Deconstructing The Decons: The World Trade Center Project Spotlights The Empire's Newest Clothes

Last month's World Trade Center reconstruction proposals reveal that the architecture profession's avant-garde is hopelessly mired in a failed past.

Nikos SalingarosMichael MehaffyThe 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.

Deconstructing Manhattan?

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?

Not really.

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 and spectacle.

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 problems.

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 crystalline forms.

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 great.

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 journal.)

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?

Apparently not.

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 technological age.

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 (, an international journal exploring new science and new architecture.



modern isn't always Modern


Just becuase something was built recently doesn't mean it is Modernist. Of the examples that you cited that I am most familiar with--namely SF's Embarcadero Promanade and Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park--I wouldn't classify them as Modernist urbanism at all. Modernist urbanism is anti-street, and focuses on superblocks, single-use megaprojects, and high-speed roadways. That doesn't describe these places.

You might be surprised to hear it, but there is actually quite a bit of new traditional urbanism being built these days. It is very modern stuff, but it is not Modern at all.

Anyway, we just plain aren't going to agree on this one. It's okay, it happens all of the time.

bad modernists bad bad

Gee Dan perhaps you should try some anger management and get out more. Just of the top of my head, here are some fine examples of modernist urbanism:

San Francisco-Emabarcadero Promenade, Levi Strauss Plaza, Yerba Buena Gardens.

Barcelona-Barcelona Waterfront and the number of fine parks completed for the Olympics.

Paris-Parc la Vilette and Parc Citrohan.

London-parts of the Docklands are awful good fun.

Seattle-Freeway Park

Portland-Tom McCall Waterfront Park and Lawrence Halprin's wonderful fountains.

I like these better. So shoot me.

Why wasn't something like this considered, too? This seems like a much more sensitive approach.


Thanks for proving my point vpd. I don't like what I see, and I am ridiculed. I have looked at these idiotic plans inside and out, and I don't like them. I might not know what the heck Derrida or Nietzsch or nihilism is, but I do know that these proposals are terrible. Just because I don't have all of the abstract jargon at my disposal, don't accuse me of not having studied these plans.

FACT: I find these buildings to be ugly (don't try to tell me what I feel, vpd)

FACT: The urbanism of the plans, ugly architecture aside, is Modernist, not traditional.

FACT: The world's most beloved and successful neighborhoods and cities are based on traditional urbanism, not Modernist urbanism.

While Modernist architecture might have produced a few rare gems, like the Seagram building or the Transamerica Pyramid, Modernist urbanism has not. Brasilia? Cabrini-Green? I think the failure of modern urbanism to create enjoyable and functional human environments is pretty darn apparent. People flock to Venice, Paris, Vienna, London, San Francisco, New York, and other places with good traditional urbanism still in place. They avoid modernist places. Even when they do flock to a Modernist building, such as Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao (which I will never understand) it is often in a setting of traditional urbanism.

By leaving open pits exposing the "bathtub"; creating elevated plazas suspended over streets; interjecting oozing "open spaces" between the buildings and the street; refusing to completely reinsert the old street grid; and by using other gimmicky tricks of this nature, these designers prove that either a) they have no intention of creating a great place, or b) they have no idea of how to do it. Either way, they shouldn't be allowed to design the most important piece of real estate in the country.

I stand by my assertion: New York was not made a great city by this type of junk. The goofy architecture only adds insult to injury. There are plenty of examples of good urbanism right there in Manhattan, but these guys seemed to have missed it.

And I apologize for "bleating endlessly trite phrases" (ouch!) but the fact that there is a refusal on the part of the architectural elite to allow traditional urbanism (which is critical) and traditional architecture (which is my personal favorite) to be considered really upsets me. You can insult my analytical skills, you can criticize my knowledge of architecture, and you can question my writing abilities, but I don’t care. I knew someone would lambaste me for my “backward” views and lack of “taste,” but at least I have the backbone to stand by my feelings by posting my actual name with my words in the face of certain ridicule.

Dan Zack

Fresno, CA

Did anyone actually look at the entries?

