[Paleopsych] TCS: Science, Pseudo-Science, and Architecture

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Apr 18 17:33:39 UTC 2005

Science, Pseudo-Science, and Architecture

    By Catesby Leigh  Published   04/14/2005

    A few years back, I wrote a critical survey of Princeton University's
    architecture for the school's alumni magazine. The article argued that
    the buildings that had gone up on the campus since the 1950's -- the
    modernist buildings -- were for the birds. It pointed to the campus's
    much-loved Collegiate Gothic architecture as an eminently appropriate
    model for future construction. The response to the article was pretty
    much what you'd expect. First there were the normal people -- students
    and alumni alike -- who tended to be quite supportive of my critique.
    Then there were the architects.

    In a letter to the alumni magazine's editor, a 50's-vintage
    architecture grad who had been editor-in-chief of the Architectural
    Record weighed in with this observation: "I would suggest to the
    author that he go find a laptop computer with gargoyles, a microwave
    oven in the shape of an ogee arch, or a multiplex cinema held in place
    by flying buttresses." This gentleman has my deepest sympathy. He's
    spent his professional life thinking about architecture, and he's
    reached the conclusion a building should be designed according to the
    same criteria as your kitchen toaster.

    This fallacy boils down to "form follows function." We don't hear that
    hoary aphorism much nowadays, but it is one of the founding dogmas of
    modernist architecture. Though it was first enunciated in the 19^th
    century by romantics like the sculptor-writer Horatio Greenough (a
    friend of Emerson's) and the gifted Art Nouveau architect Louis
    Sullivan, its roots are in natural science -- specifically, the
    fitness of the skeletal structures of animal organisms to the
    functions they perform. The organic analogy assumed an ideological
    twist, courtesy of Darwin: Just as organisms evolve, so should
    architecture. And from the git-go it dovetailed with a rationalist
    doctrine, itself grounded in scientific progress if not science:
    Buildings should be designed with the same functionalist efficiency as

    There was supposed to be a social justification for such ruthless
    efficiency. The idea was that industrialized, mass-produced housing
    could shelter all those wretched proletarians consigned to
    rat-infested tenements. "I consider the industrialization of building
    methods the key problem of the day," Mies van der Rohe famously
    proclaimed in 1924. "Once we succeed in this, our social, economic,
    technical, and even artistic problems will be easy to solveI am
    convinced that traditional methods of construction will disappear. In
    case anyone regrets that the home of the future can no longer be made
    by hand workers, he should remember that the automobile is no longer
    manufactured by carriage makers."

    The Princetonian who suggested I find a laptop with gargoyles was
    basically barking up the same tree. One thing, however, had changed
    over the 75 years since Mies's pronunciamento. The social
    justification for the industrialization of architecture had
    evaporated. Indeed, to modernists of a Nietzchean bent like the late
    Philip Johnson, altruism was never part of the package. And come to
    think of it I can't recall any public housing projects Mies designed
    after emigrating from Nazi Germany to our shores in the late 30's. In
    fact, the project for which he's best known, the Seagram Building on
    Park Avenue in Manhattan (designed in association with Johnson), was
    anything but a product of the assembly line. With its lobby decked out
    in travertine and its façades given much-needed if altogether
    decorative and un-functional texture in the form of slender vertical
    I-beams of bronze, this building required tons of custom fabrication
    and was extremely expensive.

    Nevertheless, erection of public housing projects across the country
    after passage of the United States Housing Act of 1949 put modernist
    social ideals to the test. The "projects" turned out to be a dreadful
    welfare-state variant of the Skinner box. They made Skid Row, which
    the "urban renewers" aspired to eradicate, look like the

    Meanwhile, Mies's vision of factory-made Bauhausian residences for the
    masses failed to materialize. The vast majority of American homes are
    still stick-built at the construction site, as has been the case since
    the 19^th century. The typical new suburban home fulfills the
    practical necessities of modern life admirably and often offers plenty
    of creature comforts to boot, but in terms of design it tends to be a
    low-grade knock-off of one traditional style or other. (We'll return
    to this issue.) The same applies even to modular houses whose
    components are shipped to the building site from the factory.

