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.
January 20, 2003, 12am PST | Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy
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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 (www.katarxis.com), an international journal exploring new science and new architecture.


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