In their newly published book, subtitled “Settlement, Science and the Human Future,” authors Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros argue that human well-being, indeed survival here on Earth, requires replacing our overly mechanized, technologized way of life with patterns of living that better reflect … life.
That sounds like an easy bromide but Design for a Living Planet provides a roadmap for getting there, and argues persuasively why the attempt must be made. The hard part, unfortunately, is not how to remake our lifestyles and settlement patterns in the image of Mother Nature, the recipe for which is in this book. It is how to break away from a culture that may be heading toward epic fail but won’t face up to the need for action. That should be the subject of their next book.
Although worst-case scenarios are often pressed to service in Planet, readers needn’t buy entirely into climate-change alarmism to feel the need for drastic reform. The seas may or may not rise above higher and higher sea walls, but what persuades me that the book’s prescriptions are compelling is the rush of society toward the model exemplified by Blade Runner, not to mention 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. In short, the growing gap between elite and prole as the middle class evaporates, and the physical and intellectual breakdown this implies. The theme is not new and neither is the prescription, really. But this slender yet profound volume brings science into the equation more emphatically and comprehensively than ever before.
The world needs more resilience, argues Planet, and it strikes the authors as evident that trying to emulate nature will be more helpful than trying to defeat her.
Professor Salingaros is a mathematician and design theorist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and teaches around the world. Mehaffy, also an urbanist, computerist and design theorist once associated with Prince Charles’s Foundation for Building Community, now leads the Sustasis Foundation in Portland, Ore., which processes new thinking about human habitation. Much of the book recasts essays the two have written for Metropolis magazine. Its editors’ willingness to publish the pair’s anti-establishmentarian articles is a good sign that honest doubts about the current regime are opening cracks within which a more sensible alternative may gather its strengths.
Salingaros and Mehaffy do not mince words when it comes to pointing the fickle finger of blame at modernism – especially its architectural and planning establishments:
The origins of architectural Modernism are closely affiliated with the progressive goals of the early Twentieth Century, and the humanitarian ideals – even the utopian zeal – of well-meaning visionaries of that day. Those individuals saw a promising capacity, in the dawning industrial technology of the age, to deliver a new era of prosperity and quality of life for humanity. At their most credulous, its leaders were clearly enraptured by the seemingly infinite possibilities for a technological utopia. From that they developed an elaborate – and in surprising ways, still poorly evaluated – theory about the necessary new tectonics and form languages of the civilization of the future. Their followers today still argue that it is, unquestionably, Modernism that is best positioned to don the mantle of sustainability.
In light of the association of the founding modernists with Nazi Germany it is fair to doubt some of that. Mies van der Rohe thought modernism should be the design template for the Third Reich. Le Corbusier wanted Paris to demolish its center city on the basis of theories so obviously inimical to the common good that a third grader could have defenestrated them, if any third graders had been listening. But even giving the modernists the benefit of the doubt, it turns out that they had merely fashioned an enticing new brand – “The Future!” – for a consumerist society, not a credible plan for improving it.
Like other thinkers (often writing in pairs), Mehaffy and Salingaros shrink from merely stating that the answer to present problems is the past. For example, John Massengale and Victor Dover wrote their excellent Street Design in 2014 to suggest a generally useful set of rules for animating streets, even though a trip through their illustrations suggests that if you line streets with traditional buildings, they will be loved and animated. In like manner, Mehaffy and Salingaros prescribe a set of rules for sustainable architecture and planning that resembles how biological systems grow and procreate, but then they turn around and argue that society produced essentially the same set of rules through the process of trial and error that caused sustainable cities to grow organically over centuries.
We can certainly use an adaptive design algorithm with a traditional form language to design very different buildings depending upon different initial conditions. The best classical and traditional architects have always known this, and have exploited it in the past to build the world’s most loved and sustainable cities by re-using much older form languages in their own day: Paris, London, Rome, and many others.
Not that the best classical and traditional architects thought in terms of adaptive design algorithms. You could almost say that the answer is just to build cities as we did before World War II. Almost, but not quite, because the designers of Paris, London, Rome, etc., did not need, first off, to dislodge an entrenched cult that dominated the power centers of the design and building arts of that or any prior era of architecture and city planning.
Sort of like sans serif typefaces, modern architecture and planning have drastically reduced the number of “cues” of how to read a building or a street that is the purpose of architectural detail, beyond the utilitarian purpose of directing rain away from building joints. Embellishment is not just ornamental or utilitarian; its attractive qualities help get our minds to pay attention to what buildings are saying to us:
Let us not underestimate the radical but unnoticed societal shift from experiencing our environment intimately yet subconsciously to requiring a constant conscious effort to navigate it [the infamous “Where’s the entrance?” problem of modern architecture] while keeping an intellectual and physical distance. It now appears this is carrying a tremendous if unrecognized cost to the quality of life.
Under a misguided theory of environmental structure that confuses simplicity with order, we have been stripping away the critical connected scales and fractal relationships within our environment. We have replaced a world of richly connected urbanism with a disordered geography of artfully packaged, catastrophically failing art-products.
