For his latest piece in CityLab, “Making the Case for Symmetrical Cities,” peripatetic architecture critic Anthony Flint, housed at the Lincoln Institute in Cambridge, does a very nice job adding up the evidence for the superiority of classical and traditional architecture.
Flint has heard a lecture by Ann Sussman, author (with Justin Hollander) of Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, and sums up her thinking thus:
The symmetry of red brick, perfectly positioned front doors and 12-pane windows has a soothing effect. It tells us all is well in the world, that there is order, and indeed that we’re connected to that equilibrium. In evolutionary terms, we sense a friendly environment; we’re going to have food, and we’re not going to be eaten. Survival of the tidiest.
“Can so much really be wrapped up in what we see?,” wonders Flint.
Much more than that, really. Symmetry is only part of it. Architecture and city building are among the few human arenas in which the product of the human mind lasts for centuries. Added to year by year, the way we build is a learning process that never stops. It inculcates eternal verities handed down generation to generation, literally since before we even started to build – as we humans began storing knowledge about the environment that enabled us to, say, spot the tiger in the bush yonder. Symmetry is a part of that, and so is the brain’s swift recognition of facial symbology. But that is far from all.
Flint then cites millennia of gathered wisdom that bears this out.
It has long been established that well-tailored design is pleasing not only to the eye but the soul, though the reasons for that have always been somewhat mysterious. Firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, solid, useful, and beautiful — we know from Vitruvius, are characteristics baked into architecture as an imitation of nature. Leonardo da Vinci, Le Corbusier and many others recognized the strange power of mathematical alignment. More recently, the Congress for the New Urbanism reminds us that great places built in traditional design make us feel good. The theory of how this all works is detailed in A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.
(I would boot Corbusier from that list because he used his knowledge to destroy cities and undermine the principles of human habitation.)
As I say, Flint adds all this up and nods approvingly, but clearly he feels uncomfortable:
The bottom line seems to be, why bother trying anything new, when we’ve already figured out what constitutes good design? I wonder if one possible result is a restraint on creativity, and cookie-cutter boredom.
The bottom line is not that at all. It is that anything new must be tried and tested over time, as was the case during millennia of architectural evolution. The modernists threw that baby out with the bathwater long ago. Most architecture today is not science but cult, and it’s people like Sussman – I would add also Nikos Salingaros, the Texas mathematician, architectural theorist and research partner of Christopher Alexander – who are among those trying to bring not only science back into the architectural fold, but firmness, utility and delight, all casualties of modernism. It’s hard enough with the architectural establishment arrayed against them, but snickering from the peanut gallery doesn’t help.
“Far be it from me to argue with a few million years of evolution,” sighs Flint at the end of his piece. Indeed.