If Science Truly Won, The Era Of Modernist Architecture Would Be Over

If Science Truly Won, The Era Of Modernist Architecture Would Be Over

Perhaps we are at a ‘Sputnik moment,’ when we finally realize how anti-scientific the business of building the living habitat has become.
Nikos Salingaros
By

Those of us interested in adaptive architecture find ourselves spectators of an incredibly nasty fight. It revolves around a proposed executive order that addresses the poor qualities of federal buildings erected during the past several decades. The order indicates a re-orientation towards more classical and traditional styles of design as an antidote to this expensive ugliness.

Citizens who try to follow the debate in the media will be struck by the extreme polarization the arguments have taken. That unfortunate tone is leading to greater distance rather than conciliation.

How this question is resolved will define the nation’s future face, through its officially sponsored buildings. It is very important to settle the issue in an intelligent, not ideological manner. And the sooner we all agree, the less lasting damage will be done to the national consciousness. Yet continuing to discuss the best style for federal buildings using arguments from architectural history, philosophy, politics, and other disciplines that lack an evidential basis will never reach any shared conclusion.

A scientific resolution of the debate circumvents the present polemics. Science provides tools that offer a sound perspective to the problem. An overwhelming amount of direct evidence reveals what environments and shapes are healing for the human body by providing a positive physical experience. The time has come for us to build precisely those environments that are best for our health. All of this research is fairly new, and is unlikely to be known to the majority of architects, commentators, or the general public.

Dominant Architecture Patterns Ignore New Research

A lot has been happening in recent years that empowers sensitive architects to design wonderful new buildings matching the beauty of the best-loved ones throughout history. Unfortunately, dominant architectural culture either ignores these findings, or attempts to misuse them.

New design rules developed from science combine Biophilia, Coherent Structure, Design Patterns, Healing Environments, and Neuroarchitecture. Implemented together, these tools can guarantee that any new building will feel just as comfortable as the best historic examples. A science-based theory of architecture reveals that those properties are responsible in part for our sense of physiological and psychological wellbeing.

Healing environments have particular features, such as hierarchical subdivisions. To illustrate this concept, let’s imagine a 19th-century room. Structural subdivisions of the interior, for example, include window frames, window mullions, wide doorframes, paneled doors, floor baseboards, generous trim and cornice moldings, etc. Divisions are all coherently balanced with each other, defining symmetries that our brain recognizes.

Nothing is misaligned, and care is taken that we see continuity and mirror symmetries. This is important, otherwise asymmetry alarms our brain and creates stress. Divisions of large-scale forms make tectonic sense and are neither arbitrary nor superficial.

Moreover, the material divisions continue into the smaller scales, going down to the complex, organized texture. At this smallest scale, ornament and natural texture invite our touch, which is an essential component of soothing architecture.

Contrast this welcoming aspect of traditional (and new adaptive) architecture with the willful Modernist substitution of either cold, smooth glass panes, polished metal, or harsh brutalist concrete that scrapes your skin if you inadvertently rub against it. This sadistic treatment of users is part of architecture school indoctrination as the “honest treatment of materials” — just one of the fallacious slogans that turned architecture into such an inhuman experience.

Classic Designs Give Rest to the Soul

Even this brief description reveals that examples of classical and traditional buildings do indeed satisfy adaptive design criteria. That is because people instinctively sought to build an environment they felt comfortable in, rather than a source of anxiety.

Scaling properties are but one constituent (out of the five interrelated ones mentioned above) comprising an adaptive design toolkit found throughout heritage buildings. Our experience registers them unconsciously, and intuits their absence through a sense of unease. Religious traditions emphasized seeking a higher order of coherent structure as a joint practical/spiritual ideal, and rejecting disorder, misalignment, and any other geometrical features that made us feel anxious.

By contrast, it is equally obvious that adaptive properties are mostly lacking from the architecture that follows the International Modernist, Postmodern, and Deconstructivist styles. Vast amounts of rhetoric using slogans about “contemporary design,” “spiritual liberation,” and “economic progress” will not change the way our body reacts with alarm. Nevertheless, as architects have been trained to believe religiously in such marketing techniques for decades, it is nearly impossible to have a reasoned discussion on these points.

