Modern Architects Stink at Lying. Luckily, That’s Fixable.
Apart from dressing like an undertaker, wearing black-rimmed circular glasses, and driving Swedish cars, modern architects’ most conspicuous trait is their aesthetic honesty, which is dangerous. Sincerity leaves little room for imagination.
Contemporary architectural thought divides into camps, many of which are at war with each other. There is honesty in structure, function, and materials, the idea that what a building is should be explicitly expressed. The opposite is architecture that exists for its own sake, the building-as-object, wherein the only truth it knows is itself. These extreme philosophies and those in between are intellectually stimulating but often irreconcilable. Years of battles worthy of Homer ideologically split the profession into a loose federation of nation-states. As I write this, armies of architects are mentally marching in concentric rings, going nowhere.
This is not good, and it will not save humanity from obliviating itself, which architecture has a duty to prevent. Forgive the Kassandra in me, but designers need to reorient their moral compasses. I recommend avoiding ordinal directions that point to abstract truth or self-reference. I suggest finding a new vector: falsehood, i.e., lying as a design premise.
Yeah, a bit of a taboo notion, I know. Hear me out.
It is fashionable online to declare the present a post-truth era. Indeed, internet conspiracy theories are like black holes, absorbing the light of objective day. Confirmation bias has become king of the Twitterverse, banishing the scientific method from the realm. Admittedly, these are strange times, although it is unlikely that honesty and integrity reigned in earlier ages. There have always been trolls to pay, because consummate lying is effective in shaping opinions and actions. Truth be told, disinformation works and works well. For architects who realize and embrace this phenomenon, opportunities await.
A lie is a statement meant to mislead. The definition is loaded with negative connotations, like alternative fact, cock and bull, cooked-up, deception, Donald Trump, exaggeration, fabrication, fake news, falsehood, fib, made-up, misinformation, perjury, prevarication, propaganda, red herring, sham, trumpisms, trumped-up, untruth, whopper, and—forgive my lack of decorum—bullshit.
But the term also describes beloved legends, fables, fiction, myths, and yarns. “Memorable lies” underpin Hollywood box office hits, blockbuster novels, and songs gone platinum. Society accepts barefaced fakery to entertain, white lies to spare feelings, “noble lies” to serve best interests, and architectural fibs of every style. What else but deceit would you call courthouses posing as Greek temples or Texan subdivisions of faux French chateaus?
Abstract or self-absorbed honesty, as a best-practice policy, hasn’t done much to house the poor or curb global warming. Facts and figures are dust in the wind against half-truth blowbacks from developers and oil companies. As Hillary discovered in 2016, “cognition versus emotion” isn’t a fair fight.
But fire against fire is. The opportunity for architects to reshape reality and, therefore, society cannot be overstated. If all the world’s a stage, architects are its set designers. I partially explained how to use architectural powers of immersion in other essays. For me, this is a recurring theme. With architecture trudging in what Tennessee Williams calls “a dark march,” fiction may be our best way to keep the lights on. Permit me to continue waxing instructive.
The means of convincing someone to modify their view was first proposed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In the fourth century B.C.E., he wrote a treatise that elevated rhetoric to a persuasive art. His book remains in print 2,400 years later because it still resonates. Aristotle said conversion—getting someone to change their mind—was a recipe for three ingredients. The first is the credibility of the presenter, or what Aristotle termed ethos (from which the word “ethics” derives). Second are the facts used to argue, which Aristotle called logos (“logic”). The third is pathos (“passion”), referring to the emotional impact an argument has on its audience.
Society regards architects as ethical, credible people; the profession has an ethos. And architects are trained in logos; they present facts, figures, and other forms of information in logical ways. Unfortunately, what architects often lack is the ability to evoke passion through word or work. Much of what designers do appears truthful, but it goes down as unintelligible or unimportant.
Mixing ethos and logos without pathos has produced zippos, a profoundly banal dish. Compare architects’ main course with what compulsive liars cook up. Mythomaniacs ladle on the pathos and use logos and ethos sparingly. The result is tastier because fiction whets the public’s appetite and invites them to indulge. Nonfiction induces a food coma.
