proposals for the World Trade Center site unveiled last month by some of the
world's leading architects reveal a curious state of affairs -- the architecture
profession's avant-garde is hopelessly mired in a failed past.
This is not the creative past that New York Times architecture critic Herbert
Muschamp contemptuously dismisses as "ye olde towne planning"--the
past in which New York's complex urban fabric grew over time to define one of
the earth's magnificent cities. This is instead a past of failed ideas and logical
fallacies, of misapplied science and outmoded early 20th-century technology.
Almost all of the new proposals for the World Trade Center reconstruction
come out of the currently fashionable design movement known as "Deconstruction".
As implied by its name, the Decon style breaks forms apart into jagged, unbalanced
fragments. The stated intention is to create a new architecture that is bold
and innovative, exciting and provocative.
But public reaction -- as distinct from what Decon architects and some architectural
critics say -- has been mostly to regard the products as frightening. The public
wonders why architects are consistently designing such ugly buildings. Are non-architects
perhaps too ignorant and unsophisticated to recognize the empire's newest finery?
Trendy architects are perversely going against the rules for putting matter
together. Rules for structural coherence are built into the human animal, in
an adaptive process that is essential for survival on this earth. Violating
these rules triggers anxiety in our minds and stress in our bodies -- hence
the cries of outrage against the latest architectural conceptions. Nevertheless,
our latest scientific insights are intentionally reversed for the sake of novelty
A look at many leading architecture schools confirms the pattern. Students
are trained to ignore their intuitive feelings, and to instead pursue the latest
fashionable form of technological novelty -- blobitecture, crinkled napkins;
whatever. As their grades depend on grasping the magnificence of the Emperor's
clothes, they quickly catch on.
After such desensitization training, architects simply pursue design novelty
into unexplored territory without recognizing the inherent dangers. Followers
of the Decon school lack the scientific background to comprehend that their
audacious, thrilling designs are literally toxic -- that they can cause enormous
damage to the urban fabric and the quality of human life.
In the end, these are not just playful sculptures. For better or worse, these
structures will powerfully shape everyday human life for generations to come.
The complexity of the universe.
Deconstructivism makes broad political and scientific claims, originating
in the trendy "Post-Structuralist" French philosophers that include
Foucault and Derrida, among others. They, and their Decon adherents in the design
world, begin with a great truth -- that the universe is a complex, intricate
structure. But they go on to make one of the great fallacious conclusions of
Western history -- that the universe is nothing more than a collection of parts.
Therefore, disassembly, or Deconstruction, of complex wholes such as buildings,
cities, institutions, ideas, and traditions is essential to solving today's
Almost any scientist will tell you that this premise is the sheerest nonsense.
If science has revealed anything in the last 100 years, it is the coherent character
of the universe, in which wholes are greater than the sum of their parts. Physical,
chemical, biological, and ecological systems cannot possibly be understood as
mere collections of fragments -- indeed, no system can. Interactive field effects
are just as important as constituents.
Life can only be envisioned through a sequence of patterns defining coherent
entities on larger and larger scales. Life emerges out of minute adaptive processes,
each responding cumulatively to all the others before it. This process of generating
complex wholes is repeated from the scale of atoms, to that of the organism
and beyond, to societies of people and their creations.
Applied to cities, the point is that urban zones are not mechanical collections
of abstract forms. They are living contextual fabrics that evolve over time.
This fundamental scientific understanding of reality is absent from Decon philosophy.
The allegedly most "modern" design movement of 2000 is rooted more
in the scientific world view of 1900 than in that of its own day.
But how can this be when, according to its promoters, Deconstructivism aspires
to embrace "complexity" and "new science"? Alas, the Decons
embrace not the genuine process, but only a misleading frozen image of it --
and worse than that, one that gets all the important details totally wrong.
