Joint prize for dynamic duo

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From the book Over Europe, Text by Jan Morris (Weldon Owen Inc., 1988)

My Traditional Building just arrived and reveals that Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy have received this year’s Clem Labine Award from the magazine. Congratulations to them both. Much of my education regarding how science affects architecture and urbanism comes from their research and writing, especially the jointly bylined pieces they’ve produced for magazines and the books they’ve edited or written.

After taking notice of the conventional wisdom that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that science has little to do with it, TB’s lengthy online article about the award, by Nancy Ruhling, states:

[T]his year’s Clem Labine winners see a game-changing contribution to architecture from the sciences, giving us a decidedly different picture. Beauty is a largely shared experience that is rooted in the physical structure of things, they say. The sciences offer us a useful lens for understanding that structure and how we can create and improve it with more emotionally powerful and transcendent results.

Ruhling’s piece has plenty of quotes from both Mehaffy and Salingaros. She meticulously describes their work and history. The first is an urbanist who founded and runs a think tank in Portland, Ore., the Sustasis Foundation; the latter is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who has worked for decades with the architect and computer-design theorist Christopher Alexander. Both winners seek to integrate Alexander’s “pattern language” and other “living” architectural insights into the principles and practice of the New Urbanism (basically the old urbanism revived). After introducing the pair, Ruhling quotes Salingaros:

I applied mathematical rules for the kinds of buildings that give healing feedback, and I worked with architect Christopher Alexander, the inventor of pattern language. With my formula, I can judge a building, even a door, as positive, neutral or negative.

Of course, most people do that instinctively. Nobody needs a formula to tell traditional architecture from modern architecture, or which is superior. But neither can anyone underestimate the importance of formula in codifying links between beauty and science. Our brains are hardwired by neurobiology to judge architecture and urban design. Architecture is a practical art. It is the only art people experience almost every waking moment of the day since childhood, and often even in our dreams. We all have an ability to judge buildings and streetscapes that is actually more sophisticated than that of those who have been educated in those fields. The No. 1 job of architecture schools is to purge the deep, intuitive feelings about beauty from the conscious thinking of young students.

Regarding the ability to judge the quality of place, Mehaffy states:

If you ask most people to look at traditional places, they love them. That’s where we almost all go on our holidays. Ask them to look at modern places, and the reaction is far more mixed, if not downright negative. … [Traditional architecture] has a rich and complex provenance. It represents the accumulated experience of how to live well in a beautiful, healthy environment. And it’s better adapted to the intricacies of human experiences because it evolved over a long period of time.

The two disagree somewhat on the prospects for a revival of beauty in architecture. Salingaros states that

Michael and I are fighting this giant profitable machine driven by trillions of dollars. The regime run by the top architecture schools propagates the same old ideas from the early 20th century. And the mainstream media is blindly following the architectural media, which promotes contorted buildings and glass and steel architecture. That promotion is being driven by the global building industry and its business-as-usual approach.

The more optimistic Mehaffy replies:

Nikos is focused on storming the gates of architecture, and understandably he gets frustrated because they are closed to him. I’m not as cynical as he is, maybe because I am looking at a bigger audience. I see many people in many other fields converging on the new findings from the sciences and looking at things in a very different light—especially now that people are connecting the dots to human health and sustainability. It’s just that it’s taking time for an isolated architectural establishment to awaken to the new reality. We have to keep pushing.

At the center of the pushing is, of course, Clem Labine, for whom the award is named, who founded Traditional Building and other journals that seek to spread enlightenment about architecture and urban design. He himself writes an excellent, no-holds-barred column on architecture.

Working with TB publisher Active Interest Media, Labine and his colleagues have built a network of institutions that bring architects and developers together with artisans, craftsmen and the firms through which they market their work. TB seminars across the country sponsored by AIM spread the word about traditional design and the strategies by which it makes human life more healthy and beautiful. Along with the Palladio Awards, which honor individual projects, the Clem Labine Award is a vital platform for recognizing great work by individuals to promote the classical revival.

So, yes, you two, Nikos and Michael, keep on pushing! You are bringing many others along with you, and eventually things will change and the world will realize that it, too, owes you much.

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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