Part of the fraud of modernism is its claim to science. Today, starchitects claim to use fractals in their design when in fact they are using fractal shapes without understanding what fractals are. To modernists, as Salingaros has complained elsewhere, the apparent meaning of the word fractal is “broken.” And yet, how appropriate! Architecture today sees its highest goal as reflecting our broken society, not fixing it. A fundamental mistake. As the top architects are in the 1 percent, or at least sucking its tit, this should come as no surprise.
It is unlikely that a break from the present, as it were, is likely to come through a mere pining for beautiful cities, however widespread. Anecdotal and scholarly evidence amply demonstrate that most people have preferred traditional design for as long as traditional design has had a deeply (and purposely) obnoxious alternative. But even in democracies, as critic Aaron Betsky points out, rich and powerful people commission buildings, not the public. (Though in his latest version of orthodoxy’s defensive crouch, Betsky concedes this is not necessarily a good thing.)
Nor is it likely that the very sensible prescriptions in Planet will cause much of a stir in the academy or the profession. But the method has to be out there for architects, planners and other decision makers in our society to turn to when the tipping point comes (whatever form it may take). Not only do Mehaffy and Salingaros put it out there but they do so in the most brilliant way. I did not expect that Planet would be as amusing as From Bauhaus to Our House, but I was surprised at how accessible it was.
Most people will not leap with both feet into chapters entitled “Scaling and Fractals,” “The Meaning of Complexity,” “The Transformation of Wholes,” “Complex Adaptive Systems,” “Evidence-Based Design,” “Biophilia” and “Computational Irreducibility,” to name some chapters in parts II and III. But through a process of repetition, Salingaros and Mehaffy gently beat the science into your head. I wondered at first whether the book might be too redundant. But long before the end I felt relatively comfortable with the concepts involved. The book is 236 pages – wafer thin for a scientific tome.
This reviewer’s feeble understanding of the scientific processes he ignored in high school and dodged altogether in college was greatly assisted by reading Planet‘s constant iteration of its basic themes again and again and again. For example:
More recent scientific investigations reveal the richly complex geometry of living environments – including human ones. The geometries of those natural structures “evolve in context” as complex adaptive forms, through a process known as “adaptive morphogenesis.” As a result of that process, living geometries have particular characteristics. They differentiate into a range of subtly unique structures, and they adapt to local conditions, giving such environments stability and resilience. They achieve great complexity and efficiency through their evolution – and great beauty, in the form of a perceivable deeper order.
Toward the end of the book, after making continued reference to it, the authors devote Part IV to the work of Christopher Alexander, most famous in architectural circles for his book A Pattern Language. That book broke down the features of towns and buildings into conventional patterns handed from generation to generation because they encapsulated useful techniques for accomplishing specific architectural goals. Alexander’s architectural work speaks, in my opinion, less to beauty than to utility, but a utility whose beauty is more practical than the feigned utility on which modern architecture preens itself.
But Alexander’s ideas on how parts transform into wholes were discovered, almost accidentally, by early computer gurus. His first book, Synthesis of Form (1964), led to improvements in computer programming that generated such design movements as extreme programming and such unfathomable boons to humanity as the Wiki application invented by Ward Cunningham that led to Wikipedia. His work has led to computer games like SimCity and Spore. Salingaros has worked collaboratively with Alexander for decades.
Alexander’s fundamental insight is described in Planet as:
[W]e’re doing something wrong in the way we make things. We’re substituting an oversimplified model of structure-making – one more closely related to our peculiar hierarchically limited way of conceiving abstract relationships – in place of the kinds of transformations that actually occur regularly in the universe, and in biological systems especially.
Alexander is considered an architectural crank by most establishment architects who recognize his name. But his influence in the world of computers and the Internet is a model of conceiving today’s systems in more natural, organic ways, and provides a gravitas to his ideas that eventually must, and will, catch society’s ear.
Breakdown increasingly afflicts every society in small ways and large – from the inability to fill potholes and balance municipal budgets to the instability of nation-states around the globe (not to mention the climate). As the usual suspects’ solutions fail one by one to solve problems, the establishment will be forced to consider unconventional solutions that increasingly resemble those described in Planet. One needn’t call for a return to kings, castles and horse-drawn carriages to recognize that humanity has lost its way and may need to go back a few miles before it can reacquire the road forward.
We must return to building on the best practices of the past rather than rejecting them in favor of novelties. That the tried and true have been jettisoned by the establishment of one of the world’s oldest professions – with engineering taking the sloppy seconds of architecture’s fame and fortune for covering up its errors and literally preventing its absurd creations from falling down – is a phenomenon that beggars the imagination. How could this be so? That question, too, is addressed in Planet.
The built environment lacks the phalanx of defenders who speak up for the natural environment. Cities and towns are central to the lives of all people, and their design – or lack of it – influences the quality of life in ways that for many decades have been beneath the notice of the architectural community, but also the leaders of our democracy. The built environment must become an issue of no less importance than education, public safety, finance, justice, job creation and other matters on which reporters report, commentators comment, politicians procrastinate and voters decide.
How to remove the built environment from the inept hands of technocrats beholden to plutocrats and place it in the hands of those with the people’s well-being in mind is a challenge for another day. Meanwhile, Design for a Living Planet is an indispensable roadmap to understanding the ordered complexities society must master to survive.