One reason emotion changes peoples’ minds greater than cognition is explainable in a single word: survival. Connecting our spinal cord to our head is a mass of brain cells remaining from humankind’s migration from sea to land. It’s called the brain stem (aka primitive brain or reptilian brain), and it controls our body’s most basic functions. No memory is associated with this part of our mind, nor is any needed. The reptilian brain regulates autonomic responses, such as breathing, heart rate, balance, and body temperature.
The brain stem is an autopilot directly connected to the fight-flight-freeze reflex physically located in our head but soft-wired to our ever-emotional heart. Like most animals, Homo sapiens subconsciously background scan to assess if the environment is dangerous. When we sense an unusual presence (aural, visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory), it gets our attention. But unless the stimulus is persistent or the signal recognized as threatening, it’s considered unimportant. Perhaps it’s a random event, we think to ourselves. Should it happen again, though, we begin monitoring: Hmm. Maybe it’s a coincidence? At a third iteration, we connect the dots: Aha! A pattern! Cue the fight-or-flight alarm.
Many things in nature that are important to our survival are a sequence of beginnings, middles, and ends (Fig. 1). We are programmed to evaluate anything tripartite as consequential, a form of basic biophilia.
Humans evolved to be pattern-recognition experts because not distinguishing friend from foe from food can lead one to becoming food. It is so vital that sometimes we overdo it—we detect patterns that don’t exist. Such is what happens when we see puppies in cloud formations, faces on Mars, or hear “I buried Paul” in a song. The scientific name for false pattern recognition is pareidolia.
This Rule of Three also shows up in language. When we want someone to tune in, we speak in triads: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”; “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”; “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”; “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”; “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; “Of the people, by the people, for the people”; “Truth, justice, and the American way.”
If something noteworthy is to be said—“lies, damned lies, and statistics”—it’s delivered as a triad. But critical communication need not be verbal. “SOS” screams “emergency” just as well as “HEEELP!” A mere three dots, three dashes, and three more dots get the point across.
Three is the most meaningful number in the anthropoid universe. It gets our attention, speaks to us, says something is important. It’s only natural, then, that architects incorporated the Rule of Three into buildings. Pre-modern architects intuitively responded to our genetic predisposition using a Rule of Thirds and tripartite compositions (Fig. 2). One entered a Greek temple atop a stylobate supporting a portico and pediment. Columns were composed of a base, shaft, and capital. Entablatures were made from an architrave, frieze, and cornice. Three-part organization carried forth until the 1930s, when classicism fell out of favor. With it went commodity, firmness, and delight, humanizing elements that signaled building users should stop, look, and listen.
Sidebar: To head off mobs of angry emoji filling my Facebook page, Reader take note; I ain’t no neoclassicist. Post-modernist or modernist I’ll answer to, but mostly, I’m simply a guy searching for a better way to define and manage our age.
That small reptilian brain is a survival engine, but that’s not true of other gray matter. The largest part of our brain is the cerebrum. It’s where reasoning occurs. Like a computer’s central processing unit, the cerebrum includes random access memory, which is short-term working storage. Our CPU’s RAM is limited. There was a time when scientists thought the number of informational chunks an average person could juggle at one time was between five and nine. This was called Miller’s Law because of a research paper cognitive psychologist George Miller published in 1956. Today, scientists’ think the number of concurrent items a person can process is three to five.
The takeaway for architects is that deluging your audience with information, a data dump, overloads the rational brain. The mind gives up and tunes out. If your building includes more than three to five organizing ideas, it becomes invisible, a backdrop, a nonentity. Or if your design presentation includes more than four plus or minus one major concepts, it becomes a bore and also invisible, like background noise. (Myself, I’d aim for that magic number three.) Saying too much, visually or verbally, says nothing.
In contrast to our brain stem’s lack of memory and our rational brain’s limitations, buried deep within our noggin is long-term mass storage. The mammalian (limbic) brain records our life’s social aspects, emotions, and feelings, and files them in the equivalent of two-and-a-half petabytes, enough for a hundred years of memories.
For the Fibber McGees out there, the mammalian brain is a target of opportunity. Successful influencers appeal to people’s emotional center, not their reasoning mechanism. Metaphorically, lying goes to the heart, not the head. Physiologically, if one successfully manipulates positive emotions (compassion, pride, relief, hope), our brain stem responds with, Relax, dude, all is well. Stoke negative emotions (fear, guilt, anger, sadness, disgust) and the reptile in us says, Uh-oh. Danger. Either way, the audience drops its guard and opens itself to suggestion. Tell me more. What’s up?