Modernist Architecture Creates a Hostile Environment

The historical reversal of design properties from healing environments to cold, hostile ones is not accidental. It came about as the deliberate break with the past. For almost a century, our society has misinterpreted that rupture as an aesthetic advance. But if it were that, we could either adopt it or ignore it, which is not possible because it affects our body directly.

The new aesthetic introduced after the First World War diminished or even eliminated healing qualities found in traditional architectures. That was a world-changing event whose radical impact on human wellbeing has remained obscured up until now.

Yet most architects simply do not understand the link between healing environments, what our brain seeks to see, and traditional design solutions. Dominant architectural culture has marginalized this work because it objects to the fact that adaptive designs look old-fashioned. There is no escaping from that, since an “adaptive look” is what signals healing properties. Deforming a building’s overall appearance towards brutalism or industrial minimalism invariably removes the desired-for geometrical properties from its structure and surfaces. It also creates a hostile environment immediately next to the building.

Classical architects have long maintained, and re-discovered, techniques for adaptive design. Although they use a different vocabulary from us scientifically motivated researchers, the end result is the same: adaptive, healing environments. Moreover, they document and teach these invaluable design techniques.

The establishment, smug with its hegemony of implementing weird and often inhuman environments, is not very happy with the Classical threat to its continued dominance. Nor is it receptive to our proposals. Contemporary practitioners who adhere to current fashions are suspicious of us Alexandrians even more than they are of Classical architects.

How to Improve the Executive Order

As for the executive order, a revision or addendum will make it more likely to have a positive long-term effect on American architecture. The architectural design of federal buildings should value beauty and health beyond any defined historic, intellectual, or academic style.

It might be wise to broaden the description of preferred architecture to explicitly mention the scientific design approach, and its distinct but related toolkits: Biophilia, Coherent Structure, Design Patterns, Healing Environments, and Neuroarchitecture. It is important to bring these new adaptive design techniques (which incorporate and update timeless knowledge from the past) into the public consciousness and everyday vocabulary.

They provide the basis for a new and wonderful architectural flowering, yet hardly any person outside very specialized circles knows these terms. They help architects make structures that accommodate the way our body and brain were built to function.

Beauty Means Art and Science Together

Some object by proclaiming that architecture is art, and that its aesthetic dimension has nothing to do with science. They are wrong. Separating the arts from the sciences has created a growing ignorance of the value of scientific thinking in exploring the human condition. Continuing to judge architecture according to antiquated criteria damages humanity.

The problem goes beyond architecture, and exposes a numbing complacency in our nation, which applies advanced technology but ignores the fundamental science of environmental responses. Perhaps we are at a “Sputnik moment,” when we finally realize how anti-scientific the business of building the living habitat has become.

A re-assessment of the Modern Movement in architecture is long overdue. It was an extremist ideology that obscured what is “good” and “healthy” architecture, and used pseudoscience to market its industrial products. To find shareable answers to those questions — answers supported by science instead of dogma — we need to lay out a mechanism involving non-architects in the evaluation process.

A re-assessment of the Modern Movement in architecture is long overdue.

This effort could define a set of geometrical qualities that are not stylistic. Let us leave behind the stale and tiresome avant-garde experiments and art stunts, and identify shared desirable qualities of beauty that affect our body directly. The profession routinely fails in this crucial task, and our continuing frustration with its inaction is bipartisan.

The debate will continue, while the introduction of scientific methods of design is likely to create ever more intense polemics. An architectural profession that has been doing very well for decades by riding a wave of Modernism and its derivative styles is not going to accept any restrictions of its hegemony without a fight.

Yet there is now an alternative: a genuine hope for progress and resolution. Despite its bullying, the élite architectural establishment cannot salvage its preferred stress-inducing designs. Architecture needs to change — from being disembodied and contradicting human nature, to accommodating it. Classical and traditional architects, working together with us science-based Alexandrians, are ready to rebuild a world fit for human beings, not robots.

Nikos A. Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and a well-known architectural theorist and urbanist. He shared the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award with Michael Mehaffy, and is the winner of the 2019 Stockholm Cultural Award for Architecture.

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