Photo by Joseph Eid
Artillery Row

Architectural urbanicide

Our societies have allowed special interests to tear down living architecture

Biological life transforms energy from the sun into complexes of organic materials that either metabolize while remaining relatively fixed, or move about and eat each other. Human energy creates the analogous case of artifacts and buildings, which give us a healing effect akin to the feedback experienced from our interaction with biological organisms. This positive emotion corresponds to the mechanism of “biophilia”.

Women grow and nurture the human baby. They are predisposed to appreciate the created life form through an intense bond of love through beauty. Most people — though not all, a notable exception being the architect Le Corbusier — love babies and have a built-in reflex of smiling at the sight of one, even if it’s not their own. Beauty is inseparable from creation and life.

Established architecture in our times, and for a century before now, has been an almost exclusively male domain, dominated by sheer power. The profession has aligned itself with ideology and extractive money interests. A design movement that ignores living structure took dominance after World War II. It thrives through global consumption. Mathematical analysis can measure very precise living qualities embedded in design and materials, such as fractal scaling, multiple nested symmetries, color harmonization, organized details, vertical axis, etc. Recent experimental tools of eye-tracking and artificial intelligence using Visual Attention Software determine which designs attract the eye unconsciously, and which remain uninteresting to our sophisticated brain evolved for survival.

Architecture has embraced the supposed superiority of sterile visuals

The architecture and planning professions embrace the supposed superiority of a lifeless and sterile visual appearance. Buildings that did not match this simplistic emptiness were declared to be inferior on moral grounds actually a myth created to strengthen the industrial-modernist building sector. Unfortunately, societies the world over went along with this verdict and gutted their historical cities. They have lowered the factors for the success of public open space, which depends upon informational content embedded in the surrounding façades.

A system of land speculation and insensitive real-estate development that ignores local and community sensibilities, prefers industrial modernism to living architecture. How should society best respond to those economic pressures? We risk losing humanity’s most precious achievements, as judged by the structures we erect versus those we allow to be destroyed.

After the Second World War, the architecture-industrial complex of building and real estate industries began a massive rebuilding of major cities. This freed up real estate for new construction, an activity that enriched a certain section of society. Working with politicians at all levels, architectural review boards did not value traditional buildings, nor those in any of several new but non-modernist form languages. Any qualms about the irreversible destruction of the life of cities were offset by the media convincing the population that this was an inexorable and much desired move towards progress. Anybody opposing this program of architectural substitution — replacing living by dead structure — was labeled an obscurantist reactionary. The promised utopia seduced academia to join this campaign. People failed to realize that an ideology ostensibly linked to Marxist beliefs was driven by ruthless industry manipulation.

Nevertheless, architects don’t tear down buildings: it is real estate speculators who do. Those corporate entities are amoral, willing to do anything for profit. It’s not their responsibility to save valuable older buildings; that task falls upon society, which has failed miserably in this duty. The various mechanisms that are supposed to protect a perfectly sound and health-inducing building become a cruel joke when such a building is demolished. A decision is taken outside the light of public scrutiny, while implementing the strategy of the fait accompli — after the bulldozers and wreckers, it’s too late to do anything.

The story of the systematic destruction of the UK’s architectural heritage is long and ugly. To mention just one example, the corrupt Newcastle City Council Member Thomas Daniel Smith managed to erase large swaths of central city districts and replace them with cheaply-built glass-and-steel monstrosities before he was jailed in 1974. Smith worked closely with dishonest — and extremely successful — architect John Poulson, who was also jailed in 1974. He appealed directly to democratic and liberal sentiments to further his ambitions, and the political class at the time fell for his manipulations. This sordid story repeats, with only minor variations, except that the other urbanicides were never prosecuted.

Industrial modernism replaced life-enhancing with deadening architectural form

Industrial modernism has replaced life-enhancing with deadening architectural form languages. The labels used here are unorthodox, yet the evidence reveals the clear priorities: people unconsciously prefer the former group. Only trained architects prefer the latter. Why have we turned against the natural? This happened by institutionalizing a historical and shadowy discontinuity.

