The Quest to “Liberate” Architecture from Modernism’s Evils: An Interview with Nikos Salingaros

  • 08 Jul 2013
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Nikos Salingaros is unafraid of a controversial statement. A professor of Mathematics and Urban theory, he has been using his scientific approach to study architecture and urban environments for years, and has come to a conclusion: is just about the worst thing that happened to architecture.

As Salingaros explains, not only is it impossible to have any “Green” architecture within a modernist framework, but, moreover, Modernism encourages us to deny our biologically-evolved senses and embrace an unnatural, inhuman built world – and why? Because there’s a whole lot of money and power behind those “modernist boxes.” As Salingaros puts it:

“Architectural Education ever since the Bauhaus, and continuing to the present day without interruption, teaches students to interpret built forms according to very peculiar abstract criteria, and not through their own biologically-evolved senses and cognitive intelligence. This is radical training in sensory denial: desensitizing people so that their interpretation of the world can be defined by others with an agenda.”

I interviewed Salingaros to get to the bottom of his theories and understand his anti-Modern crusade. Read it all, including Salingaros’ incendiary takes on Architecture education, sustainability, and urban planning, after the break…

Courtesy of Nikos Salingaros

AD: Can you describe what you mean by your term “Architectural Myopia”? How has Architecture Education passed on this “condition” through generations?

Michael Mehaffy and I coined this term to describe the curious (and alarming) phenomenon whereby someone who has gone through architecture school can look at a horrid, inhuman structure, and declare it to be great architecture. Such persons literally cannot see what is right in front of them. The corollary is also frightening: those same people look at older historical and vernacular structures and totally miss their intense degree of embedded life and humanity. To such people, “old” means useless, shameful, and is marked for elimination.

Architectural Education ever since the Bauhaus, and continuing to the present day without interruption, teaches students to interpret built forms according to very peculiar abstract criteria, and not through their own biologically-evolved senses and cognitive intelligence. This is radical training in sensory denial: desensitizing people so that their interpretation of the world can be defined by others with an agenda. But because of this architectural myopia, a large group of people happily accepts the conditioning and doesn’t realize what’s going on. And they don’t understand why others disagree drastically with them.

AD: Do you think that the recent movements in Architecture Education — the rise of interest in public-interest design, design-build programs, etc. — could be hinting towards a shift in the way Architecture Education forms architects’ minds?

Absolutely. All of these developments are moving architecture in the right direction of becoming liberated from modernist dogma. Of course, the core problem is not yet touched, but maybe that’s coming as well. However, it is possible for the entrenched image-based way of thinking to permit minor changes at the periphery while fiercely protecting its core (which consists of a fundamental dogma and not a body of discovered results) from any revision, because that would lead to catastrophic implosion of the system itself. The system is adapting for its own survival, not by becoming more adaptive to human sensibilities, but by using fashion to keep up appearances.

Whenever I teach a course at my Architecture School (not every semester), my students are surprised to discover that other instructors cover none of our material, nor does it even appear in the textbooks for their other courses. This means that what I consider as the core body of architectural knowledge (see, for example, my book “Unified Architectural Theory”, 2013) is not taught on a regular basis. And in most schools, it is never taught at all. Therefore, we are producing architecture graduates who are ignorant of the basis of their discipline (other than technical knowledge on construction and materials), yet have been misled to believe they are educated enough to build for humanity. This is an alarming situation that would not be tolerated in any other professional or academic field.

Seagram Building / Mies van der Rohe

AD: One could call you a one-man crusader against Modernism. Why, in your opinion, is Modernism so damaging (in both “developed” and “developing” nations)? Why the crusade?

That’s not true. I’m certainly not alone. I’m simply one of many who refuse to conform to the cult of industrial images and who speak out for a more human alternative. Ever since the 60s and 70s serious critics of modernism have been actively building, writing, and lecturing. The establishment in power takes care never to mention us, and denies our existence. Today there is a sizable network of architects, urbanists and thinkers who argue for more or less the same things as I do. I am part of this larger movement.

Modernism is damaging to all cultures, yet those that are wealthy can and do periodically escape its suffocating effects. They possess other sources of emotional nourishment. But it is the economically impoverished cultures dependent upon the industrialized West, and those that are subjected to “soft oppression” by the dominance of the global media, that suffer most deeply. They have no way out. Their own elites are forcing the modernist dogma down their throats.

