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« A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Two | Main | A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Four »

May 05, 2003

A Week With Nikos Salingaros -- Part Three

2Blowhards is taking a hiatus from the usual to devote a week to a conversation with the architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. This is Part Three. Part One is here. Part Two is here.



2B: From a practical point of view, some of the things you advocate don't seem very practical. No skyscrapers, for instance.
Well, no one has asked, "What is a skyscraper?" It's just a very large construction that requires the very latest technology to make it work. Let's look at other large constructions mankind has built -- say, a petrochemical plant. Now a petrochemical plant brings together things that necessarily interact, pieces of chemical processes and pipes, because they connect with each other to perform a technological and industrial task. And every piece of the petrochemical plant is there to interact with every other piece.

petrochemical plant01.jpg Self-organization: Parts interacting with other parts

2B: The purpose provides the organization.
Right, it is self-organized. Not that things snap into place by themselves, but every piece is necessary because the pieces form part of a larger whole. Because of the nature of the petrochemical plant it has to be a huge thing. So human beings construct a petrochemical plant -- horizontally -- and it has a specific function. Now when you look at every complex structure in nature it's of that type. The pieces come together because they interact. And they stay together because they interact. And they form a large complex whole that does something. And the pieces are there because they contribute something to the larger emergent structure of the whole.

2B: Again, the purpose.
Right. And let me get to the modern skyscraper. What does it contain? It contains non-interacting parts. None of those parts are there because they need to interact with each other inside the skyscraper. Today's skyscrapers, like the defunct World Trade Center, contain people in non-interacting offices. They interact electronically with other people outside that building. There's absolutely no reason for all those people to be there together. It is the antithesis of the formation of a complex system.

2B: They're just a bunch of monads that have been stacked on top of each other.
It's called a heap -- a bunch of non-interacting nodes that are just pushed together. An enormous amount of advanced technology is required just to keep them geographically and geometrically together. But there's no reason for them to be together, and absolutely no reason for them to go up.

cross section of skyscraper.jpg A heap: Pushed-together, non-interacting parts

2B: What are the disadvantages of going up?
The disadvantage is that a skyscraper is like a tree with leaves -- what you see up top represents something even bigger down below. The skyscraper has to be fed. It exists as a concentration of nodes in the network -- the electricity, the sewage, the transport. So there's a concentration of nodes there, and when you concentrate nodes things become singular. Too many, and the thing becomes unmanageable. You have to invent more and more technical solutions in order to take care of this over-concentration of the network.

2B: The city impoverishes itself in order to keep the skyscraper sustained.
The city is paying a lot, and sometimes it does impoverish itself -- which is apparent when you see the wastelands of parking that the skyscraper creates around itself. The taller the building goes, the more it needs to be supported underneath. If you don't have the support it starts to be parasitic on the surrounding area. If you do have the support, fine. But it's extraordinarily expensive, and the ridiculous thing is that there's no reason for this expense. Why pay for it? You're paying for it because it's a totem -- it's like Northwest Coast totem poles. It's a religious totem from the mind of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. We're worshipping and building these totems because they have become part of our culture.

2B: Walking around New York City, I'm often struck by how much space the maintenance of a skyscraper can use up. The garbage, the entrance and exit bays -- they can easily use up half a block. Yet most passersby don't even seem to notice this fact.
But the biggest thing is underneath. If you don't have the tunnels and underground infrastructure of New York City, New York City will come to a halt in one hour. Of course it's a technological marvel, the ability to do it. But it's extremely expensive. And why do it? Nobody asks that question.

2B: What strikes me most about modernist/po-mo/decon thinking is that it's so circular. And it's basic that people who are caught up in circular ways of thinking can't be reached. So what point is there in trying to reason with them?
I’m not reasoning with anybody. I’m a scientist. I have always remained a scientist. I present discoveries for the public to see, and I wait for the response from the public. Sometimes I get feedback that’s reasonable, and it helps me to sharpen my thoughts. Sometimes I get feedback that is unreasonable, but it doesn’t bother me. I see myself creating an edifice that will hopefully live on. I’m building on results that are a compilation of discovered knowledge that is useful for creating things. And people do use them now to create beautiful things.

2B: I’ve taken a lot of arts classes over the years, and I know that the idea that there might be any rules or recipes -- or that science might play a role in creativity at all -- is often seen by arty people as anti-creative.
But science can help in creativity. There has been a big lie that science hinders creativity. Let’s go to the great artists of the past. They were in part scientists. They mixed their own paints. They had to study perspective and anatomy, the laws of pigments and effects. There was a lot of science in art, and there was a tremendous amount of science in architecture. All that is gone now. The scientist has become the enemy. And in a weird turn of fate you have people like Le Corbusier who claim scientific support for his ridiculous theories. He had absolutely no idea what science was.

