Modernist architecture has to stop being a religion and start being a science
I recently got the question from a politician, what does the architecture rebellion really stand for? To properly answer this question one has to understand what is the root problem with modernist architecture.
I believe the answer is simple; we want architecture to stop being a religion and to start to become a science again.
The insights came to me during/after an afterparty in Gamla Stan at 3 in the morning. I was sitting next to two recent graduates of the architecture education of KTH. They showed me a building drawn by architects and the same building after being modified by a politician. They expected me to agree with them that the second version (drawn in a classic tone) was much worse but had not expected me to disagree with them. At some point one of them told me “But that is pastiche” and I responded “I don’t care about pastiche, it doesn’t mean anything to me or 99.999% of the Swedish population who has not attended the architecture education”. At the end of the discussion she told me “What am I supposed to do with my education then if you do not believe in it”. It was a very very good question. It prompted me to think about what kind of education she had actually received.
One of the biggest advances humans have ever made is to move from dealing in religion to dealing in science. These two ways of looking at the world are diametrically opposite each other and shape society in very different ways. Lets first break out what separates them from each other;
- Religion is dogmatic and cannot change while science is built to change
- Religion is fragile, it gets weaker when challenged while science is antifragile it gets stronger when challenged
- Religion is a zero sum game, if you are not a christian but a hindu this makes christianity weaker.
- Science allows any different types of intellectual streams and if you are interested in studying hinduism instead of christianity you are still studying religion which makes the topic stronger
- Religion is an identity ( I am christian, muslim etc) while science is a way to think. This means that if I challenge your religion I challenge your core identity.
- Science is a way of thinking so If I challenge the current theory of a topic that you have studied the most common reply is “Interesting… tell me more”.
How do we know that modernism is a religion?
Architecture rebellion has become a large group with 60,000+ members who are passionate about improving our built environment through architecture. If the group would be about economics this would have been embraced by the economics community since this means more interest in the topic, more students, more books to sell, more funding for research and generally more career advancement for the existing professors in the field.
But this is not the way it is treated by the existing modernism community. Instead it is treated as an existential challenge to the fait of modernism and is vehemently rejected.
Modernists firstly refuse to debate or engage in dialogue. Then they try to disparage their opponents by calling them fascists ( I have seen this personally) and other names simply for being interested in improving the built environment. It has become a us vs them situation. Once you view modernism as a religion that behavior starts to make perfect sense.
The key tenets of modernism that defines its religiosity is the following:
- The punishment and exclusion of heretics (such as classical architects)
- Usage of the year zero where the movement started and the abandonment of all knowledge that was gathered before that
Key tenements of the faith such as
- “Pastiche” which means a building that looks like it was built before the start of the religion. It is used as the term blasphemy in christianity
- Rules that cannot be debated or challenged such as “You cannot build anything that looks like it is not built after 1945” or that cities have to have “rings that define when something was built”. They are taken as articles of faith but rest in no science or study of any kind.
- Inability to include the knowledge of other science such as preference theory from economics (people pay more for things they like). Instead modernism claims that preferences such as beauty are “unknowable” and cannot be discussed.
- The use of high priests who know the truth and unbelievers can never know it in the same way. You often get to this stage when debating modernists when they claim “You cannot understand since you have not studied it” without explaining what it is that you do not understand.
This also explains why the current modernism establishment is so hostile to the architectural interest of the wider public. When christianity was divided in the 1500’s into the catholic and protestant branches it led to a 30 year war, one of the bloodiest wars in European history. Catholics and the Vatican realized that the emergence of protestantism was a direct threat to its power and its absolute dominion of the story of christ. Because any follower of protestantism is a follower lost for catholicism, and hence it is a zero sum game.
Since modernism is a religion and not a science it cannot embrace people who think differently and it also cannot solve disputes using science. The true faith cannot be challenged with the risk of it bringing the whole story down. For example there is no discussion of the existence of God or the holy ghost in christianity, it has to be taken as an article of faith.
It also explains why modernism is not bringing in the 10,000 years of architecture history that preceded it but continues to reject all previous knowledge.
How would architecture change if it went from religion to science?
- Firstly it would include anyone that is interested in buildings, cities, housing and how to create livable environments for humans.
- Architecture rebellion members and thought-leaders would be welcomed at universities and their theories could be developed and tested. Then either accepted or rejected using the scientific method.
- Secondly it would do away with concepts such as “Pastiche” as there is no blasphemy in science, only legitimate challenges that can be proven or disproven using the scientific method.
- Thirdly disputes could be settled using the scientific method and by bringing in theories from other fields such as micro economics and sociology. Example the discussion about environmentally friendly buildings can be studied using lifetime carbon emissions.
- Fourthly the engagement from the public would be warmly welcomed as it broadens the field and brings societal engagement.
Eric Norin (founder of architecture rebellion) was a heretic at the modernist architecture education at KTH and was shunned at the school. The reason being is that Eric was interested in the topic of architecture as a science and not a religion so the religion of modernism saw him correctly as an unbeliever. Eric was, to make the analogy, interested in studying religion while he had ended up at the christianity faculty where questions such as “what is the proof that god exists” is not under debate.
Eric Norin recently had a fascinating meeting with one of the previous high priests of the modernist movement in Sweden, the previous principal of the architecture school at KTH. The principal mentioned that the behavior towards Eric made him realize that something was wrong with the study of modernism. What I believe that he realized is that a “science” should never and would never treat someone who is deeply interested in the topic with such disrespect. But I am not sure if he understood that is exactly the behavior that is expected from a religion.
Religion can not be reasoned with as their tenements are not negotiable. It can only be defeated. By bringing modernism into the world of science we can solve the disputes inside academia instead of on facebook, we could harness the incredible engagement from the public in architecture and most importantly we could build a better and more livable environment while reducing carbon emissions.
The next time someone asks you “Isn’t that pastiche” the right answer is
“ I do not believe in the religion of modernism so that term doesn’t mean anything to me. I am only interested in improving the living environment of humans”