by Michael Mehaffy, Nikos A. Salingaros, originally published by MetropolisMag.com
As we enter a transition era that demands far greater resilience and sustainability in our technological systems, we must ask tough new questions about existing approaches to architecture and settlement. This comes as post-occupancy evaluations show that many new buildings, as well as retrofits of some older buildings, are performing substantially below minimal expectations. In some notable cases, the research results are frankly dismal [see our article “Toward Resilient Architectures 2: Why Green Often Isn’t”].
The trouble is that the existing system of settlement, developed in an oil-fueled industrial age, is beginning to appear fundamentally limited: it’s not possible to solve our problems using the same typologies that created them. In a “far-from-equilibrium” world, as resilience theory suggests, we cannot rely on engineered, “bolt-on” approaches to these typologies, which are only likely to produce a cascade of unintended consequences. What we need is an inherent ability to handle “shocks to the system”, of the kind we see routinely in biological systems.
In a previous article, “Toward Resilient Architectures 1: Biology Lessons”, we described several elements of such resilient structures, including redundant (“web-network”) connectivity, approaches incorporating diversity, work distributed across many scales, and fine-grained adaptivity of design elements. We noted that many older structures also had exactly these qualities of resilient structures to a remarkable degree, and in evaluations they often perform surprisingly well today. Nevertheless, in the dawning age of industrial design in the last century, those desirable qualities they offered were lost. What happened?
A common narrative asserts that the world moved on to more practical and efficient ways of doing things, and older methods were quaint and un-modern. According to this narrative, the new architecture was the inevitable product of inexorable forces, the undeniable expression of an exciting industrial “spirit of the age.” The new buildings would be streamlined, beautiful, and above all, “stylistically appropriate.”
This was the thinking that gave birth to the Modernist style and form language still popular with many architects today, part of a design movement that in various forms has dominated the world for a century. But such choices of style and type are not independent of how well our buildings perform on criteria of sustainability and resilience — and as we noted, a growing body of evidence is damning.
So what does recent science tell us about the soundness of this approach to architecture?
Science forces us to conclude that the Modernist view of environmental structure itself appears un-modern — and moreover, unsustainable. It rests upon now largely discredited theories of culture, technology, environmental geometry, and building form — theories that have never been properly re-assessed by their proponents.
For far from being an inevitable product of inexorable historical forces, the evidence reveals 20th Century design to be highly contingent historically, developed as a series of rather peculiar choices by a few influential individuals. The story goes back to a small group of German, Swiss, and Austrian architect-theorists, and at its seminal moment, the particular ideas of one of them regarding ornament — which, as we shall see, turns out to have far-reaching implications.
Adolf Loos’ idea takes hold
In his famous essay of 1908, “Ornament and Crime,” the Austrian writer/architect Adolf Loos presented an argument for the minimalist industrial aesthetic that has shaped modernism and neo-modernism ever since. Surprisingly, he built this argument upon a foundation that is accepted today by almost no one; the cultural superiority of “modern man”, by which he meant Northern European males.
Loos proclaimed that, in this new era of streamlined modern production, we had apparently become unable to produce “authentic ornamental detail.” But are we alone, he asked, unable to have our own style do what “any Negro”, or any other race and period before us, could do? Of course not, he argued. We are more advanced, more “modern.” Our style must be the very aesthetic paucity that comes with the streamlined goods of industrial production — a hallmark of advancement and superiority. In effect, our “ornament” would be the simple minimalist buildings and other artifacts themselves, celebrating the spirit of a great new age.
Indeed, the continued use of ornament was, for Loos, a “crime.” The “Papuan,” he argued, had not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man. As part of his primitive practices, the Papuan tattooed himself. Likewise, Loos went on, “the modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.” Therefore, he reasoned, those who still used ornament were on the same low level as criminals, and Papuans.
Built on an essentially racist worldview, Loos’ seminal essay codified a fateful series of four tenets that have seeped into design culture and remain largely unquestioned, even today.
- Geometrical fundamentalism. The march of technological progress inevitably compels the elimination of detailed or ornamental features, and focuses on features that nakedly display (and celebrate) technological expediency and geometrical reduction.
- Tectonic determinism. The geometric character of any addition to the built environment can only be a unique expression of its own specific technological moment in history (defined in stylistic terms, of course).
- Typological prejudice. It follows that all previous architectural geometries of older eras are wholly inconsistent with modernity, and must be marked for elimination. Revival — a constant evolutionary fugue throughout the greatest civilizations — is now rejected, for the first time in history.
