For a return to a humanist, peer to peer, bio-architecture and urbanism

In the first part of this article in Shareable, Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy analyze what is wrong, epistemologically and culturally, with the current urbanistic and architectural practices that often create ‘bio-pathic’ living spaces.

In the second part, which we are excerpting below, the authors examine the positive alternative.

Excerpted from Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy:

“The desires and gut reactions of the community are the very essence of a great, living city, as opposed to a banal and dysfunctional one. The dysfunction of such image-based urban places — sadly all too common in the post-war era — is what has sent many people fleeing for the suburbs, with their simplistic ideas of retreat into a private garden. (Generations of developers have made fortunes by encouraging this suburban flight through the opposite misleading images: of mansions sitting in vast lawns). This too has turned into a dysfunctional failure of traffic congestion, blighted strip development, and isolated, car-dependent homes.

Clearly, if we want a sustainable form of settlement, our buildings will have to work much harder to create a convivial, salubrious environment for all human beings — not just appease the elite connoisseurs of object-buildings. This means, among other things, that the problem of “architectural myopia” be taken seriously, just as we take night blindness seriously among drivers. We need corrective lenses.

What are these corrective lenses? First of all, re-integrate the needs of human beings, their sensory experience of the world, and their participation into the process of designing buildings. Leading design theory today advocates “co-design”, in which the users become part of the design team, and guide it through the evolutionary adaptations to make a more successful, optimal kind of design. Architects spend more time talking to their users, sharing their perception and understanding their needs: not just the architect’s selfish need for artistic self-expression, or worse, his/her need to impress other architects and elite connoisseur-critics. We are not dealing with objects in a sculpture gallery, which can be regarded or not by those who choose to do so, or do not. Clients, academia, politicians, and the media have forgotten this basic fact, which is the key to constructing living urban fabric.

We are now dealing with an environment in which such image-based sculptural buildings are imposed upon people, whether they choose them or not. Very simply put, architects have a professional duty of care to their clients and users. They are not artists free of all responsibility, contrary to all of their academic training that encourages aspirations to become the new “starchitect”. If their image-based sculptural buildings fall down, they are responsible. Likewise, if such buildings “fall down on the job” of meeting human needs — if they are unduly stressful, or damaging to the quality of life — then that is a kind of architectural malpractice, and nothing less.

Second, the obsolete model of architecture as a kind of product, mutated in dramatic sculptural ways to attract attention, gives way to a model of architecture as an integral part of a living human landscape. It’s not enough to initiate this change merely by speaking out: it is up to clients, politicians, and common people to insist upon an adaptive criterion for all buildings from this point onward, otherwise we will only see a continuation of business as usual. There is still ample scope for the adventure of art, for the dramatic illumination of real structural qualities, in place of the abstract expressionism that is far too close to product design and marketing.

Third, we can learn from the processes that nature uses to create complex adaptive forms. By comparison, those of our own time are crude and primitive, and no amount of imaginative artistry or “magical thinking” will make up for this fundamental weakness. An inherently dangerous arrogance is noticeable among contemporary architects who wish to defy nature. Such an attitude does not prepare a practitioner to learn from nature. Architects need a new way of celebrating the majesty and the beauty of the city, and its place in the natural scheme of things. This new way of designing is integrated with our own innate needs as human beings. That is “the place of art” within architecture — not as master, but as servant, to life.

The promising new field of biophilia suggests that human beings have evolved with certain basic aesthetic and physiological needs: the presence of vegetation, water, sunlight, animals, and also the geometric relationships that have accompanied our evolutionary experiences with these structures. By tapping into this rich vocabulary of biophilic design elements, we can have an extremely rich variety of design possibilities — a rich range of artistic expression — while still meeting the needs of human beings. And within the same life-affirming process, we can meet the ecological needs of the environment too.

So often we have debated the phenomenon of “architectural myopia” with architects, who dismiss it and insist that is all about aesthetics, or a matter of opinion. But that old relativist narrative is flatly contradicted by a growing body of modern scientific findings. True, people have enormous varieties of experiences and tastes — and it’s wonderful that they do — but these phenomena are generated by a common set of structural processes that are identifiable and sharable. Some experiences are unquestionably damaging to health and wellbeing, in the same way that, say, the structure of car exhaust molecules is damaging to health and wellbeing. It does no good to say our narrative about car exhaust is such and such, we want people to experience it and be provoked by it — that will not change the fact that we are making people unwell.

