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  • Why Contemporary Architecture is Against God and Man

    by Nikos Salingaros and James Kalb

    J.P. II Center Pic

    Architecture is the setting for how we live and the expression of how we think. It reflects our shaping of the world in order to inhabit it, and the geometry of what we build is far from neutral. The built environment, like the biological and other natural systems that it engages, needs to function reliably in complex and adaptive ways on many different levels. Such adaptive and sustainable systems have similar characteristics that, despite distinct origins, develop in a broadly similar manner.

    The need to provide shelter from the elements and serve everyday needs led to the construction of roofs and walls that defined spaces adapted to human use. Traditional buildings and cities were assemblies of such basic components, put together in ways that had been found to promote particular and overall functioning. The New York row house, the New England village green, and the Mediterranean arcade and plaza all suit the setting and way of life in which they grew up.

    More importantly, going beyond mere function, those structures combined ornament and other details that somehow seemed necessary. Even when structures were designed as a whole, their form and organization followed the evolved principles that had led to successful construction in the past. The results included the great historical styles of architecture, and the most-loved and most functional buildings and cities East and West.

    Times change, and not always for the better. The advent of architectural modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century suppressed traditional styles and complex evolved forms in favor of simple concepts and striking images. The result was an approach to the built environment that lent itself to public relations and propaganda—it played well in manifestos and glossy architecture magazines—but was less functional, less adaptive, and less human and engaging.

     

    What happened, why did it happen, and why do people stick with an approach to building and design that evidently does not work to engage our complex faculties? The answer goes to the nature of science and of freedom: whether they have to do with understanding reality and living in accordance with it, or with the imposition of arbitrary will.

    Our educated world does not distinguish science from technology, because it confuses understanding with arbitrary control. Modernism had to do with the latter. It was an attempt to liberate technology from reality that took the form of a massive but unscientific application of technology to shape the world into an industrial dream image. Hence the emphasis on unfamiliar invented forms, sharp edges, and gleaming surfaces. The effort was entirely unscientific because no thought was given to discovering how human beings actually interact with their environment, or whether we need certain specific geometrical features just like we need nourishment and air, or to understanding how human beings interact with each other to create a city. Modernist architects just drew forms on paper that looked like machines and those in power built them.

    The motivation was essentially political and oriented toward domination. The revolutionary movements that followed World War I wanted a break with the past, and especially the look of the past. The world revolution would rebuild humanity through industrialization, so these movements embraced buildings that looked like the machines of the time: sleek, white, and metallic. States, both on the left and on the right, loved this depersonalized approach to building, where the individual no longer matters and everything is sacrificed to an imposed utopian vision. Aspects of architectural modernism are prominent in Nazi and Soviet architecture, and the capitalist state also turned the machine into an icon. When Le Corbusier died both Lyndon Johnson and the Soviets expressed their sense of profound loss.

    The modernist architectural pioneers made up wild explanations for why the new designs and materials were supposedly superior, practically and ethically, and were rewarded with commissions, fame, and academic positions. Human checks and balances disappeared, the industrial system took over, and traditional construction techniques and a vast network of local building and craft traditions went out of business.

    The outcome of these developments is something resembling a totalitarian system that unites immense financial and industrial interests with a pseudo-religious fanaticism. There are governments and corporations that wish to flaunt their power through monstrous and arrogant building schemes, industries that produce very expensive high-tech materials, developers who want to make their money work but have no moral constraints, and architects who are willing to do anything to obtain a commission. Politicians get pulled into supporting the ideology by the chance to gain media coverage and campaign contributions. And the gullible public naively believes all it reads in the conformist media.

    There is something profoundly anti-natural about the results. By contradicting traditional evolved geometries, modernist and contemporary architecture and urban planning go against the natural order of things. When an architect or planner ignores the need for adaptation and imposes his or her will, the result is an absurd form—an act of defiance toward any higher sense of natural order. There is no room for God in totalitarian design. What religious believer is helped to greater devotion by a modernist Church? Who can love materials hostile to our touch and sight, surfaces and oppressive spaces that sometimes suggest violation and death? Architectural modernism implies a sort of cosmic rebellion against order and life.

