Calling for an Architecture That Connects Us to Our Bodies
Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is a long time critic of the architectural establishment. A mathematician and researcher by training, and an early collaborator of the legendary Christopher Alexander, Salingaros has created, through his work with the noted theorist and with the writing of his own eight books, a decades long, research-driven critique of the built environment, post World War II. It is decidedly anti-modernist in nature. His argument is a simple one: the modern movement threw out thousands of years of building tradition in its quest for a new architectural world. Alexander and Salingaros, along with his co-author Michael Mehaffy, spent decades researching and systematizing those lost traditions tossed aside by the modernists. Although Alexander’s and Salingaros’ work was written largely for architects, it was widely embraced by software designers who found its approach to pattern and complexity useful in their work. Although he is often frustrated by architects, Salingaros hasn’t given up on them (he teaches at several universities). We started an email correspondence a couple of months ago, that began with a complaint about the diminishing spatial abilities of young architects. Here are some highlights from those exchanges. – Martin C. Pedersen
On the disconnect between our bodies and our buildings: “It occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century, in a deliberate break with the past, breaking away from our own nature. Mechanization following violent social revolution required that we disown our biological nature, so the buildings of the future were meant for machines, not humans. Once the Second World War ended, the industries producing glass, steel, and cars threw their enormous weight behind this new vision of the world. Our society inherited and continues to abide by that worldview.”
On the need for a “new language for architecture”: “I would like to innovate while keeping all the adaptive common elements from past (pre-modern) building cultures. I’m referring, specifically, to visible welcoming entrances, framed windows with smaller panes, domes and vaults, symmetries, coherence with the vertical plain, vertical windows instead of horizontal ones, borders and transition regions, ceiling heights appropriate to social function, interior materials friendly to the touch, a variety of colors, and ornament—in short, what is found throughout buildings up to the 20th Century.”
A form language that respects our biological nature is good for human health and sensibilities—it fits perfectly with our physiology, goes further to satisfy basic human expectations of finely-tuned sensory feedback coming from our environment, acting in a positive manner on our body. After all, that’s what our body and brain were evolved to experience, not oppressive minimalist environments. All the examples I can give are historical, and that’s a damning statement on the disastrous state of the profession. “
On how architects access that new language: “That’s a problem. Not with access to our results, because whoever seeks them can find them on the web, but in using them once they discover them. Christopher Alexander and I provide working tools, design methods, typologies, checklists, etc. that can help a practitioner to produce adaptive buildings. All those tools are available for free or for the price of a book. But today’s architects are not trained to apply these analytical tools; they only know how to copy images. And I refuse to give them images to copy, because that misses the whole point of originality and adaptation. Thinking strictly in terms of images misses the human aspects of the building, ignores the users, their feelings, their long-term health. Architects have to retrain themselves to think analytically. And, for a discipline that was devastated of inherited knowledge and has run for decades using almost no design intelligence, the depth of our results can be overwhelming.”
On how this language should be taught: “The new language of architecture —which has built-in safeguards against inhuman environments—is very easy to learn on one’s own. My students from around the world discovered the writings of Alexander and myself, and taught themselves outside the academic setting. Oftentimes, this had to be kept a secret from their professors. In our age of electronic information, if a young aspiring architecture student is intelligent and inquisitive enough, he or she will discover our work. Otherwise, they’re limited to what architectural culture offers them, and maybe they’re happy with that.
I really don’t expect present faculty members to embrace our teachings and pass them onto their students. There is far too much intellectual baggage that might prevent that from occurring. Even if an interested lecturer embarks on a course to present our design methods, sooner or later he or she will come up to a contradiction, and the students will be faced with cognitive dissonance. A “famous” building by a “major” architect is judged, according to our criteria of adaptability, to be useless, oppressive, and a piece of junk. Some foolish patron spent millions or even billions to erect a monster that harms the built environment. How does the student (and the professor) reconcile those violently opposing messages? There is no way. So, the easiest way out is to continue with the status quo and simply ignore our work.”
On how it should be applied: “Now, here is an interesting question of strategy. I advise today’s practitioners to introduce portions of our design methods by stealth into their current projects. Convince the client that they possess a new design technique that will vastly improve the proposed design for little or no additional cost (this is true). Tell the client that this new method is based on the latest scientific research and is guaranteed to work (also true). Go as far as making as many adaptive changes as the client will allow, but compromise and obviously don’t go so far as to lose the job. It really doesn’t matter, since even a 10% improvement will show positively in the final building. The next client will seek you out, and then you can try for a 20% improvement. Hopefully, you will then be on the way up professionally, bypassing those poor fools who stubbornly stick to the industrial-modernist typologies they were taught as being divinely anointed.”