    What's more, "form follows function" proved a profoundly dysfunctional
    artistic precept. After all, a boxy steel frame provides all the
    "fitness" an office building is likely to require. Tack on an exterior
    panelized cladding, or "curtain wall," that makes no pretense to
    load-bearing function, let alone any gesture in the way of beauty and
    dignity, and, strictly speaking, you've filled the bill. This is
    precisely the kind of structure that proliferated in countless
    downtowns and suburban office parks after World War II, resulting in
    an epidemic of visual sterility unprecedented in the annals of

    The Rejection of Tradition

    Why did this happen? Again, modern science's intrusion into a realm
    where it tends to sow confusion lies at the heart of the matter. Given
    the wonders science has performed, the intrusion was perhaps
    inevitable, but it's high time we took stock of the consequences.

    Some pundits would argue that a big reason the modernist pioneers
    rejected the Western tradition in architecture is that it was
    obsolete. (By the Western tradition I mean the classical forms of
    ancient Greece and Rome that have been continuously employed since the
    Renaissance, as well as classicism's various tributaries, including
    the Romanesque, the Gothic, and the baroque; these tributaries also
    include the many regional "vernaculars," such as the Spanish styles
    employed in Florida and the American Southwest.) Well, next time
    you're in Manhattan, take a look at Whitney Warren's majestic Grand
    Central Terminal, or the brilliant and inventive original façade of
    the Metropolitan Museum by Richard Morris Hunt, or the Woolworth and
    Municipal Buildings designed by Cass Gilbert and McKim Mead & White,
    respectively. You're not likely to take these buildings for symptoms
    of obsolescence. Indeed, the Municipal and Woolworth are noteworthy
    for their brilliant integration of traditional architectural forms
    with the steel-frame construction technology that, along with the
    elevator's advent, made the skyscraper possible. Traditional
    architects continued to produce first-rate institutional buildings
    right into the 30's.

    No, the grounds for the rejection of tradition lay outside the realm
    of design. Science was thought to have re-created man, and this new
    man was entitled to a new architecture. For the likes of Le Corbusier,
    Gropius, and Mies, the frontiers of human knowledge had so vastly
    expanded and the prospects for humanity's material existence so vastly
    improved as to dispel any notion of a fundamental continuity in the
    human condition. In the early decades of the 20^th century, a European
    coterie of Nietszchean Übermenschen thus went about the business of
    ushering in a brave new architectural world whose foundations were
    sunk in the same sort of theoretical quicksand as "scientific
    socialism." In the "new world order of the machine," as Gropius called
    it, the classical Orders (i.e., Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns
    and the entablatures they support) were history, period. But from the
    ruins of the great tradition no new set of acceptable architectural
    conventions has emerged. Certainly "form follows function" didn't get
    us there. Not surprisingly, plenty of new recipes have followed in its

    The history of modernist architecture is thus like a highway whose
    exits are abstract theories about what contemporary architecture
    should be. Instead of a home for architecture such as it knew when
    tradition ruled, each exit leads to a dead end. So the architect gets
    back on the highway to nowhere and heads for the next exit, and the
    next dead end. The result has been an extreme stylistic instability
    involving recurring discoveries of new modes of artistic dysfunction.
    You can't make a city more beautiful on these terms.