    One lesson of contemporary architecture is that there exists a basic need for religious belief. Ours is not the secular world everyone pretends it to be. Architects tend to follow a cult of images that arose in the early twentieth century from the desire to break with all elements of the past, especially inherited human culture. Contemporary architects professing to be atheistic champions are in fact promoting an ideology with religious overtones. Their buildings, we are told, are “iconic,” and the attempt to reshape the built environment in accordance with pure concept, as Le Corbusier proposed in his plan for Paris, is an attempt to reshape the world in which we live into an expression of will and inhuman rationality.

    The ideology of contemporary architecture is detached from nature and from God. It creates buildings that are dangerously detached from human beings. Traditional religions, despite periodic failings and fanaticisms, arose out of the evolution of human culture, and are thus far more grounded in real human needs. More importantly, they celebrate humans as rich and complex beings, with capabilities far beyond those of a machine. This makes religions more rational, and less divisive, than pseudo-religions based on irrational will. A Greek or Hindu temple, a sixteenth-century mosque, or a Gothic cathedral connects us to each other, to the past, and to the world. A modernist building or urban design does not. Even someone from a different civilization and religious tradition can tell the difference.

    For millennia, houses of worship focused the design and construction talents of the populations onto their love of God. Traditional religious architecture is above all an architecture of life, from the overall form down to the smallest ornamental detail, because God is identified with life and with love. After a cult of alien images supplanted God in the early twentieth century, churches were built to the glory of the cult, no longer to the God of living beings. Today we see merchants of an architecture characterized by a geometry that avoids living structure—the currently fashionable star architects—who are commissioned to build religious buildings totally devoid of humanity and love, and so of God. Is this the suicide of the Great Religions, intentionally suppressing their core values?

    These observations on architecture have implications for social life. Structural rules developed for buildings and urban design cannot be applied directly to human society and political systems, but the same fundamental principles are at work. In general terms, evolved societal complexity needs to be respected. Politically, consideration of the nature of functional and adaptive systems points to traditional social values and the individual freedom to choose, and away from the cult of anti-intuitive expertise in the service of the globalized consumerist system. That means favoring traditional societal structures that grow up from the connections found in daily life and have proven their value over generations. This result is antithetical to the insistence on erasing tradition and creating a brave new society based on industrialized principles and untested utopian ideas that promise progress and liberation but deliver the precise opposite.

     

    So what to do? Contemporary society has detached people from the real world, and especially from the traditional, spiritual world where a higher sense of order resides. Natural perceptions made concrete in tradition have been replaced by ideology and constructed images. Ordinary good sense and a human grasp of reality somehow must be restored.

    New architectural theories developed by Christopher Alexander and his followers attempt to do so by giving scientific reasons for things, such as the need for small-scale ornament, that in the past were simply assumed. With ordinary people a brief introduction is enough for them to get the point and tune into living structure. The problem is with the educated. Architects in particular have been taught to block their own sensory apparatus so as to support approved products of modernity. That’s necessary because preferring cold, sterile, or absurd forms goes against our need to experience biophilic structures in our immediate environment. This aspect of education in the West is as effective in promoting ignorance as the fanatical indoctrination seen in other parts of the world.

    It is hard to know how it will end. So far the results of our protests and denunciations have been more reminiscent of Cassandra than of the original Alexander and his generals. Perhaps the current situation will end with societal collapse when we run out of cheap energy? Or when the developing world realizes the deception? Already the West is hated through its architectural expressions: You cannot fool traditionally religious people into believing that monstrous buildings hostile to human sensibilities are good.

    All is not lost, of course. Humanity is irrepressible, and thousands of buildings reflecting the human spirit are erected around the world today and in the recent past, even though we never hear about them. They are indigenous, vernacular, modest, many of them self-built, all expressions of human intuition about what a nutritive environment has to be. Even the buildings in third-world favelas have more life in them than prize-winning modernist or postmodernist structures. More formal buildings built in regional traditional styles also abound: Again, you don’t see them in the media. There are also quite a number of contemporary architects working with the classical form language, and many of their buildings are wonderful. Architects who relearn how to design classical buildings free up their intuition to perceive nutritive spaces, forms, and surfaces, and therefore their product is adaptive to human sensibilities.

