In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Smoke Awareness | Main | More Immigration Links »

April 27, 2006

Letter to Nikos

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The other day I had the chance to catch up with a 2Blowhards favorite, the mathematician and architectural/urbanism theorist Nikos Salingaros. I was thrilled to learn that "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction," his dazzling expose of chic French philosophy and its tragic impact on the built environment, has recently been published in French. When I asked Nikos how responses to his work have been going recently, he talked enthusiastically about a fascinating letter he'd received from Paul Grenier, director of The Common Task. A little nudging ... A few requests for permission ... And, voila, I'm able to reprint Paul Grenier's letter. Here it is.

Thursday, 20 April 2006.

Dear Nikos,

I finished reading your book "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction" some time ago, and have been meditating on it ever since. It was quite fascinating! At times heartwarming, at other times frightening. I hadn't ever read this kind of stuff that you found in Tschumi (and others of his ilk). It reads like something from a fictional anti-utopia; say, George Orwell's "1984", or C. S. Lewis's "That Hideous Strength". The anti-heroes of C. S. Lewis's brilliant novel were also opposed to organic life. I can't help wondering now whether Lewis hadn't already read (in 1947) the works of men like Le Corbusier. *Quelle horreur*!

It was also a relief to read your critique of the way such architectural writers as Charles Jencks use words like 'fractal' and 'chaos theory' and so forth. Jencks seems a nice enough guy, well-meaning, etc. But when I skimmed a few of his essays not long ago, I found myself wondering why his use of these words seemed so odd, so ... incomprehensible. He's supposedly an authority ... was I missing something? Well, it turns out I wasn't. He just wasn't making any sense! Sad.

Regarding post-modernism. I have long known of course that, as a stick-in-the-mud traditional Christian, I was guilty of the sin of logo-centrism; but, because my friends and I usually discuss post-modernist-related theory in the context of theology or literature or philosophy of language, I hadn't focused so much on the implications of deconstructive thought for the exact sciences. They are very liberated persons, these ultra-moderns -- liberated from logic, reason, nature. I think you are exactly right that this is all ideology, but I also think that underlying this ideology are two hidden ruling ideas: absolute freedom as the only value; and absolute despair. In other words, a spiritual crisis, even spiritual death.

To understand where post-modernist ideology got its start, and from where it derives its power, one can do far worse than to read the great philosopher-theologian-chemist Pavel Florensky (especially the first few chapters of his masterpiece "The Pillar and Ground of Truth", written circa 1920, long before these young whippersnappers started spouting).

If I were to interpret post-modernism in the light of Florensky's understanding of truth, I would say that its proponents see in language either *only* a rigid *order* (a self-enclosed definition that reduces to a tautology, as in: "the definition of the word 'dog' is 'dog'"); or a completely disordered *complexity*, i.e., a 'bad infinity' where every concept relies only on each other, a = b = c = ... *ad infinitum*, without any end result of solid meaning. For the post-modernist ideology, order, fixedness ('presence', in their lingo) is bad, unfree, etc., while infinite disorder ('complexity' as they understand it) is free and 'good'. In truth, of course, their freedom is really the freedom of emptiness and death.

Your use of the viral metaphor is quite convincing, and also frightening.

I truly think the key to exposing the post-modern game's emptiness lies in the concept to which you give such a central place: that of organized, or ordered complexity. (It must be significant that this is also the term Jane Jacobs used to answer the question 'what sort of problem is the city?'. And it also explains why, for Jacobs, Statistics and Algebra -- and hence most standard economic theory -- are not of much use for understanding city-building processes.)

I am absolutely convinced that the concept of organized complexity provides a conceptual link that bridges science and the religious tradition. For your insight into this link I am profoundly grateful.

Here's my first stab at expressing this underlying unity. The religious and the scientific tradition (*at their best*, since both often stumble) manage to *not* reduce the possibilities to an either-or. In other words, not to reduce situations to either complexity or order. Instead, both religion and science at their most profound level manage to transcend such dualism by appeal to a sort of 'third force'. Perhaps one could say that for science, this 'third force' is the sincere love of truth for its own sake, while for religion, 'truth' itself is brought into being because of (by the action of) the ontological reality of love as such.

Perhaps it is this unity of love, order, and complexity that holds the key to the *pattern language* which will eventually defeat the inhuman and destructive madness that you and Christopher Alexander (and others) have so eloquently and convincingly described? If so, it would provide a much-needed unifying principle that would lend coherence to actions that would otherwise seem disjointed and meaningless (and hence would never be attempted!).

