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April 01, 2003

Salingaros on Deconstruction

Friedrich --

If you’ve got a little curiosity about contempo architecture and you take a peek at its coverage in the mainstream press (as well as the specialist architectural press), you’re probably running into names like Daniel (WTC-site) Libeskind, Herbert Muschamp, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Coop Himmelblau. You’re probably also running into a lot of photos of zigzaggy, blown-to-bits buildings that look a bit like an L.A. kitchen the morning after the big one.

Chances are that, unless you’ve gone to architecture school or have been otherwise marinated in contempo "theory," you probably have some variation on what I think of as the "Huh? What the fuck?" response. The writing and thinking seem almost incomprehensible and, when comprehensible, engaged with issues and ideas that seem of no conceivable human interest whatsoever. The designs themselves sometimes seem kind of cool and flashy -- but, lordy, imagine having to live in, or work in, or even have to pass regularly by such heaps of self-referential showboating.

(As for the recently-selected WTC-replacement design: nice going, New York. That Daniel Libeskind design you’ve chosen? It’s untried, radical architecture, to which the daily lives of tens of thousands of people are going to have no choice but to submit. Remember the debacle of Richard Serra’s "Tilted Arc"? Well, I may certainly be proven wrong, but my bet is that the WTC rebuilding will be the Serra fiasco multiplied many times over. Serra’s piece just made a pain of itself in the middle of one modest public plaza, while thousands and thousands of people are actually going to have to work in, and live around, Libeskind’s design.)

Those weirdo interruptions, disruptions and breaks in po-mo/decon design? (Which, by the way, often strike me as pretty neat in a design sense -- ie., so long as they’re on a book jacket or in a movie poster and not bending and distorting the lives of people who've got better things to do than fret over edgy art issues.) They’ve got nothing whatsoever to do with people, and with how people like to work, live, shop or simply spend time in the city. They aren’t the result of any concern with or respect for daily life, let alone other human beings. Instead, they’re hijinks -- fashion, really -- derived from French theory and naive interpretations of up-to-date science. Showing off, basically, and being brilliant -- and, as far as I’m concerned, irresponsibly so, and usually at the expense of the rest of us.

Many people who encounter this kind of thing abandon their interest in buildings and architecture, figuring either that they just aren’t getting it or that the inmates are clearly running the asylum and who needs that. Luckily, there is in fact an alternative, an entire world of building and thinking that’s concerned with beauty and human values. You won’t find much mention of it in the mainstream art and architecture press -- a sign of how topsy-turvy that world is, at least by my lights. Then, what to do? And how to find out about it? Well, for a fan’s notes and observations, read 2Blowhards. For something more organized and inside, check out Lucien Steil’s Katarxis (here) and the first-class site Intbau (here).

Some of the big names in this alternative architecture universe? Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany. Christopher Alexander. Philip Langdon. Jane Jacobs. Leon Krier. Nikos Salingaros. Their work is brainy, talented, and (amazingly enough) humane: inspired and inspiring.

Recently, I’ve been treating myself to a close read (and re-read) of the writing at Nikos Salingaros’s web site (here), and to an enjoyable and enlightening set of email exchanges with Prof. Salingaros too. Even among this fascinating group, Salingaros is interesting. He’s a scientist and mathematician who became fascinated by cities and buildings. After working for several years to produce a scientific theory of architecture and urbanism, Salingaros recently took aim at Deconstructivism. Where does it come from? How do its rationales stand up? Why does it flourish?

In a series of articles, he paints a disturbing and (to my mind) convincing picture of this fashionable craze. In his view, decon boils down to a form of anti-architecture that’s tied to a nihilistic philosophical movement. Salingaros, who often works with tiptop co-authors, takes a close look at the justifications for the style as well as at its philosophical underpinnings. (Not to give away the conclusion or anything, but “phony” and “murky” pretty well sum it up.)

I pressed Salingaros and learned that he had a bit of writing that hasn’t yet been published in English; then I coaxed him into letting us present it here. It’s part of an exchange Salingaros had with a reader about an earlier essay, but this letter stands as a fine essay in its own right, as well as a good introduction to his thoughts on deconstruction. We’re very pleased to run it here on 2Blowhards.

