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April 26, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi 7

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

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi

by Nikos Salingaros

7. Can this ever be called architecture?

To those outside the architectural arena, much of its contemporary writing and thinking seems incomprehensible. What stands for theory appears to be engaged with issues and ideas divorced from human beings, being concerned with topics that are irrelevant to people's activities and sensibilities. The field is instead driven by images. Without a theoretical basis, such images can lead to full-size buildings that feel monstrous and alien to their inhabitants and neighbors. What looks novel, cute, and exciting on a computer screen or magazine page may turn into a nightmare by distorting the lives of people who have to use it after it is built. Genuine architectural theory tells us which buildings are successful or not, and gives the reasons why.

Unfortunately, that body of knowledge is felt to be outside architecture as it is currently defined by its leading exponents. Theoretical concerns such as the basis for hierarchical complexity in architectural form, and algorithms for generating adaptive structure are simply not part of fashionable architectural thinking. This material is not taught in the schools. Within the current architectural paradigm, there is little interest in rules for creating an architecture suited to human beings, and for designing urban regions that are manifestly alive with human activity. Apparently, no-one reads the few articles and books discussing those rules, and if they ever do, they certainly do not apply them. That is a consequence of a fundamental replacement of worldviews.

Is it real? Or games with CAD?

Going back to the computer analogy, an operating system can replace functions normally performed by hardware -- such as all interactions with the outside world -- with software. Most important, a computer that is hard-wired to have one type of interface can be made to mimic an entirely different interface via the imposition of a new operating system. The human mind, which is hard-wired for a specific set of input/output responses with the world, is known to be subject to programming that changes how it interacts with the outside. This programming downloads a new operating system that emulates an entirely different (alien) machine.

Some puzzling architectural practices are now beginning to make sense. Contemporary architectural training substitutes a universe of alien images for the real world in the minds of impressionable students. Designs for proposed buildings have all acquired the characteristics of eerie computer screen images. Those ghostlike, translucent visions represent disassembled structures -- they intentionally make it difficult to visualize a form concretely, so that not only the form's image, but also its informational encoding communicates disassembly. The real world of physical forms has thus been replaced by a virtual one conforming to a peculiar aesthetic. The distinction between building and image has dissolved, as an alien visual conception replaces the practical reality of a world built for living beings.

Deconstructivist buildings really took off when deconstructivist images could cross from the electronic media directly to the built environment. Images resident in virtual space can now achieve physical representation in a way that circumvents the human interface altogether. Recently, architects started using computer programs that control industrial robots, which can mill full-size prefabricated parts and molds in three dimensions. Prior to that, it was extremely difficult to construct buildings that violated the natural tectonic forces of gravity, hierarchy, and connectivity, because human perceptual hardware (our neuronal system) registers that violation by making us feel uneasy. Harnessing the latest technology has made it possible for images to jump from a computer screen to a final built form.

There is another point worth mentioning. A universe of alien forms is inhospitable to all types of genuinely adaptive structures, animate as well as inanimate. That is a world in which matter must strictly conform to specific images. Those images serve as material to be re-used. Eventually, as alien images have begun to replace more complex, coherent forms, alien images steal parts and information from each other. We are witnessing this phenomenon in contemporary architecture, where plagiarism within a severely limited vocabulary of "approved" alien forms, surfaces, and materials has become rampant. That is inevitable. All the "cutting-edge" buildings now tend to look very similar, since they are beginning to cannibalize each other's designs. So much for the myth of architectural innovation!

florida international 01.jpg Best thought of as architecture? Or alien life forms?

The architectural establishment (consisting of academic departments of architecture; practicing architects; architectural firms; associations of professional architects that meet for their periodic conferences; specialized publications devoted toarchitecture; and juries that award architectural prizes) encompasses a considerable body of people. Although it is impossible to generalize among such a heterogeneous group of individuals, the architectural establishment believes that what it DOES defines what architecture IS. It sets the current architectural paradigm. Nevertheless, after vigorously promoting deconstructivism, the profession has divorced itself from its own discipline. This is not merely a matter of changing fashions or inclusiveness -- deconstruction cannot define life in buildings or urban regions, but only its opposite.

In computer science and complexity theory, the term "architecture" denotes the linkages among different system components. A system's architecture is the specific way in which its components are integrated into a coherent whole. This knowledge is embedded in the system's connective structure. There already exists a fundamental cross-disciplinary exchange between genuine architectural theory describing buildings and cities, and computer science. Contemporary architecture, however, which intentionally disconnects building and city components from each other, cannot be called "architecture" in this widely accepted sense.

I need to explain the consequences of what is being claimed here. It seems that the profession has lost its discipline's central objective. Many architects are working within a paradigm that excludes what architecture ought to be -- that is, buildings and urban fabric that facilitate human life and interactions. They apply a method that denies any system architecture. The necessary geometrical qualities are now avoided by those who wish to appear "contemporary". Instead, we are given convoluted excuses about novelty and relevance. This is not a "different" architecture as usually claimed; but technically not architecture at all. Deciding to throw architecture's inherited knowledge into the historical trash pile, and to ignore scientific results that establish genuine architectural theory betrays a worldview inconsistent with the real world. It also reveals a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance.

Why are the professional associations, composed largely of architects who build functional but often nondescript and lifeless office boxes, apartment houses, and commercial strips, such enthusiastic supporters of deconstructivism? They themselves have nothing to gain from it, and do not apply it in their everyday practice -- yet as an institution they are helping to promote its key practitioners. Many decent, practical architects support their deconstructivist brethren; perhaps longing for the latter's "star" status. There is little open criticism from within the professional organizations, so one must assume that everyday architects acquiesce to and even admire what the "stars" are doing. Are the anonymous commercial architects so completely mesmerized by the glitz and spectacle of the star architects that they cannot see what a monumental backlash this will bring to the entire profession?

REFERENCE

Nikos Salingaros, "The Derrida Virus", TELOS, No. 126 (2003), pages 66-82. It can also be read here.


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

posted by Michael at April 26, 2004




Comments

Nikos, let's add architectural "critics" to you list of culprits.

I ran across a great example here.

One of the fascinating & revealing statements in the underlying critical article (about which I opine) is that the architect failed because he gave proimacy to the building's floorplans rather than to it as a piece of very large scale sculpture. I think that she unintentionally revealed the central fallacy in modern architectural "theory".

Posted by: David Sucher on April 27, 2004 9:22 AM



David, exactly!!!
I come across this "thinking from the exterior" rather than "from interior" (as Interior Designers trained)perspective every day and - boy, am I tired to fight this battle! (Especially since the partners of the company I work for are Architects, not ID, and I can't win by definition)
Standard exchange (today's example):
Me: But, L, I can't leave only 12 s.ft. for dining nook in the living room layout. This is a 2-bedroom apartment, it means at least 3 tenants, and that means dining table is at least 42" in diameter. Add 3 chairs 24"D each around it, and you'll see we need at least 8ft by 8ft area. Plus passage around- we need at least 8ft by 10ft space.
ese people's furnishings, it's not in contract. We're here to build walls, the rest is up to them.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 27, 2004 4:59 PM



Oops, sorry (as usual, PREVIEW is the word)
Last paragraph should read:
L: let's not worry about these people furnishings, [etc]

Posted by: Tatyana on April 27, 2004 5:03 PM






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