    Consider the case of Philip Johnson. He was an A-list architect, which
    is not to say he was a particularly gifted one. After his death at age
    98 last January, his obituary in a German newspaper was appropriately
    headlined, "The Chameleon." His first celebrated work, dating to 1949,
    was a Miesian glass box -- his own residence in New Canaan,
    Connecticut. After tiring of such boxes, he moved onto pavilion-like
    institutional buildings fronted by rudimentary porticos or arcades
    that are astonishingly banal -- e.g., The New York State Theater at
    Manhattan's Lincoln Center and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.
    Then came enormous office buildings whose stark geometries were
    supposedly justified by their unboxiness. Then came the famous
    ersatz-classical Manhattan skyscraper with its crowning Chippendale
    flourish and a glassy, glitzy ersatz-Gothic office tower in
    Pittsburgh. Later he would dabble in disjointed deconstructionist
    follies. For Johnson, there was no destination. His way was the
    highway. The game was simply to get to the next exit before the herd.

    Johnson wasn't driven by scientific concepts, it's true. He was
    largely concerned with the use (or abuse) of "historical" elements
    reduced to crude abstractions, or, depending on the way the wind was
    blowing, their complete abandonment. And yet scientific or
    technological "paradigm shifts" akin to the "new world order of the
    machine" continue to be adduced as justification for new fads. During
    the 90's, the critic Charles Jencks hailed a new architecture he saw
    emerging in tandem with a new understanding of the universe capable of
    rescuing us from our cultural confusion. This was the "jumping
    universe" of complexity science, of quantum mechanics and chaos theory
    -- a universe not static or mechanistic nor, least of all, created but
    rather "self-organizing," unpredictable, creative, and still-evolving.
    The computer would serve the architecture reflecting this new paradigm
    as a sort of womb, giving birth to new architectural forms that would
    somehow embody aspects of the ongoing "cosmogenesis." Hence the waves,
    blobs, torques, and fractals preferred by our current crop of
    "starchitects." (Whatever the computer's conceptual role,
    computer-aided design and digitally-programmed machinery do in fact
    make the starchitects' crazy geometries possible.)

    But any number of alternative critical ruminations on the nature of
    post-industrial "modernity" have been marshaled in justification of
    the starchitects' endeavors. Moreover, the weird structural
    eructations produced by the likes of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhass, Thom
    Mayne, and Steven Holl (whose new dormitory at M.I.T. was inspired by
    a sponge) cannot serve as the basis of a generalized approach to
    design. They are both very expensive to build and explicitly
    "exceptionalist," a sort of viral reaction to the dismal mainstream
    architectural culture "form follows function" generated. The
    starchitects thus acknowledge that modernism failed in its crucial
    mission of providing a new architectural canon that would make man at
    home in his brave new world.

    Needless to say, we haven't reached the end of the highway to nowhere.
    More exits lie ahead. But by now, it should be clear that apart from
    the baleful influence of science, and to a degree because of it,
    modernism has been completely hamstrung by its realism. Structural
    realism lies at the heart of "form follows function." But more to the
    point, modernists believe architecture's formal vocabulary, not just
    the practical purposes it serves, must be determined by its immediate
    cultural context, whether that context be global, national, or
    regional. That context, in turn, entails some combination or other of
    the reigning cosmology, religion (or lack thereof), political
    ideology, and technological and ecological conditions. This is
    cultural realism. But of course divining the significance of the age
    is a completely subjective business. The same goes for divining the
    way architecture should reflect it. The "authenticity" cultural
    realism extols, therefore, inevitably lies inside the architect's (or
    the critic's) head. Far from serving as an objective basis for
    architectural design, it serves as a codeword for inflicting the
    rarified, ephemeral sensibilities of a tiny elite on the public realm.

    The Great Tradition

    In contrast, the great tradition has never relied on the crutch of
    theory. And it is generally indifferent to realism. It is, rather,
    unabashedly idealistic, and firmly grounded in human instinct as well
    as an enormous amount of empirical experience with building acquired
    over the course of millennia. Nor do classicism and its offshoots
    conjugate as a "scientific" approach to design.