A crusade? Not really. Simply an educational effort to let people know they don’t have to accept this century-old cultural hegemony of a banal inhuman style to shape the built environment, and that their own feelings, which rebel against the modernist dogma, are in fact valid. Yet it’s very sad that, even when people realize the truth, and actually glimpse the liberating potential of our ideas, they are still captive to accepted opinion and are reluctant to speak their mind. They are terrified to risk change.

AD: Although you are an urban theorist, you are a mathematician by training. What does architecture stand to gain from mathematic and/or scientific principles?

The only way to startle global culture so that it stops following a sterile movement is through reason. Science is based on reason, so this is a way out, possibly the only solution to get us out of a real cultural muddle. Non-adaptive architecture and urbanism have been perpetuated by entrenched power and the opinion of a small elite group, and, to a large extent, through a benign but ultimately disastrous conformity. Human beings find it natural to conform, but conforming to emotionally stultifying design and building practices does not do the world any good: it just perpetuates a monumental mistake. You need to shine the scientific light of reason on the damaging consequences of this conformity to break out, and even then it’s not easy.

In science (but unfortunately not in society) a correct fact can overturn a flawed but accepted practice that is being followed by the majority. Minority scientific opinion really carries enormous weight because of a system that has strict guidelines for validation. Society is not scientific, however, but power-driven. Either the manipulated majority rules, or a tiny elite in power rules, even if those are leading society towards its own destruction. We see this continually in human history. But since the Enlightenment, the world has embraced scientific training as part of general education. Has it made any difference? We’ll see.

Courtesy of Nikos Salingaros

AD: Could you describe what role ornamentation plays in architecture?

Ornament is the key to understanding the process of life, both biological and architectural. Ornament generates ordered information. It adds coherent information that is visual and thus immediately perceivable on a structure. Successful ornament does not stick something on top of form: instead it spontaneously creates smaller and smaller divisions out of the whole. Just like biological life, which is all about information: how to structure it, how to keep it together as the living body, and how to replicate it so that the genetic pattern is not lost forever. But without ornament, either there is no information, or the information is random, hence useless.

The loss of ornament is the loss of vital architectural information. Ever since that fateful moment in history, there is little life in architecture. Unornamented forms and spaces are dead, sterile, and insipid, defining a sort of cosmic “cold death”: an empty universe where no life can exist. But for a century, this empty state has been the desired aim of architects: to remove information from the built environment. New design developments may seem to be re-introducing information, but this is deceptive in that it is random. Components do not align; forms have no connectivity; there are no small-scale sub-symmetries; all the key informational patterns are missing. The complex informational coherence of living structure is deliberately avoided.

Temple wat Chaiwatthanaram of Ayuthaya Province Thailand. Image © SasinT via shutterstock.com

AD: Why is it that so much “Green” architecture is anything but? And what is the problem with “Green” ranking systems such as LEED?

When people try to create life within a framework that is meant to eliminate it, the result is disappointing, to say the least. Green architecture cannot be generated with the modernist/industrial rubric that so many architects are working in today. It’s simply impossible. That’s why the results are frustrating. LEED is a rich society’s certification, improving the energy properties of buildings but always within the high-technology approach. I don’t see how it can possibly serve a world where the majority of buildings are self-built out of local and scrap materials. A truly green architecture needs to be low-tech and low-cost, by definition. Otherwise, it is just meant for one tiny segment of the construction industry.

LEED for individual buildings works to improve the modernist glass box with techno-fixes. It starts with that unstated pre-condition. But we really should abandon the glass box altogether as a monstrous misunderstanding and stop worshipping it as an article of faith. On the other hand, LEED Neighborhood Development is a far broader and more intelligent approach, and I have hope for genuine improvements here. The focus is on urban complexes, their distinct scales, interactions, paths, open spaces, etc. and not on individual glass boxes. Just paying attention to movement reveals the complex nature of living spaces.

CityCenter, a LEED Gold Building in Las Vegas, demonstrates the irony of a LEED Certified, sustainable, building in the unsustainable context of the desert.

AD: What would be examples of actual green or sustainable architecture?

Everything built before the industrial age had to be sustainable or else it was not used. An energy-guzzling typology was simply too wasteful to survive. Cities evolved to optimize energy use and human interactions. So we can look around at all the older structures and learn our lessons on how to build for passive energy use. Sustainable architecture is there right in front of us: but disdained and bulldozed because it does not look “modern”. Add some of today’s technological gadgets, and we can create marvels. Again, we cannot expect people in the developing world to rely upon imported high-tech components: that’s a recipe for disaster. Some people actually wish to create this dependence, for their own profit, but it does not serve society.

