Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 6

We will be publishing Nikos Salingaros’ book, Unified Architectural Theory, in a series of installments, making it digitally, freely available for students and architects around the world. The following chapter discusses the extent to which architecture can be considered successful, i.e. adaptive to its specific locality. Although recognizing the merits of “Critical Regionalism,” Salingaros here explains why that framework is not enough to analyze architecture in terms of its environmental, cultural and emotional impact. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.

Suppose that we have successfully documented and catalogued all form languages, including those from vernacular traditions, past times, and contemporary practice. A scientific approach requires the next step, which comprises both analysis and classification. A catalogue is a useful store of information, but it is only the beginning of a systematic study.

What do some form languages have in common, and on what qualities do some of them differ? One measure is their degree of complexity, as documented by the length of description of the form language. Another is adaptation to locality. How far does a form language justify itself as being regional? Here, regional is the opposite of universal. 

It is therefore useful to classify form languages by how much they adapt to a certain locality. If it does adapt, each language will, of course, adapt to its own specific locality: what we measure is how good that adaptation is. Success of adaptation is measured if buildings are energy efficient in the low-tech sense, so that the majority population can profit from them. By contrast, high-tech energy efficiency may be very useful, but it usually relies upon imported technology and materials, and is thus global, not regional. 

Let’s try to derive a theoretical result: “is the complexity of a form language related to its degree of regionalism?

Regionalism measures to what degree local materials are used, how local culture is respected in the geometry of the building, how evolved adaptations to climate become part of the design, etc. Conversely, we measure to what degree these factors are ignored for the purposes of imposing a top-down stylistic conception. 

In the past, transport was difficult, so people were forced to use locally-available materials. There is a related philosophy of regionalism that respects the landscape and nature. Are trees, rivers, hills, and lakes respected, or are they just cleared indiscriminately to make room for a building? Also, if a building uses good local materials, it is long-lived with the necessary repair and maintenance. There is a sense that it belongs to the place and the culture. But buildings that do not respond to the local environment often decay relatively quickly. If they don’t, they can become hated intruders. 

There is another, vast topic of further investigation, and it has to do with how a person reacts emotionally to a building. This has more to do with the form language, while only a little of the response is specific to a building.

This question makes sense only after we accept Christopher Alexander’s claim that 90% of our emotional response to a building is shared across cultures. It is not a matter of opinion, like whether we “like” something or not. That depends upon education and conditioning, and is less fundamental.

Something feels connected to our person, to our deepest self, and we identify with it. As Alexander says, it becomes “personal”. This connective effect is due to geometrical properties, a few of which we know (and are going to study here).

Geometrical coherence in a structure, when it achieves an optimal value, induces an intensely positive feeling in us. This could paradoxically be coming from a structure that, for other reasons, we don’t particularly like, or we judge it to be not of great artistic or architectural significance. The contradiction between what our body is experiencing, and what our rational mind is telling us, could induce cognitive dissonance. 

An intense degree of connectivity with an artifact or structure establishes a personal relationship with the physical object or space. We experience a healing process, a sense of happiness, unless of course we are instead experiencing cognitive dissonance. (That creates a state of stress.) 

This discussion has important philosophical implications. It proposes a post-Cartesian view of the universe. Recall that Descartes viewed natural things as machines detached from each other. By contrast, we view a person and the object he/she is interacting with as two component parts of a larger system. The act of experiencing an artifact or building ties the observer with the observed.

Modern physics is in fact based precisely on this concept of close interaction between the observer and what is observed. The experiments demonstrating this phenomenon work on the quantum level. What we are discussing here occurs on the macroscopic level, however. Thus we have to rely upon our perception rather than any physical measurements.

And yet, during the past several decades, philosophical Cartesianism has triumphed, becoming ever more extreme. The universe and its highly-complex mechanisms were all assumed to be like simplistic machines, which is false. Our perception of the world has become reductionistic in many fields, including design, ignoring science as it did so. Nowadays, architectural discourse never considers the complex binding of the observer with the observed.