2B: Yet he had a diabolical cleverness.
Claiming that science was on his side was another encapsulation. You have these ridiculous ideas, and Le Corbusier publishes them in his own journal, which he edits and prints, claiming that “The latest findings of science support these theories...” And then no scientist looked into it to say, "This is nonsense."

le voisin plan.jpg What Le Corbusier wanted Paris to look like

2B: Which is what you’re up to when you wrestle with the decon appropriation of chaos theory, for instance.
It’s brilliant of them to take these words which they do not understand -- chaos, nonlinearity, fractals -- and claim that this supports deconstructivist architecture. People reading this think, "Oh, that’s fantastic." This is a brilliant encapsulation. It’s a replay -- it’s like re-making the old black and white films in color 30 years later.
A great propagandist, Sigfried Giedeon, wrote this thick book called Space, Time and Architecture (here), and in it he said that that modernist architecture is founded on space-time and the theories of Einstein. Well, he had no idea of the theories of Einstein! Completely ridiculous! (Laughs heartily.) But this is still a fundamental text for architecture students. I happen to know because I’ve taught Special and General Relativity. But some poor architecture student, seeing these words on a book, just swallows it.

2B: They’re helpless.
Yeah. So now you have the equivalents of Sigfried Giedeon saying deconstructivist architecture is founded on the work of the new scientists. And note the use of the adjective “new.” Chaos, catastrophe theory -- it seems very exciting. They will describe some of the new science that they’ve gotten from popular science books. And then, without any connection whatsoever, they will say, "So, the new deconstructivist buildings are supported by the new science!" It’s a ridiculous association. But since architects have stopped learning any logical mode of analysis, they cannot see that this is bogus.

2B: I've always been struck by how un-intellectual arty creative people often are. However talented, their reasoning abilities usually aren't very impressive. And at the art and architecture schools their reasoning abilities aren't being nurtured.
This is true. However, it's a question of training. You have to train a human being either to think logically and analytically, or to accept a cult. So it is a product of the education. Even totally untrained human beings have a certain innate wisdom that enables them to avoid being sold something ridiculous. However, when you have an educational system that trains people to accept a cult, and therefore does not train them to think logically, then the result is that they're indoctrinated. Most science students are taught to think analytically and logically. It's what we do. And that's where you see the striking difference between scientist types and arty types. It's strictly a product of their education.

2B: When I talk to people about these questions, I often find myself winding up in disputes about whether someone's talented. I don't find these discussions very interesting.
Talent is a word that's very difficult to touch.

gehry vitra.jpg hadid03.jpg eisenman01.jpg Signature work by Gehry, Hadid, and Eisenman

2B: When you look at the work of a Gehry, or a Hadid, or an Eisenman, do you see talent there?
No. But that does not mean they do not have talent. I think it's really difficult to judge whether they have talent or not. Talent is shown only when you have a certain set of rules, which people refuse to consider. When you give a group of people the same set of rules and you tell them "Here, you create something from this set of rules," that's when talent is shown. The more talented person will create the more interesting result using the same sort of rules.

2B: Without a framework there is no basis for judgment.
It's almost impossible to judge talent otherwise. Now, speaking of talent, I would like to see an architectural education that can teach untalented students rules so that they can create a humane building. That is my dream.

2B: I often think of a cooking education as a model for an arts education. I have friends who've gone to cooking school, and they get a rigorous training in technique, as well as chemistry --
It's the scientific basis of cooking!

2B: -- and they come out of it prepared to create almost any kind of meal.
That's what an architectural education should be. It should be rigorous, and it should teach techniques. You could restructure architectural education starting tomorrow so that students in the first year start to learn Christopher's Pattern Language (here) Leon Krier's Architecture: Choice or Fate (here), and five or six other excellent books that tell you how to do things. And that will parallel a scientific education in which you're taught how things are and how things work. At the same time, you are taught how to put things together in order to make humane buildings that human beings find pleasure in, that they are comfortable in, and that work in a city context. And how to build cities.
Now, at the end of this training period the untalented students will have a basic knowledge so that they can go and build a warehouse, a strip mall or a gasoline station that will be not so bad -- because they know the basic techniques so they don't mess things up. The talented student, on the other hand, will produce a masterpiece, if given the right commission.



* 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 5, 2003


Hey all, Thanks for stopping by and reading. We're very pleased to be running this series, and pleased as well that Prof. Salingaros has agreed to do a followup interview. So please feel free in your comments to ask questions and make criticisms. We'll pull them together and raise them during our next talk with the Professor.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2003 2:18 AM

Speaking of architects and scientific training, I've noticed that in Milan everyone is an architect.

I mean this literally. For some reason, in Italy, an architecture degree is seen as the normal academic endpoint for a large number of careers that probably have nothing to do with buildings. For instance, most of the people I know are industrial designers and I think at least half of them are officially architects.

At first I was impressed by this, until I realized how little technical training it implies. All of that is offloaded onto "building engineers." I don't know if the same holds true for American architects.