Architectural history purporting to report on the half-century 1890-1940 shortchanges the incredible flowering of innovative architectural form languages made possible by new industrial materials and technologies. This variety of living architectures has never been satisfactorily documented, but is usually grouped into some sort of “20th Century Traditional” category. It is nothing of the sort because “traditional” is, by definition, a continuation of previous typologies, whereas those form languages represent a burst of innovation. Many architects nowadays employ the term “traditional” as not being up to the times, but who gives them the authority to decide that?

Resisting the rise of industrial minimalism, architects erected many wonderful buildings everywhere around the world, to the delight of common citizens. A woefully incomplete catalogue includes Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Arts-and-Crafts, Edwardian, Expressionist, Jugendstil, Late-Victorian, Liberty, Sezessionist, Sullivanesque, among many innovative form languages still without an official designation. Academia unhelpfully lumps some of them, together with their regional adaptations, into the vague category “Eclectic”. Further confusion arises when architectural historians include some, but not others, inside the modernist canon (see James Stevens Curl: Making Dystopia). Official bodies representing groups of architects view this as embarrassing cultural baggage. Whereas the mainstream profession supported variations of a minimalist style, innovative practitioners of the various non-modernist form languages, isolated from the paradigm, were sidelined. Only forgotten buildings built during this period — officially designated as uninteresting — remain.

Architecture schools and the media have, for decades, opposed living architecture because it looks old-fashioned. They gloss over (or never learned) that the dominant 20th Century style arose from deeply racist, sexually deviant and antisemitic individuals who may have been suffering from brain damage due to World War I. The universal ban on ornament came earlier, proclaimed by a convicted pedophile. We have, as a result, inherited an intolerance against the very architecture that is good for our cities and mental health. We never question those prejudices, but accept them and impose them on our own bodies and on our children.

The world has learned to ignore the message of a healing environment

Architectural revolutionaries were trained in a time when both the Bolsheviks and the National Socialists (and their precursors, the Freikorps) were fighting viciously with each other on the streets of Germany. Architects who would determine the future applied the lessons of how to seize and consolidate political power, to further their ideas about architecture. Design style was combined with a carefully-tailored ideology promising social liberation and personal fulfillment.

Which brings us to today. The architecture-industrial complex was never kind to representative examples of non-modernist architectural innovation erected during the decades 1890-1940, because they clash with dominant establishment practice. But architectural life is no longer an aesthetic question, as it is now connected with good versus ill effects on human emotional health. Older buildings that satisfy the mathematical properties of living structure are indeed salutogenic. It is difficult to find recent buildings that contain those healing properties, since architects and clients face such fierce opposition that most simply give up.

A scientific basis for considering the genetics of design identifies a sort of architectural DNA that generates buildings in distinct form languages (“style” is too narrow a term for this quality). The rich and varied genetic pool of world architectures created with form languages that possess “life” display easily-recognized qualities. Architecture students can instantly identify buildings through their fractal scaling, nested symmetries, vertical axis, harmonious color combinations and, above all, coherent ornament. Today those qualities mark the buildings as belonging to a class of architectures designated as Degenerate Design Styles. Anything that threatens the official narrative is defined as sub-architecture.

The dogmatic texts of industrial modernism identify those form languages as irrelevant: nothing outside the Canon is of any value. Prominent figures set an example, which then provides a reassuring authority for others to follow. None less than Walter Gropius campaigned for the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963, the masterpiece by McKim, Mead and White, in order to please a rapacious property developer.

A significant percentage of the world’s population has learned to ignore the message of a healing environment. As a consequence, when such an existing building or urban space is threatened with demolition, nothing is done about it in time. Furthermore, whenever stultifying industrial-modernist structures substitute for healing structures, nobody complains about the life qualities lost from the built environment. Through vast global building programs, desirable economic reality has become identified with a certain high-tech look. People have been conditioned to accept their detachment from the sentient world. What is very profitable for the few turns into a disastrous and irreversible loss for humanity as a whole.

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