know what to make of it exactly, but his comments and insights resonate with me on a visceral level, and it is something I want to explore more deeply.

Posted by: Bill on May 7, 2003 04:01 PM

I would like to know if anyone has taken a look at Alex Marshall's "How Cities Work"?
This work originated as an attack on New Urbanism appearance-oriented ideology and it failings to address the more real-world "systems" of cities. I've been to Seaside. It really is a pretty as a postcard. But beyond that, it doesn't address the real, and most of the time, unpleasant issues like varied transportation, commerce, & political systems - and how they drive the physical appearance of place.
- worth a look and read.

Posted by: Chris Derrington on May 7, 2003 04:50 PM

I guess i've missed the whole thing, but I want to comment anyway.

I am a little skeptical about the whole scientific thing - I'm maybe not familiar enough with the recent work of Alexander, but I've only come across one book that provides a systematic mathematical explination of how architecture and cities work.

Space is the Machine

In this book, mr. Hiller uses math and geometry to show how cities work, what makes a good city square, what is wrong with modern urban planning, predicts what the worst housing projects in london would be based on their plan geometry, predicting crime in a neighborhood, etc. In the coup de grace, he makes a line drawing of the streets of london and uses his model to predict every main shopping street using only geometry.

Some of this sounds close to what is going on with Alexander and Salingaros, but the difference is because he is not coming from an outsider position trying to attack some kind of establishment, he does not have the same axes to grind. There is little to no mention of style in this book and the ideas would work no matter what your personal aesthetic predilection is.

On a different tack, you can tell that Salingaros is a european at heart, and I believe that he really doesn't like new urbanism as much as it would seem at first glance. Remember, new urbanism is an American phenomenon with a lot of roots in more traditional American town planning. New urbanism uses detatched houses, village green, street grids, etc, and one of the most important tasks is transportation and how to incorporate the car.

"Because the automobile city has spawned this very unpleasant typology of suburbia. That is also encapsulated as part of the post-war reconstruction. In the densely built inner cities destroy the actual downtown and put a giant skyscraper there, and everyone moves to the suburbs where we build a new type of city where everyone has a private villa on vast acres of manicured lawn. Everyone pretends to be French or English aristocrats. The problem of course is that it doesn't work."

Like I said, a very European attitude. Suburbia as we know it is an American phenomenon and living in a detatched house is not new here. The best "new urbanists" realize that, at least in america, people want their cars and their detatched house and attempt to create urban forms that respect this. My favorite new urbanist book is The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe. He has a theoretical discussion about what new urbanism means, provides a huge series of design guidelines and then shows page after page of his work. The first thing you notice is that in many of his plans there are skyscrapers, strip malls, freeways, detatched houses etc, but configured in such a way that they become a part of an urban system as opposed to an island. This is very different than saying every new neighborhood must be Amsterdam.

Here is my theory about urban planning in america:

Ideas which seek to make all cities European cities are more appropriate in Europe. Most American cities are newly built with very little of a thick layer of history and thus a more tabula rasa approach seems almost appropriate in this context. I believe American cities serve a different purpose from European ones in that native forms of American urbanism are based on maximizing economic output as opposed to some high minded aesthetic value of city as a repository of memory or something like that. In order to create appropriate urban forms for this country, this idea must be kept in mind. One of the main problems with the use of the historic European city as a model for contemporary urbanism is creating spaces for the car. Many urban theorists and consider the car an evil enemy, but if one looks at their own life, the car is not that. We need to look at contemporary car centered urban areas/landscapes and find out what works. There is a logic to these places and studying them and incorporating them in new ideas for urban forms is an important task.

I have a problem with his ideas on architectural education.

"You could restructure architectural education starting tomorrow so that students in the first year start to learn Christopher's Pattern Language (here) Leon Krier's Architecture: Choice or Fate (here), and five or six other excellent books that tell you how to do things. And that will parallel a scientific education in which you're taught how things are and how things work."

In what way would this parellel a schientific education? Isn't this replacing an old dogma (which actually barely exists any more) with a new one? In my whole experience with architectural education, i've been forced to read Alexander, but i've never been forced to read Space,Time, Architecture, Towards A New Architecture, or actually any of the canonical modernist texts on design.

There is a big problem in general with architectural education and architecture in general that replacing the main theoretical books will not change. Teaching architectural design in a school setting is actually nearly impossible because the end product in a studio is very different than the end product in an office, and thus makes it impossible to evaluate in any meaningful way. Looking at older posts on this blog, you can see the difference between the pretty computer generated pictures and the end results for many architects. This is ten times worse at a school because students don't have any experience translating drawing into building.

The problem in practice is how do you actually measure the goodness/badness of a building? We all know how Salingaros would do it, but he is biased in one direction. It is easy to identify the very worst, but what do you do with the average building? If you build expediently within the context of the zoning ordinance, how do you evaluate that? If you design a horrible developer building surrounded by a sea of parking, do you blame the arcitect? the developer? the city? the firm that wrote the zoning ordinance? le corbusier? henry ford? Where does it end. This is a bigger problem than the supposed academic cult of modernism and will not be cured by forcing every student to study Leon Krier.

Sorry for the lengthy schpeel, and I'm not sure if this is all related. Thanks for the great forum and I'm sorry I had to miss it. It is so rare that there is any intellegent discussion of architecture on any board on the internet. It usually breaks down to "have you heard of this building/ I like this building / I don't like this one / you suck". Keep up the good work.

Posted by: tom on May 10, 2003 12:24 PM

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