    In the end, perhaps after horrible upheavals, the defects of contemporary architectural movements will certainly destroy them. In the meantime, those who see the nature and effect of those movements must continue to do battle in season and out of season. They owe that to those who came before, to their fellow citizens, and to their posterity.

    This essay first appeared on Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, under the title “Against the Architects of Empire” and is adapted from an earlier interview conducted by James Kalb. It is reprinted here with permission.

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Paul Tran

      I am greatly troubled reading this article. To justify the points that Moderne Architecture is bad for the human spirit & somehow anti God the writer has only mentioned Le Corbusier and his early works. To those who are practioners of Architecture, they ought to know all too well Le Corbusier’s early works are vastly different to his later. Moreover, there were other contemporaries, such as Alvar Aalto who was a great proponent of Moderne Architecture but one with a far more humanistic approach.
      The sad truth is , if one were to read , say, Vers Une Architecture Moderne (by Le Corbusier) and compare this with the early writings of Shaker Architecture there is actually an alarming number of similarities ! The crucial difference in these 2 theories is that Moderne Architecture is laden with Marxist doctrine – which was very much en vogue at the time & we all know how bad Marxism/Communism/Socialism is for mankind - and its attempt at the removal of God and replacing God with “the proletariat” – this is the biggest mistake of all !!! There are of course other theoretical mistakes such as its reliance on science and its attempt to promote itself as an “international style” which , as the consequence, negates culture and regionalism. 
      One cannot blame technology or science alone for the souless places of our man-made environment. Technology & science are just a part of progress and there’s nothing wrong with any of these per se.  Just as man learned how to make tools, technology is just a tool and science is nothing more than discovery about our world & our environment (created by God.) In my own honest opinion, I believe the discovery of our world (aka Science) should bring us closer to God and not alienate God from  daily life.
      Let’s be fair there are some pretty awful “traditional” buildings too and some were considered hideous during their times.

      • Bjanecki

        The reason today’s churches are built the way they are is in a few years they will be out of business and therefore can be converted into a pizza parlor in just a weekendIi have seen more pcturesque tool and die shops than some churches.Remember all and I mean buildings built today are based on economics. Simple as that. Whatever happened to classy culture. Have you looked at Hollyweird latetly. It all ties in. Bernard Janecki

      • Drew

        @43e75ae0e41cdaf84ece1364194b3c9a:disqus 

        Alvar Aalto’s work is just less dehumanizing than the worst offenders.  

        Marxists/communists/socialists made the same mistakes as the liberals who championed modern styles.  Why? Because they’re all progressive of one stripe or another.  They hate tradition, they want to destroy it, and must create a “new architecture” for the new, artificial man.  Unfortunately, this is contrary to nature.  Hence the author’s point about modern architecture not reflecting a scientific understanding of man’s needs.  Does it make him more happy? Does the brain have a conception of beauty hardwired into it?  Does modern architecture care? No, because it is an act of domination and rebellion, not cooperation and harmony.

        By the way, the human brain does have a hardwired (genetic, not social) sense of the beautiful when it comes to human faces and bodies.  If this is true, why would we think it doesn’t have a similar standard for the rest of the world?