Sorry Dan, but it seems that you, and the authors of this op-ed have failed the basics of critical writing, and that is to carefully examine and consider the object of criticism. While I find most of the schemes to be seriously lacking, I am more distressed by the obvious factual inadequacy of the would be critics of these designs. A more accurate critical response to the schemes at hand would be more helpful to the debate, rather than bleating endlessly trite phrases to advance a personal agenda.

Philistine, Part II

“We have to imagine 1,001 other concepts of city; we have to take insane risks; we have to dare to be utterly uncritical; we have to swallow deeply and bestow forgiveness left and right. The certainty of failure has to be our laughing gas/oxygen; modernization our most potent drug. Since we are not responsible, we have to become irresponsible.” –Rem Koolhaus

These are the guys that we’re allowing to build our world?!?!

The fact that many people fight new buildings is an indication of their contempt for modernism. In the past, when architects were more concerned with creating beauty, and less concerned with originality, citizens welcomed new buildings. It was exciting when your town got a new train station, courthouse, or office building. But not now. Now we fear these things. That is the legacy of modernism.

All of the designs submitted for the World Trade Center site were ridiculous. None of them are attractive, but merely demonstrate adolescent exhibitionism on the part of their architects. They refuse to fit in, they refuse to be beautiful, and they refuse to celebrate anything other than their creators' "genius."

At the street level they violate the pedestrian, presenting him with pits, jagged edges, and windswept voids. The New York tradition of short blocks, solid streetwalls, comfortable sidewalks, interesting street level storefronts, and graceful towers adorned with classical ornamentation and crowned with spires reaching toward the heavens is completely thrown out the window.

Face it, if the whole city was built like this, it would not be the place that we all know and love. We need to not be intimidated by these starchitects. We need to reject these designs, even if that does put us at risk of being labeled unsophisticated philistines by the design elite. The very philosophy that these men subscribe to, deconstructivism, is at odds with what needs to be accomplished at this site. This is not what NYC wants, this is not what people love about NYC, and this is not what NYC and the USA need right now.

Great cities are not built this way, nor will they ever be.

To be continued...

Comments from an architectural philistine...

I am not an architect, nor a nuclear physicist or a philosopher. I am just a measly planner. My degree is not in art, but in crummy old geography. But please forgive my ignorance and allow me to air my "regular guy" opinion on this whole thing.

While I am not an architect, I do have a strong appreciation for great buildings, and am particularly moved by them. I can’t explain the psychological process that causes this, but there is not much in this world that gives me a better feeling than being in the presence of a great old building. It literally sends chills down my spine. A great building, like beautiful old church or a soaring “wedding cake” art deco skyscraper, or even an ornate little Victorian house can literally brighten up my mood if I’m feeling gloomy.

As a fan of traditional architecture—for no other reason than the fact that it makes me feel good inside—I pay attention to what my fellow common man says about buildings and try to prod him for his feelings. Since most new buildings don’t make me feel as good, I’ve always been confused as to why we don’t build that way anymore. Am I alone?

Basically, most people on the street—and let’s face it, there’s more of us than there are architects—like traditional architectural styles more than we like modern. That is just a fact. The Woolworth Building inspires more awe in us than the Pan Am Building. The Library of Congress gives us joy, the FBI Building confuses us. We like San Francisco City Hall, we don’t like Boston City Hall. In my town, we loved the old courthouse, and we HATE the new one.

The old buildings move us. Their beauty is apparent. They connect us to the past, yet they inspire us to be hopeful about the future. With modern buildings, you need to be told why it is “beautiful.” You need to be told how it is innovative, and exciting. Sure, there are exceptions. There are occasional Modernist buildings that are beautiful, but most are just plain painful. And I’ll admit that some civilians enjoy “sculpture” architecture. But most of us regular people hate it. Personally, most new buildings make my teeth hurt.

