Science and architecture

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Stata Center (2004) at MIT, in Cambridge, Mass. (inquiriesjournal.com)

Some perverse mental hiccup recently tricked my mind into picturing the Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 2004 to house the science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Woe was me, briefly, until my natural defensive systems caused me to remember a wonderful passage about why traditional architecture is far more scientific than the modern architecture, which falsely claims to be scientific.

In the passage, the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was channeling Nikos Salingaros, the University of Texas mathematician who recently, with theorist Michael Mehaffy, won the Clem Labine Award from Traditional Building magazine. Scruton had reviewed Salingaros’s book A Theory of Architecture for The New Criterion in 2008, and I wrote a column about it called “Why classical architecture rocks.” The passage was so sweet that I cannot resist reprinting it here.

Scruton starts by quoting Salingaros about the Stata, which looks something like real architecture seen in a fun-house mirror. Its randomness “is the antithesis of nature’s organized complexity. … Housing a scientific department at a university inside the symbol of its nemesis must be the ultimate irony.” Scruton then goes on to describe, at delightful length, the central idea of Salingaros’s theory:

Architecture, Salingaros argues, is governed by universal and intuitively understood principles, which have been exemplified by all successful styles and in all civilizations that have left a record of themselves in their buildings. These principles are followed by life itself, and govern the process that unites part to part and part to whole in a complex organism. Because these principles correspond to life processes in ourselves, we intuitively recognize their authority, are at home with buildings that obey them, and uncomfortable with buildings that do not. The forms, scales, materials and undetailed surfaces of modern buildings deliberately flout these principles, and this is a sufficient explanation of the hostility that they arouse.

For Salingaros, therefore, no cause is more urgent than a return to the natural order of architecture, which will enable us once again to be at home in urban surroundings.

The secret of this natural order is contained in the concept of scale. Successful buildings are not given size and shape, as it were, in one gesture. … Successful buildings achieve their size and shape, Salingaros argues, by a hierarchy of scales, which lets us read their larger dimensions as amplifications of the smaller. The architect ascends from the smallest scale to the largest through repeated application of a “scaling rule,” [which] is not arbitrary, since life itself seems to favor, in the fractal structures of leaves and cells, a figure in the neighborhood of three, and it is the “rule of a third” which, according to Salingaros, has been applied by master architects throughout history. …

Salingaros develops this and related ideas in an intriguing manner, arguing that modernism went wrong from the start, with Adolf Loos’s famous dismissal of ornament [in Ornament and Crime, published in 1913] – a dismissal which effectively left the lowest end of the scalar progression undefined, so that everything larger became free-floating and ungrounded.

Many of the ways in which architectural cells unfold into buildings imitate the ways in which plants and animals grow, and in attempting to give a comprehensive theory of this kind of unfolding, Salingaros is repeating a theme broached in his writings by the Prince of Wales.

Salingaros associates the radical modernism of the starchitects less with egotism than with a nihilist desire to negate the togetherness of communities, and to infect our surroundings with objects that forbid us to take comfort.

Why? I think today’s architecture, which took over the architectural establishment in the late 1940s, is the only global industry that buys into the idea that using chaos to destroy human institutions – including the built environment – will eventually enable a utopia to be built upon the ruins.

Fat chance.

Most architects don’t realize the bottom line of the kind of buildings they design. Still, just by designing them, they unintentionally but automatically contribute to a philosophical or political project of which most are entirely unaware. So, instead of utopia, we are getting its opposite – dystopia – as James Stevens Curl’s new book Making Dystopia explains with a highly appropriate dyspepsia.

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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3 Responses to Science and architecture

  1. Pingback: Weekend Linkage | Uncouth Reflections

  2. petervanerp says:

    I just used the Stata Center as an example of how little modern architects have learned: Fallingwater leaked; the Villa Savoye leaked; and the Stata Center leaks…

    Like

    • A number of my email correspondents have insisted they like the Stata, including that it served to explode an area of boring beige buildings. I agree that it is an interesting building, even an exciting one. But a building owes respect to its neighbors that the Stata does not provide with its explosion of color and form. It could instead have used design to improve its neighbors and their joint context with a new building whose elegance diminished the tedium of its neighbors. Gehry clearly had no desire to do that. Plus, yes, the roofs leak and the interiors – however stupid looking – fail to provide utility to the building’s users, or so I have heard.

      Like

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