    Indeed, far from being an extension of science or politics or some
    gospel of progress or other, classical architecture forms part of the
    emotional life that is, as the philosophers say, prior to our
    intellectual life. In that sense, it is like music. Its development
    has of course been influenced by particular historical circumstances,
    but its essential qualities and normative achievements utterly
    transcend them. That is because classical architecture is, first and
    foremost, profoundly engaged with our embodied state. It is an
    expression of man's instinct to compensate for his mortality by
    projecting his body into abstract, monumental form. We tend to read
    architecture in terms of our bodies, whether we're conscious of it or
    not. But classical architecture is uniquely anthropomorphic. Its
    proportions, its masses, spaces, and abstract lines, its sculptural
    decoration and ornamental motifs -- all are symphonically, dynamically
    calibrated to human perceptions and, as the English critic Geoffrey
    Scott emphasized nearly a century ago, to our unconscious physical
    memories of bearing weight (think of the columns supporting a
    pediment), of rhythmic movement, of serene repose.

    The Greeks and the Romans possessed a profound knowledge of human
    perception. You can call it scientific knowledge if you like, but that
    knowledge was wholly subordinated to esthetic aims. In the rotunda of
    the Pantheon, erected in Rome in the second century A.D., the
    architects brilliantly manipulated our perceptions to make the
    building's great dome seem to float above a dematerialized wall-mass
    of colored marbles. The dome imparts a subtle bodily thrill, because
    it seemingly expands even as our lungs expand when we breathe. And yet
    this is a disembodied architecture -- in direct contrast to the
    vividly embodied architecture of the colonnaded Greek temples.

    The Romans also displayed a phenomenal mastery of statics. Having
    developed the technology of concrete vaulting, they made the Pantheon
    dome span an open space no less than 142 feet in diameter, while the
    walls that supported it were ingeniously engineered to accommodate the
    tremendous compressive forces and lateral stresses the dome generates.
    But to pigeonhole this great structure as an engineering tour de force
    would be to miss the point. The Pantheon humanizes the universe,
    recreating it as a harmonious enveloping cosmos. The gilt rosettes
    that once studded its coffered dome evoked the firmament. Above all,
    however, the building engages our senses by elevating them to a
    musical, even spiritual level.

    You can enjoy a similar experience in the rotunda of the United States
    Capitol in Washington, where the dome spans a mere 95 feet, but feels
    quite enormous nonetheless. No less than the Pantheon's revolutionary
    structure, the Capitol dome, which was completed during the Civil War,
    bears witness to classicism's enduring receptivity to new technologies
    that can be harnessed to the cause of a humanist architecture. This
    dome, whose exterior is painted to resemble marble, actually consists
    of two cast-iron shells fastened to an elaborate, invisible armature
    of iron trusswork.

    Classical architecture, then, makes man at home in the world by
    humanizing the world in a mythic way. It makes man central to the
    universe, which is of course what philosophers have been telling us he
    isn't ever since we found out the Earth revolves around the Sun. And
    yet we know of no other intersection between the material world and
    the realm of the spirit than man. We know of no other organic being of
    man's cosmic significance. For this reason, and because there is
    precious little evidence of an acceptable artistic alternative, there
    is simply no reason to suppress the humanist architectural tradition
    embracing classicism and the historic styles that derive from it.

    Because modernists tend to know little or nothing of traditional
    design, and at the same time feel threatened by its enduring appeal,
    they often caricature it as a simple matter of "copying" or
    "mimicking" old buildings. The truth is that traditional architectural
    idioms are characterized by an organic complexity akin to that of the
    human body itself. Designing in the classical or Gothic manner takes a
    great deal of skill. You couldn't copy even if you wanted to, because
    the sites and programs of different buildings are rarely identical.
    And yet the architect can always emulate -- that is, strive to make a
    building worthy of comparison to one whose beauty has inspired him.
    But emulation is a challenge. Because traditional design revolves
    around enduring, objective forms and conventions, it provides the
    norms by which success or failure can be reliably measured. A
    classical architect can't mask his incompetence by indulging in
    novelty for its own sake, as modernists too often do. His inventions
    must have a sound esthetic justification.

