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May 12, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi -- The Response

I hope visitors have taken the opportunity to read Nikos Salingaros' eight-part essay about the work of the deconstructivist theorist and architect Benard Tschumi. (You can access all eight chapters from this posting here, or you can read it straight through at Nikos' own site here.) IMHO, Nikos (like his colleagues in architecture Christopher Alexander and Leon Krier) is doing some of the most-provocative, solid and productive thinking that's being done about the arts anywhere these days, right up there with the work of Frederick Turner, Denis Dutton, and Ellen Dissanayake. It's quite a privilege to show his brain and thoughts off on our blog.

If anyone has hesitated to plunge into Nikos' essay, please give it a try anyway. Even if architecture isn't one of your passions or hobbyhorses, I suspect the essay will get your mind buzzing about a lot of arts-related subjects: the proper role of the artist, for example, and the function of theory in art. And it's likely to be helpful in getting what's happening in the cultural sphere generally in better focus. I see evidence of what Nikos describes and wrestles with, for example, in graphic design, literary fiction, and movies too.

It was fun to notice Nikos' essay being discussed around the blogosphere. After all, the more the discussion about the built enviroment we share opens up, the better off we all are. I forwarded along some links to Nikos and asked if he'd be willing to pull together a response. He was, and here it is.

Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi: The Response

by Nikos Salingaros

9. APPENDIX: Reactions to this paper.

Following the publication of my paper online, readers wrote in comments; others published a response on their own website. I was very curious to see how people would react to my arguments, as it would indicate whether the original points registered or not. Non-architectural readers were intrigued if not totally convinced. At the very least, my article opened up a healthy debate on the topic of contemporary architecture OUTSIDE the normally closed architectural circles. I was pleased that those architects who did not dismiss my arguments outright tried very hard to come to grips with what I had said. I never expected to convince them at once, and was delighted that they took the trouble to engage.

On the whole, however, my paper provoked the type of response I anticipated. Nearly every critique bore out my thesis on the existence of an architectural cult (as I describe elsewhere). The reaction consisted of standard cult responses to an external threat. One may even consider this as a sophisticated scientific experiment, although that was not my original intent. Perturb the deconstructivists and their followers by criticizing their beliefs, and see how they respond. Interpreting their response then gives invaluable information on what type of system we are actually dealing with. This is especially important when the inner workings of an institution are shielded from the outside world, or when it pretends to be something it is not.

Architecture, as with all proper disciplines, requires an explanatory framework. Since its scientific basis is only now beginning to be developed (by Christopher Alexander, myself, and a few others) it continues to rely on unprovable assumptions. This means that its working basis is judged more akin to an implicit religion rather than a scientific discipline, which is understandable. Nevertheless, we do possess a set of criteria that distinguish between a true religion and a dangerous cult.

Religion helps to form and maintain a healthy society through evolved patterns and traditional knowledge tried over time. Its beliefs accommodate and facilitate human actions, and are consistent with human perceptual systems and emotional health. They start from a physiological basis of instinctive common sense. A religion or philosophy of life is a way of organizing experience and dealing with the world's complexity. The distinguishing feature of a dangerous cult is that it ignores experience, and tends to be characterized by narrowness, arbitrariness, and an emphasis on hatred. A cult ignores natural complexity, and inserts its own complexity into the environment.

o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

Consistent with this view of architectural deconstruction, I would like to analyze the responses to my paper on the basis of several classic cult stratagems:

  • A. Convert everyone to the cult
  • B. Disguise the cult's true aim
  • C. Claim a separate reality
  • D. Deny that the cult could be wrong
  • E. Use a raw power play
  • F. Offer a poisoned deal
  • G. Attack the manufactured enemy

I will illustrate these points in what follows, using parts of readers' responses to my paper. It is remarkable that, despite the number of different responses, not a SINGLE one of the numerous devastating criticisms I raised was answered or even addressed. Instead, all responses fit more or less into the above classification. This helps to confirm a most damning characterization of contemporary architecture, though one which it vehemently denies.

If we consider deconstruction as a linguistic and iconic posture, then this explains why its supporters cannot come up with tangible principles that are worth defending. There is nothing there other than being conditioned to speak, write, and view reality in a certain peculiar manner.