Many non-architects are embarrassed to express they distaste for avant-garde buildings, because they don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings. They are afraid to be called unsophisticated, ignorant, or regressive. They will be labeled as nostalgic, and ridiculed for impeding the progress of society. Other than saying “…uh, I think it’s ugly…” they have no retaliation for the eloquent modernist’s “explanation” of why a building that looks like a pile of crushed aluminum cans is really a work of art, whereas an architect can go on all day, using a bunch a fancy jargon to defend his position.

To be continued...

Philistine, Part III of III

(If you're still with me, thanks. Sorry for being long-winded, but I had to get this out.)

Buildings are not art. They are part of the fabric of the city. The people who’s opinion really counts is the citizen and the client, not the architect. I am sick and tired of the attitude that we owe these “artists” a right to force their monstrosities on us. We don’t owe these guys a damn thing. Us regular people have to live with this stuff, day in and day out, and it affects our world. If some wants to slap their signature on a urinal and call it sculpture, fine—I don’t have to look at it every day. But architects are not scultures, they have a responsibility to society, and most of them have been abusing it. I plan on commissioning buildings at some point, either as a developer or a public official, and you can be that I will never be bullied by one of these guys into buying a glass and steel, shards and slivers, melting and warped building. Loving traditional architecture does not make you ignorant, or regressive. It just means that you love timeless beauty, and that you appreciate buildings and places worth caring about. In the words of Palladio, “modern man associates himself with the ancient world, not in order to reflect it like a mirror, but to capture its spirit and apply it in a modern way.” Or in the words of my blue collar brother, “modern architecture sucks!”

Thanks to Salingaros and Mehaffy for this great essay. They may have been ridiculed by the “artiste” architects and their fans for being ignorant on the subject, but as a regular guy I don’t care if they are philosophers, mathematicians, or plumbers. If they are willing to stand up to the egotistical, flamboyant, and eloquent deconstructivist (or whatever they’re calling it now) bullies and add a voice of reason to the public debate, the I’m all for it. Thanks, Nikos and Michael, for saying what so many of us regular Joes are feeling, but are unable or unwilling to express.

Finally, to my fellow non-architects who hate modernism: stand up for yourself! You don’t have to settle for this junk! There’s nothing wrong with you! Be proud of your beautiful old-style buildings, and demand that architects, developers, and public officials give you more! You don’t have to depend on your grandfather’s generation for your great buildings!

Dan Zack,

Fresno, CA

A Reaction to - Deconstructing The Decons: The Wor

Although I am not necessarily blown away by any of the designs proposed for the eventual renovation of ground zero, I do not agree with the authors Salingaros and Mehaffy in their out and out rejection of the deconstructivist designs. Salingaros and Mehaffy seemed to poke holes in the designs proposed thus far, saying that their deconstructivist architecture was too progressive, and paid little attention to the history, or tradition of the area. However, their words of how the area should be developed included the notion that we should not slavishly recreate history.

The idea that these buildings would become such an eyesore on the city that they would eventually destroy the architectural fabric that is the Lower Manhattan seems absurd to me. I have seen a number of deconstructivist buildings, and feel that each one of them adds a bit of creativity to the general design of the community in which they are located. When done correctly, a deconstructive designed building, although vastly different in comparison to its neighboring buildings, can compliment them by highlighting this diversity in architecture.

There will be skeptics of every design offered to fill the void where the twin towers once stood, but there is the hope that we can objectively examine each proposal and appreciate each one on its merits without first eliminating a portion from consideration based solely on the school of architecture that produced it.

Linking projecting and production


You are quite right, even the basic knowleage about how top architect applications acturly work, seem to be of no concern.

Even the creativity are lead into a dead end, architecture critics stay with the same surfaces and think the primitive geostatic surfaces is "the" new technology ,omiting the structure and forgetting that these bulky tin cans, was what we seen 20 years ago.

Geostatic domes that no one want to copy as the thin surface are extreamly expensive or need an army of craftmen ,while the "technology" must be that of Bilbao offering a tradisional building with high-tech as decor.

The tradisional steel structures need 20 different beam types, hangers and fiddeling to make the 3 plane projecting work, but these grow from the settled Lego thinking that is the trend of all architecture applications.

