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January 29, 2003

Exclusive -- Salingaros and Hanson

Friedrich --

I'm pleased -- thrilled, really -- to present a 2Blowhards exclusive. We've been given an advance glimpse of a brilliant new essay on architecture by Nikos Salingaros, a University of Texas mathematician and architectural theorist (and frequent collaborator with Christopher Alexander), and Brian Hanson, an architectural historian and former advisor to Prince Charles. Their topic? Daniel Libeskind's proposal for the WTC site.

Their topic is really much more than that, as anyone who has followed their work would expect. Along with Alexander and some other thinkers, Hanson and Salingaros are looking at building (and, implicitly, at art more generally) and urbanism in terms of patterns.

What does this mean? To simplify drastically a set of complex and infinitely-suggestive ideas: much as there are biological patterns that give rise to life and biological patterns that go nowhere, so too are there patterns of building (and of urbanism and art) that give rise to something we experience as "life" and patterns of building (and urbanism and art) that essentially go nowhere -- that lead not to life but to death. "Beauty" is a word we use to describe the leading-to-life quality that some artworks have. It's something real, and something whose presence can be felt.

Another way of looking at what these thinkers are saying is to consider the computer universe. There are some patterns (the desktop metaphor, for instance, or the Web itself) that lead to a flourishing, and many, many patterns that lead to nothing but dead ends (no matter how brilliant they may be). These kinds of ideas lie behind, for instance, the New Urbanism, one thrust of which is to attempt to harness the dynamism of developers and the market to more human ends by transforming restrictive zoning laws into algorithms that result in both beauty and growth.

I don't know about you, but my thoughts spin happily off in many directions when presented with these ideas: chaos and evolutionary theory, the emergence and utility of traditional artistic forms, self-organizing complexity, the growth of language, the role of the individual artist in the midst of all this ... Whew. For my money, this is some of the most exciting thinking going on in the arts anywhere today.

In any case, the full Salingaros and Hanson essay is much longer than the appetizer here. It hasn't yet been scheduled for publication; we promise to alert readers where and when the whole thing does become available. But the appetizer, which we've been given permission to reprint here, is itself pretty great. We're pleased to present it.

Daniel Libeskind's Architecture of Death

by Brian Hanson and Nikos Salingaros.

We contrast two distinct threads in the architecture of Daniel Libeskind -- the geometry employed in his Holocaust Memorials, and the geometry of those buildings whose purpose is life and regeneration. We find no difference whatsoever between the two types, thus concluding that Libeskind's buildings cannot serve to bring architecture to life.
Daniel Libeskind's participation in the World Trade Center project symbolizes a jump from buildings that crystallize a particularly horrific experience, but do not seek to move on from it -- such as his Jewish Museum in Berlin -- into buildings that are meant to symbolize, even contribute to "regeneration". Nevertheless, there is essentially no difference between what he believes commemorates death, and what commemorates life, for the simple reason that he gives them exactly the same geometrical properties.

There is indeed an enormous difference between structures that embody "life", and those that embody "death" -- it is just that the currently fashionable architects don't seem to be aware of that difference, or at least of how to reflect it in their buildings. It suffices to look at Libeskind's World Trade Center proposal to see what we mean. A tall, unbalanced form with protruding, menacing components is supposed to be his answer to building on the memorial space while satisfying both the spirit of remembrance for the victims of the tragedy, and rekindling the life of the region through a regenerated urban fabric.

Daniel Libeskind is one of a very few contemporary architects whose work constitutes a recognizable "brand". The brand consists of sharp, angular, metallic shards, with gravity-defying walls, and conveys the unmistakable thrill of transgression. The building most often used to illustrate these qualities is his Jewish Museum in Berlin. While the objects collected by the Museum strive to paint a portrait of Jewish LIFE -- stretching over a period of one and a half millennia no less -- the building that houses them is preoccupied by the DEATHS visited upon the Jewish people of Europe during the first half of the last century.

Libeskind reproduces the visceral revulsion of the Extermination Camps -- not by copying their insipid, industrial Bauhaus style, but by using high-tech materials to define a specific geometry. This geometry succeeds in making us anxious and physically ill, and recreates the terrible purpose behind the camps -- a rekindling of unspeakable evil, the human spirit's darkest and most horrible forces -- by triggering our memory and senses strictly through form, space, and surface. A visitor to the Berlin Museum may well feel sick and depressed after going through the Jewish Department Extension, and this, we believe, is an appropriate experience.

In those of Libeskind's buildings which speak above all of despair, exile, and annihilation, there is a deliberate "geometry of death" at work -- one so powerfully present that it threatens to suffocate any tokens of life that dare occupy its spaces. At the same time, we would expect to see, in those buildings which speak of regeneration, a corresponding "geometry of life". For a building to participate in regeneration there surely must be something generative about it, something life-giving in its very forms. However, search his work as you will, the "geometry of life" is nowhere to be found.