Tracing the origins of this development leads us to an old political philosophy. A group of philosophers known as the “Frankfurt School” proposed a set of radically new rules for society to follow. This occurred in the 1930s as part of a Marxist drive for a new society. Their writings, labeled as “Critical Theory”, ignore human nature, and hope rather naively to mold a new human being to inhabit a proposed utopian world. But any philosophy that is detached from science is bound to be misleading and even dangerous, and this is certainly true of the “Frankfurt School”.

A central tenet of Marxist ideology is that the past and all traditions stand in the way of human progress. The only way forward, it claims, is to first reject the past, and to destroy it so it no longer contaminates our newly-constructed Utopia. This thinking has profound consequences for the design of the environment. Traditional notions of connecting to architecture are deemed to be politically incorrect and are strongly condemned.

The problem for architects is that a body of writings labeled “Critical Theory” is mistaken for architectural theory. They are nothing of the sort; in fact, they are not a theory of anything. “Critical Theory” is simply a roadmap for a revolution based on Marxist and technocratic principles. Traditional societies are to be disbanded, and people treated as cogs in a vast industrial machine.

A core of resentment arises here against traditional notions of beauty, and that applies to architecture as well. Traditional form languages are declared to be undesirable, fit only for extinction. They are to be replaced by one universal language that expresses technology, industrialization, and collectivization.

“Critical Regionalism” is a movement to adapt design to local climatic and site conditions, and to some degree, locally-available materials. It represents a healthy reaction to the non-adaptiveness of the International Style of Modernism. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the word “critical” creates a contradiction, since it is tied to an anti-regional and anti-traditional philosophical and political movement. In practice, critical regionalism willfully perpetuates the form languages of Modernism. Our understanding, however, is that regionalism has to protect and re-use traditional form languages. True regionalism has to free itself from any global form language imposed from above, and from any forces of uniformization and conformity.

This raises the issue of form languages being linked to particular philosophies. That may very well be true. But I disagree with almost all other authors, and I insist that philosophy cannot be considered a substitute for architectural theory. Regardless of how a form language arises, theoretical tools from architecture and human biology can be used to explain how effective it is in providing useful buildings. This is the true objective of architectural theory. 

Putting the cart before the horse, i.e. labeling philosophical or political discourse attached to a form language as “theory”, totally confuses what theory really is. Unfortunately, most books on “architectural theory” are simply historical accounts of thinking that is used to justify a particular form language using criteria other than human use.

Similar form languages have evolved in different cultures that, however, share local materials, climate, and topography. This is an example of parallel convergent evolution, much like the dorsal fins of sharks and dolphins in biology. By leveling cultural and geographical differences, however, one ends up destroying the evolved sustainability and energy efficiency encoded in traditional form languages.

For about a century, we have experienced project-driven theory, which, again, is not theory at all. An architect designs a building intuitively, usually using an unarticulated form language, and subsequently creates some explanation after-the-fact. This is pure marketing. Architectural critics play the game and elaborate on this ad hoc explanation, discussing it as if it were theory, but that makes it neither scientific, nor an honest description of the actual design process.

Very often, the architect invents a “look” that has no rational basis, being only a visceral inspiration of how to express certain favored images. At other times, the architect may be driven by conscious or subconscious forces of destruction, and this motivation is reflected in the built project having a “transgressive” look. The proffered “theoretical” explanation of such a form is never honest about its source of inspiration.

I do not believe that after-the-fact justifications of contemporary buildings can be useful tools for architecture students. They only confuse the basic issue: distinguishing between genuine theory and marketing. 

Further Readings:

Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life, Chapter 7: “The Personal Nature of Order” (Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, 2001).

Léon Krier, “Building Civil Cities”, Traditional Building, 2005; available from <http://zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/KRIER/Leon-civilcities.html>.

Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden, “Politics, Philosophy, Critical Theory”, Philadelphia Society, 2011. Since this is a Chapter of the present book, we will be publishing it online. 

Order the International edition of Unified Architectural Theory here, and the US edition here.

About this author
Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 6" 26 Jul 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/530829/unified-architectural-theory-chapter-6> ISSN 0719-8884

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