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. In Chapter 13, Salingaros begins to conclude his argument by discussing its counterpart, explaining how post-modern theorists such as Peter Eisenman came to eclipse the ideas of Christopher Alexander – and why Eisenman’s theoretical hegemony is not based upon sound architectural thinking. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.
Natural and Unnatural Form Languages
The concept of living structure, and the support for the theory offered by both direct experience and science, offers a basis for designing and understanding architecture. This platform is a sensible way of approaching design and building, because it is beholden neither to ideology, nor to individual agendas. Moreover, it should be contrasted to the irrationality of other schemes that currently appear in and seem to drive architectural discourse.
If we seek meaning in the built environment, then we cannot continue to use interpretative schemata that lack intellectual coherence. Something as important as architecture cannot be founded upon arbitrary bases. Well, it could, and in my opinion actually has been for several decades, but the result is, unsurprisingly, unsatisfactory. We would prefer an architecture that is consistent with human feeling, and in which design decisions are based on observation and empirical verification. The bottom line is that buildings have to provide good, healthy environments for human beings, and to inflict the least possible damage to the Earth’s ecology.
This book presented a body of work that provides a universal basis for judging whether architecture is sound or not. The criteria used to justify inclusion of a structure in the class of “good” buildings are divorced here from opinion, changing fashions, or power interests. They appeal to the human population as a whole, which is interested in a healthy environment. Indeed, the strength of the tools we studied lies in that they are felt to be useful by people from different cultures and backgrounds.
The strongest proof of the validity of the model we covered comes from its intimate relation to the physical world. Such a link is not commonly discussed among architects, who tend to live in an artificial universe of their own making: a world of images divorced from reality. Some architects have found innovation by contrasting with nature, which seems to have been a formula for design innovation ever since early modernism, and those architects have become quite successful commercially in doing so. Nevertheless, humanity in the past has never done well to deny or to go against nature, because eventually that practice leads to collapse in one way or another.
Our model also provides a much-needed working link to the great artistic and architectural achievements of the past. Such concerns are explicitly forbidden in a discipline driven only by incessant innovation. One rule in that game is to never look back. Students are made to study architecture as history, but are not allowed to learn practical tools from it nor apply the lessons to their design projects; “see and admire, but don’t think of re-using anything!” It is astonishing that people are ready and eager to jettison their cultural heritage in order to follow the latest fashion.
Coming to the end of this book, we can now judge those structures that are allied with our own life, and distinguish them from those that either ignore or violate biological processes. We can choose to erect buildings by giving them any qualities we wish them to embody. But at least now we have a basis for judgment that is accessible to analysis. Both Christopher Alexander and I believe in building things that enhance living structure, but we cannot influence others — they must decide for themselves what properties to incorporate into their designs.
To showcase how different our concept of architecture is from other practitioners’, we have the famous 1982 debate between Alexander and Peter Eisenman. This was a historically crucial moment for architecture, because it marked the first public presentation of Alexander’s “The Nature of Order”, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It was also the turning point that was to bring postmodernist and deconstructivist architecture to international prominence. Postmodernism was taking off at precisely this time, and deconstructivism followed, becoming famous with the Museum of Modern Art exhibit in 1988 (Salingaros, 2004).
This debate is as relevant today as when it took place, since the issues it raised continue to dominate contemporary architecture and architectural discourse. Among several surprises, what is astonishing is how Eisenman initially tries to convince Alexander that they are talking about the same thing, when in fact, their thoughts about design are diametrically opposed. Alexander is right to be suspicious, despite the similar vocabularies being used.
The debate reveals many things for those readers ready to draw conclusions from subsequent events. First, Eisenman and several other architects had embraced a method of design based on images, using the shock of the new and a disregard for the science that Alexander used for his own design method. Second, it’s clear that the architects who went on to become “stars” in the period following this debate, Eisenman among them, appropriated anything that sounded good in order to justify their often dysfunctional designs.
Third, the debate also reveals the weak points of Alexander: he trusted science and objective truth to overcome deliberate confusion and marketing hype. But the world does not work that way. As we know from the advertising industry, what sells best is not necessarily what’s best for you. Eisenman, on the other hand, perfectly understood the system and was already using the French deconstructivist philosophers to boost acceptance of his own designs. He was building up his momentum for a rise to the top in a system that works like consumer marketing rather than science (Salingaros, 2004).
