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« Coming of Age | Main | A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Two »

May 01, 2003

A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part One

2Blowhards is taking a break from our usual format.

If you've surfed through this blog before, you may have run across postings devoted to Professor Nikos Salingaros, the University of Texas mathematican who has become, in our opinion, one of the world's most interesting and provocative writers on architecture. (You can see previous postings about him here and here.) We were tickled a few months ago to hear from Prof. Salingaros himself, who got in touch to say that he enjoys our blog. Shameless opportunists that we are (at least at our best), we took advantage of the moment to ask him if he'd consent to be interviewed. To our delight he agreed, and starting today and continuing for the next four days, we're devoting our blog to this conversation.

Dr. Salingaros, 51, was born in Perth, Australia. He grew up in Greece and the Bahamas, got degrees from the University of Miami and SUNY Stony Brook, and has been teaching at the University of Texas since 1983. He lives in San Antonio with his physician wife, Dr. Marielle Blum, and their two daughters. He painted professionally – portraits, landscapes -- as a young man, and is also an avid classical music buff.

Twenty years ago he met the architect and theorist Christopher Alexander, best known for his books "A Pattern Language" and "The Timeless Way of Building." They became friends and colleagues. Dr. Salingaros has worked with Alexander since on the editing and shaping of Alexander's long-brewing, long-awaited "The Nature of Order," a four-volume work on art, science, nature and beauty. (Volume One, which should cause quite a commotion, will go on sale soon here and here.) Over the years, Dr. Salingaros found himself more and more preoccupied with architecture, building, living form, and the foolishness of modernism. About five years ago he began publishing his own papers on these topics. We Blowhards have been fans since we first ran across his work. His tiptop website is here.

You say you aren't all that interested in architecture? Well, please read this q&a anyway. We can pretty much guarantee that -- agree with Salingaros or not -- it'll get your head buzzing about any number of art-related topics. In all earnestness, and just between you and us, this is a hideously embarrassing time to be involved in the arts. What a bunch of preening stick-in-the-muds, still devoted to carrying on as though it’s still 1970. The worlds of physics, biology, computer science and technology are abuzz with fresh and useful new thinking, yet the world of the arts circles round and round about the same damn topics, and then presents itself as though it's onto something new. The geo-political Iron Curtain may have come down over a decade ago, but the art worlds are still doing their best to keep their own versions of the Iron Curtain up and in good repair.

They seem to love walling themselves in. (Why? One might wonder -- and we do.) But, despite all appearances, and despite what the establishment art (and lit etc) press would have you believe, there is in fact a fair amount of fresh new thinking and artwork out there, and we Blowhards are hoping to play a small role in helping readers connect with it. We can't imagine a better way to offer a taste of some of these new ways of seeing than to present this interview with Prof. Salingaros.

We got in touch with him by phone a few weeks back. Prof. Salingaros was good enough to discuss a number of important topics, and we wound up talking for several hours. Because of the length of this q&a, we're going to devote the next five days of postings on 2Blowhards to it. Please be sure to check in every day, and please be sure to let your friends know that the interview is here to be read.



2Blowhards: How do you react to contemporary architecture?
Nikos Salingaros:
Contemporary architecture is all wrong. Since the 1920s, all they have been saying is based on myth and superstition -- there has been not a single verifiable and testable idea. When you try to verify or test them they all break down and are shown to be false. The field for 80 years has been based on falsehoods.

2B: But for 80 years these people have been flourishing. That's a kind of Darwinian triumph, no?
They're doing well because from the 1920s architects caught on to how to propagate ideas without the ideas necessarily being true. Le Corbusier was a self-made propagandist who worked in advertising more than in architecture. He published an advertising magazine, and was a pioneer in advertising and propaganda more so than in architecture. He was one of the original people who developed methods of propagating ideas mainly by visual means. And these things catch on. We have the whole advertising industry which promotes things that are either useless or harmful to our health. But we buy them because there is a science of advertising, of brainwashing people to create a demand for a product that's not needed or to promote a product that's damaging by encapsulating it with something that is attractive.

2B: Attractive packaging.
Sure. It's a question of encapsulating harmful products within attractive ideas. It was not realized at the time but this is the way viruses work. Viruses have a destructive piece of DNA that is encapsulated in a very attractive protein. It enters the cell, and then when it enters the cell it uses the cell's reproductive mechanism to reproduce itself. Then it kills the organism.

corbusier and city01-thumb.jpg Hard at work, "improving" the city

2B: When I blab about my annoyance with the art and architecture scene, many of my arts friends will claim that the real problem is Americans, developers. Look what they're up against: Americans have no taste.
Well, that raises the question of urbanism. It is the same warped thinking of Le Corbusier, which will destroy our cities as well as our buildings. 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. You have a crummy little suburban house on a quarter acre, if you're lucky, with a scraggly little lawn no one ever uses. No one ever uses the lawn, it's too small and unprotected even for kids to play in.

2B: You trace it back to Le Corbusier?
He did not define suburbia, but he threw out these totally unrealistic ideas about the wealthy people each having a villa that you can drive into. If you remember the original Corbusian villas, you drove into them and were surrounded by acres of green. It's completely impractical. You can have that only if you're extremely wealthy. And few people are wealthy enough to maintain that.

corbusier city 05-thumb.jpg corbusier city01-thumb.jpg How he wanted us to live

2B: Jane Jacobs (here) once said that many people don't realize how much people like Le Corbusier simply didn't like cities -- in fact wished cities ill.
Le Corbusier had serious psychological problems. He had agoraphobia. I have not read medical reports on him. But he despised people. And crowds. And felt ill at ease with many people around. He had a monomaniacal goal in his life, to eliminate the street with people and the urban life that occurs on the European street. It's the same sort of intense fanaticism that other people have had for other destructive ends, like some dictators. They absolutely hate something and they devote their intelligence and energy to eliminating that thing. Le Corbusier wanted to eliminate the people and the streets. And he has almost succeeded. He was intelligent enough to come up with all sorts of reasons why they should be eliminated. But people bought the reasons.