        • Paul Tran

          I hate to belabor the point but if what you are saying about Moderne Architecture or contemporary architecture being hateful of “tradition” then one only needs to remind oneself that the Romans thought the same of Gothic architecture. Gothic architecture referred to a style of the Goths who were considered to be barbarians in their days. Yet we have seen much of “classical” & “traditional” architecture aping this style.
          While I agree that contemporary architecture lacks soul but a definition of ” a scientific understanding of man’s needs” has to be clarified.
          I would go as far as to argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we all see beauty differently. Yes, we are all hardwired to recognize beauty but each person’s definition of beauty is different.
          While there are some vile examples of modern/contemporary architecture, I would argue there were equally horrendous mistakes in classical/traditional architecture. As said, we have grown to love “traditional” architecture as a STYLE due to the passage of time.
          Modern architecture does care ! If one were speaking of , strictly, church building one has to look at Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp for example. In my own honest opinion, it is a beautiful church and is a distinct departure from his formative writings on Moderne Architecture. We need to understand modern/contemporary architecture is trying to detach itself from the didactics of styles. Today’s architecture focuses on regionalsim, culture, use and is very site specific. Harmony, in today’s architecture, is seen as being at one with the surrounding/landscape.
          There’s no such thing as a standardised sense of beauty. Each culture has its own definition and beauty is varied depending on which part of the world one is in. It would be foolhardy of us to believe in one standardised sense of beauty because one would only be making the same mistakes as what some proponents of Moderne Architecture did by creating an “International Style”.

           

          • thlim

            Gothic architecture did not arise until after the fall of Rome.

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    • Usarownow

      We live in an age of Sociopathy.  The ages of great belief are unhappily gone.  Only within certain smaller belief  boundries can the wholeness of the human happines be realized.

      • Paul Tran

        Perhaps you are right in what you are saying but I, for one, will not give up without a fight. I happen to believe “great belief” is latent within all of us but, sadly, today’s society places such a precedence on personal happiness that makes the individual selfish & self-centred.  
        In this case, the voices of the faithful and of the Church must sound louder in order to reach more people. After all we, the faithful, know the Bible is a book filled to the brim with humanity and it is this message we need to get across.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2XDBHIYMAH4R75XTXE6XJDTSL4 Common-sense-man

      The French have said it a long time ago: “God is everywhere except in ugly churches”…

      • Paul Tran

        Absolutely. The French also say “chacun son gout” too … sad that so many folks (not just the French) are so wishy-washy and become the heathens that they are today :)

    • MarkRutledge

      We live in strange times; times where “ugly is in” (and, hence, beauty is passe).  Fashion?  Ugly and tawdry.  Fine arts?  Ballet has become sexualized, classical music has become cacophony, and visual art depressing (that is, when one can even figure out what the heck it is).  Popular culture?  Bohemian.  Modern architecture fits right in.  

      I have a little game I play whenever I read of a new symphony or opera upon its premier, and count how many superlatives are used other than those synonymous with beauty.   Often times there are NONE for the latter. 

      • Paul Tran

        Speaking purely as an architect. First, we need to define what is “traditional” and at which point in time do things become “traditional” ? Second, “traditional” architecture is spposed to be about an idealised form of beauty (encoded in nature by God) and, to this extent, so is Moderne architecture (except that beauty in the latter is derived from science, technology & Man). Third, strictly speaking about Architeture, we are now in a post-modern era of architecture . What this current school of thought means is there are 2 ways of viewing architecture or the built environment : (a) Architecture as an idealised sense of beauty (as before), or (b) Architecture is nothing more than a 3-dimensional narative of how the architect sees life and interprets it in his works.
        As said, there are plenty of so-called ugly or hideous examples of “classical” or “traditional” architecture in their times. With time, we have all warmed up to some of the ugly ducklings of architecture (i.e. Keble College, Oxford UK and the Eiffel Tower, Paris France).

    • Nikos Salingaros

      “Moderne architecture … beauty in the latter is derived from science, technology & Man.”

      I respectfully disagree. As detailed elsewhere, science supports traditional and vernacular architectures that embody an infinite variety of human-adapted forms. On the contrary, science reveals that modernist, postmodernist, and deconstructivist architectures arise our of rhetoric and scientific misinterpretations. 

      Best regards,
      Nikos

      • Paul Tran

        I believe we are getting our wires crossed here. Sure, science does support the “traditional” & the “vernacular” but always with God as being the creator behind the order of beauty & natural aesthetic, i.e. Italian Renaissance. However, Moderne Architecture - although purportedly encorporates science - dispenses with God altogether and places faith in the power of man & man-made machines a la Marxism. And this is the deep-rooted flaw.
        As said in another post, I do agree that science is misinterpreted by theorists of Moderne Architecture and that science should bring us closer to the understanding of God and the beauty of the universe. However, post-modernism & deconstruction are more quasi-philosophically based than scientifically based, wouldn’t you agree ?

