Column: Here's why nature nurtures tradition12:31 AM Thu, Nov 05, 2009 | Permalink
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Illustrations: Above, cathedral at Léon, Spain; above second, canyon; below, first, Nikos Salingaros; second, fingerprint; third, daily
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Someday, people will realize that they can demand better buildings and cities, and they will do so. Extraordinarily rich and powerful people will sense a market in flux, will shudder, see their fortunes heading for the door, and tap their politicians on the shoulder. Architects will start making places people like. Look for a tipping point. It could have happened during the redesign process after Sept. 11, 2001. It did not, but it could have. Someday it will.
When it does happen, it will not be because millions suddenly read a book called A Theory of Architecture (2006) by architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros, or his Algorithmic Sustainable Design (due out at Christmas) or A Pattern Language (1977) by his colleague and mentor, the more widely known theorist Christopher Alexander. It will be because an event that everyone pays attention to suddenly lifts a veil on what we all have known instinctively, and what Salingaros and Alexander have been saying for years.
They have been saying that traditional architecture reflects mankind's natural inclinations.
In 2003, Salingaros said of Tom Wolfe's rollicking 1981 critique of modern architecture From Bauhaus to Our House: "He was there in New York, he saw what was going on, and he wrote a very nice book about it. Many people read it -- and it made no difference. So I asked myself, 'How can this be? This man said it, decades ago. People read it and they didn't wake up.' "
The problem with Wolfe's book, which is one of my bibles, is that it told everyone something they already knew in a funny, memorable way -- but readers had long since been bludgeoned numb by the ugly, ubiquitous Bauhaus offspring. Wolfe offered readers no positive alternative.
Salingaros provides such a positive alternative by expanding upon the natural insights of Alexander, a Brit born in Vienna whose longest stint has been at Berkeley. Salingaros, an Aussie of Greek parentage who teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio, lays down the scientific basis for why nature and traditional architecture are so intimately connected, and why the connection makes people feel so much at ease.
"Drawing a very broad analogy between neurons, individual thoughts, and physical structures," Salingaros writes, "we mimic our own mind when we create coherent objects and buildings." His work "explain[s] our instinctive need to integrate or 'harmonize' our surroundings."
For Salingaros, this connectedness can be broken down into rules that help architects assemble buildings, using proportions and scaling mechanisms that reflect the science of fractals -- natural feedback patterns whose structures are logical but too irregular to decode with Euclidean geometry. You can observe fractals in clouds, trees, broccoli, snowflakes, fingerprints, conch shells, waves, the shapes that oceans' motion makes of coastlines, lightning, Hubble space photos -- patterns much more evident in the cathedral at Léon, Spain, built in 1255-1591, than in the chapel at Ronchamp, designed by Le Corbusier and built in 1953-55.
Architects needn't understand fractals to make beautiful buildings. Obviously not. The builders of cathedrals are not likely to have dared to confess a yen for science, and they knew nothing of fractals, which existed, were perceived, or at least sensed, even by boys, but had not yet been "discovered."
A building free of references to historical styles could be designed with this system, but "minimalist surfaces and edges negate the way human beings process information . . . and our body reacts with physical and psychological stress[:] raised blood pressure, adrenaline, raised skin temperature, contraction of the pupils -- all symptoms of our defensive mechanism against a threat."
Salingaros tells architects that buildings should be designed under the guidance of three laws of structural order. The third law is: "The small scale is connected to the large scale through a linked hierarchy of intermediate scales with a scaling ratio approximately equal to e ~ 2.7."
As law No. 3 only begins to suggest, there is far too much "Cognitive Rule 3 is analogous to Consequence 1a of the first law of structural order, and to Consequence 2a of the second law given in Chapter 1" for Salingaros's work ever to reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Nevertheless, Salingaros is Moses offering wisdom from on high (whether that of God, science or Alexander). His stone tablets must be popularized, perhaps made into a movie. In fact, they already have been: scenes of the habitations of good guys and bad guys in decades of cinematic science fiction. They need only be clipped, spliced and set to music. Bach and Bartok, for example.
Nikos Salingaros has done no more than to describe what is right in front of us all, but the obvious often requires a bodyguard of trumpets.
[Next week, I expect to write a column about Salingaros's explanation for why modern architecture has survived in spite of its unpopularity and its unnatural qualities.]
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board (email@example.com). His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.