Posted by: alexis on May 5, 2003 4:56 AM

I'm curious how Professor Salingaros reconciles his anti-skyscraper position with what I would call the "Cities in Civilization" notion of the creative value of human clustering. I mean, it seems a bit sweeping to say the skyscraper has no rationale, given its widespread use. Surely it's not just in deference to Corbusier or Mies that a whole bunch of them have been built in Manhattan and across the globe, most of which are full of tenants paying sufficient rent to make them going concerns, at least financially (if not aesthetically). Is Prof. Salingaros suggesting that somehow skyscrapers are only superficially profitable because they receive (direct or indirect) subsidies or can transfer costs to others? I can think of values that would make a lot of people want to hang out in a central city environment (and thus make them willing to pay the financial premium that comes with such a location): being in the right neighborhood may give them access to trained people, easier access to financing, access to the latest thinking and trends, etc. While it may be true that people in skyscrapers don't interact with the people on different floors of their own building, they may well need to interact face-to-face with many people in nearby buildings. In short, the fit of the individual building to the individual business enterprise may not be the appropriate issue to consider here; perhaps we should be thinking in terms of the fit of the neighborhood (electronic and physical)to an entire industry or to a cluster of interrelated industries. What are the good professor's thoughts about ways to do such high density clustering that don't involve the negative aspects of conventional central city architecture/transportation/infrastructure?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 5, 2003 1:15 PM

Actually, if you want to get a good overview of the politics behind skysraper contruction, I'd recommend Robert Fitch's "The Assassination of New York". While he has marxist sympathies, they don't get in the way of his reportage, and he does an excellent job of finding out where some of the bodies are buried. It's a good bookend to Caro's "The Power Broker" (and if you haven't read that, walk, don't run...)

Basically, if you own some land that has, say, a factory on it, and you can get it rezoned to kick the factory out, get the city to build mass transit, utilities, etc. to you, and build as high as you can, you can make a fairly quick 1000% profit. It's enough to fund quite a bit of politics. Fitch in particular sheds some light on the RPA - a shadowy private foundation that has periodically put forth "regional plans" for the NY metropolitan area that have a eerie habit of being followed to the letter...

Posted by: jimbo on May 5, 2003 2:58 PM

See comments for Part 2 for some other skyscraper remarks.

Posted by: annette on May 5, 2003 3:27 PM

Hey all, great comments and questions, which we'll be sure to pass along to the prof.

Hey Alexis, that's hilarious, thanks. I've always thought there's real research and thinking to do about the impact of Italian (ie., hyperbolic, exaggerated) ways of speaking and thinking on Western civ. A hundred years ago I spent a little time there, and still recall how prone they were to use words like "artist" and "genius." A car mechanic who managed to get your car fixed was "an artist!" and everyone toasted him as such. I suspect sometimes that we sincere, literal Americans take Europeans 'way too seriously. The French, for instance, don't take their radical philosophers as seriously as we do. They're more like provocateurs -- chic, sexy jewelry. Then it's back to the bourgeois lives.

The head-butting between architects and engineers is strange, isn't it? I remember hearing from one engineer about his conflicts with some architect or other (Eisenman? someone like that), who was determined to have some kind of roof on a building that made no sense in a snowy, wet climate. The engineer, who had real practical experience, said, this is nuts. The architect insisted -- it was part of the concept! And sure enough, it turned out to be a severe leaker. But I suppose it looked good, or chic anyway. Glad I wasn't paying for it.

Hey Jimbo, Thanks for recommending the Fitch, which I'm not at all familiar with. How these things really happen is fascinating, if sometimes depressing. As Tom and a few other commenters have observed, it's the deals and regulations that have locked us into the kind of development we have -- and none of it is really in our best interests.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2003 7:56 PM

An interesting (short, thus far) discussion has sprung up between Jim Kalb and Lawrence Auster that takes off from our Q&A here at 2Blowhards. It can be read here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2003 9:55 PM

Very interesting interview. While the talk on architecture is interesting, what has gripped me most is the discussion of the formation of dogma in the arts. After returning for an advanced degree late (English), I became quickly disillusioned by the incestual thought that appears to be the norm in the academy. Challenging dogma provokes the turned shoulder of ostracism, the shared wink of superiority, and the echoes of addressing a vacant hall. There is no real debate, only the immediate effort to silence one who dares challenge what is "accepted thought."

There is a similar cult extant in poetry. Limits are anathema. It is horrified by the thought that any restriction of freedom, such as that inherent in working in a "form," stifles creativity. Frederick Turner's theoretical work was mentioned in passing. His work challenges the ruling dogma and gets mostly ignored.

I believe "Modernism" originated in architecture and other arts followed in taking on themselves that label. Perhaps the work of Alexander, Salingaros and others in the field of architecture can again lead the way, this time back to more sensible thinking.

Posted by: Dan on May 5, 2003 11:55 PM

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