        • Tout

          Well said !?!? Now, what do you mean ? Are you in favor or against such churches ?

    • Tout

      I am not an architect, nor artist. I do say that a church should be in the form of a cross; never mind how short the ‘ arms ‘. What beauty has a church that has the shape of a rectangular grange ? That may be all right for a chapel. A church-building should be a church, not a barn. The outside form of the building should tell us: this is a church. The tower does not have to be very high, that is where the ‘bells’ should be. The bells do not have to be big. The cost of a church plays a role, but it should be a church, not a hall. Those who can, offer ‘money’ in the collection to beautify God’s house. Also the vessels used in the H.Mass. How lucky those parishes who have the Tridentine(Latin)Mass.

      • Paul Tran

        I understand what you are saying and particularly in the West this fits in very well with the historical past & culture. However, this is purely formal. In today’s thinking, the formal aspect of architecture takes second place to capturing the essence or spirit/soul of the space – and this is intrinsically linked to the use/nature of the space & its location. In this sense, architecture is no longer about the superficial or the shape or form.
        I have been to some of the most amazing, mind-blowing masses around the world. Some of these were held in the most humbling, modest surroundings (some can even be termed as ramshackled) yet these rare places capture the very essence of the reverence for God and the spirit of community. These places do not overawe or overwhelm the individual with grand architectural gestures instead they merely provide the backdrop to the act of worshipping and serving God – a perfect conduit for immersing oneself in the spirit of God.
        One only has to refer to the humble birth & life of Christ to understand. After all it is his message that is important, not the shape or form of the man.

      • Chris P

        I have a few questions for you. Who instituted the standard form of a church: God or man? Is the church the building or the people? What about a congregation that meets in a primary school or an empty warehouse: are they any less God’s house because they do not have a bell or an altar? Consider, for example, that in days of the early church there was no set place of worship that shouted “Church!” upon first sight. Where was the church then? The church began in the modesty of people’s homes. Now tell me, does God find that church any less valid because it does not have pews or a steeple?

    • Accer70

      How strange. I’ve always felt that a church should look like a church….not an office complex. It was just some odd instinct. I never really gave it much thought before. I just never like modern design for a church. It bothers me enough that I actually attended a different church other than my own parish church because of it. I’m lucky that I now live in a place where I can attend my own parish church. Until this article I just thought it was some weird quirk I have. 

    • Heathen

      Speaking purely as an atheist, it is fascinating to read these types of articles, but especially comments.

      In a purely anthropological way, of course.

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    • Darrick Elmore

      Some people cant adapt to change. There is absolutely nothing wrong with modern/contemporary architechture. Eventually, down the line, whats modern will be considered traditional at some point. To go so far as to say that its against God an man is ridiculous, absurd, and most of all…ignorance in its purest form.

      • Augustus

        Hey Darrick, ever met someone who embraced change merely for the sake of change without bothering to examine in a critical and thoughtful way whether the change is beneficial for society? If you think you haven’t, then maybe you should look in the mirror. You can’t even come up with one argument to challenge the author. Does thinking require too much work? Why should you when accepting blindly what elites find fashionable will spare you the effort? How pitiful. Blanket denials and assertions without evidence or thought. That is “ignorance in its purest form.”

      • ForsythiaTheMariner

        I think there’s probably such a thing as good taste, and that the architecture being referred to in this article really is in poor taste. It’s not that it’s different from the past, for there are many beautiful and very modern things, as well as things our predecessors could never have imagined seeing (like mapping the human genome, snowflakes seen magnified thousands of times under a microscope, the depths of the black ocean, new creations of vegetables and exotic fruit for consumption! to name a few). But these buildings, such as the photo of the church in the article, are I believe an attack on both man, God and good taste.