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« What's Appropriate? | Main | Elsewhere »

April 28, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 8

This is the final section of a new Nikos Salingaros essay. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, and part seven here.

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

8. Conclusion: the necessity for theory.

In this essay I pointed out which contemporary authors have in my opinion actually contributed to creating a theoretical foundation for architecture. I also argued that what is currently accepted by many architects as architectural theory is not theory at all, but rather a clever means to propagate a particular design style. Outsiders (which includes most people) naively assume that contemporary architecture possesses a theoretical basis, like for example chemistry and neuroscience, which explains why buildings ought to look the way they do. However, a mass of writings mislabeled as architectural theory only helps to generate and support certain images; those images are then copied, and used as templates for buildings in an alien style. That is not a theoretical foundation. Those writings fail to satisfy any of the accepted criteria for a theory in any field.

Every discipline has a store of knowledge accumulated over time, which explains a huge range of phenomena. (Architecture has been collecting information for millennia). Some of this knowledge is codified into a compact theoretical framework; other parts are strictly phenomenological but tested by observation and experiment. Facts and ideas combine in a particular manner, common to all proper disciplines. The crucial characteristic of a valid theoretical framework is a transparent internal complexity coupled with external connectivity. This arises from the way explanatory networks develop in time:

  • More recent knowledge about a topic builds upon existing knowledge.
  • Older knowledge is replaced only by a better explanation of the same phenomenon, never because a fashion has changed -- this process creates multiple, connected layers of knowledge.
  • A theory in one discipline must transition sensibly to other disciplines.

This means that there ought to be some interface where one discipline merges into another, all the way around its periphery. Any theory that isolates itself because it is incomprehensible to others is automatically suspect. A tightly-knit internal connectivity, along with a looser external connectivity, provides the foundations for a mechanism of self-correction and maintenance. This holds true for any complex system.

Architecture as a profession has repeatedly disconnected itself both from its knowledge base, and from other disciplines in an effort to remain eternally "contemporary" (the much-publicized recent connections to philosophy, linguistics, and science notwithstanding, since they are now exposed as deceptions). This is, of course, the defining characteristic of a fashion; the opposite of a proper discipline. Again and again, architecture has ignored derived knowledge about buildings and cities, and has embraced nonsensical slogans and influences. Those who profit from the instability and superficiality of the fashion industry are deathly afraid of facing genuine knowledge about the world. It would put them out of business.

Architects and critics periodically change the reigning fashion so as to keep the market stimulated. They have to devote an enormous amount of resources to promoting whatever ephemeral style is in vogue. In order to sell their fashion, they are obliged to suppress any application of accumulated architectural knowledge. This prevents a theoretical basis from ever developing. Ever-changing fashion is parasitic on timeless processes.

Critics dismiss neo-traditional buildings as facile copies of classical prototypes, even though those need not resemble anything built in the previous two millennia. The architectural media declare that "a classical column represents tyranny," and that by confessing to an attraction to classical architecture, we somehow support totalitarianism. At the same time, a liking for non-classical vernacular architecture of any kind is ridiculed. In this instance, we are branded as being ignorant and "sentimental" (which, in contemporary architectural values, is an unforgivable offense). Novel buildings with human qualities, which nevertheless have nothing to do with the classical typology, are also forbidden.

People are now misled to believe that the "architecture of the future" is necessarily broken and twisted, and made out of glass and polished metal. Any doubt is dispelled by awarding their architects the most prestigious prizes. Some of those who participate in disseminating this style act from an almost religious conviction. They fervently believe that they are doing civilization a favor, promoting the future and protecting us from backwardness and retrogression. Architectural schools are steeped in righteousness. Ever since the Bauhaus of the 1920s, many schools' aim has been to restructure society for the betterment of all people; whether those welcome this or not. If ordinary people are sentimental about past methods of design, and crave buildings that appeal to the human scale, that is only an indication of human weakness.

We stand of the threshold of a historic architectural reckoning. A new architecture mixes exuberant curved forms and fractal scaling with the broken forms of deconstruction. Let me suggest that architects who wish to be contemporary ought to drop their deconstructive baggage. They should instead extend a hand to those whom they have formerly disdained and slandered -- I mean the traditionalists, and those innovative architects who respect human scale and sensibilities. By mixing novel forms with typologies that have undergone a competitive selection during historical time, we can define a new architecture that is fit for human beings instead of remaining forever alien. Younger practitioners have been duped into identifying novelty with the essential "alien look" of deconstruction. Nevertheless, a new generation of architects is intelligent enough to realize what is going on, and to snap out of an unfortunate deception.


Nikos Salingaros, "The Derrida Virus", TELOS, No. 126 (2003), pages 66-82. It can be read online here.

Our thanks again to Nikos Salingaros. We look forward to publishing more of Nikos' thinking in the future. Please be sure to visit and explore Nikos' archive of his writing about buildings and urbanism, which is here.

posted by Michael at April 28, 2004


This post seems to be cut off at the end.

Posted by: Peter Lindberg on April 29, 2004 04:47 AM

My goofup. Apologies to readers, and especially to Nikos. Seems to be behaving again, though. Now that it's working, I'm going to start dropping some images into it...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2004 10:42 AM

I notice in your "mission statement" that you also like to talk about evolutionary biology. If I may ask, which aspects? I too find that a very interesting subject and would enjoy finding people to discuss it with further.


Posted by: PipeTobacco on April 29, 2004 11:38 AM

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