The direct link to production is simply not there, and when we think we get the top technology, all we get is the old methods put into a computer program.

Architecture turned from creativity into Lego thinking where you place one block ontop and look for standard Domes.

The idear of a direct link to production only produce a lot of paper not the actural building compoment and new form languages are measured with the knowleage of architecture critics knowing architure as a social game.

Still don't lose fait in technology, as even very few architects acturly know that the robots at the assembly line is only one technology the opposite type of technology and robotics is there.

You can make a direct link to production and generate an intire building structure by the press of a button.

This is a compleat new form language , just make a search about 3D-Honeycomb, still please open your mind for structure instead of surface.

Per Corell

Nice talking to you.

In repsonse

Since there seems to be some serious editing, one hopes for length--the rest of my post:

...I don't think any architect would claim to be a nihilist on these grounds--nor do I think reading Derrida or even Nietzsche makes one a nihilist. After all, decon architecture is only is a bad reading of Derrida translated to built form. It no more makes one a nihilist, than it makes someone like Alan Greenberg a royalist.

On social construction: Having limited working knowledge of science, I must state that I find nothing wrong with the idea that meaning is "socially constructed." The limits of my scientific understanding allow me to only state a couple of examples of which Galileo and the Church is the most obvious. Scientists in this regard are subject to the same social and political pressures as us less moral folk, and respond in much the same manner. Climate change science, evidence of cancer from cigarette smoking, AIDS research have all known controversies of the exact nature of the "truth".

In response to Dr. Salingaros:

I an not a cult member, but do play one on television. And isn't it early in this discussion thread to be bringing down Godwin's Law.


I studied the mock-ups of proposed NY Towers and was very disappointed...they were jaded, jarring and ugly. And who would be willing to work in another high rise in that area?????

in repsonse

In response to M.Mehaffey:

I am perplexed by your use of the term deconstructivist, which as you should know was a constructed term for a MOMa show put together by Mark Wigley, who was egged on by P.Johnson, who intended it to "push" a style much like his earlier International Style show. Much like its predecessor International Style show curated by P.Johnson, et al, the Decon show conflated of a series of dissimilar architectural modes, political attitudes and philosophies to produce a "style." The show was critically discredited from the start and many of the architects involved disavowed working in any style known to be deconstructivist.

Even more perplexing is the fact that of all the architects involved in the WTC proposals, only 1, Daniel Libeskind appeared in the Decon show, and only his architecture shows the superficial attributes associated with Decon. Libeskind, in reality, is a typical architect, operating in the "artistic" mode, whose influences range from music (classically trained) to surrealism. Of the others, Shigeru Ban is well known for his post-disaster housing in Japan and Africa; Foster, Meier, Eisenman, Holl, Vinoly and SOM are modernists; Field Operations and Tom Leader are landscape architects operating within an ecological framework; and Morrish and Littenburg/Petersen are well known new urbanists, and United Architects are proponents of the "blob" school. Given this make-up your decon rant is indeed misplaced, unless you have particular problems with a certain design, in which case it seems it would be more productive to be specific.

More strange are your implications that deconstructivists and blobs are operating under the same philisophical modes, though if one chooses to lump Derrida and Foucault together, and not mention Deleuze then accuracy is obviously not an issue. One should really separate Foucault from the mix, as he has had very little theoretical influence with academic architects, save those whose research involves public space. Derrida is obviously passe, as his seminal text, "On Grammatology" is now almost thirty years old, and Deleuze and Guattari have probably been supplanted by new biology, systems ecology and algorithms. Does this sound too superficial? Well it should, but its only a starting point for design, and as a designer you should know that what ever gets you going is what you go with. After all, its no sillier to play decon, or machine a habiter, than it is to dredge up ancient Rome, or the White City for that matter.

Even within the loose frame of ranting op-edism, the decon generalizations are sloppy intellectual work.

Now onto specifics--this statement I find particularly appealing: "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."