A. Convert everyone to the cult.

It is no coincidence that those who criticized my paper invariably urged everyone to study the writings of Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman in great detail. Naturally, they could not summarize what their purported message is; but were honest enough to admit that the message is "complex, challenging, not superficially apparent, hard to truly understand, an abstract means of representation, etc." They emphasized that one had to spend a great deal of time with those texts before expecting the message to come across -- which is precisely the method of indoctrination. After becoming indoctrinated, one's mind is so disoriented as to be no longer capable of examining those writings using logical criteria. I view such incomprehensible texts as a set of mental exercises that psychologically condition initiates into the cult.

Note that we are not dealing here with theoretical physics, which requires a language not known to everyone; architectural theory should be written in a common language understandable to every person. After all, they have to live with its applications. One respondent's excuse that contemporary architectural texts are "advanced works intended for those who are already conversant in twentieth-century theory and metaphysics" just doesn't hold.

B. Disguise the cult's true aim.

Some non-architects were puzzled by the contradictory claims of myself and those architects whom I criticize: that we both value human, contextual buildings built to satisfy people's physical and psychological needs. Or, so both of us claim. Readers were sharp enough to realize that one of us is being disingenuous, since those conditions cannot be satisfied with two totally opposed styles of architecture. Admittedly, it is not easy to decide who is right, for the simple reason that the other side represents the architectural establishment. Well, my friends and I rely on the latest research of environmental and evolutionary psychology, whereas our opponents are supported by their vast political power -- so which group is not being entirely honest?

C. Claim a separate reality.

If one lives in a different world run by different rules, then one is immune to being judged by the rules of this world. Cults create this impression in order to protect themselves. Here, respondents implied that architecture resides in the world of art, in which the criteria for a theory do not apply. In the real world, we need logical prescriptions for designing a building; whereas in the world of contemporary architecture we can supposedly "look for contradictions between architectural forms and the movements and events that take place in them ... artistically explore the visual continuities and discontinuities between different ways of looking ... compare visual relationships between our different methods of representing events in space-time." While all of this sounds good in a vaguely poetic manner, most people will not understand what it means. It is not specific enough to convey meaning in the world of our experience. (I don't understand the reference to space-time, even though I have published papers on relativity). Even so, as it alludes to human beings interacting with structures, those interactions are amenable to a genuine theoretical description.

I continue to insist on my original premise that we live in one universe, which is run on universally applicable laws. Only those unfortunate individuals who are suffering from some sort of brain pathology are forced to live inside their own separate reality.

D. Deny that the cult could be wrong.

This is not only a ruse to continue the cult's hegemony. More importantly, it is an essential mechanism for maintaining sanity among its members. Even indoctrinated persons cannot change their physiology, so while inside deconstructivist buildings they must feel the same anxiety experienced by the non-indoctrinated. This is the sacrifice that cult members are obliged to make: they have to support the cult's ideology despite the contrary evidence of their own sensory apparatus and physiological response.

For this reason, an intellectual "explanation" that appeals to novelty, excitement, and meaningless intellectual acrobatics is always offered, in the attempt to override an observer's natural anxiety. We are told that part of this type of architecture's attraction is its unusual excitement. Many people buy into this deception. Paradoxically, a disconnect between one's own senses and the cult dogma drives the convert even closer to the cult. Experiencing such a contradiction is disturbing, and so disorienting that an already emotionally insecure person clings even tighter to the safety offered by the cult doctrine. They have renounced the real world, so there is nowhere else to turn. Afterwards, he or she feels a worthier cult member by having avoided the temptation of incontrovertible evidence.

One respondent, who works in Peter Eisenman's Aronoff Center, obviously has to keep supporting the value of deconstructivist architecture or quit his job and move elsewhere. I'm not at all surprised that he considers deconstructivism to be "a powerful, revolutionary kind of theory".

