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"Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros
July 10, 2019


In June, students from several British architecture schools launched the Architecture Education Declares campaign with anOpen Letter to the Architectural Community: A Call for Curriculum Change.” Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, these students wish to re-orient the system so that it becomes more socially responsible. This courageous appeal for change appears at a time when similar thoughts are converging from different directions. A coincidence that could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed as previous cries for reform have been.

 

But is it realistic to expect architectural education to change? The current cult-based system is not set up to diagnose – let alone fix – deep internal contradictions. The best it can do is to protect its “business as usual” approach to design by applying a band-aid.

 

Hope exists only in developing an alternative education outside the mainstream. This has been tried in the past, and sabotaged every time by the monolithic power of the image-based, starchitect-worshipping system. With better organization, maybe it can finally succeed this time. As a start, lectures on human-scale architecture are being offered at a few places around the world. Students need to act on their own initiative and seek knowledge outside the confines of their schools.

 

I suppose that someone representing the architectural establishment might answer the students’ letter. Such a response will certainly contain nice-sounding statements about ecological responsibility, concerns for human health and economic inequality, etc. But can anyone trust such promises coming from institutions with a very poor or nonexistent track record for understanding these problems? Teaching “architecture as image” only produces frustrated, ruthless individuals entirely lacking in self-knowledge.

 

The problems run deeper than at first appears. There exists a basic flaw in architecture’s epistemological foundations. For decades, architectural education has confused two entirely distinct phenomena responsible for how environments affect us. I will use medical terminology to describe them.

 

1. A sign is someone’s reaction to architectural form and space that is also directly observable by other people, the more the better.

 

2. A symptom is a reaction to architectural form and space that is experienced subjectively, hence reported solely by an individual.

 

In science, one should never confuse a sign with a symptom, because a sign has to be verifiable (or falsifiable, as emphasized by Karl Popper). Signs are usually, though not always easily, confirmed by experiments and measurements. Symptoms are in a different category, however, in that they exist in a non-shareable space. Only the person describing them can feel them. A self-reported symptom could be “documented” and then accepted by others on faith, but they cannot measure it.

 

For a century, the opinions of individuals and groups substituted for actual measurements. Architecture became detached from the consequences it has on users: it was judged by the symptoms, not the signs. Teaching design focused on generating visually innovative forms. The doubtful ethics of form-making that privileges the aesthetics of an élite group (architect, client, and academia) ignore signs of distress among common people and users. This same élite group reports positive symptoms, which the media interpret as signs. We know this not to be true. In fact, the chasm between the judgments of architects and common people is vast. Interpreting according to Popper, this design disconnect turns architecture into a pseudoscience.

 

The authors of the above letter realize that something is terribly wrong with their education, and demand responsible reforms. But the majority of students worldwide complacently pick up practices from their instructors without questioning the consequences. They choose to study at institutions whose prestige relies upon starchitects who champion extravagant and often-unrealizable structures. The dark side is their connection to global money that pushes for the most pharaonic projects, without any regard for how those projects will affect society and the earth.

 

A syndrome of arrogance infects architecture, starting from the totalitarian statements of the 1920s: “WE DECLARE THAT... all buildings have to have flat roofs... be raised on pencil-thin stilts that generate anxiety in the viewer... all windows are long and horizontal... all buildings are painted white without any ornamentation, etc.” Those slogans ended adaptive architecture, and marked its disassociation from human biology. Propaganda slogans replaced design knowledge that responded to individual and public needs. Practice subsequently treated humans as numbers, and the earth as a disposable playground for untested fantasies and whims. Students have been trained to unthinkingly perpetuate a design system disconnected from human physiology and psychology.

 

A few students finally realize that this extractive global system destroys ecosystems and erases traditional societies. Large portions of the world’s population are negatively affected by the insensitive games of the international architectural élite. Monstrous top-down projects that please and further enrich their clients erase the human scales of the built fabric all over the world. Since the complexity of traditional built fabric evolved over centuries, this represents a terrible loss of adaptive environments. Our schools sidestep this ethical catastrophe, however. Instead, architectural education instills unquestioning obedience and cult worship of starchitects.

 

What consequences do architectural forms have on the health and wellbeing of people? How do those structures impact the earth’s ecosystems? Can the arrogant “will-to-form” approach possibly respect life on the earth? Does anybody care to look beyond the abstract aesthetics and media hype? Not asking such questions undermines the ethical validity of much of what is routinely taught today.

 

The profession suppresses the contradiction between adaptive, human-scale architecture and the catastrophic large-scale consequences of current practice. Perhaps intentionally so, since bringing this relationship into the social/ecological consciousness would threaten the hegemony of the present-day extractive system.

 

These British students now look for safeguards to come from the outside, yet they miss the essential point. Design techniques that ignore human sensibilities cannot be reformed – they have to be replaced. Genuine reforms can only grow out of our own inner understanding of life, unfortunately long repressed.

 

You cannot pretend to help humanity unless you liberate your own sensitivity to the generative processes giving rise to adaptable forms. You will have to break away from the egocentric and seductive pursuit of power as architecture’s end-goal. To affect society for the better, students have to first learn design techniques that adapt architecture for human beings. They should study the writings of Christopher Alexander and related authors, and take a one-year course of the “Building Beauty Program” in Sorrento, Italy.

 

 

Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is an architectural theorist and urbanist. He is winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Prize for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. He is author of seven books on architecture and urbanism translated into many languages, as well as numerous scientific articles. He is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and directs Ph.D. students in architecture and urbanism at many other institutions.

 

Also by Salingaros:

 

Architecture's New Scientific Foundations
A new book-in-progress aims to change the way architecture is evaluated and, thus, to change the way it is practiced.


Architecture's New Scientific Foundations, Part 2

Architects often assume that complexity, in general, must be designed. That's a misconception, and rarely conducive to human wellbeing.

 

Architecture's New Scientific Foundations, Part 3
Adaptive vs. Random Complexity, Part 2. Nourishing environments are complex yet highly organized, but cannot be minimalistic.

 



(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself. It is not linked to any authoritarian past, as contemporary architects falsely claim in promoting an expensive and non-sustainable philosophy.

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