After several probing verbal exchanges, Alexander eventually uncovers the fundamental disagreement he has with Eisenman, and which he suspected from the very beginning. When this is revealed, it comes as quite a shock. Alexander is genuinely alarmed, as if he never imagined any architect (especially someone already famous like Eisenman) to hold such deliberately alienating views. And as a reaction to discovering this purposeful transgression of form and order, Alexander gets very angry.
Incidentally, the building that sets off the dispute is Rafael Moneo’s Town Hall at Logroño, Spain. Moneo, Eisenman agrees, wants to produce disharmony and incongruity, which Alexander finds appalling. Yet Eisenman defends this approach to architecture as being perfectly valid. Which viewpoint won? Subsequent events tell us. Eisenman became an established star of architecture, teaching at Yale University and winning major commissions worldwide. Moneo himself went on to head the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where this debate was taking place) during 1985 to 1990. He then won the Pritzker prize in 1993, and was subsequently commissioned in 1996 to build the Los Angeles cathedral (a building I have criticized in a 2012 review). The architectural power brokers decided the direction of architecture: Alexander was left behind and pushed out of the system.
Eisenman explains how he creates forms that make him feel high in his own mind, instead of considering the mundane needs of the user. Thus it comes as no surprise that he wants to express a stressed conception of life through his buildings’ twisted and unbalanced forms. This honest admission of following a design philosophy that makes buildings uncomfortable points to vastly different values from Alexander’s scientific rationality. And saying so openly (in the early 1980s) gave an example for young architects to follow, which is what they did. Critics associated an attraction of the mind to architectural form with intellectual and material progress, whereas feelings and connections to the earth are interpreted as common and a thing of the past.
A theory of architecture is useful to humankind as a whole only if the theory resonates with the deep feelings and direct experience of ordinary people. An alleged theory cannot look down on the public and talk only to some small elite. It cannot treat the common person as ignorant, and presume to claim there is no truth about anything in architecture. There is indeed, and the truth exposes the absurdity of much contemporary architectural discourse trying to hide under a relativist bluff. Perhaps this is why Alexander and his understanding of architecture were marginalized by a fanatical relativism, prompting a much later comment by Eisenman: “I think Chris unfortunately fell off the radar screen some time ago.”
If values in architecture have been arbitrary, or at least idiosyncratic for several decades, as Alexander suggests, how could this situation have lasted for so long, and why does it still go on? It seems that a culture of images serves capital-induced development, and especially speculative building. And so we are faced not simply with silly or absurd form languages assuming central prominence, but with a powerful and entrenched system that favored this event. The system consists of the construction industry that is now entirely dependent on industrial materials and production methods, the licensing process that has been adjusted to permit only approved images, the banking sector that finances speculative construction, the insurance industry that approves only a certain type of construction, etc. And this system is fed by the architecture schools.
The system makes an enormous amount of money for the developer, but does not have to generate either good architecture, or a healthy environment for the user. Remember that for several decades now, the client is no longer the user: the client is the developer. Architects therefore do what the developer wants, which is to sell the building as an image. This is totally distinct from a building as a living and working environment for people. Those architects who are the most effective salespersons for developers are consequently rewarded above all others, with prizes, commissions, and influence.
Therefore, we find ourselves facing two very different conceptions of what architecture is and ought to be. On the one hand, the present-day system promotes a culture of images, and its built-in inertia makes sure that very little else can be built. A student cannot even learn the techniques to design anything outside the current system. On the other hand, the approach and material of this book makes it possible to understand how architecture actually works to adapt itself to human use and sensibilities. How the built environment influences people, their health, and their activities. And that understanding helps us to sustain life on earth.
- Christopher Alexander (2004) “Some Sober Reflections on the Nature of Architecture in Our Time”, Katarxis Nº 3. Reprinted as Chapter 34 of Nikos A. Salingaros: Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013.
- Christopher Alexander & Peter Eisenman (2004) “The 1982 Alexander-Eisenman Debate”, Katarxis Nº 3. Reprinted as Chapter 33 of Nikos A. Salingaros: Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013.
- Nikos A. Salingaros (2004) Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; Fourth Edition 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.
- Nikos A. Salingaros (2012) “Fashion and Design Ideology in Sacred Architecture: A Review of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels”, Crisis Magazine, 23 October.