Architectural ‘myopia’

Jefferson's campus for the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Jefferson’s campus for the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros – respectively a design consultant and a mathematician/architectural theorist – wrote a piece for Guernica magazine in 2011 called “The Architect Has No Clothes.” It delves deeply into the phenomenon probed often in this blog – why most architects continue to build buildings that don’t function well and are widely disliked by most people. How do these architects keep their jobs?

It is a great read because it touches on most of the major problems with modern architecture and relates them to new scientific findings that explain why the dislike for modernist architecture is not just a matter of taste.

Here is a passage that summarizes some of the scientific findings:

The promising new field of biophilia suggests that human beings have evolved with certain basic aesthetic and physiological needs: the presence of vegetation, water, sunlight, animals, and also the geometric relationships that have accompanied our evolutionary experiences with these structures. By tapping into this rich vocabulary of biophilic design elements, we can have an extremely rich variety of design possibilities—a rich range of artistic expression—while still meeting the needs of human beings. And within the same life-affirming process, we can meet the ecological needs of the environment too. 

Of course, excluding biophiliac elements from architectural practice, as the modernists have done, has negative results. Here is another passage that summarizes the result:

In the last half-century, the clear result of “architectural myopia” is buildings whose makers have been so concerned with the drama of their appearance that they fail on the most fundamental human criteria. They isolate people; they do not provide enough light; or provide a poor quality of light; they provide a hostile pedestrian environment at their edges; they cause excessive shade; or create winds in what is known as a “canyon effect;” or they trap pollutants in the “sick building syndrome;” they use resources wastefully; etc. Moreover, the buildings themselves are a wasteful use of resources, because they are not likely to be well-loved, cared for, repaired, modified, and re-used over many years. In short, it is not just that people find them ugly, but they represent a fundamentally unsustainable way of building human environments.

This raises yet again the question of why are these architects still employed? In any other field they would be without work, blacklisted as charlatans and banned from further activity harmful to the profession.

Salingaros has ruminated, in his Architecture and Anti-Architecture, on the architecture of life versus the architecture of death. Wikipedia has a useful definition of the biolphilia hypothesis, described by biologist Edward O. Wilson (who took the word from Erich Fromm) as the human attraction to other life forms and forms of vitality. That might include inanimate forms that nevertheless are vital, and which respond to influences from life and from vital aspects of nonlife forms, such as the wind. My brother Tony Brussat, out in Oregon (Mehaffy lives in Portland), has explored some of these relations with a considerable degree of depth and eloquence in his blog Conscious Ritualing, which he paused a few months ago in order explore other lines of thought, I think, though it is certainly worth investigating.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Architectural ‘myopia’

  1. Lon says:

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  2. Pingback: Architectural ‘myopia’ | Ragnarok Connection

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