I could go on much longer, but I promised not to write a very long letter in response ... I need hardly add that I would be very glad if we could continue this conversation.

Well, in closing, let me simply thank you again from the bottom of my heart for your work.





* Paul Grenier is the founder of The Common Task, a research center devoted to the humanization of culture (here). His most recent essay, "The Liturgy of the City Street," co-written with Tim Patitsas, is posted online at

Some of the works referred to in Paul Grenier's letter:

* Christopher Alexander et. al., "A Pattern Language."

* Pavel Florensky, "The Pillar and Ground of the Truth."

* Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." The last chapter of "Death and Life," entitled "The Kind of Problem a City Is," is posted online in the web journal Katarxis 3.

* C. S. Lewis, "That Hideous Strength."

* George Orwell, "1984."

* Nikos' own, very brilliant book "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction," with an introduction by, ahem, Michael Blowhard, is available in both English and French editions here.

* Here at 2Blowhards, the five parts of our most-excellent interview with Nikos can be accessed here. Nikos' essay on Bernard Tschumi can be read here.

* Nikos' own website, where he makes a lot of his work available for free, is here.


I'm hoping to lure Nikos into sharing some more of his thoughts with us soon.



posted by Michael at April 27, 2006


I just visited Paul Grenier's web site and also read the linked article.

Am I thick-headed (yes, actually) or are Grenier's concepts lacking in specifics. Okay, so he thinks capitalism is unconstrained and does great damage to the urban landscape. But if we are to have the "Liturgical" city, by what means do we get there? Government? The Church? He doesn't say, at least not in the items I read.

Mind you, I have no problem with the idea of a human-scaled urban environment. So long as I get to keep and enjoy driving my Chrysler 300. And get to live in a dwelling with 2,500+ square feet of living space. And have a 100,000-title bookstore handy. Oh yes, and a Starbucks close by (I am a Seattle boy after all).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 27, 2006 2:39 PM

Michael! You're quoting a traditionalist Christian! Approvingly! What will you come up with next -- that pornography is bad???

Posted by: Fredosphere on April 27, 2006 3:58 PM

It's going to take me a while to work through these links, but I'm profoundly happy to have them. It's certainly time to see a path into the future that does not lead down a rabbit hole.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 27, 2006 6:04 PM

Now I've read a good deal of this and haven't sorted very much, but I want to stake out a little ground. First of all, I do have a degree in religious studies which teaches us that "liturgy" means "to bind together." (Beware: that can be a fascist symbol.) I am NOT interested in Abramic religions (Xianity, Judaism, Islam) except as members of a human family with many other systems of belief. I am interested, for instance, in Blackfeet religious liturgy, which shares some elements with Mass and even sometimes means the same things but often doesn't.

Though I am delighted when I'm in a city (for a while) and know both Portland (from the inside the Bureau of Buildings) and Chicago (from the atypical compartment of Hyde Park, though I escaped to other parts occasionally), I live in a village of 350 folks. Such a small unit is as much in need of planning as a city -- though in a strange way it is like one city building because the "infrastructure" of water/sewer/electricity is influenced by person-to-person dynamics, which are not always rational. Like an office building where the most common complaint is that it is too cold and the second most common complaint is that it is too hot. (Researched fact.)

But the person to whom I speak most warmly and constructively about these kinds of ideas is a Blackfeet Indian who uses them to try to understand his reservation. His background is in sociology and poetry. His personality causes him to want to gather his friends into a circle of lodges so there can be lots of talk and visiting back and forth.

His sidekick is a Boston-raised plutocrat with a state university architecture degree who has all the usual earmarks of an architect: arrogance, disrepect for people, unwarranted theories, and so on. What's amazing is that he has been able to design and construct several small school buildings (a one-room schoolhouse and a multi-room complex) which are often used for Blackfeet ceremonies -- and they work. They work fine. They incorporate Blackfeet ideas that have grown out of this place: for instance, doors ALWAYS are on the east side because otherwise the prevailing winds from the West will come roaring in. Part of this is because everyone was in on the project. For instance, in order to determine "east" without instruments, the main participants showed up at dawn on midsummer's day and stood shoulder to shoulder facing the sun squarely. That was the line of the east wall.

I'm in a typical old-fashioned Montana house: a box divided into four rooms. The zig-zags and "improvements" over the years make it human and I'm bent on adding more niches, viewpoints, storage and so on. It is organic. (The plumbing is a little TOO organic.)