Dear Stefano,

I read the letter of Doctor Poggiali, published in number 119 of your Newsletter. As it refers to my own researches on architecture and urbanism, I wanted to answer personally. Carlo Poggiali distinguishes between two factors influencing the effect architecture has on people -- emotional perception, and an analysis carried out on the intellectual plane. He suggests that we can understand the difference through specific experiences of being confronted with buildings having very different architectural character. Of course I agree.

It is necessary to develop a corpus of scientific knowledge, founded on the scientific method, and independent of any bias due to personal opinion (which could be negative and compromising). With this, we can face the future armed with a knowledge of architecture much deeper than that in the past, and especially that of the modernist XXth century. Architecture and urbanism cannot follow ephemeral tastes; they cannot be based on trivial images like those of today, which are fruits of a fantasy that creates frightening and alien things.

However, Poggiali is entirely too confident that I always remain on a strictly intellectual plane. In fact, only a few days ago, I met my friend Terry Mikiten for lunch in an Indian restaurant (an establishment that encourages long and relaxed conversations, interspersed with pauses to take new plates from the buffet). We discussed the architect Daniel Libeskind and the plans for the reconstruction of Manhattan. After a few minutes, Mikiten told me: "You have changed fundamentally. You are no longer the disinterested scientist that you were; now you are very passionate and speak almost like a fanatic!" I answered that the topic has seized me completely, and that I see things so darkly as to feel responsible for alerting the world to an extremely serious danger. I explained that we face the introduction of a new vision of the world, a destructive vision, which, if allowed to proliferate, can eliminate all that mankind has patiently constructed during centuries, during millennia. It represents a new philosophy of order that wants to replace knowledge with lies.

Architecture arises from our conception of the world, and the brain mechanisms that determine how we understand physical structure and the structure of the universe at that particular moment. From the monumentality of the buildings of ancient civilizations, to the decorative details present in all vernacular architectures, the human spirit expresses itself creatively in the constructed realm. The man-made world represents our spirit, our mind and our heart -- these are reflected in our buildings.

Deconstructivist architecture presents us with the vision of a world destroyed, of a universe reduced to fragments, shards of glass. This particular group of architects (greatly in fashion today) uses the term "fractal", but in a completely mistaken sense. I happen to know what a fractal is, and I assure you that it is not that. In design projects and in architectural texts they speak about "chaos", "nonlinear systems", and "complexity" without having any idea of what these things mean. But for them, this ignorance is not a cause for shame, because it serves to promote their projects and themselves, rather than any scientific truth.

In fact, we find ourselves confronted with a mystical cult that uses scientific terminology just like magical words -- whose effect is due only to their sound. The cult intentionally ignores scientific meaning. This works because most people have no scientific background, and because scientists (who should be the ones to expose this fraud) are closed in their own narrow world of research. It is an irony of our times that such a cult, founded on ignorance, survives and blossoms, and has taken control of the media and the Architecture Schools. Today, fractals are discussed in university departments of Science and Mathematics, while in departments of Architecture (situated in the next building ) people say nonsense about fractals without anyone noticing.

The danger is this -- every architectural style defines a model of the universe, and this includes human society. More than from the written word, we learn what order is from built prototypes and natural examples. This is how we became human through our evolutionary development. If we adopt the deconstructivist model, we abandon our fundamental connections -- the ties among human beings, between persons and the built environment, and among the various threads that together weave the city into one urban fabric. We brutally cancel the interconnections and coherence that define human society and our civilization. And why? In order to make some architects rich and famous? To satisfy clients (among them the Church and Government) that must absolutely have the latest fashion in architecture? Or is it to subsidize those architecture journals that cater to the avant-garde?

When I explained all this to my friend Mikiten, he answered: "Now I understand your analytical thought, with an almost mathematical logic, and the conclusion is truly disturbing. When I first saw them, I thought that the models for the reconstruction of Manhattan represented new shapes, weird and unusual ones, perhaps ridiculous, but I never thought they could be dangerous. Now I believe that it is indeed so. There exists a coherence in every system, a central repository of information that needs to be protected. We have a central nucleus that is vulnerable -- without which the system can be destroyed. The coherence of shapes is one of the foundations of the way we think, and this cannot be put at risk. It is much too important and fragile, like the DNA in the nucleus of cells."

At least I convinced Mikiten that I have not abandoned the scientific method. Indeed, it is almost unavoidable for me to have become so passionate about my discovery because of its grave consequences. Doctor Mikiten is the Associate Graduate Dean of the University Biomedical School, Professor of Physiology, and also an expert in artificial intelligence. In short, he's a "tough cookie". It is not easy to change his mind, but once that is accomplished, it's like having all of Science supporting you.