2B: Modernism, like Marxism, seems to have a hypnotic power. First it sucks people into its web. And then people find it very difficult to leave.
It's the encapsulation, and also the phenomenon of lock-out. "Lock-out" is a primary technique used by cults. It describes the first step of a cult. It takes a recruit and identifies what he or she dislikes. And then the opposite of what the cult promotes is associated with what the person dislikes.

2B: There's a lot of projection going on.
It's the first step in indoctrination. They take the potential recruit and they make small talk with this person to determine that the person is against -- say, government oppression. So then they say, "Well, classical buildings represent oppression." And when the potential recruit buys that, then that's lock-out.

2B: You turn what's disliked into the Other, the enemy.
You manufacture the enemy, and you identify the enemy with the opposite of what you're trying to promote.

2B: Would you really compare an education in modernist architecture to a cult indoctrination?
Yes. The groundwork was laid out brilliantly by both Frank Lloyd Wright and by Gropius. They studied cult techniques in order to use them to promote their sort of architectural education. The Bauhaus was a hotbed of cultish affinity. There were several distinct cults there -- really weird cults, which is the reason the government finally closed them down.

2B: Do you have any quarrels with Tom Wolfe's famous "From Bauhaus to Our House" (here)?
No. It's a lovely book, a brilliant book. Incidentally, at the time I met Christopher Alexander he had not yet read Wolfe's book. I gave him a copy, and he enjoyed it immensely. In fact, what has led me into a rather distasteful study of cults is things like the Tom Wolfe book. He was there in New York, he saw what was going on, and he wrote a very nice book about it. Many people read it -- and it made no difference. So I asked myself, "How can this be? This man said it, decades ago. People read it and they didn't wake up." They kept doing this stuff.
No, there are fundamental reasons why people continue with this. It is like in the old Soviet Union. People are terrified to change. They may laugh, they may throw it off, but people are just deathly afraid to change. There's something working on them on a deep subconscious level here. And that's how I went into the indoctrination angle.

2B: Years ago, when I was wrestling with what I was encountering in the arts, and first running into ideas like Christopher Alexander's and yours, I'd tell people what I'd found out. I'd be relieved, happy and excited. And they'd look at me like I was crazy.
The problem is far deeper than I suspected. Even Christopher has said that. He said that he naively thought when they read "A Pattern Language" (here), people would say, "Aha, this is it. It's obvious. And let's start doing a human architecture." But it is only lay people who read "A Pattern Language" and say, aha, this is obvious. Architects? Well, with them the conditioning is far stronger than Christopher imagined. He was extremely disappointed. He did not understand the resistance that "A Pattern Language" met, and that it still meets these days.

savoie.jpg Villas for all!

2B: I've met some of the new classical and new traditionalist architects. And I've been struck by the way a moment would come, and they'd look at each other or look at me, and rather shyly say, "When did you wake up from your brainwashing?"
Sometimes I meet people and they don't agree with me. There is an interesting, classic cult sort of response. I talk with somebody and I say I'm interested in architecture. I talk, and they may be nice people. And we go to a certain point, and then they realize what I'm telling them.

2B: What happens then?
They close. Either they turn around and leave, or they just freeze up.

2B: Further conversation is not possible.
There was one particular person, it took a while for him to realize what I was doing. We had several lunches together, and then the curtain descended. But I wanted a piece of information -- this fellow is a professor of architecture and he had a piece of information I wanted. So I called his office to ask him for it. And he said, "Don't you dare call this office again!" He was fuming. This is the sort of response I sometimes get. But let me say something about the self-feeding cycle of the anti-architecture.

2B: Please.
There is a small group of people in key positions in the architectural media. It's international, but usually this country, Europe, Japan. What happens is that they select the architects. At this moment it's the decon architects -- the familiar list of suspects, about ten decon architects.

2B: It's a very small cast.
There's a small group of people who are the critics, and the powerbrokers in the architectural schools, and who have key positions. They select a small group of architects, and they publish them in the media -- every little sketch these architects do is published in the architectural media. Then the same group of power-brokers award these architects prizes, because these are the jury members of the well-known prizes. And they also sit on institutions that recommend and help people find an architect, for example to build a museum, or a university building.

2B: These are the people you go to.
It's a small group of people known to everyone. They recommend the same people they have awarded a prize to -- and when the building is completed they publicize the building in the media. So you see the circle has closed. And each time it goes round, these inhuman and monstrous buildings are created. It's like the pebble dropped in the calm lake -- the wave spreads out. The people in the street see this stuff built, and they don't care or know about the philosophy. They just think, "Ah, so this is the new architecture! This must be good because people are paying an enormous amount of money for it, and because this famous architect has won this famous prize."

2B: Every element reinforces every other element.
And every time the wheel goes around then more and more ordinary people are drawn into believing this is good stuff. Imagine the ordinary person who walks in front of one of these decon buildings and feels terrible. And who feels physically sick: the adrenaline pumps up in a bad way, the skin temperature goes up, they feel nausea. Yet at the same time they're told this is a building by an award-winning architect.

