The Terror of Urban Architecture: A Conversation

Nikos A. Salingaros: Dr Daniels, how did you become interested in the whole question of architectural modernism in the first place? Coming from my own worldview, I can imagine that a medical doctor such as yourself might possibly perceive a pathology with the actual fabric of the built environment, although very few other doctors do. Since you are also a noted author with wide interests, is it not unreasonable to attribute pathologies to certain geometries? Is any of this speculation valid?

Anthony Daniels: When I was a student, some of us befriended lonely old people living alone. I was allocated a working-class Irish widow who was in her mid-seventies whom I visited regularly for several years until her death and with whom I continued to correspond whenever I was away.

She lived in one of those awful public-housing tower blocks of Corbusian inspiration—if inspiration is a word that can be used of anything that Le Corbusier did—that immediately struck me as appalling in almost every conceivable way. It was constructed of materials that could not age but only deteriorate (which they often did even before construction was completed). Those materials were emotionally cold and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in the fabric of the building towards which any affection could develop. It was on an inhuman scale and of such a design that it destroyed the possibility both of intimacy and community. Social conduct deteriorated as a result, so that stairwells and other public parts were used as urinals. Urine became commentary.

This tower block was one of several which were so disposed in space as to make wind-tunnels between them. Frail old people such as my lady had often to struggle against the wind (she had heart failure) if they went shopping—in a store that, because of the absence of any real street, had a local monopoly. Moreover, the area was plentifully supplied with hideous concrete underpasses—further convenient places for psychopaths to relieve themselves in—which might as well have been designed as camouflage shelters for rapists and muggers. The old lady was effectively under curfew: like Transylvanian peasants in Dracula horror films, she (and in fact like all respectable citizens) dared not leave her home after dark. The notice on the large grass areas between the towers burned itself on my memory, for it told me all I needed to know about bureaucratic modernism:


The supposedly functional architecture was, of course, highly dysfunctional. In one such tower, a young man on the fourteenth floor was so fed up with the lifts breaking down that he altered his windows (illegally, of course) and learnt to abseil down the front of the building when he wanted to leave.

My experience caused me to look around me: and everywhere I looked I saw the hideous damage, aesthetic and social, caused by modernism. I suffered a kind of impotent anger from which I still suffer almost fifty years later. Outwardly I am calm, but within I still boil with rage. It is made worse by the refusal of intellectuals to acknowledge what has been done.

My response to modernism is mainly visceral. Unlike you, I am not learned or systematic enough to formulate for myself the geometrical laws that no doubt both describe and explain the horrors of modernism. But thanks recently to reading James Stevens Curl’s magisterial history of modernism, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Brutalism, I am now able to put into words something that I had always—but inchoately—sensed, namely that the replacement of the vertical disposition of windows by the horizontal, usually continuous or near-continuous, disposition is aesthetically and psychologically disturbing. I spend quite a lot of time in Paris, and it is untrue that modernism there gained its dominance, at least statistically, before the Second World War: even in the 1930s, the vertical disposition remained predominant and there were many blocks of flats built that, while not architectural masterpieces, did not utterly disturb the fabric of urban harmony. After the war, however, almost nothing that failed to do so was built, and now that Gropian, Miesian and Corbusian modernism are dead, things are no better. Deconstructionism reminds me of those pictures of spiders’ webs after the spiders have been given cannabis; it is modernism on mind-altering drugs.

Nikos A. Salingaros: I see that my speculations were neither far off, nor exactly accurate. I totally agree with you. I, like yourself, felt a terrible pathology inherent in the geometry of the modernist built environment. This was emphasised by the contrast with the life-giving qualities of more traditional and vernacular settings that I loved so well as I was growing up. You and I felt viscerally that something was terribly wrong, and could see the obvious evidence as the destructive effects on human life and community. And yet nobody seemed to be talking about this striking difference. As an adult and a professional, I read tons of material actually defending the monstrous effect I was experiencing—that this was great architecture; the architecture of the age; the salvation of humanity; the way forward. All wrong, that was clear enough to me.

