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April 15, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 1

The architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros is, as some visitors know, a 2Blowhards favorite. We've been thrilled to publish a long q&a with Nikos (this page here will give you access to the interview's five parts); a piece Nikos co-wrote with Brian Hanson about the architect Daniel Libeskind (which is readable here); a collection of thoughts about Louis Kahn (here); and a short essay about Bernard Tschumi's New Acropolis Museum; you can read that piece here.

So we were excited to learn that Nikos has extended his thinking about deconstruction and Tschumi, and has composed a new essay. It's a beauty: eye-opening, contentious, provocative, humane, and great fun. It's likely to set off new thoughts and establish new connections even if you aren't an architecture-and-urbanism buff. We're pleased to be able to publish Nikos' new essay on our blog. Given that it's a sizable piece of writing, we'll run it in bite-sized pieces over the next eight days. (Alongside our usual hijinks, of course.)

Here's Part One.

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

This is a series of chapters from an essay that tries to make sense of contemporary architectural theory. I will discuss some aspects of deconstructivism, with particular emphasis on the theoretical contributions of Bernard Tschumi.

1. Architectural theory.

In order to discuss any supposed contributions to architectural theory, it is necessary to define what architectural theory is. A theory in any discipline is a general framework that (1) explains observed phenomena; (2) predicts effects that appear under specific circumstances; and (3) enables one to create new situations that perform in a way predicted by the theory. In architecture, a theoretical framework ought to explain why buildings affect human beings in certain ways, and why some buildings are more successful than others, both in practical as well as in psychological and aesthetic terms. One important requirement of an architectural theory is to coordinate and make sense of scattered and apparently unrelated observations of how human beings interact with built form. Another is to formalize those observations into an easy-to-apply framework that can be used for design.

Sadly, architecture is only now embarking on a long-overdue formulation of its theoretical basis. It is not an exaggeration to say that up until now, the field has been driven by personal whim and fashion rather than being supported by any theoretical foundation. As a result of a serious misunderstanding (due to scientific ignorance by three generations of architects), a voluminous body of writings has been mistaken for "architectural theory", even though it is nothing of the sort. This material is taught to architecture students, and is studied by practicing architects; nevertheless, it merely serves to promote certain stylistic fashions and dogmas rather than an understanding of architectural form. Enough genuine architectural theory now exists to form a nucleus from which the topic can be built. This nucleus consists of the writings of Christopher Alexander, Léon Krier, the present author, and a few others.

Genuine architectural theory has developed into two parallel strands. The first is the approach based on solutions that work historically. Not surprisingly, this strand turns to traditional architecture, using its typologies in an innovative manner. Architects ignorant of this strand of architectural theory misjudge it, falsely thinking that it merely copies older models, whereas in fact, it is using a well-developed vocabulary to generate novel solutions. The second strand of genuine architectural theory is based on science. Here, models from biology, physics, and computer science are used to explain how architectonic form emerges, and why human beings react in certain predictable ways to different structures. The scientific approach is in many ways complementary to the traditional approach to design. The main difference in practice is that, since the scientific approach is not tied to any specific typology, it leads to a much broader design vocabulary than does the traditional approach.

Architects have difficulties in appreciating the scientific strand of genuine architectural theory, because of certain misstatements in the body of existing architectural texts. Authors claming to explain architectural form using scientific theories and their vocabulary are invariably confused, and so confuse the reader. Much of this architectural literature is plainly incorrect, but architects have insufficient scientific knowledge to realize this. Well-respected architectural commentators write misleading statements that are taken as meaningful explanations by architects and students, who then become so bewildered that they cannot appreciate genuine scientific explanations. They confuse spurious explanations for the real thing.

This regrettably happens because in architecture, there is as yet no basis for judging between a true and a false theory. Other fields were able to develop their theoretical basis only after they instituted such a criterion, putting in place a mechanism for distinguishing sense from nonsense. Architects erroneously believe that such a set of criteria can exist only in an experimental subject such as physics, without realizing that architecture is itself an experimental field. The problem is that the observational, experimental side of architecture has been willfully neglected for several decades, to the point where its practitioners have forgotten this fundamental quality of their discipline.


Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel, A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, New York, 1977).

Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Book 1 (The Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California, 2001).

Léon Krier, Architecture: Choice or Fate (Andreas Papadakis, Windsor, England, 1998)

Nikos Salingaros, A Theory of Architecture (Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany, in preparation). Individual chapters are available online here.

Our thanks again to Nikos Salingaros. We'll post Part Two (of Eight) on Friday. Please be sure to visit and explore Nikos' archive of his writing about buildings and urbanism, which is here.

posted by Michael at April 15, 2004


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