2B: I wonder if the field these days might not be attracting a certain personality type.
I think architecture for the last several decades has attracted people who want power. They want power and instant gratification. Architecture as a profession for the last several decades promises instant gratification and power over others, power to shape the environment that other people have to live in and other people have to work in. There is a kind of invincibility. Once you join the architectural cult then you are part of the cult. You have secret knowledge, and you are protected by the cult: "We are invincible because we write the rules and we do what we like, and we impose our buildings on the world. And we impose our idea of cities on the world." This is a tremendous amount of power. You don't even have this kind of power in the military. When you join the military, you don't join up to become a general, though you may become a general in 20 year's time. Whereas every architectural student is promised, You become an architect and you get to build big buildings other people will live in.

2B: When I was in grad school in the late '70s, I got a glimpse of lit theory and recent French philosophy -- I could see it coming. You’ve wrestled with it longer and more thoroughly than I have, plus you’re a man of science. How does what’s written about architecture these days strike you?
I was spared all this stuff. For most of my life I read science, physics, mathematics, biology. I did not read any of these French philosophers, or theory of architecture. It’s only in the last two years that I have been forced to address the so-called roots of deconstructivist architecture by delving into the French deconstructivist philosophies. And I just found it to be gobbledygook -- gobbledygook combined with a very clear attempt to un-do something. It’s like a computer virus that erases a hard disk. Both Derrida and Foucault want to erase something from Western civilization. For what reasons I better not guess. They want to erase a particular structured way of thinking. And so they go round and round in a carefully organized wordspace in order to erase the meaning of words. And to erase the meaning of logical associations. Now that’s extraordinarily dangerous, because it undermines the basis of logic and the basis of science. But this is deliberate.

2B: There’s an agenda there.
There’s an agenda, yes. When you open this stuff and read it, it’s gobbledygook. But when you read behind it, you realize that the gobbledygook is a method of erasing. The virus is introduced, and the more you read, the more it erases from your mind the associations that form coherent thoughts. And if you're, say, a young student studying this stuff, it winds up erasing your ability to form logical thoughts.

2B: What do you think might be behind this?
This is only a guess. I find this so distasteful that all I can do is guess. To become famous by doing something new -- and this is certainly something new. Others have suggested that Foucault did this because of his very aberrant sexual practices.

2B: I always thought that what Foucault's writing was really about was his taste for BDSM sex. But I assume there’s a Marxist agenda there too.
Sure, there’s a Marxist agenda. It’s part of the 1968, soixante-huit movement. All the rest fizzled, but this hung on.

2B: I notice that many people barely seem to register a pleasant, enjoyable building or neighborhood. If it isn't flashing at them and turning cartwheels, they don't seem to see it. They don't register that they're feeling good when they're in it, and they don't think of what they're looking at or inside as architecture.
Just like a virus spreads after the conditions are optimal for the spread of a virus -- namely something has weakened the organism -- we have weakened our contemporary society by disconnecting from nature. First of all we destroyed our cities by converting them to purely automobile cities. This is more so outside of New York. We have the media, which is flashy and loud and fast.
Human beings as a biological animal have not changed our perceptions, but we have changed our way of perceiving things. So that really we are sort of numbed. We drive around all day in traffic, we watch TV with commercials every few minutes. There's this very fast scene-cutting, the hallmark of the modern media. That tunes the human organism so that when you happen by chance to walk into a beautiful church, you have been numbed. It's going to take a while for you to calm down enough to appreciate that this is a place of great beauty and that the beauty is nourishing to you. Most people will sit for 30 seconds, get restless and get up and leave, because of the way the contemporary culture is. These people will enter a decon building and feel the rush of adrenaline, which is a fight-or-flight reaction, and they will confuse this with genuine peace of mind and nourishment from the environment.

2B: They feel excited.
And it's rapid. It's like what you get from drugs. You can take drugs and you get this quick high, and it's intense. And many people in today's society would like that.

2B: It's a blast.
It's in keeping with the way our society has developed. It's speed and noise and intensity. In the olden days, people would sit down and listen to a Baroque music concert live and get a very positive and exhilarating experience. But it's at a much deeper level.

Theory in action: Eisenman's Wexner Center

2B: Do people today associate this buzzed feeling with an aesthetic judgment of "good"?
There is a severe disconnect here -- a real psychological and physiological disconnect. It can ruin people's connection to nature. When they're next to a tree, or next to their wife, they get a feeling of comfort. And they don't know how to classify these opposite feelings.

2B: I'm no scientist, but I've done enough reading to know that there's an actual science of perception. Many people don't realize how much is known these days about how the organism actually responds. Can we talk about that a bit?
I'm not an environmental psychologist. What I get is second hand, but I've gone to enormous lengths to get what I can from the literature. But there are physiological tests on the body -- the adrenaline level, the blood pressure, the pupil contracting. The fight-or-flight syndrome is an actual physiological reaction. And tests have been done that show that people in certain environmental circumstances react with a fight-or-flight syndrome if they encounter something unexpected, like unbalanced forms, or jagged edges.

2B: How do blank spaces affect people?
It's a different sort of anxiety. Minimalist spaces tend to remind us of our perceptual mechanism failing. The eye can fail, and you stop seeing things. Mimicking an environment in which the eye can fail gives rise to terrible anxiety. You may be having a detached retina, or there are lesions in the brain, and you lose the ability to see detail. You lose the ability to integrate detail into a coherent form.