- Modernist exceptionalism. Civilization has arrived at a fundamentally different and superior cultural status, elevated beyond previous historical constraints by its powerful technology. Architecture will serve this technology most appropriately by drawing from a limited form language derived from early 20th century production technology. No other form language is valid or “authentic.”
What was this limited form language? It employed the repetitive production of standardized machine components, conceived in the most limited sense (eliminating complex artifacts, tools and utensils, and complex architectural components). It was an extreme strategy to exploit economies of scale and quantity to achieve efficiencies. Those industrial parts — blank flat sheets, razor-straight line cuts, simple unadorned squares, cubes, and cylinders — were standardized to allow for easy and low-cost assembly.
Precisely because of its limitations, this form language made for dramatic, somewhat disquieting new shapes, readily suited to metaphoric use as the attention-getting expressions of a great new age. The raw, simple forms were well suited psychologically to the streamlined shapes of the breathtakingly fast-moving new vehicles: locomotives, aircraft, and ships. In turn, these reinforced the idea of streamlined buildings as a metaphoric style — although, of course, buildings do not actually move.
In an age enthralled with the promise of the future, this radically novel form language became unexpectedly popular and entirely displaced its contemporary competitors, many of which are largely forgotten today. Innovative architectural form languages that had just emerged included Jugendstil, Sezessionstil, Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty, Art-and-Crafts, Edwardian, and the early F. L. Wright. In fact, Loos was specifically attacking the relatively innovative forms of Art Nouveau — not the over-the-top rococo work of late Victorian designers, as some assume today.
Corporate branding with science fiction
In any case, the clever use of machine parts production by early industrial technology as a romantic new form language was not lost on Loos’ German contemporary Peter Behrens, known now as “the father of corporate branding”. Behrens immediately recruited industrial minimalism as an aesthetic tool to create a streamlined marketing image to help his client AEG (Germany’s version of the U.S. company General Electric) sell its products. To do so, he created striking logos, stationery, advertisements — and buildings, which, in effect, were converted into giant billboards to help to sell companies and their products.
In taking this momentous step, Behrens was masterfully solving a critical problem for environmental designers offering their services in a new age of standardization and mass production. If we were no longer going to generate the form of buildings in place, through localized, craft-like processes, but must rely instead upon (supposedly superior, and certainly cheaper) combinations of standardized parts, then how were we as designers going to create aesthetically distinctive works? The answer he gave was: by “theming” them with an exciting stylized vision of the future, to be created by industry (and specifically, by the client company, and by the currently-employed design firm).
We would thus turn buildings and other objects into canvases to “brand” our companies, our firms, and our own talents as visionary designers, leading civilization into a thrilling new age. More than that, these packaged designs would have the special allure, in the skilled hands of Behrens and his artistically minded protégés, of a great new fine art. But at its heart was industrial manufacturing — and the commodification of products.
The image that Behrens created, working from the self-imposed limitations of this new aesthetic minimalism, was of power, industrial might, order, and cleanliness. Above all, it was the promise of a wonderful new technological future. Behrens’ brilliant recognition — paving the way for a dominant theme of modern marketing — was that one can sell almost anything at all if it’s successfully linked to romantic imagery of the future. The allure of such a product is thereby by definition beyond any claim that can be evaluated in the present. It is the selling of a hope, a dream, a desire — even if it is one that is destined to quickly tarnish and be discarded. (Indeed, all the better; such planned obsolescence means another “new, improved” product can be sold in its place.)
The seductive power of this futuristic message was not lost on three of Behrens’ young protégés, each of whom went on to have a profound effect on 20th Century design. Their names are certainly familiar to any architect today — in fact, almost all architectural students are required to study and copy them in school. They were Walter Gropius, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (later known as Le Corbusier), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the next decades they would announce their “total architecture” (Gropius) that signaled a “great epoch of industrial production” (Le Corbusier) and “the will of an epoch” that “less is more” (Mies). In the words of their most important theorist and propagandist, Sigfried Giedion, “mechanization takes command”: our buildings must reflect the unavoidable reality of our modern world.
This was not merely a stylistic prescription that one might (or might not) find visually pleasing. It was a complete blueprint for remaking the world according to specific concepts of scale, standardization, replication, and segregation, all codified within a form of visual culture. It became (especially through CIAM, the Modernists’ profoundly influential international group) the template for the urbanization and suburbanization that took place rapidly in the U.S. and globally after World War II, and that still continues at an astonishing pace today in China, India, Brazil, and other countries. The structure of this urbanization has profound consequences, for better or worse, for the use of resources and other critical issues of our age.