I suspect that you are claiming that deconstructivist buildings are harmful to the humans that walk past them and inhabit them, that their existence and appearance are injurious. Here's an alternate claim: any skyscraper is intended to maximize development profits, and any skyscraper interior is going make many humans unhappy. For me there is little distinction between the Chrysler Building or the IBM Building, at ground level both exhibiting retail space masquerading as a public amenity, and both buildings interiors will be of little solace to anyone who spends over eight hours a day there. Apart from some cheap thrill of looking at photographs of details of the roof of the Chrysler Building, and a slight tinge of excitement at looking at the Manhattan skyline, neither passes the making people happy smell test.

As far as the absurd claim that decon is destroying the urban fabric of human life, I think the more general claim of capital and corporations destroying the fabric of urban life would be more accurate. I would claim that any inappropriate building is bad, unless you're willing to argue that Classicism is more humane and would make me feel better walking past it and would make the poor sods working in cubicles on the 51st floor happier as well. Once again I point you to the program generated by the Port Authority, who will have more influence over the appearance of the new WTC than any architect or planner. How about sending them a little love?

On nihilism: Nietzsche's nihilism was in direct response to the determinist (and highly conservative) straight-jacket of Hegelian thought, and especially its appropriation by certain portions of German society, who used it as justification for militarism and political gain. I don't think any architect would claim to be a nihilist on these grounds--nor do I think reading Derrida or even Nietzsche makes one a nihilist.

Understanding Science and Philosophy

I have noticed that people who wish to criticize my articles almost always use an alias, whereas those who support the ideas expressed in them use their real names (and include a return address). Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it indicates to me a certain kind of training -- it is almost as though they were members of a cult, who give up their personal initiative (and part of their identity) and are in turn protected by the cult. When threatened, they naturally hide behind the cult's mask. Persons who are confident individuals, secure in their own beliefs and independent convictions, have no need to hide behind anything.

When I started to apply scientific analysis to Architecture, following the lead of Christopher Alexander, some architects who read my articles noticed my professional affiliation and scientific background and responded with the accusation: "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND ARCHITECTURE".

After several years of this predictable type of attack, I believe that my architectural work (or, more importantly, architecture itself) has passed a watershed of sorts. Critics are no longer claiming that I don't understand Architecture. The latest attacks state: "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY".

As far as understanding Philosophy, I will point out that my co-author, Michael Mehaffy, is trained in philosophy. Now, as is well-known, formal training in a particular discipline does not make one an expert in that discipline -- the most glaring example being the hordes of anti-architects who have passed through our most prestigious architecture schools. Be that as it may, I am firmly convinced that Michael Mehaffy is extremely well-versed in Philosophy, and is qualified to analyze the philosophical fallacies of contemporary architecture.

Being a scientist, I look to professional philosophers for guidance on philosophical issues. Here I have been helped by one of our most distinguished contemporary philosophers, Roger Scruton. His incisive discussion of Decon philosophy is included in his book: "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture" (2000). I am quite satisfied by the penetrating analysis that Professor Scruton gives there -- whether one agrees with his political ideals or not, he speaks as a professional philosopher from within the discipline, well-versed in philosophical issues.

The recent accusation that I don't understand science brings back historical instances of desperation, along with bitter lessons not learned. When the collapse of some corrupt power structure is imminent, it turns to ridiculous measures because it possesses no effective defense. Dr. Josef Goebbels made his greatest speeches (as far as propaganda value) when the Allied troops were advancing towards Berlin -- he told the German people that the Allies were on the point of collapse, and that a German victory was just around the corner. Teenage boys were sent out to battle the Russian tanks.

The analogy is incomplete, however. Those brainwashed German youths were brave enough to face the tanks -- the current defenders of Decon architecture instead hide behind the mask of anonymity. Are they hoping that the strength of the Decon cult's beliefs will in the end assure victory, or is "New Science" their secret weapon? When everything fails, then a desperate appeal to misapplied technology seems to offer one last hope. On the other hand, maybe the Decons sense that the game is up, and they, like the German snipers who terrorized Berlin after the Allied troops' entry, now turn to sniping from carefully hidden positions.