Despite Libeskind's words, and the apologies he provides for his buildings, it is the "geometry of death" which predominates in his forms, and which ultimately compromises those of his works through which he hopes to effect reconnection or reconciliation. A paradox of Libeskind's work is that an architect who claims to be so in thrall to the chaotic, the complex, the open-ended, and the democratic, should produce buildings so deterministic, and which leave so little to chance and personal choice.

For example, in Berlin there is a long rising staircase, offering one of three routes out of the underground passage (the only real route in fact, two of them being dead ends). This semantic confusion is matched by an approach to planning which, while intent on driving visitors along a particular route, nevertheless robs them of any sense of direction. This failure is made even worse by the architect's apparent indifference to the effect on circulation of merely practical elements such as fire doors. Perhaps this disorientating dissonance is the point of such architecture.

Libeskind is not the first architect of the last century to have been inspired by popular science to make formal analogies with the natural world. This has led him into statements every bit as convoluted as those so mischievously exposed among post-structuralist French philosophers by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (in their 1998 book Intellectual Impostures/Fashionable Nonsense). In Libeskind's texts, references to chaos and complexity, including fractals, conceal an approach to spatial organization which, as we have seen, is highly deterministic, and almost entirely lacking in the adaptive processes which give rise to lifeforms.

There is as yet no final agreement among scientists as to what life is, but there is a growing measure of consensus about what the nature of the processes might be that underlie it. Some characteristic properties are:

(i) Life has connectivity and pattern at its heart.
(ii) Life is "organized complexity", a potent mixture of rule and contingency, order and spontaneity.
(iii) Life is not definable through traditional mathematical equations which purport to give "an answer", but is more of an unfolding, comparable to the action of a computer program.
(iv) Life is a genetic algorithm which evolves and develops complexities as it learns.
(v) And life is not just complex, but -- even more mysteriously, perhaps -- it is ordered, displaying an incredible range of symmetries.

Not one of these characteristics of organic life finds a parallel in the forms of Libeskind's architecture, but only occasionally in the words that accompany his projects. Libeskind merely represents the latest stage in the profession's determined rejection of the knowledge and the representation of life, in favor of abstract, supposedly more architectonic means of expression. But there could be more to it than this. We suspect that the above insights are in fact applied, but in a way so as to deny life.

A "geometry of death" reverses the properties of living structure, while at the same time suppressing the mechanisms by which human beings connect to the world. Its components most people will recognize as the basis for the deconstructivist "style", with Libeskind as one of its celebrated exponents. The intentional shock-effect produced is the very quality that endears it to the avant-garde. Rules for generating lifeless forms are applied with such confidence and deliberate intention that we find it hard to suppose that this is accidental, or that they could in any way be confused with their antithetical, "life-giving" rules.

If one looks beyond mere formal analogies of life to the mathematical patterns and processes which scientists are now pointing to as the source of life itself, then Libeskind's buildings are invariably dead. All his attempts to transfer a geometry appropriate to Holocaust Memorials (which, in that context, is restrictive of freedom) to buildings which are intended to celebrate, if not engender life, have failed, as they must inevitably continue to do so.

Readers intrigued by these lines of reasoning will enjoy exploring the first-rate (if somewhat quirkily organized) webzine Katarxis, here, and Nikos Salingaros' own site, here.

Many thanks to Professor Salingaros and Brian Hanson.



posted by Michael at January 29, 2003


Provocative! I look forward to reading the whole essay, since the excerpt here is full of assertions, especially with regard to the WTC plan, and includes no specifics. Personally, I think that 1776-ft tower rising higher than any other building in the world, and filled with flora from around the world, is a great life-affiming piece of architecture. Much more so, I might say, than the Empire State Building, which I always feel is squat and dead, its multiple symmetries notwithstanding.

Since the authors give no examples of an 'archictecture of life', and only one example of an 'architecture of death', I can't really respond further, although I'd like to. But for me, I think that light and darkness play a strong role: the Pantheon, say, or the pyramid at the Louvre, would be a. of L., while dungeons and mausoleums or even the original World Trade Center towers, with their bar-like narrow windows, would be a. of D. Yet the original WTC did have a certain degree of soaring verticality, which was less oppressive than thrilling: they were better from the outside than from the inside.

If you look at Liebeskind's plans for the transport hub, you'll find lots of light-filled soaring spaces, and indeed a central part of his plan is his "Wedge of Light", which will be filled with sunlight every September 11 morn.

But as I say, I'm sure these points will be addressed in the fuller essay, and I look forward to reading it.

Posted by: Felix on January 30, 2003 11:31 AM

Dear friends;

I promised to alert everyone who read this article as to where the longer version is going to be published. It is now on-line at Architectural Record Online (but not in the print version of the Journal).

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on March 3, 2003 12:30 PM

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