There exist spatial patterns that define a sense of ‘partial envelopment,’ and those help create welcoming spaces. Details and articulations of the structure and surfaces follow from universal scaling, organized complexity, color, etc…Note that what we propose is found in traditional and vernacular architectures the world over, and throughout history.
On what forms and patterns would connect people’s bodies to their buildings: “We know those fairly accurately. There exist spatial patterns that define a sense of “partial envelopment,” and those help create welcoming spaces. Details and articulations of the structure and surfaces follow from universal scaling, organized complexity, color, etc. We have explained this in great detail in published texts, many of them online. Note that what we propose is found in traditional and vernacular architectures the world over, and throughout history. The connective qualities are not a secret, but those design tools and constraints were deliberately contradicted in order to promote the industrial-modernist style.
Again, I claim that the International Style was driven primarily by the goal of disconnecting people from their built surroundings, hence it has to be abandoned and condemned as unhealthy. People whom I greatly respect are more generous, claiming that modernism started with the best of intentions, then eventually got commodified, because it was easy and cheap to reproduce. They may be right. But I’m no longer so sure. Underneath the noble-sounding statements of intent of the modernist pioneers, I sense an intuitive drive for the unnatural and the perverse; how to undo living structure. It’s clear to me that traditional design rules for achieving coherence were deliberately (not accidentally) reversed, and this is extremely unhealthy. Nevertheless, many of us presently agree that, whatever the initial motive, the result is disconnection.”
On what that might look like: “An adaptive environment looks very ‘traditional,’ while not copying anything traditional at all. Our method doesn’t tell you to copy a particular window from a 19th Century building, but instead to respect the geometrical relationships among the new windows you design, its setting, and its internal components. What you should experience first-hand, close-up at full scale, with your own body, is the wonderful sense of a healing environment. It’s the same deep feeling that one experiences in most natural situations where there is no danger. This quality is found in traditional and vernacular architectures, but today’s architects mistake the result of applying our design methodology as trying to reproduce something old, which it’s not. I come back to the complete reduction of architecture, and the judgment of architecture, to simplistic images. We have lost the ability to sense and reason in architecture, which represents a profound loss.”
On why Christopher Alexander’s and your work is so threatening to the architectural establishment: “I sympathize with my friends who design buildings that lack human qualities: if those are replaced with what we propose, then they’re out of a job. Superficial and flashy innovation, or banal boxes will no longer be funded, because clients will demand adaptive, healing environments. It’s very threatening to think that you might have to re-learn how to design buildings for people instead of just making doodles on a computer screen, which is so much easier.
As for my other group of friends, the classicists, they also have a winning formula. It so happens that classical buildings do adapt to human sensibilities, which is why I endorse them. Like any other profession, they are happy to practice what they know, and are not interested in broadening their design toolkit to include other innovative non-classical forms. That’s fine, and I don’t blame them. There is no schism with them, however. The classical architects validate my work and use it in both their practice and teaching.
The vast majority of adaptive built environments throughout history and all around the world don’t fit into either classicism or the industrial-modernist categories. What about all those buildings? Nobody bothers with them: the historical and vernacular production of humankind throughout millennia is simply ignored as if it didn’t exist. Do you see these buildings in architectural magazines? Of course not. Their very existence threatens the big money behind developers. But the classical architects (who practice a variety of styles derived from Greco-Roman classicism) strongly respect the architectural traditions of every culture. They join me in abhorring the nihilism of extractive global imperialism, which bulldozes and replaces historical cities with glass skyscrapers.”
On why these ideas were embraced by computer scientists, and not the architects they were initially intended for: “Computer scientists were creating a new world, willing to use any design method and insight into complexity in order to get a product working, and in improving the capacity and efficiency of a computer. They discovered the remarkable intellectual framework created by Alexander (for the architecture of buildings, not computers) and realized that this would solve many of their outstanding problems. People working in information and communication technologies are usually very intelligent, having been trained in science and mathematics. Unlike architects, they are genuinely open to new ideas. They don’t go through restrictive mental conditioning that shapes their minds to reject what lies outside the industrial-modernist design “canon.” They utilize what they see works, and are constantly developing new technologies: the opposite of the religious ritual of architects and critics, who build the same glass boxes and think those are simply wonderful. Architects unthinkingly support the “approved” typologies of architectural culture as an overriding goal. When they discover something new, they immediately misapply it to prop up the glass boxes instead of creating a worthwhile product that’s genuinely different. Maybe they cannot. The method of design pedagogy could have influenced their cognitive processes so deeply that it prevents them from seeking genuine innovation outside the glass box. It’s a frightening possibility.”
Featured image: Fresno Farmers Market. All images courtesy of patternlanguage.com/Center for Environmental Structure.