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The Devil’s Way

Posted by acdtest on December 16, 2003

The Devil’s Way

ell, well, well. Seems the anti-“modernist”-architecture cult is out in proselytizing force these past few days, spewing the tendentious, cleverly deceitful dogma for which it’s (in)famous. Weblogger and True Believer Michael Blowhard of 2Blowhards invited his favorite fellow True Believer and credentialed backer-upper — university professor, mathematician, and self-styled architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros — to air on 2Blowhards his less formal views on architecture, and Dr. Salingaros complied by writing an informal essay on the work of the great 20th-century architect Louis Kahn which can be read here.

Before examining this charming bit of anti-“modernist” propaganda, we should first try to make clear just what it is this cult’s acolytes mean by the term “modernist” when referring to the domain of architecture as they don’t use the term historically, but descriptively. Best we can make out, what the term refers to when used by these True Believers is 20th- or 21st-century architecture that eschews literal or recognizable use of “traditional” (i.e., pre-20th-century) architectural forms and ornament, or when applied to architects, those who eschew the same in their buildings’ design.

Get it?

Good.

So, to proceed…

Dr. Salingaros begins his essay on Kahn with a splendid rhetorical flourish.

1. Which Kahn?

First let’s get the architect’s identity straight. There are three Kahns in American architecture: Albert Kahn; Ely Jacques Kahn; and Louis Isadore Kahn.

Uh-huh. A bit like saying:

1. Which Jesus?

First, let’s get this redeemer’s identity straight. There are three Jesuses in redeemer history: Jesus Jones; Jesus Aloysius Smith; and Jesus The Christ.

In point of fact, in American architecture, the name Kahn without qualification means Louis Isadore Kahn and no other. Always. Albert Kahn, in the first half of the 20th century, specialized, and was influential, in the design of American industrial buildings (and very good he was at it, too), but is known for nothing beyond that; and Ely Jacques Kahn is merely (and justifiably) an historical footnote in American architectural history, if that. Louis Isadore Kahn, on the other hand, is numbered among the architectural giants not merely of American architecture, and not merely of the 20th century, but of world architecture, and of all time.

But let’s not berate Dr. Salingaros for his opening flourish too severely. His essay is, after all, intended to gather new True Believers into the fold by vilifying his cult’s archenemy, modernism (as it’s defined by this cult), and vilifying as well modernism’s followers, admirers, and fellow travelers.

Dr. Salingaros then continues,

The third Kahn [i.e., Louis Kahn] was the champion of modernism that we know so well — the Kahn of “what does a brick want to become?”

Well, that goes beyond mere rhetorical flourish, and straightaway into the willfully deceitful.

Kahn was no “champion of modernism”; either the cult’s definition, or the historical one. Kahn was a one-off, and if he championed anything it was his own unique and profound aesthetic vision. No follower he, and no ideologue or promoter of ideologies, modernist (in its historical sense) or other.

Dr. Salingaros then compounds that willfully deceitful statement by another.

The “official” histories of architecture are written so as to imply that genuinely homegrown American innovation in architecture really took off with Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson.

That statement is so rife with error it boggles the mind. Accurate “histories of architecture,” official or otherwise, would most probably assert that genuinely homegrown American innovation in architecture really took off with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright; certainly none so late as Kahn and Johnson.

But that last willfully deceitful straw man is there for a purpose beyond the merely misleading, and that is to act as the setup for what immediately follows; viz.,

To think this way is ridiculous, but it represents modernist dogma and is not meant to be supported by either reality or facts. To criticize Kahn’s work amounts to criticizing the spirit of American Architecture.

See? Dr. Salingaros now, in one fell swoop, gets to label modernists as ridiculous dogmatists and willful deceivers (in Freudian terms, Dr. Salingaros’s labeling modernists in that way is known as “projection”), and characterize preemptively those who would criticize his following criticisms of Kahn’s work as little more than lackeys of modernism.

Pretty slick, huh?

Then, to lend greater weight to all that follows, Dr. Salingaros invokes the cult’s Magic Name — the name of the cult’s undisputed Guru — in tandem with his own.

Christopher Alexander and I were talking about famous modernist architects, and Louis Kahn’s name came up.

And what did Guru Alexander have to say about Kahn?

I cannot bring it in my heart to criticize the guy, since he always went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a young man. He really liked me, and amazingly, he sounded just like I do when he talked. Very philosophical; emotional; conceptual; overwhelming; inspiring. Pity his buildings don’t do the same thing.

Do we really need to comment on anything about that, both in itself and in its context in Dr. Salingaros’s essay, or would such comment be a mere superfluity, the thing speaking loud and clear for itself?

What’s that? We don’t?

Excellent! And thank you for saving us the onerous task of having to explicate the obvious.

The rest of Dr. Salingaros’s essay consists, for the most part, of his personal impressions of several of Kahn’s buildings (we resist, as an act of charity, making comment on Dr. Salingaros’s interjection of his “index of architectural ‘life’ of famous buildings according to a mathematical model”), and personal impressions ought not be gainsaid so we’ll not even make the attempt. We here would simply call to your attention that Dr. Salingaros’s personal impressions are just that: merely personal impressions, and therefore of no importance, weight, or consequence beyond what they mean for Dr. Salingaros, and speak more loudly of his aesthetic sensibilities than they do of anything having to do with Kahn’s work.

We also feel it incumbent upon us to further call your attention to the fact that Dr. Salingaros uses the terms modernist and modernism some 17 times in his mere 2800-word essay. As we’ve previously pointed out, those terms have an idiosyncratic meaning when used by Dr. Salingaros and his fellow True Believers. To better understand what’s really behind that idiosyncratic meaning, we suggest that when you read Dr. Salingaros’s essay, you replace the term “modernist” by the term “Devil worshipper”, and the term “modernism” by the term “the Devil’s way”.

The essay reads more clearly that way in terms of what’s intended to be conveyed.

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