The Rise of the Architectural Cult – Nikos Salingaros – Inference

The Rise of the Architectural Cult – Nikos Salingaros – Inference

Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism


by James Stevens Curl


Oxford University Press, 551 pp., $60.00.

Philosophy / Book Review / Vol. 5, No. 1

Architecture shapes human society and drives much of its commercial and economic engine. The inhabited world is covered with giant glass skyscrapers, factories, museums of contemporary art, concert halls, university buildings, and houses. In Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl argues that the preferred style in which many new buildings are created is ill adapted to the human senses, generating a permanent condition of stress from our environment.

Curl has several goals in this scholarly, well-documented book:

  • Demonstrate that contemporary architectural culture, with ideological origins in the 1920s, has created a dystopian environment for users.
  • Explain how a tiny group was able to impose on the world an architecture of abstraction that is, as Curl sees it, devoid of sense.
  • Show that three key figures—Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—insisted upon the global homogenization of architecture and ignored local conditions of climate, culture, and evolved traditions.
  • Document how biological aspects of architecture necessary for healing environments, such as ornamentation, the human scale, a sense of enclosure, positive tactile qualities, and complex color harmonies, were expunged.
  • Examine the historical, political, and psychological reasons why people have accepted shaping our environment in this manner.

Curl is Britain’s most distinguished architectural historian, and a coauthor, with Susan Wilson, of the classic Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. He has done decades of research into the origins of contemporary architectural culture. He finally brings all this information together in Making Dystopia. He is convinced that something is terribly wrong with the way buildings look today.

Curl has dug deeply into the ideas and motivations behind the International Style, which is characterized by plain featureless or transparent walls, flat roofs, horizontal strip windows, the elimination of frames and borders, pilotis (stilts that look incapable of supporting a building’s weight), overhanging cantilevers, and a preference for gray concrete, smooth white, or shiny metal expanses, with any colors restricted to primary hues. The historical thread responsible for this style goes back to the 1920s and the German architecture school known as the Bauhaus. Between 1920 and 1970, architecture broke away from the remaining vestiges of traditional composition. Designers using the new style eschewed vertical alignment, axis symmetries, nested bilateral symmetries, scale symmetries, and material connections among tectonic components.

Curl does not view such changes as progress, but as an assault on the human senses. Elements of traditional architecture that the modernist movement eliminates arose from much deeper sources than artistic taste. They correspond to evolutionary factors that shaped human bodies for survival. This is evident from emotional responses to natural and traditional architectural forms. Recent scientific advances have also provided support for the notion that architectural environments influence wellbeing.

Why would architects in the 1920s turn their backs on vital mechanisms for connecting humans to the world, necessary to ensure long-term mental and physical health? It is certainly true that the neurological mechanisms for relating to our environment were unknown back then. Curl argues, in addition, that a small group of architects sought to achieve fame by promoting a novelty that turned out to be counterintuitive and dangerous. He devotes roughly the first 200 pages of his book to documenting how this agenda was implemented.

Curl also addresses topics such as the science of design, cults and substitute religions, and how totalitarian systems arise. The book starts as architectural history and becomes an indictment of a movement. The contemporary built environment, dictated primarily by style, lacks key geometrical features that human biology craves. Scientists, who should have been the first to notice this discrepancy, unwisely or naively left the shaping of our world in the hands of the architects.

A Foothold

The single undoubted success of the modernist movement was to spread through clever propaganda: first by co-opting the term “modern,” then by covering up a long string of practical failures. Buildings in the modernist canon weather poorly, and post-occupancy evaluations are largely negative. To promote such viscerally unattractive architecture, modernism’s supporters had to deprecate the neurological and physiological responses of its users.

In Making Dystopia, Curl describes how architectural culture justifies its predilections using the flimsiest of motives. Architecture is supposed to house people and human activities in a comfortable manner, but the Bauhaus overturned this principle in the interest of originality. A political motivation was also evident: rejecting traditional architectural adaptation meant turning against history, which coincided with the revolutionary agenda after World War I. The radical switch to the International Style for new constructions could never have been made without the support of powerful institutions and the media. A combination of global capital, government, and other institutional support guaranteed that the International Style became officially sanctioned. Architectural revolutionaries adopted the then-innovative techniques of mass advertising to propagate their iconoclastic style. As the media played the role of willing advocates rather than watchdogs and whistle-blowers, emerging problems with the new architecture were not publicized. Making Dystopia is full of historical tidbits expunged from the official record.