We can readily appreciate this point by imagining artwork being introduced into a psychiatric ward where suicidal depression is being treated. Imagine an artist who said, “I am an artist, and I have the right to put up my disturbing, dark forms wherever I like.” We would likely say, “No you don’t, not here.” But how is the rest of the city, with its mix of people in varying states of health, really any different?

Doctors have learned that certain aspects of the patient environment promote wellbeing, and they now use this “evidence-based design” to improve the quality of life of their patients. In the same way, adaptive, human-scale architecture and urbanism rely upon discoverable rules of design. We proposed the existence of such rules (Salingaros, 2005; 2006) while at the same time conjecturing that a non-adaptive aesthetic is easily reached from the adaptive design rules by simply reversing them. That is, since guidelines for designing adaptive, contextual environments are known instinctively, do the opposite to generate a form that strikes an observer by its visual novelty and lack of context.

Our colleague Jaap Dawson recently reinforced this idea in telling us of his teaching experience:

“The unconscious rules us, however hard we try to become conscious of a little bit of our lives. What I’ve also discovered in working with students the last 27 years is that they pick up the design rules of Modernism very quickly — without consulting their own experience of buildings or spaces. And if you look at those rules, then you simply have to conclude something else: in order to follow them, you need to know the normal, vernacular, classical, archetypal language of building. If you know that language, then you simply do its opposite in order to get Modernism. My conclusion: awareness of the timeless language is present in people, but they learn to suppress it. But there’s something underneath groupthink, I think; and that’s a fear of trusting your own experience — in body and soul — of buildings and spaces. Any child trusts that experience.”

And thus we conclude that “architectural myopia” is a symptom of adopting a contradictory and opposite way of viewing the world. It also explains architects’ insistence — continuous, strident, and bordering on the obsessive — of the need to “educate” the public. For every time public debate focuses upon the basic dichotomy in perceiving architectural form between architects and non-architects, the standard response by the former is to beg for more “education” of ordinary citizens, and to dismiss natural human responses to their work as being “unsophisticated” and “philistine”. Architects really wish that normal people would undergo the same reversal, and then everyone might agree on the same non-contextual, non-adaptive building aesthetics.

Since the non-indoctrinated continue to see complexity and coherence in the living environment and refuse to accept “architectural myopia”, the architect’s strategy is simply to replace the built environment so that it no longer contains those essential elements of living structure.

Many of today’s leading architects feel compelled to change the world drastically to make it conform to their preferred lifeless industrial paradigm. Unless non-architects (i.e. the rest of the population) stand up to this pressure, we risk the slow loss from attrition of all of humankind’s most emotionally-nourishing creations. For example, architects see a well-functioning and beloved urban space but perceive it as ugly and offensive, desperately in need of immediate “re-qualification” to turn it into a contemporary hard industrial object. Politicians are happy to go along so as to please construction companies who profit from the unnecessary tearing down and rebuilding. The result is a sterile open space, unused, dysfunctional, and dead — but in the eyes of the architects, the operation has been a success!

A culture based upon an abstract, disconnected conception of space is re-shaping our world right now for the worse. The parallel reality is replacing the living one. Enthusiastically supported by politicians and the building industry, architects have been commissioned to destroy historic buildings and urban spaces worldwide. Because “architectural myopia” is justified as perfectly normal in the press, such interventions are praised by their promoters but turn out disastrous for the urban fabric, and are hated by potential users. Those projects all tend to look and feel the same. This is not surprising, since the designs are generated by the same abstract modernist images in the minds of architects oblivious of the connective geometry that would catalyze the eventual life in such a space.

We desperately need a new kind of architect: one more focused on process than on product, on context rather than on objects. Preparing our new type of architect for practice, we should re-examine the ways that architects are rewarded today: the corrupt and incestuous system of financial incentives, corporate branding, and image-making that rewards the extravagant “starchitect” over the contextual practitioner. Once we have created a consensus for radical change, it will be straightforward to find new ways of compensating good work, through more incentives such as awards, commissions, scientific research that identifies both successes and failures, and other, stronger feedback.

Most important of all, we must reform the architecture schools without further delay, and place a new emphasis on design that is evidence-based, that pays attention to post-occupancy evaluations, and that, in short, values the outcome for human beings and takes their needs seriously. It is a democratic society’s duty to teach students to see and interpret the world without ideological blinders.

Last but not least, we applaud medically blind architects who courageously practice despite their handicap. Giving an example to the rest of the profession, they visualize spaces in their “mind’s eye”, experience with their fingers a building’s plan as printed on embossed paper, and physically walk through a building to optimize the user’s experience. Those blind architects put to shame their colleagues who, blessed with the gift of sight, refuse to use their eyes.”