We agreed that a faith in observed structure is fundamental for human existence. As human beings, we use our understanding of the coherence and stability of structures, obtained through the physiology of our senses, in order to interpret the structures with which we are confronted in life. Science is nothing other than a search for the understanding of structure. We develop belief systems that are based on the mechanism of understanding physical systems. Such cognitive and intellectual bases influence our understanding of human and social systems, and actually form the basis for human intuition.

Deconstructivism challenges all the above ideas. A challenge, however, that does not replace those ideas with any coherent alternative. It is something fundamentally destructive. It destroys our communion with natural structures without supplying any explanatory value to take its place. Moreover, deconstructivism is arrogant because it does not need the participation of human beings in a dialogue with our surroundings. It does not require us because it is an entirely alien construction. It is an artistic trick picked up in the search for visual novelty, but which now threatens our ability to understand the universe.

Later on we spoke about the deconstructivist French philosophers. Mikiten knew their names -- Derrida, Foucault, etc. ... but told me that he had never understood their arguments. He kindly offered to read them again. I advised him not to lose his time, because they are intrinsically incomprehensible. And after all, it is not worth the effort. Contemporary architecture proclaims in a loud voice that it is founded on deconstructivist philosophy, but, like all its declarations, this one also has strictly propaganda value. Mikiten asked me if I am willing to take on this group of philosophers. I answered modestly that I am not ready to do that, because I am not a philosopher, and because they are much too powerful. The distinguished British philosopher Roger Scruton criticized them, and consequently lost his university professorship. He now lives on a farm in England.

I return finally to Poggiali to explain that, in my criticism of contemporary architecture, I refer not only to observations on an intellectual plane. I find it to be a deliberate aggression on our senses, which abuses the human perceptive mechanism in order to generate physical anxiety and discomfort. This is in my opinion quite intentional and is neither accidental, nor due to ignorance. At times I am astonished that so few people perceive these extremely important things. In an era of the globalization of information systems and media, it is disinformation that propagates best. The truth remains hidden without arousing people's interest. Truth does not sell well, unlike the strange images of an architecture that no-one understands. On the contrary, the latter have an enormous commercial value for the world of publicity in which we live today.

I don't agree with too much unhurried reasoning and discussion, drawn out during relaxed conversations among friends. The situation demands immediate action, and, furthermore, we (the few who know the unpleasant truth) find ourselves in a weak position. All the most beautiful cities of the world, including Rome "the Eternal City", are being destroyed by the alien images of a self-proclaimed "contemporary" architecture. This willful destruction, which seems necessary for the Cult of Contemporaneity, is doing more damage than all of the barbarian invasions. We have no time to waste vacationing in the Italian Tyrol.

Nikos Salingaros

Salingaros' essays on deconstructivism actually comprise by this time a small online book. In a piece entitled Charles Jencks and the New Paradigm in Architecture, he evaluates the use the decons have made of claims to scientific justification for their style; as a math-and-physics guy himself, he speaks with considerable, and persuasive, authority. In an article co-authored with Michael Mehaffy, Deconstructing The Decons: The World Trade Center Project Spotlights The Empire's Newest Clothes, he describes the original World Trade Center proposals as being mired in a failed philosophical and scientific past. He and Brian Hanson had a rousing go at Daniel Libeskind in Death, Life, and Libeskind, which we presented a while back in a shorter version as Daniel Libeskind's Architecture of Death, here. The deconstructivists' bizarro conception of space? He takes that topic on in a review of Anthony Vidler's book "Warped Space."

I notice three main themes running through these essays: (1) the egregious way the edgy architecture world misuses the new science; (2) the incoherence of the “philosophy” that’s meant to undergird these buildings; and (3) the cult-like qualities of the avant-garde architecture world. His articles Anti-architecture and Religion and Twentieth-Century Architecture as a Cult are some of the best writing I’ve run across on the topic of modern art and religion.