Myths, legends, fables, and fairy tales are stories that might be true, but (probably) aren’t. They are lies by any other name, and architectural history is full of them. A good example is how plain marble columns came to sport glorious topiary heads. According to Vitruvius:
A free-born maiden of Corinth, just of marriageable age, was attacked by an illness and passed away. After her burial, her nurse, collecting a few little things which used to give the girl pleasure while she was alive, put them in a basket, carried it to the tomb, and laid it on top thereof, covering it with a roof-tile so that the things might last longer in the open air. This basket happened to be placed just above the root of an acanthus. The acanthus root, pressed down meanwhile as though it was by the weight, when springtime came round put forth leaves and stalks in the middle, and the stalks, growing up along the sides of the basket and pressed out by the corners of the tile through the compulsion of its weight, were forced to bend into volutes at the outer edges.
Just then Callimachus, whom the Athenians called κατατηξἱτεχνος for the refinement and delicacy of his artistic work, passed by this tomb and observed the basket with the tender young leaves growing around it. Delighted with the novel style and form, he built some columns after that pattern for the Corinthians, determined their symmetrical proportions, and established from that time forth the rules to be followed in finished works of the Corinthian order.
It’s a powerful image that Vitruvius brings to mind (Fig. 3). An acanthus plant growing through a young girl’s votive offerings. An architect moved to pick up charcoal and papyrus, and sketch. The word picture paints life piercing through death, and it raises questions: Who was that free-born maiden Callimachus felt so compelled to immortalize? Was it his daughter? A lover? Total stranger? The image is incomplete, and like its veracity, lost to time. (Vitruvius wrote his Ten Books of Architecture four centuries after Callimachus and the maiden died.) It’s a Greek tragedy with a middle and ending, but no beginning. Hmm. Maybe it’s a coincidence? We start monitoring and perhaps find a link that isn’t there.
That’s freakin’ genius. Two is the loneliest number there will ever be. Vitruvius triggered pareidolia, inviting readers to imagine an opening to the story. Building users became psychologically invested. Lovers of the Corinthian order didn’t see fake leaves carved in stone columns. They saw everlasting symbols of rebirth.
In a sense, all architectural ornamentation are lies. They exist only to stir feelings, yet that’s saying a lot. Sheds decorated with representational symbols are more potent than ducks representing abstraction. Venturi Scott Brown knew this. Recognizable patterns turn ordinary spaces into meaningful experiences. Christopher Alexander knew this. Honest architects, however, know none of this. Architect-liars do. They understand that every society, culture, country, city, corporation, or family has a foundational story, a metanarrative, or an anecdote upon which architecture can be made. They bake these dramas into buildings.
Fakery is a powerful behavioral instrument in any world-building scenario. George Washington’s famous “Father, I cannot tell a lie,” is, in actual fact, a lie about a liar. “Washington was a master of deception,” according to military historians, a cunning manipulator of the information environment. The trait rubbed off on his biographer. Washington never felled a cherry tree with a toy hatchet. The alt-fact was invented by the writer Mason Locke Weems shortly after the country’s first chief executive died. That it was fiction didn’t matter. America glommed onto it, and the adhesive sticks to this day.
Architects are similarly well advised to lie—but don’t take the suggestion the wrong way. I am not sanctioning moral abandonment or ethics code violations. My credo is always be truthful to friends, family, yourself. Don’t cheat or steal. Don’t break any laws. Don’t be mean. Call Mom every Sunday. And in all things, be honest and true.
Except in design. There, we are free to sully ourselves in fiction for the betterment of humankind.
Keats wrote, poetically, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” which dovetails nicely with the building-as-object school of thought, and is equally unpersuasive. Beauty is temporal, unlikely to change what someone thinks or does. On the other hand, fictionalized truisms, or “memorable lies,” as novelist Neil Gaiman writes, are life-changing.
We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who, without that story, will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.
That is also why persuasive architects draw. A liar’s sense of navigation points to the North Star Polaris. Which, not coincidentally, is a triple-star system.
Featured image: Painting depicting Parson Weems and his famous story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Figures 1 and 2 by the author. Figure 3: The Origin of the Corinthian Order, engraving. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.