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

An expensive and wasteful game of changing fashions
There is an even deeper problem with the core logic of modernist design theory, which concerns itself with change and newness as a value in itself. As we have pointed out, this is inextricably tied to the evolution of Modernism as an industrial marketing strategy.

We can tolerate rapid cycles of fashion in our clothing and other consumer goods, perhaps. But in our built environment, we need new buildings to work together with the old, to maintain a coherent, durable, human-supportive environment. Ironically, it is not Modernism that has done that best, but traditional design types — notably, vernacular traditions using local materials and form languages suited to site and weather as well as the sympathetic blend of tradition with industrial technology created in the 1920s and Greco-Roman Classicism in its immense variety of adaptive forms around the world. Yet all of those sustainable solutions were the targets for extermination by tenacious modernists.

The modernist approach to design is crude, since it depends upon a dangerous premise: the spontaneous re-invention of architecture by genius designers. Forget evolved solutions to climate, cultural needs, materials, human scale, and other inviolable constraints. Gone is the slow accumulation of adaptive responses, the patient evolutionary correction that produces resilient, complex designs. Modernism is all mental tinker-toy stuff, meant to function for a short while, and then be gone. Here we have transient and wildly expensive consumerism at its worst, played with buildings and pieces of city. The products degrade, get dirty, show their age, and become hated.
By contrast, think of enduring historical areas in London, Paris, or Rome, for example. There, two-millennia-old architecture has been repeatedly revived very successfully, and then endured over centuries: Romanesque, Renaissance, Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian. These buildings, most already lasting usefully for over a century or more, are much loved and still used today — indeed, they comprise some of the most expensive and sought-after real estate in the world.

But under the strange ideological radicalism of Modernism, we must never, ever, build such places again! Instead we are condemned to live in a world bereft of pattern, shorn of history and humanity, left only with cold industrial objects. We are promised that someone with sufficient skill (the genius architect) has somehow made them compositionally handsome, but that hope is not enough.

Methods of architectural design — especially those that revive or re-incorporate any motifs and geometric characteristics that might have been used before about 1920 — are regularly attacked as illegitimate, inauthentic, “pastiche” or worse. Students who transgress are regularly flunked out of architecture school; professors who dare embrace heterodoxy are regularly fired. National and international regulatory codes such as the Venice Charter, and the US Secretary of State’s Standards, are interpreted to exclude new contextual designs in historic districts, and to require contrasting modernist completions, as the exclusively “authentic” representatives of their present age.

The pervasive dominance of this regime today, and its outright suppression of other, competing approaches, is nothing less than extraordinary.

Peter Blake relates in Form Follows Fiasco how manufacturers of industrial materials threatened to close down a prominent architecture magazine that dared to criticize one of their products, by collectively withdrawing their advertising. In effect, corporate sponsors tightly control architectural information.

As a growing body of research literature documents, this state of affairs does exert a toll on human wellbeing. Loos was dismissive of the love that children have to ornament every available surface — perhaps a reflection of the stern parenting theories of Austria in his era, or even a reflection of Loos’ own childless life. But we now know that this hands-on experience of ornamentation forms an essential part of a child’s cognitive development.

The recovery of a shareable basis for life
In such a discussion, it is never quite enough to critique the failings of the mainstream approach, even if it is catastrophic. One has an obligation to provide a working alternative, which illustrates a proposed path to addressing the challenge. Once we stop favoring the machine aesthetic that produces giant abstract sculptures in place of buildings, then we can turn to nature, science, and common human values for new design tools. This is what those of us who are harshly critical of the current “business as usual” — like the authors — must also surely do.

So we work on new pattern language tools, new kinds of wikis, new strategies for making more walkable neighborhoods, and new types of buildings and places that learn from the successes of old ones. We believe that the problems we humans face today are largely of our own creation, and can be resolved by us too — IF we understand the structural nature of these challenges. But we also believe that it is long past time to surrender the dogmatic claim to a failing ideology of design — one that belongs to the last century and its failing industrial approach, and not to the next century and its biological lessons.

In creating a shared language for architecture and urbanism, one that relies upon positive human emotional and physiological responses, we find universals that cross all cultures, periods, and locations. This appeal to a shareable language was a centerpiece of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, and is extended by Alexander’s The Nature of Order, the present authors’ own writings, and many others’ work. A commons-based shareable form of architecture supports life in all its complexity, all of its emotional and even hidden dimensions, through the geometry and multiple configurations. The experimental evidence has been mounting that, because of its self-imposed geometrical limits, Modernism and its variants simply cannot achieve this positive response.

We have pointed to humans’ innate biological need to create and enjoy ornament, as witnessed in all societies. Indeed, the cultural wealth of human civilization, in all its myriad expressions around the world, comes down to its ornament — its “illumination” of the most profound aspects of ordinary life. A healthy society must affirm and enable such an approach, and continue to develop tools to support it and make it feasible. This is as much an economic challenge as a social and environmental one.

Ironically, Loos was right, though in the opposite sense of what he intended: a crime had been committed, one that had inflicted “serious injury on people’s health, on the budget and hence on cultural evolution”. To that we can add injury to the planet’s ecosystems, and the life of cities around the globe. The crime was the adoption of a geometrical fallacy — geometrical fundamentalism — which is, quite simply, incompatible with a sustainable future.

Michael Mehaffy is a Portland-based design and development consultant and recent Sir David Anderson Visiting Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Nikos A. Salingaros is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas-San Antonio and a widely published author on urbanism and architecture.