Remember Alan Sokal’s practical joke? When he sent a deliberately nonsensical article to a po-mo magazine and got it published? He and Jean Bricmont used that hijink as the pretext for a wonderful book, Fashionable Nonsense (buyable here) in which they demolished a lot of academic silliness. Salingaros does a similarly devastating and entertaining job on some of the radical and academic silliness that currently prevails in thinking about buildings and cities. As he wrote to me in a wonderfully impassioned email, “this is a pseudophilosophical, pseudoreligious movement that is promoting a bizarre, inhuman architecture.” Hear, hear to that.

I’d urge everyone to read these essays, all of which are online. (God bless the web.) My tip is to read them in this order:

1. The Danger of Deconstructivism (here)
2. Charles Jencks and the New Paradigm in Architecture (here)
3. Deconstructing The Decons (here)
4. Death, Life, and Libeskind (here)
5. Warped Space (here)
6. Anti-architecture and Religion (here)
7. Twentieth-Century Architecture as a Cult (here)

When I let Prof. Salingaros know that I’d be running this posting, he was good enough to respond by preparing a PDF file of these essays. Printing from it makes reading these pieces even more of a treat. The PDF file is located here.

In a sane world, Prof. Salingaros would be sitting on architecture-prize and architecture-school boards, and would be fending off all-too-frequent requests from major magazines and newspapers for his opinion, insights and judgment.

Many thanks once again to Nikos Salingaros.



posted by Michael at April 1, 2003


Hi there Michael, I'm back from a period of work and travel, have a bit of time to read magazines again, both off-line and on, and look forward to spending more time here at 2Bs.

You won't be surprised to hear that I consider pretty much all of the above to be, well, nonsense, if not particularly fashionable. Let's start with you, first, before moving on to Professor Salingaros:

Those weirdo interruptions and breaks in po-mo/decon design? Showing off, basically, and being brilliant -- and, as far as I’m concerned, irresponsibly so, and usually at the expense of the rest of us.

Usually, eh? Well, in that case, Michael, I'm sure you wouldn't mind rattling off a few instances of po-mo/decon architecture ruining life for those who are forced to live or work in its vicinity.

Salingaros is actually the same as you: lots of bluster and assertion, and precious little in the way of example or argument. "We face the introduction of a new vision of the world, a destructive vision, which, if allowed to proliferate, can eliminate all that mankind has patiently constructed during centuries, during millennia" -- my, how thrilling! How meaningless!

It's interesting that Salingaros thinks that the evil deconstructionists were responsible for Roger Scruton being stripped of his tenure and exiled to a sheep farm: does this not sound a bit unlikely, even to you? Maybe he just wanted the freedom to charge $8,700 a month to plant pro-tobacco articles in the FT and WSJ? (See this article, for starters.)

Here's my challenge to you: don't show me long articles, show me buildings -- real, built, deconstructivist buildings which are disliked by their neighbors and which destroy their locales. Let's get specific here.

Posted by: Felix on April 1, 2003 5:29 PM

Hey Felix, Good to hear you're back in town! How were the globettrotting financial-journalist pickings? And I'm sure you know decon architecture better than I do, so who are you kidding? It's edgy architecture-world experimentation with a basis in French philosophy. I consider it The Enemy, but I've enjoyed reading you on the WTC proposals, and look forward to reading you on Hadid and Coop Himmelblau someday. Me, I'm less interested in taking on decon than I am in exploring the alternative-architecture world. Here's hoping you get a kick out of these explorations, disagree with them though you do. But you aren't going to claim that decon isn't edgy architecture-world experimentation with a basis in French theory, are you?

But what do you say we make a lot of unprovable assertions at each other over food and drinks sometime soon? Are you guys around over the next few weekends? The Wife and I just stumbled into a good new place (Thai/Korean, I guess you'd have to call it, with first-class ginger Kamikazes) just north of E. Houston. I'll raise a glass to Salingaros. You can raise one to Muschamp. And then we'll order some more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2003 8:56 PM

Perhaps Felix could take a gander at Stuart Brand's book "How Buildings Learn". It has many excellent examples of buildings by famous architects that are dysfunctional for their tenants--and many more examples of temporary structures that have been retained far longer than expected precisely because they are supremely functional for their tenants.