2B: How about minimalist spaces?
Minimal spaces mimic brain pathologies. The loss of color is due to a lesion -- and so much of our award-winning architecture has this horrible gray! This gray mimics what's known as cerebral achromatopsia, which is due to strokes in a particular part of the brain. So all this stuff mimics pathologies of the brain/eye system and therefore introduces anxiety into your system, because it tells you that there's possibly a breakdown of the organism.

2B: Yet we're told that these experiences are wonderful, even transcendent, Zen-like aesthetic experiences.
It's a very, very successful encapsulation. These images are encapsulated in political liberation, the desire for innovation, economic success, technological progress.

2B: It's the damned attractive packaging again.
It's packaging. And inside the package there's a nasty virus.

* 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 1, 2003


Can we blame Le Corbusier for the suburbs?

I don't think so. Two factors led to the rise of suburbia:

1. After WWII, America began to build massive limited-access highways for automobiles. This made travel to urban centers rapid and convenient.

2. Many Americans never much liked cities in the first place. The United States runs on an agrarian ideology, one which tends to fetishize land ownership as an expression of wealth. In part this is because many American immigrants came to the US so that they could obtain their own land, an accomplishment which was no longer possible in Europe.

Combine these two factors and you get the suburb. It's a little piece of the country a short drive from the bustling city, where you can own and rule a tiny fiefdom.

The best evidence I can give for Le Corbu's lack of influence on suburbia is the architecture itself. If you live in suburbia, most likely you won't see purist white villas anywhere. What you will see are Tudor McMansions, quasi-Victorian farmhouses, and Western-style ranch homes. All of these buildings signify not modernism, but atavism; they hearken back to the nineteenth century, when the US population was primarily rural.

Suburbia is an American dream, not a French import. Which means that if it's unsupportable and detrimental, we have only ourselves to blame.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 1, 2003 1:59 AM

Good job guys! Thanks for doing this, and thanks to Mr. Salingaros for participating. I look forward to the rest of the interview.

On a related note, the current (May)issue of Commentary has some insightful comments by Michael F. Lewis on one of the "cult leaders" in an article titled "Into the Void with Daniel Libeskind". This does not appear to be available online.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on May 1, 2003 9:09 AM

Great work! As you'll see, I've even provided the clinical diagnosis for Le C at

Keep it up.

Posted by: Chris Bertram on May 1, 2003 9:13 AM

Incidentally, I'm going to stay out of the comments sections until the whole q&a is over. Prof. Salingaros has agreed to do a followup interview, though. So please do comment, criticize, quarrel, bicker, and ask questions. He and I will talk them over, and I'll pass along his responses in a few weeks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 1, 2003 10:23 AM

I have a question. I know very little about architecture, but the Professor states that people think architecture is "good" (or "desirable" or "important" or whatever) because a prize-winning architect designed it,and therefore the power brokers in the architecture industry control the whole shebang as they are the ones who award the prizes. Then museums or universities select the award-winning architects who then create these monstrosities which everyone hates, but don't even realize they hate, because it's supposed to be important architecture.

This strikes me as ridiculous. Everybody knows they hate this stuff---look at the reaction to the MIT dormitory on this very website. It's seems astonishingly patronizing to say people don't even realize the negative effect it has on them. I think plenty of people do. It may be that the power brokers promote the monstrosities, but I don't think people in general "buy in." I think most people know that the CAC with its feelings of anxiety is not what they want from a museum. Who is it that he is referring to, specifically, that he thinks "don't realize" that?

Also, I think his description of the suburbs is also patronizing---particularly from a man who lives in San Antonio (or Austin?). Plenty of people have a very nice lawn, that their kids CAN in fact play in, because they make it nice, whether it is of villa proportions or not. And it is the availability of this very space, not typically available in cities like New York (which seems to be the universal substitute for "city"---which is also patronizing) that caused people to move out of cities---not necessarily due to an extreme state like agoraphobia. And, by the way, I'm a fan of cities. But THERE is where one needs to be extremely wealthy to have decent living space. And people moved to the suburbs after cities became congested---cities did not become ugly and congested BECAUSE people moved to the suburbs.

Posted by: annette on May 1, 2003 6:09 PM

I know even less about architecture, but agree with annette. Austinites are very outdoorsy and, although not an Austinite, I spend plenty of time in the yard. Probably too much. There is the whole bugs in the coffee thing that goes with breakfast on the porch.

Posted by: j.c. on May 1, 2003 8:15 PM

Oh, and the suburbs solve the problem of sharing walls. God, I hate sharing walls.

Posted by: j.c. on May 1, 2003 8:16 PM

Others have suggested that Foucault did this because of his very aberrant sexual practices.

So the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were all postmodernists too? What about avowed postmodernists who don't engage in non-vanilla sexual practices, or avowed non-postmodernists who do?

Posted by: James Russell on May 2, 2003 3:48 AM

Oh, OK, so I have no self-discipline and can't resist jumping into a fun conversation.

Suburbs. A little history that I hope is useful. For the sake of this discussion, let me suggest thinking of suburbs as coming in two varieties. There's a long Anglo-American tradition of garden-like, prosperous towns (with town centers) on the edge of cities that people with enough dough created and moved to. These are the beautiful old towns on the outskirts of Chicago, NYC, Boston, Philly, etc. , that have been around for a long time and are generally still beautiful. These towns and this tradition have their own really interesting history. (The New Urbanists make pilgramages to these towns to learn from them -- as Tim Hulsey points out, many Americans have often liked a rural-esque or small-town-esque kind of existence.)

