Column: The mathematician vs. the modernists

The Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. (en.wikipedia.org)

The Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. (en.wikipedia.org)

Nikos Salingaros. (vimeo.com)

Nikos Salingaros. (vimeo.com)

The Jetsons cartoon. (floridanature.wordpress.comm)

The Jetsons cartoon. (floridanature.wordpress.comm)

Ministry of Truth, Orwell's "1984." (archinect.com)

Ministry of Truth, Orwell’s “1984.” (archinect.com)

Bernie Madoff. (thefinereport.com)

Bernie Madoff. (thefinereport.com)

Fractal imagery of trees. (rosettacode.org)

Fractal imagery of trees. (rosettacode.org)

Mars-Earth Mandelbrot fractal. (xxx)

Mars-Earth Mandelbrot fractal. (xxx)

Jacques Derrida. (xxx)

Jacques Derrida. (xxx)

Royal Ontario Museum, by deconstructivist Daniel Libeskind. (e-architect.co.uk)

Royal Ontario Museum, by deconstructivist Daniel Libeskind. (e-architect.co.uk)

New Urbanist neighborhood in Chicago. (facebook.com)

New Urbanist neighborhood in Chicago. (facebook.com)

Science and modern architecture have gone hand in glove for decades. Buildings of steel and glass are filled with high technology to protect office space and living space from sun and climate. Hermetically sealed cartoon futurism must be scientific, right?

Well, it has struck some people that a built environment designed in opposition to the natural environment might have problems with science that transcend appearance.

Nikos Salingaros is among the lead prosecutors investigating this situation.

The mathematician and architectural theorist at the University of Texas in San Antonio has a new collection of essays out called “Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction” — actually the fourth edition of a book published in 2004. He continues his style of pulling no punches in attacking the architectural establishment.

Subtitled “The Triumph of Nihilism,” Salingaros’s volume takes a scientific approach to the modernist architectural fraud, using the metaphor of a virus, but also that of a cult.

Modernist doctrine has spread the way a virulent disease spreads, infecting authorities in charge of facilities design and construction at major institutions with beliefs that most people recognize as hostile to human sensibilities.

The disease maintains its grip, writes Salingaros, by controlling the professional dialogue and inuring us to a built environment of sterile, foreboding structures, whose torque and tilt suggest that their only connection to science is the denial of its most basic principles — especially gravity. Engineers work bravely to ensure that modernism does not literally fall down.

The modernist cult mocks such scientific terms as fractal — a descriptor of nature’s organized complexity. In the modernist lexicon it evidently means “broken,” as if shards of glass and twisted titanium have some innate link to science. As if nature were broken. Our era may be broken, and architects may feel a need to understand it — but, please, you need not replicate its worst features!

Modern architecture serves as handmaiden to financial and political mores that marry Bernie Madoff and Big Brother in a throwback world of “Jetsons” cartoon futurism.

Indeed, the accomplishments of modernism and its cult can be compared to the society created by George Orwell in “1984.” Most of its population of proles accept a status quo they recognize as inimical to well-being but find difficult to understand, let alone resist. Reality is redefined by Big Brother in terms that baffle normal patterns of thought. History and language are rewritten by the Ministry of Truth.

Orwell’s novel came out in 1949, foreshadowing the ’60s ideas of French thinker Jacques Derrida. Salingaros calls modernism the “Derrida virus” and its product deconstuctivism, exemplified by architecture that is not what it should be and everything it should not.

Of the Stata Center, for example, designed by Frank Gehry for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Salingaros writes, “Deconstructivist buildings are the most visible symbols of actual deconstruction. The randomness they embody is the antithesis of nature’s organized complexity. … Housing a scientific department at a university inside the symbol of its nemesis must be the ultimate irony.”

During the 1970s and ’80s, deconstructivists in schools of law, departments of literature and other academic fields sought to use Derrida’s ideas to undermine legal, literary, sociological and other knowledge. If better social and political systems were to be built, they claimed, society’s intellectual structures had to be dealt with first. The main method was to destabilize meaning. The legal establishment and most of academia swiftly marginalized such dangerously ridiculous thinking, but architecture remains largely sunk in deconstructivist theory, even if most modern architects themselves do not realize it; they merely practice it.

Salingaros and others have not just exposed the fraudulent use of science by modern architecture but have discovered the scientific basis of traditional architecture. He describes how scale, proportion and ornament ditched by the modernists reflect biological survival mechanisms evolved over millennia that value information. Returning those features to design will revive an architecture based on humanity.

The template for this revival exists throughout the world because preservationists have blocked modernists from its wholesale demolition. Urban planning has already staged a coup to evict modernist theory from most municipal planning agencies. Only the institutional power of modernist hierarchy prevents a return to natural values in architecture. A strategy must be found to oust the cult of modernism by leveraging the public’s intuitive preference for tradition. After reading his book I must nominate Nikos Salingaros to lead the way.

David Brussat is a former member of The Journal’s editorial board.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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