AD: Are you familiar with the work of Neri Oxman, an “anti-modernist” who studies natural systems in order develop multi-functional materials? Is this a kind of approach to architecture that you would support?

Yes. Neri Oxman is doing similar work to my friends at the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. They are studying how biological forms are generated, which is great. For the moment, people are working with 3-dimensional cutting and molding machines, which are the stuff of architecture schools. But there are profound implications for the real world. Once the generative process is better understood, it can be applied to use affordable local materials to build adaptive forms, just like in the millennial practices of vernacular architectures. No longer cute models with fancy materials, but real buildings. These important experiments are leading us out of the glass box.

I have to caution, however, that this experimental approach to form making is not hijacked to generate inhuman buildings. Experimentation and research should be applied towards adapting to human needs and not usurped to further promoting abstract, inhuman architecture. We already see designs for ridiculous forms having an interesting complexity, but which are totally unsuitable for actual buildings.

Rapid Craft, designed by Neri Oxman.

AD: Just as you believe that Modernist architecture is unsustainable, so too do you suggest that Modernist-planned cities are non-resilient. What would a resilient city look like — would it be the result of non-design? What role — if any — should architects play in planning cities?

I’m shocked by urban monstrosities proposed almost daily, coming from the offices of starchitects and from younger starchitect wannabees. Those schemes are so oppressively anti-human, so totally malevolent; and yet they are the products of good intentions and the most prestigious architectural training. There is something dreadfully wrong here, when young architects wishing to do good propose inhuman prisons of unspeakable horror. For this reason, I would be extremely reluctant to employ an architect to design a city, or a portion of urban fabric, unless that person also has training in the topics I write about.

It’s not that we don’t know how to design cities fit for human beings: many of my friends certainly know how to do that. I myself have developed and published extensive practical guidelines. But because the product of adaptive, resilient design looks like a traditional city (without wishing to be a copy of anything), it is attacked as “not modern”. Clients at the highest levels all seem to want inhuman cities because those look “modern”. It’s all about look and starchitect image branding: not about use, nor human adaptation, nor resilience. And governments and planning committees seem unable to break out of that destructive behavior pattern.

“Apartments” © Hanze, shutterstock.com

AD: You once suggested that architects could, in theory, change the system: “the small towns, smaller design and planning firms, and individual traditional architects — could, in principle, counter the trend of the vast monolithic power of the globalized engineering firms tied to starchitects who work for third-world regimes.” How could this come about? 

I don’t know. I’m not optimistic nowadays. In theory, the bottom-up approach should work, letting small-scale practice and innovation run free in the classic entrepreneurial model. It works with technological development, for example. But we face two serious problems. First, with the mind-set of all the schools and the media. They simply will not accept the required innovation. Not only do they ridicule through direct intervention whatever does not conform to stylistic dogma (again, it’s the image); but also more subtly, because the population at large has come to expect certain images promoted and sold by the starchitects. Therefore, the small independent architect cannot sell a truly adaptive design to a client.

Second, even if the client desires human-oriented architectural and urban innovation, and is willing to oppose the status quo, the bank and insurance company will not approve a project because it is “unusual”, and the local building codes will block it. An inflexible construction industry used to doing things the old (modernist) way will create problems. Builders and subcontractors prefer simply to continue with what they have been doing all along: it makes a profit, so why change the model? The market has become totally dominated by industrial types of images, and the construction/finance industry has aligned itself to reproducing precisely those images. In this extremely restrictive climate, no true innovation can ever occur.

Image of Temple Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Thailand and Apartments via shutterstock.com

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "The Quest to “Liberate” Architecture from Modernism’s Evils: An Interview with Nikos Salingaros" 08 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=397653>
  • Scott Warner

    NATURE IS NOT A GOOD DESIGNER. Modernism might not be the answer but that doesn’t mean modeling everything off of natural systems is. The entire reason architecture exist is because nature could not provide for people what they needed so humans stopped evolving and started adapting. Most natural models are impractical, highly flawed, inefficient, and do not allow for the flexibility or resilience that is demanded of architecture.

