i was in the middle of the long thin unit 1 cultural context essay when one of my fifth year housemates remarked that people often used this one to get things off their chests. this may be particularly true for me as i've been writing it for thirteen years and i've been going round forcing people to read it. i'll ressurect the footnotes that movable type stripped out later
5). Select one innovation in the history of Western technology and explain how this has affected design.
The House Is A Machine For Living In Like KIAD Is A Factory For Manufacturing Architects: The Triumph of Cartesianism, The Resultant Pathologies Of Modernism And Their Remedy, The New Paradigm In Architecture.
Shanghai prepares for the year of the monkey 2004
From the woman on the Clapham omnibus to HRH Prince Charles, most people are now aware on some level that contemporary architectural culture and practice are fucked. The very best we can produce is fast becoming the future slums of a toy town world. Most new buildings look as if they are made from a kit of science fiction parts enlarged by a ray gun to more than life size. Vast areas are devoted to cars moving and standing still, serving structures with all the reality and depth of theme parks. The earth's surface is being covered with nonsense and concrete and everywhere the world has the look of an architectural model.
It has been characterised as a mass psychosis on an unprecedented scale in which in the last hundred years or so we have created an architecture that is ugly, insane, image ridden, shallow and anti-life. These problems and many others facing the world as a whole are due to a misunderstanding that has arisen about the structure of matter and the nature of the universe with the result that until recently there was no coherent theory of order to guide our efforts. Remedying these defects and repairing the world in the 21st century is a massive and necessary task and will require a new conception of the nature of matter and hence a new cosmology.
The mindset of Rene Descartes was constructed by the Jesuit order at their College of La Fleche which he attended between the ages of ten and eighteen. The idea of method was at the very centre of their educational practice. At twenty three he wrote to a friend, "What I wish to finish is an absolutely new science enabling one to resolve all questions proposed on any order of continuous or discontinuous quantities. His ambition in the "Discourse On The Method Of Properly Conducting One's Reason And Of Seeking The Truth In Sciences" of 1638 and the "Meditations On The First Philosophy In Which The Existence Of God And The Real Distinction Between The Soul And The Body Of Man Are Demonstrated" published in 1641 was to persuade men that in their task of rebuilding the world, a method, his method, was alone effective.
To Descartes, who was a deeply religious man (hearing of Galileo's troubles with the authorities for encouraging the Copernican heresy, he delayed the publication of the Meditations) this procedure of examining the world by breaking it into limited sets of its constituent parts was simply a convenient mental trick, something to do to reality in order to understand it. However the method's success, which can be gauged by the rise of science and its role in creating the modern world, has had unforeseen consequences in that the extrapolation of the work by his disciples has bequeathed to us in the 20th century a worldview that actually conceives of the universe as a machine.
In the second Discourse whilst considering if works made by many hands are more or less beautiful than those made by one individual he writes, "So it is that one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more beautiful and better ordered than those that several architects have tried to put into shape, making use of old walls which were built for other purposes. So it is that these old cities which, originally only villages, have become, through the passage of time, great towns, are usually so badly proportioned in comparison with those orderly towns which an engineer designs at will on some plain that, although the buildings, taken separately , often display as much art as those of the planned towns or even more , nevertheless , seeing how they are placed, with a big one here, a small one there, and how they cause the streets to bend and to be at different levels, one has the impression that they are more the product of chance than that of a human will operating according to reason."
Descartes whilst agreeing that the buildings of antiquity were better than those of his own time seems to be expressing a dislike for the organic order of old towns that we find so authentic and charming. What he considers the product of chance is in fact the result of an order preserving process that is inherent in the wholeness of structures that are themselves the result of incremental unfolding over time. His preference for cities designed at will by engineers is the mechanistic urge which amplified through the rise of the scientific method leads us to De Stijl, the Bauhaus and the myriad pathologies of modernism.
All this has been made possible by the fact that the growth and power of the Cartesian mindset in the 20th century has had two devastating effects. The first is the removal of the realm of personal experience from the world; the "I" is taken totally out of the picture of reality. This is obviously madness and a complete impossibility for a person engaged in making anything. The second is the removal of value. The Cartesian system holds that the only statements that can be true or false are statements about mechanism. The world seen as a machine can have no intrinsic values, everything becomes a matter of opinion, rational discussion about buildings becomes impossible and in 1959 Rasmussen can claim, "But the man has not yet been found who can pass judgement, logically substantiated, on a building's architectural value." For the last hundred and fifty years or so this has been the sorry position of the architectural profession. "All this sounds abstract but its impact on our world has been enormous. It has created a mental climate of arbitrariness, and has laid the foundation for an architecture of absurdity."
This attitude has been exacerbated by the rise in the power of images in the 20th century to the extent that buildings are now judged more by how they look in glossy magazines than by the satisfaction of their users. The image is divorced from reality and is contributing to our alienation from our environment. "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." This has led to a point where the most blatantly ridiculous anti-human architectural schemes can be defended by occasionally internally consistent but ultimately senseless aesthetic theories based solely on mere opinion.
The chaos that has followed in the built environment was inevitable and "Thus the world has entered a new phase. What is made, what is built now, what develops in the world, is governed by images and rules. It is no longer governed by the existing wholeness. It is governed by what we decide." Misunderstanding the nature of matter necessarily means that the current mechanistic ideas of order are also inadequate in the realms of physics and biology as Cartesianism can illuminate the geometry of matter only as if it were part of a machine. No Cartesian conception of order has arisen that is capable of explaining the emergent properties of life, the structure of a snowflake or the harmony of a building. Nonetheless the architectural complex continues to blindly reproduce the physical structure of the shitstem without the benefit of any coherent theoretical framework.
Since the 1970�s and now in "The Nature Of Order" Christopher Alexander proposes a post-Cartesian non-mechanistic worldview in which statements about degree of life, degree of wholeness and statements about value can also be considered true or false. This is closer to the true nature of reality as we experience it in our own lives. The wholeness we feel in response to the harmony of great architecture or any other part of nature is objective and can be used to make judgements of relative value. By allowing our real human feelings back into the perception of reality it is possible to discriminate between relative degrees of life in buildings and anything else. The new paradigm of architecture is based on this form of extended objective truth and will ultimately "resolve the Cartesian dilemma, and make a view of order in which objective reality "out there" and our personal reality "in here" are thoroughly connected." The difficulty of the paradigm change and the process changes required in the way that the built environment comes into being should not be underestimated.
This new conception of the nature of matter and of the personal nature of universal order leads to a new cosmology that illuminates our human life on the earth and will enable us to once again recreate the world anew with the reverence it deserves.
1 Rene Descartes, DISCOURSE ON METHOD AND THE MEDITATIONS, Translated with an Introduction by F. E. Sutcliffe (London: Penguin, 1968)
2 Steen Eiler Rasmussen, EXPERIENCING ARCHITECTURE (Concord: MIT Press, 1959)
3 Christopher Alexander, THE NATURE OF ORDER Volume 1 The Phenomenon Of life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
4 Guy Debord, THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE, (Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel, 1967)
5 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont INTELLECTUAL IMPOSTURES (New York: Picador, 1998)
6 Christopher Alexander, THE NATURE OF ORDER Volume 2 The Process Of Creating Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
7 Stephen Grabow, CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER, THE SEARCH FOR A NEW PARADIGM IN ARCHITECTURE (London: Oriel Press, 1983)
8 Christopher Alexander, (ibid.)
9 Thomas Kuhn, THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)