Many research studies show a remarkable divergence between the way architects see their work and the way non-architects do — to such a degree that it is not uncommon to hear ordinary people wondering aloud how it is that architects and architecture students seem to want to make such strange and unpleasant buildings today.
For many, the architecture of most human environments today is far uglier than what even ordinary people were able to make a century or more ago. Why is this, many wonder? Is it just the price of progress? Does it even matter, really? And is this issue connected to our daunting challenges of sustainability and resilience for the future?
This is a pervasive architectural habit of thought that explains the unique patterns of much of modern practice of planning, design and construction. It is an ideological belief in the urgent necessity to denude the human environment of all but “rational” forms, composed into one-off works of art — lines, planes, cubes, and the like, in the misguided belief that these are actually advanced and “modern” — hence “Modernism”.
Architecture unlike other forms of art has to serve as actual human habitat. In large scale works, the sum of the individual works of art is not greater than the parts. For example, in stark contrast to the “organic” traditional city, we are creating disordered and fractured modern cities.
The story of geometrical fundamentalism begins with the origins of our “modern” system of technology and industrialization. The system has achieved many impressive results, to be sure: medicine, sanitation, travel, prosperity and much more. But it has left us with a colossal hangover — an unsustainable relationship to our resources, to our environment and ultimately to each other. If we are going to survive and be well in the future, we must fundamentally change our current “modern” model of technological growth, away from business as usual. That surely means we have to change the way we design and construct our human environment too.
Put differently, the ugliness and disorder of our present human environment is certainly related to the ugliness and disorder due to the damage we have created in the natural environment. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously noted, we humans have a dangerous tendency to over-simplify the world and to confuse our own simpler models for the true complexity of life. He called this error “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” — a confusion of our abstract models of reality with reality itself, leading to over-simplifying actions that are life-damaging.
Architect Christopher Alexander made a similar observation when he argued famously that a city is not a tree — that is, it is not a simple hierarchical structure, but in its complex geometrical relationships, it has important forms of overlap and redundancy, which the human mind finds difficult to grasp. We like to over-simplify the world into neat “tree-like” schemes — but in turn, when imposed on real cities, these schemes can go on to produce enormous damage to the physical structure. This, in fact, is the tragedy of the dozens of cities around the world today.
There is a profound need to couple structures together into larger wholes and a need to employ geometries that are able to do so. But this characteristic is missing from the abstract, minimalist geometries of Modernism. In the best modernist environments, it might be compensated for in other ways, say plants or other external decorative additions. But the structures themselves are greatly impoverished and therefore likely to contribute to environmental disorder.
Ornamental designs and structures in architecture actually serve to cement together components of different sizes as part of a larger geometric system. There are millions of examples in practice: beautiful traditional stairways, doorways, moldings, trim, window frames, etc. that are richly ornamented — and thereby connected to their environment. The biologically-evolved human need of achieving connectivity in the environment is what generates ornament.
More than the Sum of its Parts
The pressure is increasing on architects to behave more responsibly and become engaged in the deeper reforms that are needed. Broadly speaking, we can distinguish among three approaches to design.
• The “functionalist” approach is a means of achieving specific goals and solving technical problems. For instance, we make round wheels to accomplish horizontal movement. This is nuts-and-bolts design, focused upon what works mechanically.
• The more purely artistic approach to design creates a surface aesthetic experience without much concern for deeper problems. This is the “expressive” approach. It is design strictly for visual show, accepted because of image.
• Many of the artifacts of modern design, from computers to houses, combine these two approaches in a mechanical way — for example, design engineers create the electronics of a computer and design stylists then create eye-catching cases that have little relation to the engineered parts inside. This uncoupled functionalist/expressive approach is termed as “disconnected” approach. We simply “engineer” or “style” a form or both without any real process to adapt the form to its specific context.
An encompassing approach to design seeks to unite the functional and aesthetic requirements of design in a deeper way, using the adaptive problem-solving process. The interlocking patterns of ornament, not a superfluous decoration but a kind of “glue” allows buildings and other designed objects to inter-lock and form cohesive, functional and expressive architecture.
Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath. He is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas and is on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico and the Netherlands.
Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist, practicing planner and builder and Executive Director of Portland based Sustasis Foundation, dedicated to developing neighborhood-scale tools for sustainable development.