Anti-Architecture and Religion

by Nikos Salingaros, appearing in Volume 7

In wanting to explain a cultural mystery-why the world renounced emotionally-nourishing buildings, and instead embraced buildings that literally make us ill—one comes up against severe obstacles.  It is not that methods for producing humane buildings are unknown, nor that there is a lack of architects to build them; society has made a conscious decision to build what it does.  Furthermore, enormous energy is spent in convincing people that our contemporary built surroundings are good, even though almost everyone feels otherwise.  There is a basic disconnect between what we feel, and what we are told we ought to feel—or forced to accept.  Answers to these questions lead us from architectural theory into social beliefs and systems.  

I wish to elaborate an idea that has often been expressed by Neo-traditionalist architects: that all styles are not equivalent in terms of their architectural consequences: some styles have deleterious effects not only on the built environment, but on society as a whole.  Contrary to a working assumption accepted eagerly by our contemporary culture, the avant-garde is not harmless.  Stylistic pluralism hides a danger because it accepts cults into society, and those cults would like to destroy society.  

Within an architectural style, ideas and concepts are tied together that may have no logical relation to one another.  Someone builds a novel-looking structure, then comes up with irrelevant explanations for why the structure looks that way.  To ensure success, the architect can link the new style to themes that preoccupy society at that time, promising that its adoption will help to move society forward in the desired direction.  Building styles that have evolved over millennia do not suffer from such a dishonesty or logical disconnectedness; it is only hastily put-together styles that are flawed in this manner.  A particular style’s philosophical underpinning could make some false assertion or statement, yet appear to fit together in a superficially satisfying manner.  It is this satisfaction of fit that fools the mind into accepting a stylistic structure; the mind usually does not examine the logical coherence of the whole message.  There exists an innate mechanism in the human mind that enables this phenomenon.  

It is undeniable that the greatest architectural creations of mankind arose as a response to religious fervor: the desire to express in materials what human beings felt towards their Deity and Creator.  Cathedrals, churches, mosques, and temples around the world attest to this fact.  Enormous investments of human energy went into creating these structures.  With few exceptions, they reveal an absolute honesty of expression.  

Religion arises out of the necessity to understand a universe that escapes our comprehension because of its profound and ordered complexity.  Religion has in the best periods of human civilization acted to complement our scientific understand-ing of natural phenomena.  It can and does seek to provide answers to questions that are too difficult for science to answer.  By presenting a set of guidelines and rituals as a balance against the destructive side of human nature, the world’s religions have successfully held humanity more or less from collapsing into chaos and barbarism.  

All religions are based on worshipping some higher form of order, which means that a key aspect of religion is trying to re-create this order as a geometrical expression using physical materials.  This process begins with the House of God and religious artifacts, but certainly does not stop there.  In the first religions the creative spirit manifested itself everywhere, and not merely in special locations or in a special type of sacred artifact.  Utilitarian objects were made with the same philosophy of striving to represent the complexity and beauty of the universe—as best understood by human beings at that time—in the things we built.  Every religious person accepts that God is indeed everywhere, so for millennia we tried to build everything around us according to a higher logic.  While this created a tension with the opposing forces of economy, utilitarianism, fashion, etc., this tension prevented our buildings and artifacts from ever being without life.  

Religious belief is usually driven (though not with all people) by a need to accommodate oneself to the mysteries of the universe.  A religious mythology provides not only rules for everyday conduct; it also gives consolation and stability against the frightening prospect that there is no meaning to life: that life itself might be a random and inconsequential event.  A belief system thus gives purpose to our lives.  In the same way, architects need a meaning structure for their profession, and, having abandoned traditional values, they will seek it in cults of their own making.  Architecture has not yet developed a scientific basis that would obviate the search for meaning within mysticism and irrationality.  

A group of French philosophers started an anti-scientific fashion in the late twentieth century.  In a series of writings that make little sense, they claimed that scientific analysis was invalid, and that ways of thought akin to free disassociation are more ethical.  Their actual point is impossible to summarize, precisely because it lacks any internal logic.  Nevertheless, the end result of this movement is to create a cult of anti-scientific followers, who now question all the scientific achievements of mankind, and indeed any progress achieved through science.  

The answer to the inevitable question of how such a bizarre and destructive cult could have arisen in academia lies perhaps in a linguistic phenomenon.  Deconstructivism started as a discourse in French academic circles.  Those of us who speak French, and who might have read French philosophy, surely know that a gifted intellectual can argue aloud in French and say very little of substance while appearing to make profound statements.  The French have a long tradition of scholarly discourse which could be shallow in content but linguistically rich, full of flowery expressions and gestures.  

If this hypothesis is in fact correct, it would explain why the original French academic audience was enraptured by deconstructivist discourses, whereas the texts in English translation make no sense at all.  Nevertheless, those texts are read world-wide today; they are part of an established cult whose irrationality is an integral component of its mysticism.  

Deconstructivist architecture can be described as the product of a group of architects creating their own cult by defining a new style of building.  The style is easily recognizable as having broken forms, using “high-tech” materials for visual excitement, and intentionally violating the most elementary elements of balance, rhythm and coherence.  Their only design tactic is a simple and random morphological gesture that removes sense from form.  It is doubtful whether such architects understand the French deconstructivist philosophers, for those writings are in principle not understandable.  They do, however, find in them a convenient philosophical underpinning—and a catchy label—to justify their own architectural cult.  

