Yesterday I sent in my monthly blog post for Traditional Building magazine, and today I’m thinking, well, I left out some really important stuff. My TB post was a reply to TB’s Forum in which the architectural historian Paul A. Ranogajec contended, in “Time on Our Side: Toward a Critical Tradition of Classicism,” that classicists do themselves harm by ignoring modern trends in thought, not just on architecture but on broader social and cultural issues. He cited such thinkers as Michel Foucault. If that’s his idea of the kind of thinking classicists have ignored, then I can only applaud the classicists.
And I said so in my post. But I left out examples of thinking that perhaps Ranogajec and certainly most modern thinkers ignore or are unaware of. For example, consider the research being done by Nikos Salingaros, Michael Mehaffy, Ann Sussman and many others. They are finding neurobiological reasons that explain why humans prefer traditional to modernist buildings. Briefly, it’s because of ornament. Traditional buildings embrace it, modernist buildings spurn it. But ornament – broadly speaking, the detail that animates traditional architecture at all levels of scale – tugs on humans’ longstanding desire for information about their environment. Today, enjoying the beauty of ornament reminds our subconcious of the relief humans derived in earlier ages from the timely perception of dangers (say, a tiger behind a bush on the savannah) or edibles (such as bananas amid a tangled jungle environment). The intricacies of visual, aural and nasal perception were of vital importance. People like to see detail today because it is beautiful. This is not just a matter of taste but the brain’s atavistic recollection of a matter of survival.
I do not think this is too far from what some of the thought leaders cited above are reporting. There is much more to it, and we have been seeing a lot of it in books and media these days. But unlike the thinking that Ranogajec points us toward, much of it seems to be explaining why we should place a higher value on our basic human instincts rather than on theories, like those of Foucault, that seem to emphasize deconstructing language or power in ways that undermine the structures of everyday life.
Often those theories are not based on scientific evidence but on the ideological proclivities of their proponents.
Ornament is both an expression of style and a requirement of utility – for example, some types of ornament prevent rain from penetrating inside buildings by protecting the seams between sections of wall and fenestration. A century or so ago, the founders of modernism decided to ditch ornament because it was not utilitarian (an obvious falsehood, as I’ve just pointed out) or because the machine age required a machine architecture (another very serious error), or to flip the bird at the bourgeoisie, or because a roof gable represented monarchical rule that yanked us into World War I. Poppycock! War is bad! Blame it on the buildings! These are all classic examples of faulty – and in all likelihood essentially fraudulent – intellectualization. Freud must be ecstatic, or maybe he is rolling in his grave.
Again, these are theories invented out of whole cloth by intellectuals who were themselves alienated from the prevailing culture. Ornament and other aspects of traditional design, on the other hand, evolved over hundreds and thousands of years as practitioners found new methods to solve old design problems, or adjusted their practice to new materials or technologies. Mostly this sort of evolution involved slight changes in practice rather then entirely new conceptions of design. It was almost Darwinesque.
So here is some thinking that the modernists are obviously ignoring. Which is the better thinking? I will let the reader decide.