Any young architect who wishes to practice in the future will have to pay attention to the new criteria -- adaptation, wholeness, self-organization, human feelings, and human scale. This is a necessary though not sufficient pre-requisite for professional success in the new millennium. Those, on the other hand, who continue to fanatically support a failed dogmatism will probably have to find another job. No self-respecting client is going to be paying for monstrosities like the ones we have seen from the Decons.

re: siamese towers

Extract from above article

'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...'

I refer to my earlier email. Would appreciate that even if you do not intend to publish it online that you forward it to the authors of the article so that they can decide for themselves whether it should be censored!

If they are signalling the arrival of a new architecture, I would suggest that you not be remembered by history as the person that decided to censor it's first permutation...

Please excuse my arrogance but I feel (as do NS & MM) that this is an ethical imperative.

Look for the siamese tower link at the following site:

Look under design/architecture/stephen SARGENT


Stephen Sargent, Architect in NZ, ANZIA, BArch (Auckland)

The Authors Respond to "iama material" and "vpd"

We will try to respond thoughtfully to your many accusations...

We would be happy to “come down off a high horse” and discuss your objections, were we able to address you directly. However, since neither of you uses a real name, and Mr. (Ms?) “vpd” has no valid email address, we will address these comments to all.

To Mr./Ms. “vpd”, what would you like to discuss about Feyerabend or Kuhn? We have of course read them – in fact one of us (mm) conducted a graduate philosophy seminar on Kuhn, comparing and contrasting with Feyerabend. As for footnotes, we must ask you to wait for a more academic setting, where we also write.

The references to nihilism and relativism come from post-structuralist philosophy, which have strong roots in the nihilist thinking of Nietzsche. The relativism is clearly implied in the notion of social construction, and has been exhaustively discussed by others (see Sokol e.g.). You can read the texts for yourself; we are not making this stuff up. (We aren’t that imaginative.)

And as for petticoats showing, you should know that you are addressing two self-described “hyper-modernists” -- also self-described as “progressive in the scientific sense of the term, trying to remain apolitical.” For what it’s worth, when this author (mm) finds himself leaning, I confess it is usually leftward.

To Mr./Ms. “iama material”: where to begin…...

Whether or not the current crop of starchitects now embraces the term “deconstructivism” (and Gehry was the first to run away from it, followed by others, who seem to have found the baggage unappealing) there is in fact a philosophical provenance for this class of work that can be traced easily enough, back to deconstructionism in art, post-structuralism in philosophy, and structuralism before that. It is clearly identifiable as distinct from other forms of post-modernism, neo-modernism and neo-traditionalism. What we advocate is something altogether different – actually what we regard as a more advanced form of modernism, doing something novel: actually taking seriously the full consequences of the new science -- in process, and not merely in image.

You are quite right that in architecture circles today, there is a lot of talk about complexity, hyper-connectivity, field effects, and other aspects of the so-called “new science”... and it is interesting that you say Dr. Salingaros does not understand this subject of contemporary science well, whereas these architects do. Of course Dr. Salingaros is only a nuclear physicist and professor of mathematics. The architects, on the other hand, are… well, they’re architects, aren’t they? And speaking myself (mm) as one who studied at the graduate architecture school at UC Berkeley, and also did graduate work in philosophy, I will stick my neck out and suggest that I am qualified to make a credible assertion or two on the subject – as is Dr. Salingaros. I will even modestly suggest that our analysis is worth taking more seriously than an uninformed person might at first assume.

Let us absolutely talk about the design of cities and buildings, as you suggest. Let us talk about buildings that magnificently express the scientific understanding of human beings, rather than frilly crystalline candies in pretentious garb -- old modernist wine in new decon skins, the mistakes of the past repeated in a shiny new consumer package.

Let us talk about the broader needs of all human beings, not just the self-absorbed mental games of inferior architecture. Let us talk about the demonstrable fact that our profession is today failing humanity. Are we too blinded by our own pet design fashions to see this?

This is admittedly a harsh assessment, but one grounded in a more thorough analysis than one might assume. It is not an uninformed opinion. If this assessment happens to gore your own ox, we regret that, but it cannot be helped. Perhaps you should consider the slim possibility that we are right.

