Architect, Heal Thyself

Modern architecture causes headaches, and worse.
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And, as you will see, this way will lead anyone who looks for it to buildings which are themselves as ancient in their form, as the trees and hills, and as our faces are.

This passage from Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building came to mind as I read an email from physician Richard J. Jackson, who responded graciously and at length to my Architecture Here and There post of yesterday, “The headache of modernism.” This was itself triggered by an essay on CNN’s website with the intriguing title “Looking at buildings can actually give people headaches. Here’s why,” by Essex (U.K.) University psychologist Arnold J. Wilkins, who discussed a concept by the Napoleonic-era French mathematician Joseph Fourier.

That concept was that the brain is more comfortable with the scenery of nature than of cities, because in nature shapes blend together more gently than in cities.

Remember that in Fourier’s time, towns and villages grew up and down hills and valleys like kudzu. Wilkins extended Fourier’s thinking to suggest that modern cities, where “repetitive patterns” have increased “over the last 100 years,” challenge our brains even more. The extra energy needed for the brain to process starkly designed urban scenes today uses more oxygen, according to recent studies, the lack of which causes more headaches.

Burgundy town of Semur-en-Auxois. Image: Photorator

Burgundy town of Semur-en-Auxois. Image: Photorator

Dr. Jackson opened his email by noting he’d just purchased a “Tree of Life” poster for his 7-year-old grandson, who, “like many children, is deeply into nature.” The tree of life embodies the platonic ideal of linear abstraction, while nature itself prefers the “fractal” variations of biological reproduction. He adds:

"But nature employs very little linearityeven light bends to gravity. The swirl of a sunflower, the frost on a window, the growth in our organs, all are built in fractal and adaptive ways following general biological directions. …

"Fighting against fractals, as in Corbu’s case [Le Corbusier, the leading pioneer of modern architecture] and in oppressive modernism, seems to be fighting against life. Imposing metaphysical linearity on the living world is an inevitably failing attempt at escaping the healthy fractals of life and the inevitability of death."

Corbusier’s proposed Plan Voisin, Central Paris. Image: meriadeck.free.fr

Corbusier’s proposed Plan Voisin, Central Paris. Image: meriadeck.free.fr

This whole exchange - in which Dr. Jackson plays a role along with Alexander, his mathematician associate Nikos Salingaros at the University of Texas, the Massachusetts architect and researcher Ann Sussman (who has researched Corbusier’s autism and its effect on the principles of modernism), Fourier the mathematician, and Wilkins’s essay on CNN – has explosively vivified the question of life and the purposes of architecture.

Wilkins, the university psychologist who got the ball rolling with his piece on headaches, seems to have recognized that he was playing with dynamite. He did not specifically finger modern architecture as contrary to nature. If he had, his essay would almost surely have ended up in the circular file.

Churston Woods, Devonshire, Britain. Image: countryside-trust.org.uk

Churston Woods, Devonshire, Britain. Image: countryside-trust.org.uk

Almost never do articles that tell the truth about the social, physical, psychological and aesthetic harm done by modern architecture make it into magazines and other outlets of the architectural media. The design process in development has a playing field so tilted in favor of modernist projects that trads get work primarily from private clients rich enough to build their own houses according to their own taste.

Given that the United States is a democracy, the fact that most people prefer traditional to modernist design should have a lot more influence on what gets built here. That it does not is a strong indication that something is wrong.

Fractal woodscape. Image: Mandelwerk

Fractal woodscape. Image: Mandelwerk

Modern architecture is against both nature and nurture. Its ugliness may or may not cause headaches, but over half a century its sterility has caused the built environment to exude a palpable unfriendliness. Glass and steel and concrete do not add up to happiness. Quite the reverse. Trends in architecture point society toward the facelessness of bureaucratic corporatism and state control. The Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Ugliness is beautiful.

Star Wars director George Lukas generally housed his bad guys in modernist settings and his good guys in traditional and vernacular settings. It may have been unintentional, but few would consider it unnatural. We all need to acknowledge and respect our intuitive unease with the architecture establishment’s bogus expertise, and recognize that this discomfort reflects a deeper human wisdom that naturally rejects the hidden terrors of genetically modified architecture.

More will be made of Ann Sussman’s observations about the mental disorders that at least in part guided Corbusier to his modernist principles, which are at war with life. Modernist architects may not be crazy but their architecture sure is.

Architects should seek to cure society’s ills and solve its problems with what Nikos Salingaros calls living architecture. Modernists once professed to heal humanity but now merely mimic its ills as “of our age."

Architects should instead follow doctors by embracing in their profession the ultimate medical injunction: First, do no harm. Architect, heal thyself!

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