Science tries to understand the ordered complexity of the universe.  It follows a process of putting together different pieces of insight, obtained by different researchers and by different techniques, into a coherent picture.  Sometimes scientists take apart a structure to study its parts, but only so that they can better grasp how the whole works.  Deconstruction is the antithesis of this: it is the tearing apart of form just for the fun of it.  It destroys the ordered complexity that nature has marvelously synthesized, and from which we ourselves arose.  This destruction is quite simply a turning against the evolutionary forces that have created us. 

The success of the deconstructivist cult is undeniable, however.  Nowadays, the most prestigious architecture schools in the world have opened their doors to deconstructivism, and have hired those architects who have made themselves the prime representatives of this cult.  Major corporations, governments, and even established religious institutions compete for their favors, spending money on alien-looking commissions—large sums of money that could otherwise be used to build structures adapted to human beings and the human spirit.  In a most absurd—and ultimately destructive—infatuation with an architectural fashion, the media promote the cult of deconstructivist images, spreading them while lend-ing them respectability.  

Finally, evangelical techniques are misused to sell deconstructivist ideas to third-world countries, by falsely linking bizarre forms with technological progress.  Countries that buy this idea then foolishly destroy their vernacular, historic, and sacred buildings in order to supposedly attain a higher level of architectural culture.  Quite the opposite eventually takes place after the initial excitement has worn off, as scarce resources are squandered in paying for expensive imported materials such as glass and steel.  The result of this is an impending eco-logical disaster the world over.  The damage done to our inherited architectural and cultural heritage is immense.

In so many instances, a perfectly sound older building has been demolished in order to make place for a much inferior new building.  Renovation and adaptation are simply not considered—the vestiges of the past must be erased entirely.  And yet, both in terms of structural quality, as well as in their connectivity to human beings, many older buildings simply cannot be duplicated today; they would cost much more to build than clients are used to paying nowadays, and few contemporary architects would even know how to build them.  Perhaps this envy, the certain inability to approach the superior architectural standards and achievements of those outside the cult, is what drives their destroyers.  

Despite the highly-publicized reaction of the various postmodernist architectural styles against early modernism, they have all retained modernism’s intolerance for historical and vernacular structures.  As is well known, it is still forbidden to build traditionally, and—when traditional elements are included for whatever reason—they can only appear as “jokes”, and not as integral tectonic components.  Those few contemporary architects who do build in more or less traditional styles are viciously attacked by the architectural establishment.  If anyone dares to break the twentieth-century taboo against traditional architecture, then that architect risks ending his or her career.

It is no wonder, then, that new traditional buildings spark such violent opposition and outrage from within the architectural community.  Interestingly, this revulsion is comparable to that felt by ordinary citizens when confronted with bizarre deconstructivist structures, which in that case is driven by our built-in (“hard-wired” or biologically evolved) instincts for order.  As a result of their training, most architects today consider traditional architecture as “impure”, and that part of their professional duty is to purify the world through its elimination.  In this conception of things, Neo-traditionalist architects are traitors and enemies of the cult.

It is as if architects formed by twentieth-century ideals have read Hans Urs von Balthasar’s treatise (The Glory of the Lord: Volume I) linking beauty with the love of God—in order to do exactly the opposite.  Everything that is natural, beautiful, sacred, and holy is negated, ridiculed, and suppressed; and moreover with a fanatical insistence.  Not even the Church itself has been spared.  In a remarkable adoption of what is fundamentally unholy, the Church has embraced modernist architecture.  The result is that many people do not feel like worshipping anymore in new church buildings that make them ill.  They also question the wisdom of a Church that can no longer equate the beautiful with the Holy.

For many millennia, the highest architectural expression was reserved for the House of God.  This is true with all peoples and all religions.  It is immaterial whether iconography was allowed or not: where it was, mankind created glorious mosaics, frescoes and paintings; where it was not, we created fantastic polychrome tiles, wood carvings, and carpets for our places of worship.  Religious spaces in themselves symbolize by their geometry the highest expression of the love of human beings for their Creator.  All of this ended abruptly in the twentieth century—not only the creation of enlightened spaces, but also our attachment through architecture to a higher form of order in the universe.  

Modernist architects broke up interior space into ill-defined volumes, using broken wall planes and extreme ceiling shapes and angles.  A lack of closure (often aggravated by glass walls) destroyed the wholeness of individual rooms.  Living spaces were either made cramped by lowering ceilings too far, or uncomfortable by raising the ceiling to two stories.  To complement this assault on the user’s senses, hard materials, previously reserved for external surfaces, were introduced into internal walls.  In a special irony, modernist architects were commissioned to build churches (some of which were deemed unusable by their intended occupants), and to disfigure older churches through so-called “renovation.”  

We find ourselves at a difficult time in architectural history.  It appears (and not only to the author) that the leading academic architectural institutions have adopted a philosophy and practice that represents anti-architecture.  Furthermore, universities are teaching this anti-architecture to more than one generation of future architects.  Persons outside the field naively expect that architects know what architecture is about, and that the most famous ones are a reliable guide to follow.  Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.  The discipline has been taken over by a destructive cult.  It is not within the power of this short essay to reverse this catastrophic trend, but at least it can raise a warning flag to the rest of the world about an architecture gone crazy.