I assure you both that Dr. Salingaros and I are all for healthy debate and informed discussion of substantive issues, and we await your engagement on that level.

Regards, m.m.


Brilliant article. How do we deconstruct architectural critics/fashion editors?


this is a nice building and i think you will make lot or money and that we will get our city back as!because when the worldtrade center fell it was horrible and we lost alot of peolpe and a lot of money and they went up on there prices!!!

What WTC recon could don

The article was useful in describing the prevailing ideologies amongst many starchitects and facaulties of architecture. If falls short of providing an alternate vision for what should be done at the WTC site. To that end I'd suggest the following as basic principles of its redevelopment:

1. First and foremost, restore the street grid to integrate the site bcak into the rest of the urban fabric of Lower Manhattan - at grade (not above or below), with ground floor retail, restaurants and service uses, in small storefronts. Yes, also allow cars to drive through the area, but in a secondary capacity to the pedestrian on most streets.

2. have a rich, tree-lined pedestrian street scale and blocks composed of many abutting buildings seemingly built over time and designed by many different architects.

3. have diverse and complementary uses and activities that come together in a complete community, including places of work, art and entertainment, recreation, residences, education, churches and ground floor retail. Housing should provide for many needs and income levels and could be in a mix of successful urban forms, from brownstone-like to midrise to highrise.

4. Have a rich pattern of connected, smaller, defined and sunny open spaces, preferably not on the poorly sited (i.e., located in the way of former street alignments as were the butt ugly WTC towers). Places whre kids can play and seniors catch the rays. There could also be one civic square, say a typical city block in size, surrounded by streets and defined by streetwall buildings where special events could be held and the community can come together.

5. Take maximum advantage of the acres of roof space to create green roofs and usable open spaces and gardens for residents and workers. They can double as water detention systems.

6. Have medium-sized and pencil-thin office tower floorplates similar to those which historically have defined New York's famous skyline. Buildings where all employees can sit near windows.

7. Employ low-tech green strategies and techniques, including provision of operable windows and cross-ventilation into all habitable spaces, whether residential or office.

8. Last, and most sensitively, let the entire new community be the living memorial to those who lost their lives on September 11th. The best public artists know how to work as members of a team with planners, archiects, developers and the public in generating these ideas, if involved from the outset.

To sum up, the new Lower Manhatten could provide many of the same qualities shared by the more livable and interesting neighbourhoods in much of the rest of New York and other great cities. That would be a fitting and lasting contribution to 21st century urbanism.

Academic Toxic Waste

Iama Material said this:

"Open a book once in a while and come down from your moral high-horse. Stop pandering to the public based on "comfort," "tradition," nostalgia and the "warm and fuzzy." Your rhetoric has become quite transparent; it is little more than conservative propaganda."

"Stop pandering to the public?"

So this fellow doesn't seem to believe that the needs of users should have anything to do with "the design of buildings and cities." (e.g., the people who have to put up with avant-garde crap for decades).

Well, Mr. iama material, take your load of academic deconstructive toxic waste and lock it away in the Ivory Tower dumpster. Rest assured our (still) democratic political system will properly dispose of it. BTW, when everything is considered, La Corbusier must be considered one of the 20th Century's (unfortunately) most effective, yet obtuse, cranks. So were the federal and other bureaucrats who gave us the template for auto-oriented suburbs.

Michael D. Setty

bad copy

"Decon?" Get with the program.

You New Urbanists and Neo-Traditionalists need to do a little more research before writing these tirades. There hasn't been an avant garde architect who has professed an influence by that movement for the better part of ten years.

In architecture circles today there is quite a lot of talk about complexity, hyper-connectivity, field effects, the performance of larger orders and other aspects of the so-called "new science" you mention, but it is quite evident that your understanding of contemporary science as well as deconstructivist philosophy are equally limited.

You really should be ashamed of yourselves. This is the same type of anti-intellectual ranting that has come from your movement for years.