E. Use a raw power play.

Those who commented on my article reminded me that what I criticize is tremendously successful commercially. Deconstructivist architects are being hired by important organizations across the world to build these buildings. Here is the power play: if all those clients, plus the professional groups and media accept this not only as valid, but as GREAT architecture, how can I argue against it? What has by now obviously become an institution could not possibly be duped so easily. The sheer number of people counts against it. Right is what the majority defines it to be. So, I was admonished (or bluntly warned) to give up.

F. Offer a poisoned deal.

This ploy is a favorite of ruthless politicians and conquerors. They pretend to accommodate their opponents, who represent the opposite ideals, in a generous-sounding deal. The true aim is to get close enough -- or buy time -- so as to annihilate them when the opportunity is ripe: "Let's work together for the common good; we are comfortable with contradiction; we are interested in both X and Y types of architecture, etc." What the other side is offering in way of concession is unclear, however. I cannot resist referring to historical deals of this type; for example, Adolf Hitler's deal with Neville Chamberlain: "You allow us to take over Czechoslovakia, and I promise not to start a European War". And then we have Hitler's deal with Joseph Stalin: "I'll meet you halfway ... somewhere in the middle of Poland ... and we can remain friends".

I find ludicrous the repeated calls to accommodate both Alexander's work and deconstructivist philosophy. They are mutually contradictory. Despite confessions by some architects that they welcome contradiction, these two philosophies about the nature of the universe cannot coexist. As the present power base of architecture is set to promoting deconstruction, our part of the deal (like the other half of Poland during WW2) will be short-lived. Already, for several decades, Alexander's work has been neglected at best, or actively condemned at most architecture schools. In the classic Alexander/Eisenman debate of 1982, this contradiction was clearly spelled out for everyone to see. (The roots of today's architectural madness were already painfully obvious back then). This newly-found "tolerance" smells to me like the obvious ploy that it is.

My own papers on the scientific basis of architecture make the distinction between the two camps clear. I show in great detail why, of the two opposing worldviews only one (ours) is connected to the real universe.

G. Attack the manufactured enemy.

When all else fails, the cult has to rally the faithful around an abstract idea of the enemy. This is the predictable response, but one that is usually misunderstood by the public as a stylistic dispute. It is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is an essential battle call that helps to hold the cult together. My paper triggered the usual responses about humanistic architecture: "dead-end, profoundly anti-urban, anaesthetizing, backward-looking, cul-de-sac, a retrenchment, nostalgic, conservative, anti-intellectual, a rabid aversion to progress, etc." And yet people who feel that way are offering to make a deal! (see the previous point).

Many times before, we have seen false promises of innovation and a bright new future mask the intentions of a cult that is eventually to destroy a nation, continent, or entire civilization. An essential rallying point is the manufactured enemy: something upon which to focus the cult's hatred. This is much more than a turf battle. At this time, Léon Krier's traditional buildings seem to be focussing the wrath of the architectural establishment, even as many of its top practitioners are quietly making money from building traditional commissions. But the young followers have been fanaticized to attack. They are the profession's cannon fodder.

Respondents kept coming back to their battle cry: that the architecture my friends and I propose leaves little room for architecture as an art. This, of course, is an outrageous lie, but it is a very powerful weapon to use against us. It triggers an angry, visceral response from every aspiring architecture student. Out of delicacy, I do not wish to quote here propaganda and lies that were used to systematically justify attacks against victim groups in the past.

We can understand deconstruction's opposition to traditional architecture because of ideological competition, but the vehemenceof its hatred is a pure cult phenomenon. Once the cult starts attacking a target, it has no other recourse but to destroy it completely. For pulling back is tantamount to an admission of error -- instead of a noble purification campaign, the annihilatory attack is revealed as a criminal act against an innocent entity. The original characterizations of perpetrator and target become switched. Not only are participants exposed as mindless followers implicated in a hideous crime, but all their sacrifices have been in vain. Glimpsing the target's humanity (in this case, the life-supporting qualities of traditional buildings) is a profoundly disturbing experience, which translates into even more hostility towards the target.

Rob Annable, in criticizing my article, unwittingly gave us a poignant cinematic characterization: "Anybody who's seen 'Night of the Living Dead' has seen deconstruction in action".