Education as Conditioning

Curl describes how the Bauhaus philosophy of architecture became a cult, ingrained in students through rituals, diets, assignments, and an exclusive sublanguage. The trio of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies came to be seen as the holy trinity of architecture. The Bauhaus offered young people a complete and simplistic worldview with every detail filled in, and a sacred cause that provided emotional and spiritual fulfillment. A massive mental manipulation began when other architecture schools adopted the Bauhaus design exercises, which simply indoctrinated students to uncritically accept what they were taught. In postwar architecture courses taught in schools throughout the world, students are still compelled to copy stereotypes of industrial modernism and its offshoots. Traditional buildings are presented as products of an irrelevant bygone era, with the strict injunction that they cannot be used as models for building today.

For decades, students wishing to learn design techniques that adapt to human biology have had to do it entirely on their own and covertly so. They have used out-of-print books on composition and patterns, searched the scientific literature, and found practitioners who transmit the oral history of more biologically adapted architecture. Mainstream architecture textbooks are useless for this purpose since they promote nonadaptive, image-centered design as the only style that architects may practice without risking becoming outcasts. Most of today’s traditional practitioners obtained their education in this way, outside the educational system.

Architectural educators are in a state of denial. A 2018 survey of British architecture students by the Architects’ Journal posed the question: “If you are intending to go into practice, has your architectural education provided you with the knowledge you need?” Thirty-five percent of the respondents said no, and 27% said they were unsure—sure signs that the system is headed toward irrelevance. Recent graduates have been conditioned, through the Bauhaus exercises, to think in abstract images, rather than work in the skills the profession requires. In the US, about 6,000 architecture graduates every year compete for 2,500 available jobs. Most are fit to do little other than produce image-centered designs. Despite claims that students are trained in scientific modernism, they are mostly ignorant of the scientific method.

The Architectural Power System

In his book, Curl describes the inexorable rise of a power movement. With curtain-wall construction, the weight of a building is carried on a central steel frame, and the glass walls are not structurally relevant. This offered a cheap way to build large buildings with maximum floor-space occupancy. The use of glass did incorporate one component of biophilia into the modernist design: it let in lots of light, which disinfects the air. Nevertheless, the negative effects of using glass—such as glare, poor thermal insulation, fragility, problems with sealants at the joints—were pointedly ignored. The use of plate glass was fueled by the glass industry’s publicity campaign, beginning with their commission of Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion, built in 1914. Once adopted by the building industry, whether private or state, the style became institutionalized. Today, massive and continuous building activity worldwide fails to generate truly biophilic structure. But to question the inhumanity of architecture stripped of all biological meaning is to question a booming trillion-dollar industry.

Not all architects are part of this massive worldwide movement. Nonetheless, dissenters from orthodoxy are typically denounced and evicted from the system. Usually this means exclusion from architecture prizes, important commissions, academic posts, and mentions in the literature. For many architects, dissension marks a cessation of their ability to work, as condemnation on stylistic grounds scares off prospective clients. The names of those who have fallen victim to the cult of industrial modernism are missing from architectural history. In his book, Curl has attempted to rehabilitate those excellent architects who were expunged from the canon. Several generations of practitioners innovated from within the tradition of adaptive design, and a great deal can be learned from those practitioners today.

Further proof of the system’s intolerance can be seen in the varying responses to the publication of Making Dystopia. Critics representing established architectural societies condemned the book out of hand, without even apparently reading it, let alone assessing the arguments offered by the author. Among several positive reviews, three are particularly noteworthy. Britain’s greatest living philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, heartily endorsed it. And Anthony Daniels, hailed as “the Orwell of our time,” wrote two glowing reviews, one under his nom de plume Theodore Dalrymple. The contrast between these reviews and those from architectural sources is striking.

Architectural Culture Threatens Scientific Culture

Through millennia of building activity, humans discovered forms, shapes, and spaces that positively affect health. These are expressed in traditional regional building canons. This evolution of architectural form was driven by adaptivity, not formalism. Towards the end of his book, Curl explains how science validates traditional, evolved solutions to buildings and cities. Recent results in biophilia, complexity, design patterns, fractals, and neuroscience establish a mathematically ordered conception of form. Astonishing parallels have been noticed between evolved connective patterns in traditional architecture and the basic geometrical building blocks of organisms.

When, in the early twentieth century, accumulated knowledge was jettisoned in favor of new and untested building typologies, evidence-based design was dismissed. The observation of C. P. Snow on the separation of “the two cultures” is relevant here. The sciences and the humanities have never welcomed reconciliation. One casualty in the rift is architecture, which is left on an uncertain epistemological foundation. The biologist E. O. Wilson attempted to bridge the gap between the two cultures with his notion of consilience. My own work argues that a wholesale revision is necessary to bring architectural culture more in line with other evidence-based disciplines.