I was forced to turn to spending time formulating mathematical rules to describe living structure. Incredibly, a major portion of the human race did not wish to see what you and I (and many others) experienced viscerally as damaging and toxic. I felt that I had to write down rules that explain how our body feels in response to environmental geometries, rules that are inherent in our biology but which are suppressed by our educational system. This is almost ridiculous—it’s like the simple exercises for invalids recovering after a serious operation, who have to be taught again how to talk, swallow their food, move their limbs, walk and so on. And all the while fighting against professional architects and urban planners who continued to apply and teach dehumanising practices. Believe me, I had other things to do! I turned to writing my papers on architecture and urban design out of desperation. I abandoned my previous scientific interests to devote myself to this topic, exploring a no-man’s-land, and going out on a limb in the face of terrible hostility from the architectural profession.

Actually, it was my contact with Christopher Alexander that got me into this endeavour full-time. Reading the literature on architectural theory as a graduate student, I waded through nonsense and the only sane thinking that struck me was his. So I made it a point to meet Christopher in Berkeley when I went there to visit a mathematician student of mine. We became fast friends, and started to collaborate. I helped to edit his monumental four-volume work The Nature of Order. Alexander got it right from the beginning: life-giving qualities, or their opposite, toxic disconnectedness, occur on all scales, from the size of a neighbourhood or urban plaza, down to the size of a window, a window frame, or an architectural detail. Whether humans endow what they build with life, or with death, comes from inherent contradictory urges—our biological instinct is fighting with a learned desire to destroy. Or do you think that we are born with both opposing urges within us?

Anthony Daniels:  I certainly don’t believe in Freud’s death instinct: death will come to us on its own, with or without the aid of instinct.

The urge to destroy is something else. As a child I remember smashing a radio with a croquet mallet and loving every minute of it (I enjoyed the parental retribution rather less). And it is obvious from films of riots that rioters enjoy smashing things, especially if they can claim it is for the sake of justice or the good of humanity. The sound of tinkling plate glass is quite delightful.

More importantly, there is also a hatred of beauty as well as a love of it. In a marvellous essay, Simon Leys points out that the true philistine is not he who cannot tell the difference between beauty and its opposite, but he who can tell the difference, often with exquisitely sensitive discrimination, and chooses the opposite. The reason for this, Leys suggests, is that beauty confronts the philistine with his mediocrity and his inability to produce anything remotely as worthwhile. He therefore takes his revenge on beauty.

I have often thought that modern architects suffer from the same syndrome. I will give you one example, but a very good (or bad) one.

The Binnenhof in The Hague is a beautiful assemblage of buildings, of enormous historical importance, erected between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries (the fact that everything built in it over centuries harmonises is itself highly significant), but the overall effect has been comprehensively ruined by the construction of completely undistinguished modern office blocks that now loom prepotently over it. It is very difficult to believe that they were not constructed by the planners and the architects as some kind of revenge on their own inability to produce anything one thousandth as fine as the Binnenhof despite resources to do so many times as great as those of the original builders. And this kind of situation is common all over Europe: the modernists and their successors have been very thorough in their ruination of townscapes.

As I am a psychiatrist, I often resort professionally to the ad hominem: though in my defence it is with humans that we here have to deal. In particular, I want to speculate on why what is so perfectly obvious to you and to me (and as you rightly say, to many others) is not perfectly obvious, or at least not admitted, by so many others? I have my ideas, but I wonder whether you have yours?

Nikos A. Salingaros: A simple answer already occurred to me: that the type of architecture you and I dislike is indeed an expression of sadism, the product of a psychopathology of hatred against beauty and life. But presenting that explanation in my book Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction got me into a lot of trouble. People were not amused (not that I meant it as being funny), and the power brokers in this domain can quash any idea that bothers them. Your point about the general public remaining ignorant is valid here. The book has been selling for fourteen years, but hasn’t made a dent in the popular conscience. I believe that lay people are simply frightened by the possibility that the global ruling class and its sycophantic bunch of experts might be wrong. This triggers cognitive dissonance, something that is so painful that the only way out is to accept the régime’s nonsense just to keep one’s sanity.

