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April 24, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 6

This is part six (of eight) of a new Nikos Salingaros essay. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here. We'll put up part seven on Monday.

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

6. Programming that emulates a pathology.

Architects and architectural critics have become expertly adept at fancy wordplay, sounding impressive while promoting the deconstructivist style's unnatural qualities. This linguistic dance is used to justify a meaningless architecture of fashion. The problem is that criticizing an empty but flowery discourse is like shadow boxing with phantoms -- one can never win a debate against an opponent who creates an impressionistic cloud empty of tangible facts. My solution is not to debunk the style of contemporary architectural writing (even though that is sorely needed), but to try and explain what it models.

I would like to draw some interesting analogies between architecture and biology, psychology, and computer science. These analogies help to explain the peculiar language used to validate architecture as a fashion. In my article "The Derrida Virus", I achieved some insights into how deconstruction acts by considering it to be analogous to a virus (or "meme", as an informational virus is otherwise known). I now wish to stretch the analogy further and to suggest possible parallels with a pathology of the human brain, which would make the action of the Derrida virus more directly biological.

La Fresnoy: Multiple meanings? Or scrambled anti-sense?

Studying deconstructivist writings gives me the impression that except for Derrida, who is very cleverly and deliberately obfuscating, their authors are suffering from some sort of brain damage. The normal, evolved mechanisms that enable human analytical thought have apparently been scrambled, so that those authors seem mentally incapable of expressing a direct, logical statement. Their writings almost make sense; but not quite. The deconstructive method avoids closure. Altogether, this mimics the effects of a lesion that has destroyed part (but not all) of the brain, preserving linguistic facility and memory while damaging the ability to synthesize thoughts. Since synthesis depends on connectivity, which deconstruction erases, this suggests some new type of mental pathology with observable effects.

Louis Sass has drawn an interesting parallel between deconstructivist discourse and the speech patterns of schizophrenics. He finds the following common features:

  • Disorienting changes of direction.
  • Meandering sentences that never come to a point.
  • BLOCKING, or halting in the middle of a train of thought.
  • The use of meaningless words or phrases.
  • Cryptic references, along with the impression that they are essential to make sense of the present message.
  • GLOSSOMANIA, where speech is channeled by acoustic qualities rather than by meaning.
  • Flow that is governed by normally irrelevant features of the linguistic system.
  • DEICTIC AMBIGUITY, i.e. insufficient contextual cues to establish thematic coherence.
  • A focus on multiple but normally irrelevant alternative meanings of words.
  • LINGUISTIC ALIENATION, where a word is divorced from its object.
  • Banal and pompous phrases spoken with an exaggerated emphasis (as in the deconstructivists' willful use of quotation marks).
  • An irony that tries to disown the normal meaning of words at the same time as they are being used.

Parc de la Villette: Emulating schizophrenia?

We are fortunate enough to have a direct statement by a prominent deconstructivist architect linking his creations with schizophrenia. Bernard Tschumi describes the series of strange structures he built at Le Parc de la Villette on the outskirts of Paris in the 1980s in "Architecture and Disjunction" (pages 177-178):

In this analogy, the contemporary city and its many parts -- here La Villette -- are made to correspond with the dissociated elements of schizophrenia ... The transference in architecture resembles the psychoanalytic situation ... This fragmentary transference in madness is nothing but the production of an ephemeral regrouping of exploded or dissociated structures.

In a paper entitled "The Sensory Value of Ornament", I discuss some analogies between twentieth-century architecture and specific pathologies of the eye-brain system. So far, there is no indication that those who promote deconstructivist architecture actually suffer physical brain damage -- it is more an EMULATION of schizophrenia rather than an onset of the actual pathology. The reason is that the emulation can be switched on and off. As long as they are not talking about architecture, architects and critics appear to have no problems using mental explanations to make sense of the real world.

We can understand this odd behavior by turning to Computer Science. It is often advantageous to use an operating system that emulates another operating system. The original computer mimics another, very different computer. The reason for this is to execute a program that is incompatible with the computer's basic operating system. I propose that deconstruction -- both the literary and architectural varieties -- emulates aspects of pathology on a biologically healthy brain. When the emulation ceases, the person reverts to acting perfectly normally. That has been my own personal experience in talking to some architects. They act as normal and pleasant characters while discussing general issues; but their language and behavior becomes bizarre and unreasonable as soon as the topic turns to architecture.

This model makes sense if we consider deconstructive discourse and design to be fundamentally opposed to our inborn sense of language and order. It would normally be impossible to talk or design in such a disconnected manner -- analogous to the impossibility of running an incompatible program on a computer. The only way to run the program is to emulate a different operating system. Nowadays, this is standard practice, as most programs run on the basic operating system, with the emulation kicking in only when a specific piece of incompatible software wants to run. The basic incompatibilities are thus never noticed. Such a model compartmentalizes our brain so that it can execute mutually contradictory instructions at different times.


Nikos Salingaros, "The Sensory Value of Ornament", Communication & Cognition, Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (2003). Chapter 12 of A Theory of Architecture (Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany, in preparation).

Nikos Salingaros, "The Derrida Virus", TELOS, No. 126 (2003), pages 66-82.

Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992), Chapter 6.

Our thanks again to Nikos Salingaros. We'll post part seven on Monday. Please be sure to visit and explore Nikos' archive of his writing about buildings and urbanism, which is here.

posted by Michael at April 24, 2004


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