One of the single most destructive movements among American Indians IMHO is this deconstruction Foucaultian stuff that justifies attacks and obsessions. It would be more honest to pull the "con" part out of "deconstruction" so that it says "destruction" and consider that it might be a con. None of the warriors who use it (many of them women from cities who only have a tiny blood quantum of American Indian) understand it anyway. I question whether anyone can really understand it, except as an attitude.

"Spirituality" is also a concept that is dangerously often used in the same way. A Californian middle-aged woman has just moved to town. She bought the three-story stone schoolhouse that has been remodeled into a faux Victorian bed-and-breakfast with a giant purple chandelier in the living quarters and intends to run it with the help of her two "English" yellow retrievers who wear jackets all the time for some reason. She says this will be a spiritual adventure. I think it will be a test of her endurance and checkbook. And she will have a little trouble explaining her Hummer. (And her Hummer will long for a garage to park in when winter comes. I mean, my pickup doesn't mind, but this is a California Hummer.)

What I'm trying to set up here is the idea that this approach to architecture seems to have a lot to say about a lot of parts of worlds that I know and inhabit, even though they are not urban. The urban must exist in a larger context and fractal theory (which does NOT mean "fracture" theory) might suggest that swirls that form in such backwaters as this might eventually merge into the roundabout ways of the cities.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 27, 2006 9:46 PM

Mary, great post.

You said many things, but the one thing that seemed to sum it all up (for me) was, "They incorporate Blackfeet ideas that have grown out of this place... Part of this is because everyone was in on the project. ...the main participants showed up at dawn..."

In other words, the people of the village, neighborhood, town, city, whatever, were involved. Hopefully, in all of these projects, they were involved in every part... beginning, middle and end.

I think that the worst thing that can come from this is a place that is theirs. It may not be the greatest, or best, but it is theirs, and they value it. They love it. They will work to build on it, and improve it. Whoever they may be.

My parents must have known that my brother and I were not the best ever, but they loved us dearly. And they invested so much in us. Time, money, love, energy, lack of sleep, etc. And I would like to think that it was worth it.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 28, 2006 8:36 AM

Mary, Ian -- Fab comments. You've got me remembering one of the books that shaped my thinking about housing/architecture/building, etc: John Turner's "Housing For People." Not the most elegantly-written book, but with a fab, startling thesis (as I remember it, anyway): That what the role of an architect really ought to be is to help people (groups of people, etc) through the process of creating/constructing what they want to create and construct. This would be as much a matter of helping them through the thickets and challenges of bureaucracies, permits, and contractors as it would have to do with anything so chichi (and finally so 2nd-tier important) as style, let alone self-expression (unless that was important to the clients, of course).

It's funny: it seems so common-sense, helpful, and unpretentious a p-o-v. Yet, at least if you're coming from a conventional arts/architecture background, it's beyond-radical. And in fact John Turner is/was (I know little about him) an anarchist. Shhh: don't let this get around, but a lot of my own hunches/notions/convictions come out of anarchist/ecological/anthro styles of thinking.

Oh, another couple of books you're reminding me of: Bernard Rudofsky's "Architecture without Architects." Rudofsky points out that many of the best towns and buildings were created without the help of architects, and he asks the sensible question: What's the point of architects? (His book is mostly a picture book, if I remember right: pix of great Spanish and African towns, and of folk architecture from all over.) And the work of another British anarchist, Colin Ward, who wrote brilliantly about housing, schools, and much else. Chris Alexander of course turns a lot of this kind of thing into a general, even metaphysical approach to art and architecture.

I love the web, but I sure do wish there were more available from pre-web days ... I don't find much Colin Ward on the web, some books at Amazon aside. (But they're good!) Here's an essay by Ward about anarchism, though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 28, 2006 10:42 AM

Michael, I am also fascinated with the idea an anarchist-like approach to Architecture. Specifically in the Town Planning or Unplanning of the layout and design.

The fact that, if left to their own devices, the fishermen, farmers, butchers, bankers, traders and grocers tend to work together.

The fishermen/farmers do not want to be too far away from the masses, for easier distribution.

The grocers/butchers/bankers want to see a stable and prosperous population. And the traders are trying like mad to make just that happen.

And this anarchy leads to such amazing cooperation. Almost communitarian in nature. Individualist-Collectivism?

And you see this inter-connectedness in the villages and towns. How the streets and alleys and plazas all work together.

Nowadays we tend to dream about such places, but somehow, during the Renaissance, you see these places everywhere throughout Southern and Western Europe.

I just wish I knew how it all happened.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 28, 2006 1:12 PM

I seem to remember that Lewis Mumford's The City in History is both very well written and authoritative.

Posted by: David Sucher on April 29, 2006 10:07 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?