A Missed Learning Opportunity

The architectural implications of the September 11, 2001 tragedy; Have planners and architects overlooked the moral lesson to practice humane urban design?

5 minute read

September 16, 2002, 12:00 AM PDT

By Nikos A. Salingaros

Nikos A. SalingarosConsidering the grotesque follies proposed for the redevelopment of lower Manhattan, leading architects and planners have missed an opportunity to learn and reflect after the September 11, 2001 tragedy.

I believe that the 9/11 event raises disturbing questions about the failed responsibilities of those professions. Two reasons are: (i) a prominent modernist architectural symbol (the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center) was specifically targeted to be attacked and destroyed; (ii) the leading terrorists (Mohamed Atta and Osama bin Laden) had an architecture/urbanist/construction background. Writing with Michael Mehaffy, I earlier proposed that the third world -- and the Islamic world in particular -- feels a rage towards the United States, at least in part due to the modernist architectural and urban models we have introduced to those countries, which have destroyed their traditional built heritage. Atta was a professional planner who was said to be outraged over the desecration of traditional Islamic cities by modernist architecture and planning [1, 2]. Of course, Atta was a criminal, but how many ordinary people in traditional cities of the third world share those feelings?

The architect and urbanist Léon Krier recently made an eloquent statement about the absurdity of what many of our professional architects and urbanists do [3]. He argues that the events of 9/11 burst the bubble of a monumental architectural deception. Nevertheless, one year later, the same architects who were fashionable before the 9/11 tragedy are still asked to design monofunctional megatowers, and are acting as if nothing had really happened on that day to affect their profession. One has only to look at the unrepentantly modernist and postmodernist proposals for reconstructing the Twin Towers to see this. Their monstrous, tortuous forms deliberately shock us and unbalance our human sensibilities. In the context of real destruction and tragic loss of life, to propose another intentional "deconstruction" of this site is obscene, and an insult to the victims' memory.

In our original essay commissioned by PLANetizen immediately after the tragedy [4], James Howard Kunstler and I postulated a fundamental societal discontinuity that ought to have triggered fundamental changes in architectural and urban practice. We regard the events of 9/11 as a watershed in architectural history. By contrast, the architectural and urban professions continue to promote the same failed models and practices as before 9/11. This unreasonable continuity challenges us to understand the forces behind it.

It is clear that both architects and prospective clients have failed to grasp the implications of new work in science and mathematics. What is promoted as innovative, cutting-edge architecture is actually nothing of the sort. Their "architecture of complexity" is in fact based on the most elementary misunderstandings. It's another superficial style, just like so many absurdly useless fashions that have diminished architecture as a serious discipline. Were it only a design fashion, we could tolerate it by turning away; but this same malaise on a grand scale destroys the delicate urban fabric, the spatial complexities responsible for the very quality of human life. Jane Jacobs -- who really understood "complexity" -- warned us about this forty years ago.

My co-authors and I tried to raise the frightening possibility that the West has become identified with a nihilistic architecture whose hegemony has erased humane built form around the world. In doing so, it replaces living traditions with alien and dysfunctional forms that recreate images of crude 1920s machines and industrial buildings. More than the buildings themselves, however, we are misusing our technological authority and economic might to insert such seductive design images into weaker societies' educational and media systems. Our industrial and cultural exports come bundled with destructive architectural visions. All the world copies what we do, so we have a moral responsibility to practice a humane architecture and urbanism.

Al-Qaeda is driven by an intolerant fundamentalism that would destroy free and democratic government. As we fight them to preserve democracy and basic human rights, we must also recognize and eliminate our own "geometrical fundamentalism". When the history of this societal struggle between conflicting ideas comes to be written, ours should be the side that championed the freedom for human beings to connect to their built environment, and protected this basic right from being suppressed by an intolerant architectural dogma.

A new way of understanding fashions (like contemporary architecture) uses analogies from the spread of infectious viruses. A particularly catchy visual image -- popularly known as a "meme" -- infects the population much like a biological or computer virus. Memes embed themselves in your brain and manipulate human beings to propagate them, often at a detriment to their human carrier. Logical explanations are impotent against memes. Terry Mikiten and I have identified architectural and urban memes that drive society to build what it does [5]. Clients are mesmerized by images of sleek, shiny towers, and so crave more of them. The parasitic replicator -- in this case modernist megatowers and other symbols of the Bauhaus -- has its own interests at work. So much for the self-congratulatory support from the architectural media!

I certainly don't blame Western architects for what happened on 9/11. Nor those clients who commission inhuman buildings. I would like, however, to see some understanding for architecture's possible role -- however indirect -- in generating the incredible hatred that led to those events. I also want to see some reflection of the deeper crisis of architecture in our time. Instead, the leadership of the profession remains oblivious to the damage it causes, smug in its power and media support, and seemingly secure in the absolute infallibility of its cult-like beliefs.


1. Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros: "The End of the Modern World", in PLANetizen <www.planetizen.com&gt; (January 2002) . Revised version inOpen Democracy <www.opendemocracy.net&gt; (February 2002).

2. Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros: "Geometrical Fundamentalism", in Plan Net Architectural Resources <www.plannet.com&gt; (January 2002). Italian version published byProfessione Architetto <www.professionearchitetto.it&gt; (January 2002).

3. Nikos Salingaros interviews Léon Krier: "The Future of Cities: The Absurdity of Modernism", in PLANetizen <www.planetizen.com&gt; (November 2001). Reprinted in Urban Land (January 2002) volume 61, pages 12-15. Italian version published byArchimagazine <www.archimagazine.com&gt; (February 2002).

4. James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros: "The End of Tall Buildings", in PLANetizen <www.planetizen.com&gt; (September 2001). French version published byArchicool <www.archicool.com&gt; (November 2001).

5. Nikos Salingaros and Terry Mikiten: "Darwinian Processes and Memes in Architecture: A Memetic Theory of Modernism", inJournal of Memetics -- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission <jom-emit.cfpm.org/2002/vol6> volume6 (2002). Reprinted inDATUTOP Journal of Architectural Theory (2002) volume23, pages 117-139.

Nikos Salingaros is a physicist and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He has conducted extensive research into the mathematics of architecture and urban design.

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