Open a book once in a while and come down from your moral high-horse. Stop pandering to the public based on "comfort," "tradition," nostalgia and the "warm and fuzzy." Your rhetoric has become quite transparent; it is little more than conservative propaganda.

If there's anything left to the substance of your movement after you've jettisoned the weak and politically motivated arguments I've mentioned, then maybe we can really talk about the design of cities and buildings.

Spurious Claims

The Decons contradict the progressive, historically cumulative nature of science.

Sorry kids, but when you make sweeping claaims we need to see some footnotes. While you may get a lot of mileage out of architects mis-reading of Derrida, you may perhaps back up your own sweeping claims with some footnotes. You should also read Feyarabend and Kuhn some time.

Your own political petticoats are showing as well. Claims of the "decons" belief in nihilism and moral relativity is a macarthyism of the worst sort, especially when made without evidence. You certainly haven't seen Libeskind's scheme in which the words "citizen" and "heroes" figure prominently, or the fact that Foster's tower is easily the most energy-efficient large office building ever proposed.

Yes, the presented schemes are hugely problematic in many ways, and incisive criticism is deserved. But juvenile namecalling as something that passes for criticism is reprehensible. You would do better to begin with the brief provided by the Port Authority and question the need for 10 million square feet of office space and the lack of a residential component.

Decon and Recon and other Ons

Thank you for your article and your observations about how destructive decon is to the urban fabric. I agree that people feel much better knowing the order of things, in cities in particular.

First of all, the latest designs, regardless of what philosophy that reflect are not urban design. They have nothing to with and turn their backs on what is so refresing about the old New York of Lower Manhattan. Le Corbusier's Radiant City urban design ideas have been "twisted" architecturally, but his attitude toward street life is very much present in all of the designs. In fact, the past is not dead at WTC.

The only problem with your article is how it is viewed by those with decon, recon, or "new urbanist" proclivities. What I mean is that, inadvertently, you join the long line of critics and commentators who need to be seen as having something of great import to say. Everyone puts everyone else down, so they can stand on top of the rubbish of commentary and competing ideas. Most of those ideas are unexplored and are, therefore, superficial. I think you have something to say of great value, except that it also adds to the din.

I am a planner of 42 years and I have seen a lot of theories come and go. But the one "truth", if you want to call it that, is that people feel comfortable with order, with knowing how to get from one place to another, that they are drawn to street life, and need to find a place to sun and sit down. That's why most architects will tell you that there favorite cities are older ones: London, Paris, Rome, Florence,and newly found Eastern European capital cities.

But the need to be seen,heard, copied, and venerated takes precedence when they design. All of the features of those old cities are forgotten when an architect becomes known as a decon, recon, or "new urbanist".

I despair at what will be foisted on Lower Manhattan. But what I feel good about is that I am not taken in by the urban design fashion of the day and I know what works in cities. Urban design by itself is tricky, mostly because reality often ignores them for a whole host of reasons. One of the problems is that an urban design is never recycled, so that it persists as a vision for tomorrow, while at the same time adjusts itself to unfolding realities.

I say, keep on publicizing your ideas. I suggest you show examples of the basic urban design principles you feel make people feel comfortable, excited, stimulated, and unconfused in cities.

independant thought

Human animals fall into two groups, the followers and the innovators. The followers require rules to govern their lifestyles. Within any society there exist people to whom those rules are restrictive and harmful. If everyone was to follow what society in general thinks is acceptable, then independant thouhgt which is every humans birthright would not be necessary.

WTC article

I would prefer to see this "Reconstructive" architecture take form over the so-called innovative and provocative Decon style. Perhaps there is a way to create something that includes both. The Reconstructive architecture could "tower" over the deconstructive "monument".

Just a thought...thank you.

Recon architecture

The piece on Decon (which,by the way, is a brand name for rat bait) and Recon architecture was magnificent. After 25 years as a gardener, struggling to make dreadful landscape architecture designs work, and as a resident of San Francisco, a city marked by both great and awful architecture, I feel elated to read that no, we're not crazy, there really is a need for a new way of constructing things. Thank you so much.

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