Non-adaptive architectural implementations.

11Feb14

For architecture and the built environment, a tendency to follow or accept information that is verifiably incorrect has the effect of diminishing human wellbeing. In the past few decades we have seen, for example, the deliberate dismemberment of a historic urban plaza that had been the focal point of social life for centuries. The damage is done by well-meaning politicians who commission an architect to “upgrade” this urban space by introducing a more “contemporary” aesthetic and getting rid of existing “old-fashioned” components (Salingaros & Pagliardini, 2009). The usual result is the creation of an unpleasant, psychologically menacing environment that few persons feel comfortable using after the supposed “renovation”. Nevertheless, this alarming trend of destroying usable urban space is now becoming established practice all around the world. Citizen protests apparently have no influence, while the architectural establishment routinely gives out awards for these projects.

This contradictory practice applies not only for urban spaces, but also for many contemporary architectural and urban interventions. Explanations are needed for the behavior of the two principal actors in these actions: first, the politicians who willingly commission a project that degrades working public space in their constituency; second, the architects who conceive and implement the instrument of destruction. Politicians’ actions are driven by the desire to oblige powerful groups that can help finance their re-election, and this agenda includes following current fashions without reflecting on negative longer-term consequences. The dominance of a particular architectural aesthetic in today’s society means that, inevitably, an expert consultant upon whom a politician relies for advice on architectural and urban projects will propose a non-adaptive intervention.

The second actor — the architect who ignores what is best for the people and place he or she is designing and deliberately, if not defiantly, designs an environment that is by its very nature psychologically hostile — is driven to negligence by different motives. It is not an exaggeration to accuse such professionals of committing an act of aggression against the human dimensions of social spaces (albeit with the best of intentions). Contemporary practitioners have been trained to implement a peculiar design aesthetic, regardless of whether it damages the quality of human life in and round those spaces after they are built (Salingaros, 2010). They substitute the singularity of an object form for the rich informational complexity of context, which is what formerly gave life to an urban space throughout its historical evolution.

The ideologically-oriented education of the past several decades does not teach architectural practitioners how to evaluate the adaptive success or failure of a working architectural form or space; the sole criterion used for judgment is whether the design conforms to a narrow set of approved visual stereotypes. A built form is “good” when it has a certain hard industrial-minimalist look. In the majority of cases, the result of such an untested approach is damaging to the environment. During the process of “upgrading”, these new structures take on a novelty that might attract more people coming to see then; but unfortunately this act perpetuates the illusion that this is an effective urban space even when in reality it is a fleeting condition of self-feeding ideology.

How can contemporary architects and their clients act against people’s fundamental sensibilities; against traditional design rules tested throughout millennia to guarantee the users’ physical and psychological comfort; against common citizens protesting the hostility of the structures being erected; even against the architect’s and client’s own sensory feedback? Such an architect or client is following a mandate and authorization from the reigning design paradigm, which considers itself above all other responsibilities. There exists a higher authority that overrides both science and neuro-engagement. Architects never admit they are causing damage to the built environment, but feel immune to possible consequences because they are satisfying the wishes of an established organizational structure. For them, there is no liability towards society as long as the system’s ideology is obeyed.

By Nikos A. Salingaros.

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