In place of complex adaptation, the Decons continue to impose the 1920's "machine
aesthetic" from the Bauhaus -- but now twisted and morphed at a grotesque
scale. In place of fractal complexity, they impose massive jumbles of elementary
This is absurd. It is also destructive of the urban fabric of human life. Apologists
for this deception, strongly supported by the media and by our most powerful
institutions, urge us to erect monstrous totems to such ignorance. These unfortunate
symbols only advertise a gullible nation, driven by images and mindless fashions,
and one that has turned against the genuine scientific knowledge that made it
The damage to the urban fabric is far worse. In place of the slowly adaptive
richness of the human city, the Decons impose only another modernist geometrical
fundamentalism -- a new metallic confection to replace the failed geometrical
fundamentalism of the fallen towers.
Nihilism as political ideology.
But no matter -- there is nothing less than a political ideology at stake
here. For the Decon philosophers and their followers, all meaning is merely
"socially constructed", i.e. a matter of opinion. Thus, any view of
the world is as valid as any other, and only the privileged opinion of "elites"
-- in particular, the discoveries of scientists -- is to be rejected. Any consistent
attempt to commemorate a particular meaning -- including anything with the slightest
whiff of "tradition" or "history" -- must be rejected as
an imposition by "reactionary" bourgeois forces.
The Decons contradict the progressive, historically cumulative nature of science.
(For a remarkable exposé of this absurdity, see the book Fashionable
Nonsense, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. It describes a spoof paper consisting
of jargon-filled gibberish, which was eagerly published by a fashionable Post-Structuralist
This is the illogical, self-serving belief at the core of the Decons' power
grab, which is disguised as "liberation". For what are the Decons
themselves, if not self-appointed "elites"? Are they not worried about
the hypocrisy of rejecting the valuations at the heart of science, while at
the same time loudly claiming to embrace the latest scientific advances?
This clever political trick could have profound consequences for the shaping
of our cities in the 21st century, as vividly illustrated in the latest WTC
proposals. For in the Decons' future, the enduring values of tradition, historical
continuity, and commemoration of American democratic ideals -- all the things
one would hope a post-9/11 monument should embody -- are mere social constructions,
to be eschewed and even attacked. According to the Decons, monuments to 9/11
must only celebrate nihilism, despair, and the futility of existence.
After the Decons: an architecture of "Reconstruction"?
This project may indeed be "ground zero" for a self-pitying movement,
built on an antiquated scientific world view, and a modern philosophical fallacy.
After the momentary fascination with the Decons has passed, we will be left
to pick up the pieces and try again to erect a built environment worthy of our
humanity. Far from justifying despair, the new science gives us fertile materials
with which to reconstruct, and great optimism about what is possible in our
Strong evidence suggests that a genuine, "new" architecture is imminent
-- call it "Reconstructivism" -- supported by the new sciences, and
energized by a profound understanding of complexity, life, and wholeness. This
philosophical movement, together with its practical applications to reconstruct
our severely damaged world, represents the opposite of the Decons' nihilism.
It will reflect the past, but not slavishly copy it. It will be as modern and
as timeless as any new species in nature, evolved from and reflecting its environment
and its history.
Before our society can adopt this creative goal, however, the thinking public
must learn to dismiss ignorant architectural commentators who brand everything
containing life as "reactionary". Just as all living forms have fundamental
structural similarities, so every living architectural form must have a commonality
with -- though not necessarily copy -- the great architectural achievements
of the past. Like blinders on a mule, the Decons have prevented a whole generation
from seeing the basic qualities of living structure.
With the new enlightenment, honest buildings -- connecting to human legacy
and history -- can again be proudly commissioned around the world.
Meanwhile, in the mass hysteria to be "contemporary", the metropolis
must see that it is in danger of betraying both its past and its future.
Nikos Salingaros is
a professor of mathematics at The University of Texas at San Antonio, and recipient
of a Sloan Foundation grant to study the scientific laws of architecture. Michael
Mehaffy is a practicing urban designer and theorist in Portland, Oregon.
Both are associate editors of Katarxis 3 (www.katarxis.com),
an international journal exploring new science and new architecture.