The kind of suburbanization that Salingaros and the Blowhards are talking about here is something else entirely -- it's the post-WW II suburbs. Quite apart from whether or not a given person is happy in a given house or not, the suburbanization of America in the couple of decades following WW II didn't just happen. It was a giant social-engineering project, quite consciously undertaken.

Two schemes came together here -- the modernist transformation of cities, and intense highway and freeway building. Factor one (part of which was the urban-renewal movement -- bulldozing neighborhoods, putting up slab-like apartment buildings, cutting cities up with freeways) led to people disliking cities -- cities lost their appeal, and people wanted to get out. Factor two made it easy to flee. It was a semi-collusion between government, the oil-and-car businesses, and the development business -- something akin, in architecture and town-planning terms, to the other giant social-engineering plans of those decades, from welfare to the construction of the state-college systems.

Where did this vision come from? And what was it? Well, it was a top-down, engineering approach that came from what's known as authoritarian modernism -- the idea that rational experts using abstract engineering means could solve society's problems by imposing one-size-fits-all schemes on society. It was all a question of getting the right experts into the right positions of power. The main propagandist for this vision in the architecture and town-planning world was Le Corbusier. (It's useful to think of him as the salesman for a kind of utopian corporate socialism.) Box-like white houses or not, the idea that everyone should have a house that sits in the middle of a piece of land is something he's largely responsible for, and is quite different than the older Anglo-American "town" tradition described above.

The vision started to get attacked in the mid-'60s, when people started noticing that great buildings were being torn down (the destruction of Penn Station in NYC set off the historical preservation movement), when pop/folk singers started singing derisive songs about ticky-tacky developments, when Jane Jacobs wrote "Death and Life of Great Americans Cities," when Venturi and Rauch wrote "Learning from Las Vegas."

People have been reacting against authoritarian modernism in one way or another ever since. Log cabins, condos, communes, postmodernism, self-building, gated communities -- all these various trends and movements have been attempts to offer alternatives to the top-down, authoritarian-modernist, rationalist thing. (But the authoritarian-modernist thing grinds on, resulting in tons of shopping malls, parking lots, strip malls and cul de sacs.) It's a story that's similar to story of politics at large in the post WWII years -- there was a huge, couple-of-decades-long expansion in government/corporate activity. Then it kind of over-extended itself, but found itself locked into a lot of things. And a lot of the politics we've had in the last 30 years have been reactions against (or for) what was done in the '50s and '60s. Some people think that the trouble is that that era didn't go far enough. Some people want to forget it ever happened. Some people want to keep it but revise it. Etc, etc.

The trouble, or challenge, for everyone in the architecture-and-town-planning world is that all the schemes that were put in place in the '50s and '60s -- the zoning, the huge Depts of Transportation, the deals between politicians and developers and even Fire Departments -- now seem written in stone. Few people are crazy about the results. They may like their house, but not like the commute; or wish they could interact with their neighbors, or dislike the giant parking lots, etc etc. But there are huge vested interests in place that are very difficult to wrestle with. In many areas, inf act, because of these post-WWII regulations and demands, it's almost impossible to develop an area in a non-strip-mall/cul-de-sac way. (This is one reason why New Urbanists are as interested in revising zoning laws -- getting at the DNA -- as they are in building individual buildings.)

All this, by the way, is uncontroversial as history. Modernists, po-mos, radicals, conservatives, economic historians -- it's widely-agreed on as basic fact. The only place people differ is in their ideas about what to do in the face of these basic facts.

So: beautiful leafy towns on the outskirts of cities, often with actual town center, sidewalks, etc -- that's one tradition. Sprawl developments with shopping malls and strip malls and no town centers, no possibility of walking, and long commutes to modernist towers in nearly-empty cities? That's all post-WW II social-engineering. Remember the New Frontier, the Great Society, the War on Poverty -- all those ambitious post WWII schemes? The Vietnam War, the immense growth of government, the moon shot? Some of this may have been good, some bad, but it was all part of an ambitious, can-do, top-down approach to life. It had a very American and dynamic, we-beat-the-hun-and-we're-prosperous-and-can-do-anything spirit about it, but the basic vision was rationalist and Euro-modernist. The modernism-ing of cities, the freeway-ing of the countryside, and the acres and acres of sprawling cul de sacs -- part of the exact same over-ambitious post WWII thing. Same impulses, ambitions and methods, only as expressed in buildings and towns. Anything but a matter of freely-expressed desires being responded-to by the market, in other words.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2003 11:16 AM

Thanks, defining "suburbs" is helpful. But I'm still a little confused on another point. Which architecture is he (and the Blowhards, I assume) complaining about---slab-like apartment buildings, which may have had an economic utility if not an aesthetic one--or the crazed modern nuthouses like the CAC---which seem to come from the "power brokers who give out the prizes." Those seem to be two very different things.

Posted by: annette on May 2, 2003 12:10 PM

Hey James,

I suspect it all depends on whether you're able to take Foucault at his word, whether you're able to accept his work as actual history and actual philosophy. I can't. (Prof. Salingaros will speak for himself.) I found that Foucault's writing has a kind of hallucinatory, over-exhilarated quality that's fascinating for a bit, but I also found that I simply couldn't take it seriously as history or philosophy. It seemed ludicrous to me -- paranoid, hysterical and very very suspect. So I started wondering what the hell he was really up to. I can be pretty slow, but it finally came to me that he was basically using history and philosophy to help him special-plead for a gay-BDSM-liberation, '68ish revolutionary theology. Everything (facts, stories, arguments) was being enlisted to help him make his case.