It is very telling that respondents assumed automatically that my architectural work is neo-traditionalist. Since no-one other than my design associates has ever seen my actual sketches for buildings, this is merely an assumption without any basis. The manufactured enemy (I'm talking now of a group of people instead of buildings) has to be both faceless and abstract. Anyone who questions the cult's dogma is classed a neo-traditionalist, because that is the label for the faceless enemy.

o~o~o~o~o~o~o~o

A reader may well ask: why is this reaction specifically a CULT reaction, and not just a normal institutional reaction to criticism? It is true that contemporary architecture represents a very powerful institution. Nevertheless, I think that an institution founded on a healthy philosophical basis would react by appealing to common sense. Instead of falling back on its dogma (point A), it would spell out architectural principles that are simple, profound, and touch our heart directly. If those are easily understood, then they most probably have enduring value. Science, for example, reacts to criticisms from a position of strength coming from the unshakable nature of its arguments.

Clarity and transparency of thought are the enemies of cults. If their basic beliefs require convoluted explanations before one can appreciate them, or are understandable only to initiates, then they are most likely bogus.

In general, an institution will not resort to manipulations and deceits in order to further itself. Those that do are parasitic on society. Here I have raised the possibility that contemporary architecture is lying about its aims, and disguising them by claiming a separate reality (points B, C, and D). This is a complex question to resolve, yet it will doubtlessly be answered by scientific research into human physiological responses to the environment.

Institutions do use power plays and make deals as a matter of course, so those are not distinguishing features; yet what clinches the argument in my mind is the hostility of the architectural avant-garde to all other forms of architectural expression (point G). Institutions compete naturally in the marketplace, looking to improve so as to increase market share. Improvement is contingent on recognizing present faults, thus a healthy institution is its own most severe critic.

Here, by contrast, we sense an absolute, moral conviction of right. Architects talk as if there is no possibility of being wrong, so the intensity of their attack makes it more of a religious (i.e. cult) phenomenon. This type of institution rests on irrational dogma and a strong emotional appeal. In the absence of verifiable precepts, the dogma is supported only by the fervor with which followers embrace it. It is a self-feeding cycle leading to fanaticism.

One respondent suggested that the prominent deconstructivist architects don't care what others think of their work, so that criticisms like my own are irrelevant. I am afraid that he is probably correct. If my assessment of deconstructivism is accurate, then it is not worthwhile defending a fundamentally indefensible fashion; the only important thing is to build as many commissions as possible before the fashion shifts to something else.

REFERENCES

Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman, "Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture", Lotus International 40 (1983), pages 60-68. Reprinted in Studio Works 7 (Harvard University Graduate School of Design), Princeton Architectural Press (2000), pages 50-57.

Rob Annable, "Deconstruction and Tea", Wolverhampton Linux User Group (May 5, 2004).

Nikos Salingaros, "Twentieth-Century Architecture as a Cult," INTBAU Volume 1, Essay Number 3 (November 2002), approximately 6 pages. German version published by Umbau-Verlag (April 2004).

Our thanks again to Nikos Salingaros. Nikos's online collection of papers and essays about architecture is an important resource for anyone interested in buildings, town, and cities. It can be explored here.


posted by Michael at May 12, 2004




Comments

Michael,

Are all the links assembled in one place? If you don't read all the essays at once, it can be a little difficult in retrospect to find all the pieces.

Thanks,

John

Posted by: John Massengale on May 12, 2004 2:05 PM



Hi John -- Yeah, sorry, blogging tech is great for writing and publishing, but it can be a lousy filing system.

I've put up a link to a posting that links to all the other chapters. Plus I put up a link to the essay in one piece at Nikos' own site. Probably easiest to read it there. To cut to the chase, it's here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 12, 2004 2:11 PM



Are you sure he was talking about architecture?:D

I could apply it to so many things...

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 12, 2004 4:55 PM



One small point:

Does "Religion helps to form and maintain a healthy society through evolved patterns and traditional knowledge tried over time." imply that all religions are bad when they're too new to have traditional knowledge? Or can new religions work with traditional knowledge that wasn't adequately included in previous religion? Or are all new religions bad, but some of them improve?

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on May 13, 2004 6:33 AM






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