    Of course, there are good modernist buildings -- that is, there have
    been modernist designers gifted enough to produce admirable work
    despite the questionable theories to which they subscribed. I would
    rank Louis I. Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright among them. The problem is
    not that all modernist architecture is bad. The problem is that so
    little of it is good.

    But the classical threat to the ongoing modernist hegemony in
    institutional architecture goes deeper than esthetics. For modernism
    is itself based on a mythology, or a series of mythologies that have
    as their common denominator the notion that man is the malleable
    byproduct of his historical circumstances. Classicism rejects these
    mythologies. The great tradition's secular persistence is predicated
    precisely on the assumption that what is constant in human nature is
    of far greater import than what is not. Modernists are deeply aware of
    this ideological clash, and it fuels their visceral hostility to
    classicism. Tradition threatens the starchitect's "world," with the
    autonomous self -- the godlike creative "genius" -- at the center of
    an eminently subjective universe in which it is beholden to no higher
    reality than the self. No doubt plenty of classical architects are
    peacocks, but tradition has a way of getting their egos on a leash
    where artistic endeavors are concerned.

    'New American World'

    Between May and October 1893, over 27 million people converged on the
    World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where they beheld the Court
    of Honor, a magnificent architectural ensemble fronting on a great
    Basin that opened onto Lake Michigan. Buildings and esplanades alike
    were generously enriched with sculpture -- everything from gods to
    elks. At one end of the Basin stood Daniel Chester French's towering
    female figure, Republic, at the other Frederick MacMonnies' Columbian
    Fountain, with a goddess serving as helmsman of a tremendous barque.

    Nowadays, even some of our classical architects can't quite fathom the
    "White City," as the exposition was known. Its grandeur was "over the
    top," they say. One wonders whether they might be missing something
    upon encountering the Midwestern writer Hamlin Garland's recollection
    of how "the wonder and the beauty of it all moved these dwellers of
    the level lands to tears of joy which was almost as poignant as
    painStunned by the majesty of the vision, my mother sat in her chair,
    visioning it all yet comprehending little of its meaning. Her life had
    been spent among homely small things, and these gorgeous scenes
    dazzled her, overwhelmed her, letting in upon her in one mighty flood
    a thousand stupefying suggestions of the art and history and poetry of
    the world."

    Sitting on the steps of Hunt's superb Administration Building,
    situated at the head of the Basin, the patrician intellectual Henry
    Adams also beheld the "inconceivable scenic display," as he called it
    in The Education of Henry Adams (1918). The dogma of historical
    progress had been turned on its head. "Here," he wrote, "was a breach
    in continuity -- a rupture in historical sequence!" The public's
    enthusiasm for the White City afforded even the constitutionally
    pessimistic Adams the hope that "the new American world could take
    this sharp and conscious twist towards ideals." The Exposition's sound
    channeling of human endeavor -- the promotion of material progress in
    exhibits ranging from ocean steamers to explosives combined with
    emulation of the great artistic achievements of the past -- led Adams
    to conclude: "Chicago was the first expression of American thought as
    a unity. One must start there."

    In the event, the White City exerted considerable influence on the
    architectural practice of the following decades, encouraging a
    classically-oriented eclecticism that unquestionably accounts for the
    vast majority of the high-quality architecture in the United States --
    its best courthouses, churches and synagogues, college campuses,
    office buildings, banks, libraries, and schools. In this "new American
    world," architecture would idealize the various realms of human
    endeavor -- governing, worshiping, dwelling, studying, commerce --
    allowing the public realm to form a poetic backdrop to our ephemeral