That said, I think that Salingaros' pronouncements of danger are a little wide of the mark. Compared to the vast numbers of homes, office buildings, and work shops designed and built for people, the number of dangerous deconstructivist buildings is very small indeed.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 2, 2003 11:20 AM

Hey Will, thanks for the reminder of "How Buildings Learn," which is essential reading. Wouldn't it be lovely if it were essential reading at architecture schools? Thanks too for the needed perspective. At the same time, I think -- judging from my own, admittedly limited, experience of what's on display at recent student shows -- we're likely to be seeing more, and not less, deconstruction in the near future. It's an interesting question you're raising: how much impact does fashionable architecture have on the wider world?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 2, 2003 12:35 PM

Hey Michael --

What a wonderful idea: I'm always up for a ginger Kamikaze.

As for the subject at hand, it almost sounds as if you're calling this stuff "edgy architecture-world experimentation with a basis in French philosophy" as if that's a bad thing!

My point is that you attack deconstructionist architecture not (or not only) on the grounds that it's "edgy" or whatever, but mainly on the grounds that it's horrible to live and work in and around. So, I'm asking for examples.

The Stuart Brand book -- now does that have any deconstructionist buildings in it?

Posted by: Felix on April 2, 2003 2:47 PM

Hey Felix, Ginger kamikazes, soon!

Busy day today, but here's one piece about the difficulties at Eisenman's Wexner Center in Cincinnatti, in bad need of expensive renovation only 12 years after construction.

Sample passage:

"The Wexner's busy interior spaces, with their floating beams and mix of materials, have long been a challenge to curators. "Once you get past the exterior you get more exterior," says Andrew McClellan, an art historian at Tufts University and an expert in museum design. "There's no balance between architecture and display. I can't imagine a single curator in this country would endorse the Wexner as an ideal space to exhibit art." Gallery lighting has long been a sore spot. Overexposure of artworks to sunlight has forced museum administrators to block out much of the center's natural lighting."

Just curious: you don't think people like Alexander, Salingaros and Krier have anything worthwhile to contribute to the general conversation about cities, neighborhoods and buildings?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 2, 2003 3:32 PM

As someone who grew up within walking distance of Soane's incomparable Dulwich Picture Gallery, I'm a great fan of art galleries which are great for showing art. If Eisenman's building is not great for showing art, then that's a point against it -- although it's a point against Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim as well, so he's in reasonably good company. I think "too much natural light" is a problem many art galleries would love to have. And if it's falling apart, that's not good either.

But you still haven't answered the bigger question, which is the effect that deconstructionist buildings have on those working in and around them. It seems, in fact, that the custodians of the Wexner Center really love the building, and want to preserve it as faithfully as possible. No one seems to be saying that it's an ugly and antisocial eyesore which ought to be torn down.

On to the cocktails...

Posted by: Felix on April 2, 2003 6:13 PM

Alberti tells us that architecture must satisfy three constraints: It must be useful, it must last, and it must be beautiful. It appears that all agree Eisenman’s building fails on the first two, and we are left arguing over the third. Regardless of whether or not it is beautiful, it still fails as architecture.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on April 4, 2003 5:29 PM

I agree with what you are saying here Fredrich Salingaros about the fact that Libeskind was choosen. You may have heard of me from PBS's America Rebuilds but if not, then that's okay. It wasn't even the most popular design. For the past two years I have been attending hearings in New York City, I reside in Pleasantville, speaking up with a number of other pro-rebuilders to get the Twin Towers rebuilt yet the Lower Manhattan Developement Corperation refused to accept it. When the original six designs were rejected at the first Listening to the City, they believed that nobody wanted too much office space when in reality it was the fact that they wanted those towers rebuilt. This was never an option from the start. I feel that it's wrong to build something that is smaller than what stood there. The families got so greedy, I lost all sympathy for them. At first I gave my condolences, but then later I felt that they didn't deserve it based on how selfish they are. Right now they will try to get George Pataki, who is the governor of my homestate, to fix it so that a memorial that favors them will win. Once again the nine new designs were just hated as much as the original six, and the finalists and winner, who was Libeskind, was picked undemocratically by Pataki. Norman Foster, who ranked first, was never a finalist to begin with despite how popular his design was. Now the LMDC refuses to hold any more hearings based on the developement because they are afraid of hearing the same answer. This is not how I want to remember the skyline. The only way to remember what we lost is to rebuild what we lost. Let's NOT reimagine our skyline, let's rebuild it. I hope that you support having back the Twin Towers because that's what defined the skyline of lower Manhattan.

Posted by: Tal Barzilai on November 19, 2003 8:36 PM

It feels so absolutely wonderful to have someone sing what?s in my heart.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:11 PM

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