    • connor covey

      What at terrible comment to make. Nature provided what man needed for thousands of years before any technology came about, how could you even question that fact? Modernism is not only NOT the answer, it is the complete opposite of the right answer (whatever that may be.) Great article, and I agree with most of what he is saying because it is very ture

      • Scott Warner

        Nature provided what man needed when we lived like animals without any form of civilization. It didn’t provide shelter, consistent food, and was constantly torturing humanity with disease, weather, and a number of other factors. These things were not provided consistently and resulted in mass suffering that has been largely eliminated through technology. Basically nature has been a very cruel mistress, to quote Werner Herzog, “The only consistencies in nature are chaos, death, and murder.”

    • Foster+

      I hope this is ironic because everything you wrote is simply and blantantly wrong.

  • Tim Forest

    Modern architecture lacks soul and permanency in this world. The world has become a boring place in the 21st century where everywhere lacks quaint architecture with a sense of cultural identity. But there’s no need to despair, if architects like Made Wijaya can make a decent living doing what he does best, organic, cultural designs are bound to make a comeback. Nature inspired designs will eventually be demanded as soon as people want to feel that they belong in this world, and the built environment is reflective of that feeling. While we might try to go back to vernacular designs I believe there is room for something bizzare yet overlooked. Elven architecture anyone?

  • Franco

    This appears to be a very opinionated article with little evidence other than personal opinion offered as validation for a movement. Claiming that a scientific approach is needed, surely requires no bias to give fair results. Unfortunatley the arts, design and architecture are subjective topics where we will always disagree… that is what makes it such an exciting field and allows various periods of design to evolve. It seems very narrow minded and quite arrogant to declare that all architects are ill equipped to plan towns or design unless they use the approach of a mathematician.

  • Øyvind Holmstad

    My friend Terje Bongard is launching a new research project to end capitalism and today’s undemocratic ownership of production. It’s introduced somewhat at the p2p-foundation blog: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/terje-bongards-democratic-ingroup-model-as-specific-form-of-p2p-democracy/2013/07/04

    I have great hopes for his initiative: http://permaliv.blogspot.no/2013/07/my-comment-on-terje-bongards-democratic.html

    I guess you have not time to support his very promising initiative, but I hope you can take a look at it.

    Whit his ingroup-democracy-model today’s powerstructures would be broken and the path towards a biophilic world opened.

  • elliot

    “I just want to know, what are you gonna do for me? / I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls / From male white corporate oppression? / Tell it like it is! / Huh?” – Sonic Youth

    Once the now irrelevant postmodernist classicists liberate us from Modernism (laugh out loud), who’s going to liberate us from their classicist paternalism? The Modernists again? Why do classicists think we’re eager to waste another 100 years replaying that song? You’d think they’d get the message and just go away already.

  • bert

    You have to give this wolf in sheep’s clothing credit – he’s a clever snake oil salesman… cloaking his neoclassical ideas in science. Unfortunately for him, architects who better understand the science than he does are doing good contemporary work that makes his biases pretty irrelevant.

    • Michael Allen

      I don’t think that his ideas about ornament and the information provided therein (which could well have been made by Louis Sullivan, who now seems an anti-modernist figure) can be refuted by calling on architects’ understanding of science. The perpetuation of historic vernacular architecture, especially in urban areas, as desirable housing shows that Salingaros is far from a “salesman” in noting human desire for richness of architectural detail and material.

  • James

    It’s never a good idea to pay too much attention to architectural dilettantes who claim they’re right about design and every practicing architect is wrong. People who are so dismissive of “everyone else” don’t have the temperament to do responsible research. They can’t be trusted.

  • James MD

    It’s never a good idea to pay too much attention to dilettantes who say they’re right and ALL the professionals are wrong. Dilettantes who can’t keep any sense of reasonable perspective or respect the work of people who actually do this for a living… they really can’t be trusted to do responsible research.

    • DS

      It’s hard to trust, people who tell me who not to trust whose only credetaials are being someone in the internet and double posting.

  • iikka

    His views are certainly very polarized, but there are some good points he makes. Using locally produced, low-tech materials is definitely more sustainable than the LEED points-for-gizmos approach. What I totally disagree with is the aesthetic argument. Building codes, if anything, tend to be designed to force upon us a pseudo-traditional look imitating 100-year-old houses but clad in cheap synthetic materials like vinyl molded with fake wood grain. Every roofline in an entire neighborhood is in the same angle and at the same height, ostensibly to preserve the character of the place but in practice smothering it under what look like mass-produced plastic dollhouses.

    • ag

      Couldn’t agree more with your statement actually.

  • Paul Downton

    Wow! A great little article that seems to have brought out architecture’s equivalent to climate denialists.

    Modernism is an ‘ism’. The principles of genuinely modern architecture are about responsiveness to people and place and are best expressed in the still much-neglected organic stream.