I certainly don't mind propaganda, and I certainly don't mind gay people having themselves some BDSM fun. But, as far as I was concerned, he was marketing BDSM-revolutionary propaganda as serious history and serious philosophy. As history and philosophy, I find it cartoonish and childish -- so much hysterical Marxist nonsense. So my choice is to forget the pretence of history and philosophy and deal with his work as propaganda.

Pleased to say I came to this well before the news came out about Foucault's private life -- ta-dah! (Rare moment of intellectual triumph.) But since Jim Miller's biography of Foucault was published, it hasn't been rare to see Foucault's work discussed primarily as expressions of his sex preferences. This may be wrong, or unfair, but it's not unusual.

Do you get much out of Foucault?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2003 1:02 PM

Excellent comments post-WW II social-engineering, but don't you think it's well worth noting that, post WWII, an enormous number of people who grew up conditions, often urban, that they did not like, finally had the opportunity to do something new and different? I believe they tended to want a free-standing home with a little grass to call their own. We should keep in mind that for ticky-tacky was not a bad alternative for many.

And consider the working stiff whose best hope for a little castle is a double wide on a non-flooding lot surrounded by a chain-link fence to keep the kids and dogs safe. As we know, even the boll weevil gotta have a home. Hoards and hoards of GIs must have said, "well this 'burb is mighty bland, but I'll stand it like man... and besides, my daughter can outside without some drunk in his undershirt leering at them from the stoop and the air doesn't reek."

I suspect that what turned me off of discussing urban planning and architecture (except here) was the wide-spread contempt for poor people. Once upon a time, I suppose, it was sad that trailers have such a short life. Today, so many new homes and buildings are so poorly built that it hardly matters.

Posted by: j.c. on May 2, 2003 1:59 PM


You are so right about the zoning, transportation department, fire department rules ossified since the 50's creating inevitable horrible suburbia. I have done work in suburban areas and the results are completely predetermined by setbacks, maximum lot coverage areas, single use zoning, minimum parking space numbers and transportation department road standards. This is where the problems with modern architecture really are - a socialist/utopian attitude towards city planning. Even in many areas where they object strongly to this kind of thing, the solutions are always increased regulation - appearance reviews, stricter zoning, etc which just makes the problem worse. The reason all suburbs in america look the same is because there are two (i believe) companies that publish model codes for towns that they just buy off the shelf. The role of new urbanism should be fighting these standards.

But I am nervous about blanket condemnations of any kind of architecture. Modern architecture is not quite the force for evil in the world that I keep reading on this blog. That said, modernist urban planning is as bad or worse than has been expressed. What we need to be worried about is any totalitarian vision for architecture or urbanism. A strong town or city has the capability to absorb any style of architecture or building type, but any utopian or totalizing scheme will always destroy the city. Hitler and Speer's megalomanical plan for Berlin (dispite it's neo-classical style) was not a good thing regardless of how much Leon Krier liked it. We need architecture and urban planning that is anti-utopian and anti-totalitarian, not necessarilly anti-modern.

Posted by: Tom on May 2, 2003 2:26 PM

Hey Tom, Gorgeously put, many thanks. You sound much better informed about this than I'll ever be, and thanks for sharing the knowledge. Two companies draw up all the town coding? Heavens, talk about standardized. I know that the New Urbanists have drawn up their own sample town codes which they claim are better. One of them once told me that one of the biggest problems they face is Fire Department rules. All those really wide suburban streets? They're murder on kids and visiting neighbors, but they're mandatory because Fire Dept regulations insist that the street has to be wide enough for a fire truck to make a U-turn. Have you had a chance to look at the New Urbanist rewrites of town codes? Do they seem like an improvement?

As for modernism as a style, I'm very fond of some modernism myself, and am curious to know your thoughts about one eternal modernist issue. The problem with many modernist buildings is not just that they're conceived of as free-standing (ie., not as part of a block, neighborhood, town or city), but in order to stand out -- they're intended to intervene, to disrupt, to rupture. Modern/po-mo stuff seems to have a hard time playing nice with all the other kids, in other words. A neighborhood full of it tends to be either a wasteland or a jangle. Modernism per se is based on the notion of the clean slate, of inventing from scratch, of standing-out (po-mo somewhat less, admittedly). The modernism I like tends to be very modest, and to take its modest place in the general run of things. But so few modern works seem to be willing to do that. So, as far as architecture and urbanism go anyway, I get suspicious of it. (A modern poem or painting? Who cares? No one's forcing anyone to read or look at it. But a building has a public existence, and we're all stuck with it.) There seems to be something at its heart that wants to take over.

Your thoughts?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2003 2:45 PM

Hey Annette --

Thanks for raising the modernist/po-mo/decon question, which can be a confusing one.

There seem to be two main ways of looking at it. The generally-accepted, establishment (ie., architecture-school, architecture-magazine) one is that as modernism's shortcomings became evident, po-mo shook things up by introducing irony, playfulness, historical references, etc; and then decon came along to break things down even further. Now we have exploded forms. In a chaotic, pixillated world that's turning virtual, this is the architecture that's appropriate. That's the rationale behind stuff like that Cincinatti Museum.

Another way of looking at it is the one we Blowhards are selling at this blog, and that I suspect Prof. Salingaros would get behind too (not that I'd presume to speak for him, and I'll be sure to put your question to him once we've finished this series). It's that it's all the same crowd, still trying to do the same thing -- that po-mo and decon aren't alternatives to modernism but are instead the latest version of modernism. Kinky, twisty, zoomy, blown-apart versions of it, but basically the same people doing the same thing, only at a different time, and with groovy computer programs to help them along.