    Inevitably, many traditional architects simply banked on the sheer
    visual pleasure afforded by their work in staking their claim on the
    public realm. Yet a significant number of them responded to the
    modernist claim on the future by reinterpreting traditional
    architectural and ornamental forms in a more abstract manner, by
    emphasizing "stripped," unornamented surface planes, and by
    integrating sculptural decoration with the masses of their
    institutional buildings in a primitive, expressionistic manner.
    Rhetorically, however, the traditionalist camp was tongue-tied in the
    face of a polemic like Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (1923),
    written with the pungency of a political manifesto. Vacuous Corbusian
    slogans like "The house is a machine for living" and "The [historic]
    'styles' are a lie" thus ruled by default. The material evidence that
    would proclaim their absurdity was still lacking. And once the country
    was in the throes of the Depression and the New Deal, the
    wheel-reinventers resolved with religious fervor that this was the
    great cataclysm from which the new, socially-responsible,
    machine-efficient architecture -- an architecture which summarily
    rejected the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years -- must emerge.
    As we've seen, they succeeded only too well in their crusade.

    By the time the magnitude of the calamity became evident, the
    traditionalist ranks had been decimated: not just architects, but an
    entire architectural culture that had included sculptors, mural
    painters, ornamental plasterworkers, fabricators of wrought iron and
    ornamental tile and terra cotta, as well as stone and woodcarvers. And
    of course there was no cultural establishment to revive the rule of
    common sense. The architecture schools were all modernist. The
    architecture critics in the establishment press were all modernist.
    And the corporate boardrooms -- where the curtain-walled, steel-framed
    box was much appreciated for facilitating the cost-efficient
    exploitation of every last square centimeter of available space on a
    given lot -- had largely been won over.

    The destruction of this traditional architectural culture, which was
    of course informed by high-end practice, was bad news for the
    mainstream building trades, too. A rudderless homebuilding industry
    would convert the average American home from an artifact into a
    commodity. Instead of Bauhaus residences in the suburbs, we got
    ersatz-traditional schlock. The same goes for "traditional" commercial
    buildings in city and suburb alike -- starting with all those
    misbegotten brick banks with the ridiculous porticos.

    But things are changing.

    In recent years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has
    torn down high-rise projects across the country, replacing them with
    pedestrian-scale, traditionally-designed rowhouse developments under
    its Hope VI program. Historic preservation -- the public's only weapon
    against our institutionalized "avant-garde" -- has encouraged practice
    of the traditional decorative arts and crafts (admittedly on a vastly
    reduced scale), as has a resurgence of classical architectural
    practice that got underway during the 70's. The Institute of Classical
    Architecture and Classical America, based in New York City, is
    educating mainstream-market home designers (who are not architects) in
    classical rules of proportion and detail. And the New Urbanism has
    generated a counterculture of pedestrian-scale, mixed-use community
    design that generally involves traditional architecture. It also
    inspired Hope VI, whose future, alas, is uncertain because the Bush
    Administration intends to zero it out of the 2006 budget.

    As for Princeton, I wrote my critique firmly convinced that, apart
    from the intrinsic interest of the subject matter and the paycheck, it
    was a complete waste of time. Well, what do you know. It so happened
    that the trustees' buildings and grounds committee was headed at that
    time by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a New Urbanist pioneer. Thanks to her
    skillful leadership, the university is erecting a new Collegiate
    Gothic residential college for 500 students designed by the
    London-based classical architect Demetri Porphyrios. It's also
    erecting a new science library by Gehry which features the familiar
    disjointed metallic folds.

    I guess the good news is that neither of these buildings is designed
    like a kitchen toaster, or even a multiplex theater. But which of them
    will stand the test of time -- and I mean centuries, not just a few
    years? Which of these two projects reflects a sounder notion of
    building value into architecture? On the issue of quality of
    construction and durability, Gehry might be a risky bet. Last fall,
    the Boston Globe called his leaky new computer science building at
    M.I.T. "the $300 million fixer-upper."

    As for esthetic value, I would bet on the architect whose project
    reflects enduring human values in architecture. And I don't mean the

More information about the paleopsych mailing list