A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of Its Parts

by Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy

How Modernist Fundamentalism degrades the human and natural environment

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.

A second, related perception is that, 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 — and moreover, the latter places are often among the most beloved and enduring that the world has to offer. Why is this, many wonder? Is it just the price of progress? Does it even matter, really? (Especially since architects are responsible for a diminishing part of the built environment?) And is this issue connected to our daunting challenges of sustainability and resilience for the future?

We answer, in a word, yes.

In 2001, we wrote a short essay that introduced the term “geometrical fundamentalism” — a pervasive architectural habit of thought that, we suggested, helps to explain the historically unique patterns of much of modern practice of planning, design, and construction. These patterns in turn have carried with them profound and negative consequences. (That original essay has since been published in the book A Theory of Architecture, and it’s also available on line here.)

“Geometrical fundamentalism” is, we argued, a fervent ideological belief in the urgent necessity to denude the human environment of all but abstract, putatively “rational” forms, composed into one-off works of art — lines, planes, cubes, and the like — in the misguided belief that these are actually more advanced and “modern” — hence “Modernism”. (But as we will discuss, they are not more advanced, but in fact are dangerously primitive.)

In that essay we only briefly referred to the origins of this peculiar but pervasive kind of fundamentalism, and its profound impact on today’s human and natural environment.

In this essay, we will dig deeper into the history of this enormously influential habit of thinking, and explore its origins in the evolution of contemporary planning and design theory. We will anchor this discussion within the broader development of industrial civilization, and the distorting influence of its powerful incentives to industrialize the human environment, by inserting its own profitably expedient forms into an otherwise geometrically denuded environment.

We will argue that architects in particular have become tragically corrupted by this industrialization.
In particular, a perennially dominant school of “modernist” architects, energized by a heady mix of economic power and quixotic idealism, became essentially co-opted by industrial interests. Their role in the new economic-industrial regime was to serve as fervent boosters of this denuding practice, by peddling a bogus marketing image of a utopian industrial future. Despite cycles of criticism and disavowal, their legacy continues unabated today, in the many “rococo” variants of modernist design.

In the process, architects became oddly blind to the many negative effects of their own work — a condition we have described elsewhere as “architectural myopia” (see The architect has no clothes). That condition helps to explain the vehement ideological rigidity of many architects and their cognitive bias toward objects over contexts — the same kind of bias that occurs in other forms of fundamentalism.

We conclude on a hopeful assertion: that real choice does in fact exist for a more bottom-up, evolutionary approach to planning and design, one that offers the basis of a new era of ecological humanism in architecture, at a time when such a reform is desperately needed.

The relation to “commodification” — and an unsustainable consumerist system
The story of geometrical fundamentalism begins with the origins of our “modern” system of technology and industrialization, about which we have written in more detail elsewhere (e.g. see The Geometry of Resilience in Metropolis magazine).

This 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. It is a truism — but nonetheless true — that 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.
But how did the modern system of development and consumption — our “technological-consumerist” system — come about? Was it not an inevitable part of the evolution of science and technology, and an inevitable response to the desires of consumers — in short, our destiny?
No it was not. In fact this system was invented — planned by industrialists and political leaders in the early years of the 20th Century, primarily in the USA.

The story was documented well in the 2002 film by BBC documentarian Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self”, and in particular the first episode titled Happiness Machines.

Leaders of Wall Street joined with political leaders to solve a twin problem: how to keep the masses engaged in productive and wealth-generating activities, which would also quell potential political unrest.

Their answer was to create a new kind of consumer society — the one we take for granted today, and the one that is still used to sell consumer products (including modern architecture in Dwell magazine, for example).

This new idea was perhaps explained best in 1924 by Banker Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers — the same company whose notorious collapse in 2008 helped trigger the global financial crisis and great recession. “We must shift America from a needs-culture to a desires-culture”, said Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

Central to this fascinating and poorly-understood story was Edward Bernays, a remarkably important and yet almost unknown figure in modern history. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his brilliant idea was to use Freud’s own ideas on subconscious desires to create powerful new strategies for advertising, public relations, and propaganda. Among Bernays’ “accomplishments” was getting millions of women to smoke for the first time and essentially inventing the modern political campaign, with all its emotional manipulations. (Freud, to his credit, strongly protested this manipulative, exploitative, and fundamentally antidemocratic use of his ideas.)

Even less well known, Bernays played a key role in selling modernist urban and suburban planning to the public. As Curtis’ film demonstrates, Bernays helped to orchestrate the seminal “Futurama” exhibit by General Motors at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was this event, perhaps more than any other, that sold a radiant vision of the suburbia to come to a desperate public, traumatized by the Depression and coming war, and seeking a positive vision of the future. To this vulnerable audience, the marketers offered a gleaming new age of modern buildings and suburbs and consumer gadgets of every conceivable type. It was all so wonderful! We had certainly been “trained to desire, to want new things …” And we got them.

And it was architects, working with industrialists like the leaders of General Motors, who led the charge. Here is the pioneering modernist architect Le Corbusier’s prescription for drive-through utopia, described in his pamphlet Radiant City (1935, translated into English in 1967):
The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work … enough for all.”