The headache of modernism

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Modernism vs. nature, or stripes vs. nonstripes. (Top: Sam Beebe/Flickr. Bottom: Tsaiian/Flickr)

CNN has run an article called “Looking at buildings can actually give people headaches. Here’s why.” Its author, psychology professor Arnold J. Wilkins of Essex University, in Great Britain, is right. Modern architecture can give you a headache, and it is great to have CNN putting its imprimatur behind that very important but widely ignored (indeed suppressed) idea. Journalism in the service of humanity is rare these days.

Wilkins cites the theory of French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) that the brain interprets what the eye sees as patterns of stripes that please or displease. Fourier is better known for discovering what is now known as the greenhouse effect. His stripes, referred to as “Fourier components,” may or may not be the most accurate description of visual activity, but there is no doubt that something happened in the last century to sharpen the distinction between rural and urban landscapes.

[O]ver the last 100 years, the design of buildings has been departing further and further from the rule of nature; more and more stripes appear decade by decade, making the buildings less and less comfortable to look at.

Too many “stripes” in the form of straight lines and blank spaces are unnatural. The result leads to headaches. Wilkins explains:

Put simply, scenes from nature have stripes that tend to cancel each other out, so that when added together no stripes appear in the image. But this is not the case with scenes from the urban environment. Urban scenes break the rule of nature: they tend to feature regular, repetitive patterns, due to the common use of design features such as windows, staircases and railings. Regular patterns of this kind are rarely found in nature.

Perhaps Fourier was on to something, but Wilkins, writing some three centuries later, is being a little bit sneaky about “windows, staircases and railings” as the repetitive patterns that rub the brain in the wrong direction. All buildings have those and always have, but only in the past century have those features, not to mention entire buildings and cityscapes, become far more uncomfortably “striped” in the Fourierian sense. Tsk, tsk!

More recent experiments cited by Wilkins suggest that the brain’s difficulty with repetitive patterns uses up oxygen, the lack of which causes headaches. Why the brain is disconcerted by regularity more than by irregularity is not addressed by Wilkins.

Perhaps this theory of Fourier’s is compatible with the more recent theory of University of Texas mathematician Nikos Salingaros that the brain prefers complexity to simplicity. Wilkins writes of how “the human brain evolved to effectively process scenes from the natural world. But the urban jungle poses a greater challenge for the brain, because of the repetitive patterns it contains.”

Salingaros believes that the primitive brain relied on detail in order to, say, warn of a lion lurking nearby. The absence of detail could spell danger for primitive man, and so most people’s preference for detail over repetitive patterns in architecture today may be an atavistic reflection of obsolete instincts of self-preservation.

Salingaros’s broader theories of architecture, associated with those of Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, express traditional architecture’s natural qualities as springing from its evolution over centuries of trial and error in search of best practices, which are then handed down from generation to generation. The neurology of biological reproductivity had much in common with the evolution of architectural discourse over the centuries up through, say, 1950. Modernism kicked all of that aside and relies instead on an experimentalism that abjures precedent and hence is incapable of developing any coherent language of design. For centuries, architecture reveled in its abundance of detail, an efflorescence that came to an end with the advent of modern architecture. Modernism vs. nature and nurture.

Another recent theory that ties into this, developed by Massachusetts architect and researcher Ann Sussman, is that the most influential pioneer of modern architecture, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, was autistic, and led a revolution that purged from architecture the kind of detail that unsettles those on the autistic spectrum.

Wilkins’s article did not specifically mention modern architecture as the culprit. He tiptoed through the tulips. Had he fingered modernism more directly, his article might have ended up in the circular file.

Some people get headaches from modern architecture and others do not. One thing’s for sure. Today the world has a migraine, and nobody seems to know why. Maybe a big part of the reason is hiding right out in plain sight.

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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others 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 The headache of modernism

  1. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    David,
    There was a time after the World Wars when cities were deemed overly antiquated and burdened by tradition. The proliferation of traditional detail -much of it trite and half-heartedly assembled- was enough to make people flee for calm. Boston is an excellent example.

    Although the city is riding high now, by 1950 Boston was considered dated; a shambles of disinvestment in contrast to modern alternatives in the suburbs. As we well recall, by 1960, Motor cities like Denver, Dallas and Los Angeles were ascendant, taking in hundreds of thousands of newcomers (including Ricky, and Lucy Arnaz) with the promise of efficiency, simplicity, mobility and sunshine. By contrast the Northeastern American City was in crisis and needed a major makeover. Enter Modernism and Urban Renewal. The very remedy that wrought planning havoc in many cities was a relatively huge success in the Massachusetts capital. So what are we really talking about?…

    What I too often find missing from the research and banter is a full-on examination of the impact of petroleum/carbon-based energy consumption (ie the Machine, Automotive and Information ages -the real genesis of Modernism-) on the state of architecture and design. What was oil’s impact on the social denigration of traditional building? The state of Pattern Language such as you outline above -it’s study of its physiological relationship to our evolution and current condition- cannot be adequately assessed without acknowledging the radical transformation of our habitat as induced by the petrol-chemical era. Critics (including Ann Sussman) can cite LC’s “autism” and the ravages of Flanders on Gropius’ shortcomings, but both were in tune with the profound transformative influences that 20th Century technology would bring to a new Consumer Industrial civilization.

    Personally, I blame the Rockefeller Dynasty and it’s vast oil empire for our long national migraine. Nelson’s footprint alone far exceeds whatever delusion -real or imagined- the modern masters may have proffered. Take a look at oil!

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  2. Nikos Angelos Salingaros says:

    Dear David,

    Yes, indeed, I’m looking at the original research articles now. This recent work confirms earlier theories of innate aesthetic preference that Christopher Alexander and I (and others) have proposed. The mathematics is also much the same: Fourier decomposition into a sum of increasingly smaller wavelengths (stripes) is the same as the decomposition of a fractal into its increasingly smaller components. Out of an infinite number of ways to do this, the 1/f distribution is the one that nature prefers. Simply put: few large pieces, more intermediate size pieces, and a lot of smaller pieces. Modernism got rid of everything but the large stripes.

    So, just as Ann Sussman has discovered, it’s not only overwhelmingly clear that a departure from organized complexity leads to anxiety for normal individuals, but the specific details of the preferred organized complexity are the ones we have predicted.

    Why Monotonous Repetition is Unsatisfying

    I do hope that this will trigger a host of new measurements, as it should in a healthy discipline.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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