From today’s scientific perspective, that structure has attributes that ought to provoke deep concern if not outright alarm. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs famously pointed out a half-century later, the Modernist approach did not reflect an understanding of the “organized complexity” of natural and biological systems that underlies human biology, human life, and human cities. It reflected instead an outmoded and unfounded but totalizing theory of the nature of cities, of technology, and indeed of geometry itself.
More recent scientific investigations reveal the richly complex geometry of living environments — including human ones. Importantly, the geometries of those natural structures “evolve in context” as complex adaptive forms, through a process known as “adaptive morphogenesis”. As a result of that process, living geometries have particular important characteristics. They differentiate into a range of subtly unique structures, and they adapt to local conditions, giving such environments stability and resilience. They achieve great complexity and efficiency through their evolution — and great beauty, in the form of a perceivable deeper order.
A new view of the nature of environmental structure, aesthetics, and ornament
Key to resilience is the way different portions of geometry lock together into larger functional (but not rigid) wholes. In the most ecologically resilient structures, they do this by forming symmetries across inter-linked scales. The resulting structure has the hallmarks of adaptive, evolutionary self-organization: redundant (“web-network”) relationships, diversity of mechanisms and components, innate ability to transfer information among many different scales, and fine-grained adaptivity of design elements.
There is also evidence from neuroscience and other fields that the aesthetic experience of such structures is not a superficial “psychological” aspect, but rather, a kind of cognitive “gateway” allowing us to experience and react to this deeper order of our environment. The artistic dimension lies in the way this gateway is shaped, and in its resonance with other emotional experiences in life. Creative abstractions are added to — but do not replace — the natural complexity of our world. As conscientious artists working to improve the human environment, our role is to enhance, express, and clarify that complex adaptive order. Certainly, it’s not merely to apply a veneer of visually dramatic gimmicks. (And not merely to market ourselves in an attention-getting way.)
In this picture of things, ornament is far from mere decoration. It is a precise category of articulation of the connections between regions of space by human designers. In that sense, it can be thought of as an essential kind of “glue” that allows different parts of the environment to echo and connect to one another, in a cognitive sense and even in a deeper functional sense. Ornament is then an important tool to form a complex fabric of coherent symmetrical relationships within the human environment.
We are beginning to understand that the new industrial form language represented a catastrophic loss of this adaptive structural capacity, bringing with it enormous negative consequences for the human environment. It deprived us of the thought processes necessary to conceptualize the characteristics of resilient environmental structure (again: web-network relationships, diversity, linking of scales, and fine-grained adaptivity). As one functional example, a certain kind of cell-phone antenna incorporating ornament-like fractal patterns (see above figure) offers the best performance for its tiny size but cannot be conceptualized within a minimalist form language.
The big re-think
We are now beginning to see a pattern (so to speak) in the momentous changes to industrial civilization in the last century or so. The excessive reliance on standardization and commodification, the birth of a consumer society dominated by branding and theming, and the rapacious and unsustainable consumption of resources as an addictive economic fuel, are intimately related to the non-resilience of the form languages that were handed down to us. The products of that related group of form languages are a failing industrial civilization’s “art supply”.
True resilience does not result from artistic metaphors, or by sticking veneers over the same failing industrial model. Biological resilience and sustainability require the capacity to endure, to adapt, and to maintain a dynamic stability in the face of sometimes-chaotic environments. They require the cognitive flexibility that enables the genesis of technological innovations. We will have to think outside the Modernist box to find new forms — and new uses for very old forms, just as natural evolution does. It seems clearer than ever that the survival of our planet depends upon it.
Yet today we are still the heirs of Loos’ erroneous and limiting ideas about geometrical fundamentalism, tectonic determinism, the exceptionalism of Modernism, and the typological prejudice rooted in an illusory aesthetic functionalism. All of these dogmas are enforced by self-perpetuating elite privileges, and the proprietary commodification of design as a fashion and brand. Even now, a reactionary old guard, wearing frayed progressive trappings, condemns virtually any use of ornament, pattern, or precedent as reactionary, uncreative, and lacking in imagination.
But in an age that demands new thinking, perhaps it is that attitude itself that betrays the ultimate lack of imagination.
Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. He is a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Alexander’s research center founded in 1967, and Executive Director of the Sustasis Foundation, a Portland, OR-based NGO dedicated to developing and applying neighborhood-scale tools for resilient and sustainable development.
Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico, and The Netherlands.
Read more articles in this series on resilience here.