And of course someone can get used to and gain considerable pleasure from the act of destruction. All you need is the initial step or permission, since violence usually transgresses some old and wisely-placed societal taboos, but once you get going, you enjoy it. A totalitarian state engaged in repression, class warfare or genocide makes it legal and publicly encourages its followers to attack the undesirable “other”. After initial reluctance by many, they soon get into the spirit of things and happily commit atrocities. The power structure that drives them to this gains their undying loyalty, and at the same time compromises them in evil so deeply that defecting becomes morally unthinkable.

I can well imagine the Dutch architects trained in modernist orthodoxy—which leaves a giant void where design techniques leading to living environments ought to be—confronted by fifteenth-century urban fabric. Trying to match the extremely high degree of architectural life in those buildings only leads to frustration. For them, it’s an inconceivable task—totally out of the question. And that frustration quickly turns into hatred and the will to destroy. You can understand such sentiments much better than I, as a psychiatrist with long experience treating criminal psychopaths. I’m only drawing an analogy here, but some horrible crimes do follow this pattern. Does our education system for architects set them up to become architectural assassins? Was that the goal of the Bauhaus? It’s difficult to tell, since a fog of self-serving lies obscures architectural history. Incidentally, this is where James Stevens Curl’s book Making Dystopia helps us by clearing up the historical picture. I’m actually surprised that those Dutch architects didn’t convince the local authorities to raze the old buildings as an absolute precondition. This has sadly happened so often elsewhere.

Anthony Daniels: It certainly has. The Bath council once planned to pull the eighteenth-century city down and replace it by Novosibirsk-on-Avon. They managed to do quite a lot of damage before there was a public outcry. Most destruction by modernism and its successor movements is done in more piecemeal fashion. The fact is that once you have destroyed a townscape by a single modernist building, the rest becomes somewhat less the worth preserving, for as you reiterate in your writings, a townscape or a city is much more than the mere arithmetic sum of its parts. This is perfectly obvious in Venice, for example. No one would say it was all right to build a Mies van der Rohe-class shoebox in the middle of Venice because all the other buildings would remain intact. Bath council failed only because it was impatient and wanted to destroy every­thing in one go.

It seems to me that the most brilliant success of modernists and their successors has been to instil a state of intellectual terror in the minds of the laity. They have been told that, because they are so untrained, uneducated and unsophisticated they do not understand what the architects do and are therefore not entitled to pass judgment on it. Le Corbusier was one of the first to exercise this terror. His ex cathedra pronouncements (without a cathedral until he manufactured one for himself) divided people into two groups: those who could see and those who couldn’t see. There are not prizes for guessing who were the former and who were the latter.

In other words, they turned architectural appreciation into something purely technical, and no one likes to be regarded as both completely ignorant and philistine. I am not against technical knowledge, of course, quite the contrary; but it needs to be allied to taste and discrimination. An architect is responsible not only for his building, but to the urban or rural environment in which he builds. That is why a building that is appropriate to Dubai is not appropriate to Rome. The architect must have the boldness and imagination to be modest. Needless to say, modesty is not the first quality of so-called star architects who set the tone for others to imitate or aspire to.

Many people are terrorised in their judgment by the pronouncement that, in the modern world, this is the only way to build. This argument is wheeled out if ever they protest that the inhuman is not beautiful. First, they are told that it is beautiful, then they are told it is inevitable. They are powerless to answer. That is why it is so important why people like you should continue your work. Eventually—not straight away—you might produce a gestalt switch or a change of paradigm. It is an uphill struggle: the other side, as it were, has an almost totalitarian grip not only on architectural schools but on architectural commentary. But almost is not complete, which is why the struggle is not yet entirely futile. Would you agree, and what would you do to further the cause of a humanistic architecture?

Nikos A. Salingaros: You pinpoint this irrational terror that architectural culture exerts on the docile public. I wish to resurrect an entire architectural tradition that was sacrificed to this terror: “officially” it doesn’t exist, even though representative buildings still survive around the world (probably not for long). The British, whatever their faults as colonisers, managed to adapt to local climate and materials in Africa, Asia, Australasia and elsewhere. Those colonial-era buildings are among the most adapted and humane examples in those countries’ architectural vocabulary. Such nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings include many perfectly sustainable architectural gems. Tragically, many colonial buildings were wiped out after independence in an automatic but ill-considered gesture of revenge. But in more level-headed Australia and New Zealand, the architectural cult convinced the populace that those buildings represented testaments to architectural heresy, and the faster they were destroyed, the better for future economic progress.

