March 10, 2009

Architecture students should ultimately study philosophy

By Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden II.
Section of the longer paper "Intelligence-Based Design: A Sustainable Foundation
for Worldwide Architectural Education", ArchNet-IJAR: International Journal of
Architectural Research, Volume 2, Issue 1 (March 2008), pages 129-188. Reprinted
in two parts with comments in Archiwatch (February 2009).

The way philosophy is currently taught to architects tends to mix political ideology with idiosyncratic and subjective insights into society, and this muddled mess is presented as a theoretical basis for architectural and urban design. This practice is a terribly dangerous mix, as it gives students a perverted and erroneous, if not fraudulent basis for their profession. [...] Even though the majority of architecture professors are not overtly political, and even less declared Marxists, architecture schools have been dominated by a philosophy that arose from the radical political left. Critical theory and its architectural derivatives (which represent ideology rather than theory) continue to dictate architectural texts. [..]
Critical Theory has had its most insidious effect on architecture with the spread of the doctrine known as "Critical Regionalism". Proponents of this self-contradictory ideology assert that vernacular tradition and culture are dead, and that henceforth, regional architecture must adapt to modernist uniformization. They proclaim that the patterns and practices from which a region’s identity is derived are mere "nostalgia", and instead recommend the abstract aesthetics of international modernism (Cassidy, 2007). Any architectural expression, other than those possible within the restricted modernist aesthetic, is rejected. Those writers’ avowed intention is to create forms that do not belong to the vernacular form language. What results from this schizophrenic approach is not regional architecture in any sense, but a set of self-referential objects detached from their cultural roots, created and manipulated without regard to their regional context. (One occasionally sees an attempt at site-specific climatic adaptation, but nothing more).
Teachers thus use purely ideological arguments to validate a narrow set of design styles for students. That is as wrong as it is unsupported. It is only a means to further sustain a cult ideology that has dominated architectural education for the past several decades. The point is that good architecture and urbanism have nothing to do with political beliefs.
Worst of all, teachers apply techniques learned from political ideologues to coerce students and other academics into intellectual submission. Such forms of censorship are typical of a system that considers itself above all others. It gives itself the authority to reframe every member’s worldview. Whenever evidence is ignored, and is substituted by the irrational, that creates dogma. This erroneous style of teaching has become solidly established in today’s system.
One way to maintain the mystique of "architecture as an art" was to embrace ever more abstruse and incomprehensible texts, so as to shield the discipline’s shaky intellectual core from outside scrutiny. This obsession (or defensive tactic) has led architecture to embrace the nihilistic and deconstructive philosophers. Having architecture students read Derridean and Deleuzean philosophical texts disorients them, breaking down their critical faculties. Such disorientation could in fact be deliberate: a necessary psychological preparation for imprinting stylistic preferences in their minds (Salingaros, 2004).
Throwing the burden of teaching architects onto obscure philosophical texts enables architecture schools to endorse a very narrow set of design styles, embracing those currently in fashion.
The common justification given for studying philosophy is that architecture and urbanism are intimately tied to social phenomena, so that philosophy prepares a student to confront architectural problems. This explanation is a subterfuge, however, operating more as a means to avoid teaching architecture to students directly. The modernist teaching method, wherein all useful derived knowledge is thrown out in the tabula rasa approach, cannot openly admit that architectural and urban knowledge ever existed. If it did, then someone would have to explain how over 2,000 years of knowledge was lost, discarded, or ignored during the modernists’ 70-year reign. By diverting architecture students towards carefully selected philosophical authors, this action conveniently covers up the deliberate avoidance of any genuine, newly-derived or historically-relevant architectural theory.
So much of what now passes for "architectural theory" is therefore little more than doctrine. It conditions students to have absolute faith in a body of beliefs established in the absence of real-world criteria. Those beliefs set up the student’s worldview as shaped by the dynamics of in-group affiliation: a cognitive filter that bends information to fit, and rejects information that does not fit. Architectural education must in the future clearly separate architecture from politics, and also separate architecture from self-referential philosophy. Only teachers can train their students to do this. Both teachers and students can achieve this clarity of thought only after they understand the genuine theoretical basis of architecture, expressed in strictly architectural terms. Schools have a responsibility to teach a genuinely architectural basis for design.
Architecture students should ultimately study philosophy, but that is productive once they have formed a basis of what is really going on in architecture. And the philosophy they study has to be positive and humanistic. Many philosophers throughout history emphasize the necessity for human beings to connect to the universe, but architects hardly ever study those authors. Intelligence-Based Design has deep philosophical foundations. Humanly-adaptive architecture and urbanism arise out of a respect for humanity’s higher meaning in an infinite universe. There exists a vast body of philosophical work connecting humanity both with nature and with the sublime. One of our recommended texts, The Luminous Ground (Alexander, 2004) establishes a genuine philosophical foundation for an adaptive architecture.
  • Philosophers whose writings are essential for the sustainability of humankind try to understand otherwise puzzling human actions outside a strictly scientific framework.
  • They help us to delineate good from bad in human activities. This historical notion of "morality" recurs throughout the traditional treatises on philosophy of the entire world.
  • Numerous contemporary philosophers celebrate life and the sacredness of humanity.
  • Traditional religious texts are founded upon morality stories that help humanity to see beyond the limitations of human beings existing as animals or purely subjective beings.

But none of this is ever incorporated into architectural teaching today — which still turns to the same peculiar handful of (Western) philosophers, relying upon them to justify "architecture for architecture’s sake". Judging by how inhuman its forms are, the driving ideology is purely nihilistic, even as it serves global capital.

The separation between nihilism and humanism is total and uncompromising, however.
We have to choose very carefully which philosophers, and which texts to offer students for their reading assignments. A school cannot abrogate its responsibility by teaching architecture as a set of self-serving beliefs. In the twentieth century, architecture became a mass movement under the influence of leading architects who exploited specific philosophical texts to support their ideals and to promote themselves (Salingaros, 2004).
Architecture detached itself from any higher order in human existence, turning away from both nature and from the sacred. It was the first time in human history that humans began to intentionally create unnatural structures that are uncomfortable to inhabit and to experience.
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