    (Thinks…Now that should bring out a few more raving denialists who are determined to believe that the aesthetic fascism that expresses the wet dreams of a corporate planet is somehow defensible…)

    • GZeus

      It is pointless to frame debates like this. There are excellent examples of modernist architecture just like there are horrible modernist buildings across every building typology. No one architectural movement is the answer, if we all designed buildings of one particular style it would be a very uninspiring world.

      • Silje

        Thank you for finally posting a response of reason here. Aren’t we also beyond the modernism/ tradition and industry/ nature dichotomy as all-encompassing binary ways of seeing the world??

  • FP.

    I didn’t know what to expect when i read the article’s title. I understand why ArchDaily published this interview, in my eyes it will cause a lot of controversy because for me it did.

    I understand why this man is fighting for an already lost cause, probably the spaces and places he has been in where poorly designed and that is why he has such a big problem.

    We can not get mad at him or at his already lost cause, we all need to understand he is just a mathematician speaking about architecture.

    I was offended by him calling names to the most important [to say the least] movement in architecture [in my point of view].

    He said: Unornamented forms and spaces are dead, sterile, and insipid, defining a sort of cosmic “cold death”: an empty universe where no life can exist.

    Me as an architect the only thing i can say is that this “mathematician” lacks of an eye that enables him to appreciate the details, aesthetics and clean lines that buildings as Mies van der Rohe’s Segram Building have to offer.

    Maybe his uneducated eyes only let him appreciate vulgar and over-ornamented architecture.

    Regards
    FP.

  • MAd Ge

    While intended as a satire, Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’ contains a lot of beauty, and not just for deluded architects. It contains little ornamentation (the people, and especially their clothes, are it – but they cannot be included by the criteria of this article). While almost everything Salingaros says is generally valid, unless he has a much better explanation for the source of that form of beauty he cannot win an anti-modernism argument. The proposal – if this is it – that sticking on more ornaments is a solution is wrong (it has been tried, it was stupid, it didn’t work). It is just the same as the ‘bad’ side of modernism – poor (or too much simple) rationalisation. Aalto had it right in his famous statement.

  • JohnNY

    Many people seem to react childishly to an otherwise opinionated but very relevant stance: many architect dogmatically reject “old” and “classical” designs not because of arguable reasons but for the sake of “new” and “different”, which is a really low-brow behavior to build a thinking on. Of course we can bring nuance to the picture and consider the many aspects of modernism, its masterpieces and also its mistakes, but I do think Salingaros’ point is interesting as he tries to actually go deeper than the simple observation that many modern designs lack soul, warmth and permanency (thanks Derrida) when classical ones perfectly nailed those aspects. He argues that post-modernist philosophy permeated through architecture and urbanism, leading to degenerated thought framework used to design new conception of buildings: this is factually very receivable, and actually smart when compared with other fields of research. He’s not talking about blind conservatism here, but rightly criticizing blind “modernism”, in a sociological sense, which even if you disagree with him on design choices remains a valid point.

  • Nikos Salingaros

    To a perceptive reader, the comments following my article (both here and in its re-appearance in Business Insider) reveal the full extent of the frightening situation that faces us today. There are a dozen books and a hundred research articles that detail research findings supporting my arguments, but which the usual critics ignore. There is no certainty as absolute as that possessed by ignorant — and especially indoctrinated — people.

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  • Witkowski Boguslaw

    Great article! Thank you. I would like to add some reflections. Architecture as part of the city should be integrated with its whole…The destructive modernist architecture created following Chart of Athens, in European context, became disastrous for the city creating many problems, disintegrating the unity of the model of medieval city. Its transition has resulted in a kind of hybrid model where in its modern part, the lack of humanity, disconnection with nature and anonymity has created a favourable ground for crime and social unrest. The today’s modern city doesn’t bring integration solutions for the still growing mixed and multicultural population where architectural ego ignores the need of harmony and connection with Nature. The actual incapacity of economical and political structures has contributed to the global crisis of the City. There is an urgent need for creative thinking in this matter.

  • Adr Alfonso

    I’m writing this to extend the fact that this certainly was a waste of time.

  • Toumaj

    Some people choose architecture to be somebody. Their very reason to become an architect is at odds with the nature of the unfolding process Alexander and Salingaros put forward because it demands the architect to become nobody and forget about images. It is not easy to forget about the images. Starchitects are rock stars. They enjoy groupies too.