At this blog (and for better or worse), we're suggesting looking at modernism and po-mo and decon as one continuous thing, and we're further suggesting that there are real alternatives to the whole mess. You can just opt out of that line of reasoning and design entirely, and adopt entirely different terms. Bag the abstraction, bag the "referencing," bag the irony, bag the theory, bag the idea that art or architecture must express what some prof somewhere has decided is the spirit of the age. And get on instead with dealing with the questions that architecture and urbanism dealt with for millenia before modernism came along: trying to make the built environment serve people's needs and pleasures.

This is the rationale for taking a sincere, non-ironic look at tradition and traditional forms -- a conviction that traditional building forms (and town forms and city forms) evolved over centuries because people found them useful, pleasurable and beautiful. How to make a park that people enjoy? How to make a town square that attracts business and pleasure-seekers? How to make a neighborhood people are fond of? These things were once a big part of what was discussed when "architecture" was discussed. There were star architects and showpiece buildings too, but they grew out of a more general matrix.

Much was known about these topics too -- how to make things that "worked," a busy, happy park instead of "empty space," for instance. What worked and what didn't was a big part of what the "architecture" discussion was always about. Then Modernism came along, pushed all this acquired and evolved experience and wisdom off the table, and said, Hey, we're starting again at square one, and we're going to do it entirely by rational (ie., abstract and geometrical) means. Why? Because we're modernists, and we know better.

What the Kriers, neotrads, Salingaroses (and, modestly, Blowhards) are suggesting is: why not try to reconnect with non-modernist traditions, and learn from them and put them to use in the contemporary world? Why not return to a basis in pleasure, tradition, and a conversation about what works and what doesn't?

You could certainly argue, as the establishment will, that po-mo reintroduced history, and that decon has blown up the geometry. But you can also argue (as Alexander and Salingaros and the neotraditionalists do) that, full of references or not, blown-up or not, whether or not it's been made to do some sort of virtual frug and hula or not, it's still the same 'ol rationalism, being peddled by the same ol' rationalists -- and that the rationalism itself is what's really the problem.

Part of the confusion many people feel is the familiar one -- that what was once avant-garde is now establishment. The rebels run the roost, in other words. They still use the old rhetoric, but they're in charge now, so the avant-garde people are now the staid people, the squares. They've got the schools, the magazines, the foundations, and the prizes. They hang with media-conglomerate honchos. Since they command the rhetorical heights, they get to call everyone who disagrees with them square and reactonary -- because, after all, aren't they themselves avant-garde? Yet the people they're assailing are the ones who are really anti-establishment. All of which confuses everybody -- which suits the avant-garde establishment class just fine.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2003 3:19 PM

Oops, forgot an important element. Which concerns what we're peddling here as the real alternative to modernism. It's this: there's a big overlap between neotraditionalism and the kind of ultra-forward-looking science Prof. Salingaros is describing. The sorts of shapes, forms, and processes (what Christopher Alexander calls the "patterns") that emerge when you really start to get traditional artistic forms turn out to be the exact same ones you encounter when you plunge into chaos theory, or into looking at the genome, or at edgey computer science. Same forms, same principles.

Alexander and Salingaros are more science-oriented, where someone like Leon Krier is more history-oriented. But their thinking and approaches and conclusions are remarkably similar. Evo-bio, genetics, neuroscience, and computer science are, it seems, converging (as I, in my hyper-amateurish way, understand it) on the notion that there is a certain class of structures that are essentially algorithms for life and growth. (As opposed to closed, dead-end equations, or algorithms that lead to bizarreness or cancer or death.) How interesting to learn that these algorithms for life and growth are very close to the "rules" of classical architecture, the "rules" of traditional town planning, even the "rules" of traditional storytelling. Look at a classical building or a classical city, for one example, and you'll see fractals -- arches within arches, buildings within buildings, temples within temples, units within units. It's a rich enough language of forms and processes for the possible variations and elaborations to be infinite. (No need, in other words, for egotects to create a new fractal architecture.)It's a language -- a set of things (arches, lintels, niches), and an underlying set of rules and processes (a grammar). And, just as you can use a language to say what you want to say, you can use these elements to accomplish what you want to accomplish in building.

The grammar of traditional artforms, in other words, is looking more and more like an extension of the grammar of language, which in turn is looking ever more like an extension of the grammar of living nature itself. In other words, the culture vs. nature quarrel hasn't been resolved, it's been dissolved -- it's a continuum. Fredrick Turner has a very interesting book about this called "Natural Classicism."

You can make this vision out if you look back at tradition. You can make it out if you look forward, through the latest science. Either way, you'll be seeing roughly the same thing. But you won't see it at all if you let your gaze be limited by what the establishment architecture (or art or lit) world is selling you.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2003 5:07 PM

Nice of everyone to put up with my yakking, by the way. I was beginning to feel a little over-exhilarated there myself, like I was turning into a neotrad Michel Foucault. I promise to try to get hold of myself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 2, 2003 5:12 PM

I appreciate the post by Michael about the fact that modernist, pomo, and deconstructivist "style" are all the same thing - which they basically are. I say modernist instead of modern because I think that there are at least two levels to what modern architecture is. Modernism at the level of the orthodox european modern movement - socialist, utopian, year zero attitude towards history, puritanical, etc. is a very difficult thing to digest especially considering the low quality of much of the output and if you have a problem with the politics. There is possibly another level to this though. If you think of modernism/modernization at a societal level ie industrial and information revolution, globalization, advanced science, etc modern architecture can mean something different. For example - utilizing industrialized construction techniques or building types that came along in response to societal and technological breakthroughs. Is there such thing as a neo traditional airport, or car factory, or skyscraper? If you believe this is modern architecture, then stylistic orthodoxy becomes less important. The important thing becomes attitudes towards technological progress and the future. I believe in the capacity of advanced science and technology to improve people's lives. The way that can be applied to architecture is buildings that have healthier indoor environments, are cheaper to build, make life more convenient, improve living conditions, etc. and anything that strives in this direction is automatically modern architecture (in the same sense as modern medicine). If you think of architecture in the same way you think of airplanes, computers, electronics,etc, then "style" becomes less and less important.