To justify anxiety-inducing typologies of architecture, its supporters have had to use unscientific modes of explanation: something other than human sensory responses and principles of mathematical coherence. Explanations were pulled together from revolutionary political ideology, cultish dogma, and a garbled misuse of scientific vocabulary, particularly from the approach of deconstruction. The result has not convinced everyone. Most people in modern times still prefer to inhabit traditional buildings. Among today’s major global industries is mass tourism to locations with historic architecture. Still the economy continues to run by erecting predominately industrial-modernist structures.

Letters to the Editors

  • Building Bad

    by James Stevens Curl, reply by Nikos Salingaros

  1. James Stevens Curl and Susan Wilson, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 
  2. Nikos Salingaros, Biophilia and Healing Environments (Amherst, MA: OfftheCommonBooks, 2015). Nikos Salingaros, A Theory of Architecture (Portland: Sustasis Press, 2006; Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Books, 2014). 
  3. James Stevens Curl, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 332. Michael Bond, “The Hidden Ways that Architecture Affects How You Feel,” BBC Future, June 6, 2017. 
  4. Curl, Making Dystopia, 238. 
  5. Nikos Salingaros, Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction: The Triumph of Nihilism, 4th ed. (Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Books, 2016). 
  6. Curl, Making Dystopia, 248–83. 
  7. Curl, Making Dystopia, 94–95, 100, 311, 364. 
  8. I have said as much also in Nikos Salingaros, “What Architectural Education Does to Would-Be Architects,” Common Edge, June 8, 2017. 
  9. Miguel Córdova Ramírez, “Is Architecture What They’re Really Teaching Us?Metropolis, 26 July 2017. 
  10. Curl, Making Dystopia, 356, 364–79. 
  11. Ella Jessel, “Student Survey: Only the Rich Need Apply to Study Architecture,” Architects’ Journal 245, no. 14 (July 25, 2018). 
  12. Salingaros, “What Architectural Education Does to Would-Be Architects.” 
  13. Duo Dickinson, “The Kids Are Alright: How the Great Recession Shaped This Generation’s Entry into Architecture,” Common Edge, November 6, 2018. 
  14. Evidence suggests that ultraviolet rays have disinfectant qualities. Lloyd Alter, “New Study Confirms that Modernists Were Right about Sunlight – It is the Best Disinfectant,” TreeHugger, October 25, 2018. Salingaros, Biophilia and Healing Environments
  15. Curl, Making Dystopia, 372. 
  16. Curl, Making Dystopia, 40. 
  17. Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson, “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture,” Current Affairs, October 31, 2017. 
  18. Curl, Making Dystopia, 226–39. 
  19. Sir Roger Scruton, “Book Review: Making Dystopia – The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, by James Stevens Curl,” New Design Ideas 2, no. 2 (2018): 133–35. 
  20. Denis Dutton, quoted in “Why Theodore Dalrymple Is for All,” The Skeptical Doctor (2019). 
  21. Anthony Daniels, “Authoritarianism in Cement and Steel,” Quadrant, November 4, 2018. Theodore Dalrymple, “Architectural Dystopia: A Book Review,” New English Review, October 1, 2018. 
  22. Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). Nikos Salingaros, “Pattern Language,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory¸ ed. Bryan Turner et al. (2017), doi:10.1002/9781118430873.est0504. 
  23. Curl, Making Dystopia, 331–32. 
  24. Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, 4 vols. (Berkeley: Center for Environmental Structure, 2001–2004). An overview of the series can be found here. Nikos Salingaros, Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity. A Companion to Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life — The Nature of Order, Book I (Portland: Sustasis Foundation, 2013). Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros, Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science, and the Human Future (Portland: Sustasis Foundation, 2014). 
  25. Stuart Newman and Ramray Bhat, “Dynamical Patterning Modules: A ‘Pattern Language’ for Development and Evolution of Multicellular Form,” International Journal of Developmental Biology 53, nos. 5–6 (2009): 693–705. 
  26. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures (London: Cambridge University Press, 2001 [1959]). 
  27. E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books, 1998). 
  28. Salingaros, Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. Salingaros, Theory of Architecture
  29. Salingaros, Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (New York: Picador, 1998). 
  30. Audun Engh, “What is Driving the Domination of Modernist Ideology in Architecture?Journal of Urbanism 2, no. 3 (2009): 191. 

Published on December 12, 2019 in Volume 5, Issue 1.

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