The Human Brain and Building for Human Beings

By James Howard Kunstler

The New Urbanists (Nurbs) were always reluctant to get into the nitty-gritty of aesthetics because they knew that their adversaries, especially the mandarins of architecture entrenched in the elite grad schools, were eager to use that as a truncheon to beat them up. The elites endorsed only one style, Modernism, which was not actually so much a style as a method of applied sadomasochism on the grand scale, seeking to punish and purify Western Civ for the traumas of two world wars, capitalism, and cultural hegemony. Thus, all previous architectural history that led to that carnage was consigned to a garbage barge floated out of sight of land and scuttled.

The Nurbs, however, were very market-driven, meaning they cared about what, in the way of townscape and houses, actually appealed to people, that is, to human neurology and cognition. They wanted to please people where they lived, rather than punish and purify them. That tended to mean traditional design, the very thing that elites had anathemized. But the Nurbs stopped short of endorsing outright the systems of antiquity that actually specified the methods for organizing buildings so as to please the brain—say, the books of Vitruvius from classical Rome, or the update of that by the Florentine, Alberti, or even Asher Benjamin’s early 1800s pattern book, The American Builder’s Companion, which showed common carpenters how to build houses like Greek Temples. Instead, the Nurbs came up with some simple, practical codes for their projects, like the rule that porches had to be a minimum of six feet deep—because that’s what’s necessary to allow human bodies to move around porch furniture.

So, by and by, along came the lonely figure of Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician down at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who was obsessed with the hideousness of the American built-scape and wanted desperately to help correct it. Salingaros latched onto Christopher Alexander, a precursor of, and godfather to, the New Urbanism movement, who had produced the highly influential book A Pattern Language back in the 1960s, which sought to explain to a bamboozled public how to make their daily environments more rewarding. Salingaros collaborated with Alexander in several book projects and eventually sought to compose an aesthetic code for building based on unlocking the mathematical secrets behind human cognition.

His work over many decades produced a concise book, modestly titled A Theory of Architecture (second edition from Vajra Books), in which he explains the fundamental proportioning relationships and hierarchies that will make buildings appear comprehensibly consistent with the laws of nature—and therefore let us feel better living among them. Take, for example, the matter of ornament. Ornament is one of the primary taboos of Modernism, which is to say it is absent from most of the buildings of our time. Its banishment derives partly from a stupid dogma that associates ornament with the great crimes of history (c.f., Adolf Loos, 1870-1933), and partly from the development of modern materials such as reinforced concrete, plate glass, and silicon gaskets that make …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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