The misuse of science and pseudo-science is one of the manipulation tools that impose and maintain architectural terror. Reading through the gobbledygook of so-called architectural theory, from Le Corbusier to contemporary architectural poseurs, one wades through the most ludicrous pseudo-scientific jargon. To a scientist like myself, it’s an indication of a deranged mind mimicking scientific writings in total ignorance of science; yet diabolically manipulating those words to sell a message of inhuman architecture. This bamboozles the public, and I have to regretfully admit that it succeeds as a powerful propaganda ploy. None of this is science. Le Corbusier with all his ridiculous posturing is the Trofim Lysenko of architecture: an intellectual impostor who caused immeasurable damage to the profession and to the world. His latter-day followers continue his dishonest tradition of salesmanship by abusing science.

When a civilisation has been wiped out by total war or an annihilating natural disaster, the first thing to ensure is that the knowledge base exists for its eventual resurrection. This is what my friends and I are providing now: a corpus of architectural knowledge that can be used to rebuild a humane world. We have saved lost techniques of traditional building, now enriched by a sizeable amount of new discoveries about healing environments. Most of that information is freely available on the internet, or in easily accessible books. The next step is the difficult one, however. How do we get the world to pay attention to this knowledge, and to abandon the self-serving deceptions of present-day architectural culture? It’s an unequal contest for the hearts and minds of the young. Architectural students pay no attention; these young persons are attracted to raw power, and the licence to shape the world for thousands of users of their future buildings. This intoxicating promise of power has few equivalents in modern democratic society. We cannot fight those base innate instincts by offering them in return compassion, empathy, humanity and love of life. We desperately need allies from other sectors of society!

Dr Nikos A. Salingaros, who was born in Perth, is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the author of ten books on architecture and urbanism. He shared the 2018 Clem Labine Award for Architecture with Michael Mehaffy, and is the recipient of the 2019 Stockholm Cultural Award for Architecture.

Dr Anthony Daniels has contributed his Astringencies column in Quadrant since October 2015.


1 comment
  • Jacob Jonker

    It’s political. I don’t know about the early modernists, maybe they were just under the influence of the zeitgeist, but from way back, esoteric knowledge has been around and used to good(bad) effect. To speak of a conspiracy is to invite ridicule. One could formulate a narrative based on the facts and arrive at the same thing. Globalisation is but a symptom of international high finance, which, I sense, is subsidising this magazine in some way, so, in fact, everything is connected. Hence, the very existence of the MSM is to manage dissent in advance. The gripe about architectural brutalism is but one of many aspects, though psychologically, and therefore politically, a very important one. It is not only meant to impose an effective dictatorship by diktat, but people have to be sickened and disabled in so many ways. Apart from all who support dictatorship and tyranny generally because they managed to get on the gravy train, there is the Stockholm syndrome and the fear of tackling tyrants who are well-organised and well-entrenched. Only when people have their back up against the wall and their sub-conscious takes over do they strike out against their oppressors-by which time it is way too late.
    In Hobart there is a prime example of clever oppressive architecture meant to convey a clear message, though subliminally where most people are concerned.
    Just behind Tasmania’s State Parliament building of considerable architectural and historical merit, fitted well in with three quarter of its surroundings, has arisen a brothel to facilitate the further corruption of State politics. It is some kind of hotel, powering over the State Parliament. Politicians will be able to nip up to the rooms in the ah, hotel, in order to confer with their masters who will tell them what to do in private. Ever so handy, practical as well as psychological. No use blaming the Chinese, who are, like people everywhere who look after their own interests, only doing what comes naturally. The operators on the West’s side are way out of sight. They cannot even be alluded to due to their special protective legislations. The EU, which are, still, allowed to mention, are also cracking down on dissent with laws. The special international western-based mafia in control of our political system have long been working at this. When people wake up, at last, the game will be over, bar the shouting, the protesting, of course.

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