Salingaros on Deconstructionism

This morning I was happy to find that Dan Hill (of cityofsound) had written about Nikos Salingaros critique of the deconstructionists and modernism, something I’ve been trying to get a grip of for a while.1 But I find it difficult. For instance, Salingaros often describes modernist buildings as ignoring both context and the people inhabiting them, and seems to claim that the only way to make human, contextual buildings is to use Christopher Alexander method. I don’t know if Salingaros holds I. M. Pei responsible for inhuman architecture, but Pei’s a modernist and in an interview with him (on BBC’s Architecture on 3), he kept coming back to the humanistic aspect of his architecture, to how the most important thing for him is to build houses for people:

You have to understand how this building’s going to be used. Who are the people going to inhabit the building? Why? What will make them happy in the building? That’s number one – you have to think of that. Of course, aesthetics – good design is part of it, contributes to it. I like to think that a person that comes to a building, designed by me or by any architect, if he’s happy or she is happy about it, there’s something right about it.

Guggenheim Bilbao, shot by Celia Martinez Bravo2

And Salingaros has claimed that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao completely ignores context, and yet Gehry himself calls it very contextual. And my impression (from two other Architecture on 3 programs) is that this building has meant a lot for the city of Bilbao, and that people living in Bilbao feels it has given the city a boost in self-confidence. But Salingaros says it’s nothing more than a tourist attraction. The following is from his article The New Acropolis Museum:

[...] the alleged “Bilbao Effect”, where an alien structure introduced into a neglected city is supposed to attract hordes of tourists. First of all, the long-term consequences of such a manoeuvre are not yet clear, not even for Bilbao. Second, Athens has always been a central tourist destination, and was never undeservedly forgotten—it doesn’t need another architectural attraction to bring in tourists.

I haven’t read the Leon Krier interview yet, but I’m surprised to hear that he sees Disney’s gated community as a good example. Since reading Jacobs I’ve seen New Urbanism as something based to a large extent on her ideas, but perhaps that’s not correct? Anyway, I feel that the importance of well-functioning neighborhoods, as Jacobs describes them, is rather obvious. These neighborhoods are more secure; people feel at home there and care about their local environment; such neighborhoods stimulate local businesses, and so on. So the well-functioning of cities has profound political implications: crime, the economy, the children, etc.

And since first reading Salingaros’s writings on “New Architecture” (on Alexander, mainly), I’ve tried to understand where it fits into this picture. Surely, it’s important that some buildings really function well, such as for instance schools. But here, as in any art form, there’s room for a great variety of styles, and everyone doesn’t have to like everything. I thought about this when reading one of the comments to one of Salingaros’s guest posts at 2 Blowhards, where Joseph Clarke writes about Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center in Cincinnati:

It’s a building that its users love to hate, as its aesthetics are incomprehensible without a decent understanding of deconstructivism in general and Eisenman’s theories in particular, which, unfortunately, few are willing to invest time reading.

I think this is core to Salingaros’s critique. Christopher Alexander’s work has been about finding “the quality without a name,” by testing different solutions on people, and seeing which ones are felt to possess more “life,” or to be more “whole.” Then he has devised a process for generating buildings with this quality. I think the reason behind Salingaros’s harsh critique is that he thinks that much of today’s architecture, particularly in the really big projects, lacks this ability to generate living buildings.

But the question then becomes whether this really is the case, if everything that is built today, and has been built since the 1920s, is hostile to humans, or if it just appears that way when viewed through Alexander’s theory. I don’t know much about architecture yet, so I can’t say. While I have found much of Salingaros’s writing very interesting, and I’m happy that he makes so much of it available online, I’m still in doubt about this. So to balance Salingaros’s opinions, I try to read other opinions, particularly John Massengale’s excellent weblog Veritas et Venustas.

1 This post started out as a quick email thanking Dan for his kind words about my writing, so forgive me for being wordy.

2 Photo credits Celia Martinez Bravo, found via stock.xchng.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on April 27, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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