It is a very tricky business to make a building and you have to be humble about it. The worst architecture always is trying to prove some kind of point or adhere to some kind of unquestioning stylistic orthodoxy (whatever style that may be). Good architecture should be technically excellent, efficient, appropriate for it's context, functional, and beautiful. It should not be an art work, a political statement, a fashion statement, an unnecessary extravagance, or an eysore. This is not about style, it is about performance in the real world.

Architecture is a deadly serious business with the very real capacity to improve or worsen people's lives. If something is from the past and it works, use it. If it doesn't, throw it out. If something from the modern movement works, use it. if it doesn't, throw it out. If a technology works, use it ....

Posted by: Tom on May 2, 2003 5:24 PM

The problem that architects have with Alexander is, I think, less to do with A Pattern Language, than it does with his other book, The Timeless Way of Building and his built works.

A Timeless Way recommends that we do away with all modern construction materials and techniques and completely go back to craft building which strikes many as completely unserious. This built work also tends to be less than impressive from what i've seen.

Posted by: tom on May 2, 2003 5:27 PM

That bit by Tom about building codes does indeed hit the nail on the head. They are not the only area of law (or "regulations") to be incorporated by reference into State or local statutes that are commercially produced and covered by Copyright.

Which means you can't just freely get a copy, or freely put them online. Which means that we are governed by laws we cannot read, unless we stomp down to the library, which of course does not have all of the relevant volumes on the shelf.

A bit like having to go through the medieval Priest to experience the Bible or religion.

The father of one of my oldest friends in Arizona is heavily involved in the alternative building materials movement, and the technological favoritism shown to particular building materials in the standardized building codes boggles the mind. He started out building straw bale houses, wrote a few books on it, and then got involved with building code reform, as nothing radical could be done with materials for Green housing in most areas do to the industry written codes.

No public or open process used to define them, and they are state and county law.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 3, 2003 4:20 AM

Thanks for the architectural tutorial, although I wouldn't presume to say I know "anything" yet. But intuitively the way Michael describes developing a desirable living environment sounds nourishing and appealing to me. And if that's the result, I'm the professor's biggest fan.

Does anybody think the official architecture school way of forcing po mo/decon designs on students is related to what I percieve as the general unhappiness factor of pretty much every professional academic I have personally known, in any discipline---and sorry in advance to any professional academics who post here. I'm just a commenter, don't blame the website!

But I recently looked into pursuing a doctoral program at major research-oriented school and was really genuinely scared off by the (to me) just wierd and (to me) totally-disconnected-from-the-real-world vibes of these people. They didn't strike me as types who would know the first thing about a nurturing, beautiful, happy environment (although these were not architecture academics, I admit). I have really only known two professors in my life who seemed connected to a real world and who did in fact create an open and reasonably fun environment in their classrooms, and I did learn a lot from them. But there are at a teaching-oriented liberal arts school, which is considered a "waste of their Ph.D" by the super-academics who value research above all else.

Posted by: annette on May 3, 2003 7:14 PM


I can't speak for anyone else, but after a few years embedded in higher academia (cinema studie, 'natch), I can report that most of the people there are very disconnected from the real world. It's not so much like a cult, in my experience, as a general haze: everyone is invested in supporting each other's fuzzy thinking.

Posted by: JW on May 4, 2003 12:47 AM

For a exhilarating fictional read of architecture (and the new ways of building, of course) and science gone completely mad, I suggest reading THE GRIDIRON, or the GRID(in American publication) by philip kerr. After reding this, I found myself wanting to abandon all modern building techniques and return to craft, seriously.

Posted by: myron on May 4, 2003 2:43 PM

This is a wonderful conversation! Thank you for doing the interview.

As a long-time fan of Alexander, I am happily living in a beautiful peri-urban old town in Ontario, similar to those you mention. Sadly, modernist suburbs of the worst kind are being built onto our town. It seems to me that this is as much an issue of local politics as it is of architecture.

(By the way: some of the links you provide do not work.)

Posted by: Gideon Strauss on May 10, 2003 8:44 PM


Nice one Nikos. Of course, the government that shut down the Bauhaus down was the National Socialists [aka Nazis]. The National Socialists had a virulent reaction to modern architecture and art, and did think that such art and architecture was associated with degenerate culture [you can easily figure out the coded phraseology]. But to mention the exact government that shut down the Bauhaus doesn't make for such a pretty argument does it?

Posted by: debritto on April 28, 2004 10:43 AM

I just graduated from a school of architecture (U of Kentucky)yet the readings of C.Alexander and N.Salingaros compel me more so than anything I learned (excpet for Prof. Richard Levine's studios). I am now ready to fully participate in the architectural paradigm shift. Bravo! Excellent info!!

Posted by: doug on July 12, 2004 11:14 PM

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