arch-peace editorials

26 September 2011

Anti-Vitruvian Architects and Contemporary Society

Certain issues keep presenting themselves on the map of discussions about architecture and its role as a profession in contemporary societies. Recently, I came across two web interventions that highlight some of these issues. The first is a video clip on You Tube, titled “is the architect obsolete?” and the second is an article on the website of DesignIntelligence by Helena Jubany, titled “The Social Responsibility of Architects” These were a trigger for this editorial in which I re-iterate some of the issues I presented in my earlier writings.(1,2,3)

While practicing architecture works very well for some professionals, many are suffering from norms, traditions, and customs adopted by the profession itself. This is due to the fact that the profession still clings to the antiquated notion of an architect or designer waiting in an office for a client to come in with a project. It is also due to the fact that architects do not know how to convince others of their value. The question here is why? Is it the ineffectiveness of professional organizations, is it the notion of ‘starchitects’ that dictates the architectural scene in many parts of the world? Well, it might not be so difficult to offer a validated answer!

I refer here to a study by Dana Cuff (1989), which aimed at clarifying some conflicting issues in the profession. Among those issues were the notion of the individual and the image of the society, the individual’s identity, and the individual’s sense of others. Cuff selected seven famous architects; they were: Peter Eisenman, Hugh Hardy, Steven Holl, Robert Kliment, Richard Meier, Joseph Polshek, and Todd Williams. The criterion for selecting those architects was that they are seen as creative leaders rather than representatives of their fellow practitioners. The study revealed several critical issues. Famous architects see themselves among the world’s actors, but with special talents and responsibilities. Each sees himself as an individual with a unique biography and a set of abilities. They imply that their perceptions, opinions, and actions are similar to those of other architects and contemporary peers. Each emphasizes the cardinal contribution of the individual maker to the world of architecture.(4)

For some architects, architecture is, inherently, a process of self-exploration. Todd Williams has described his inner critic and said: “if you are of that critic in the mirror, you can do all kinds of outrageous things… creative and truly profound.” In this respect, Richard Meier, however, separates the inner critic from its work: “the building has its own identity. I may give it something, of course. The similarities among my work are because I am interested in certain things.” Cuff (1989) has commented on this attitude, arguing that the inner critic is the force that enables self-exploration to be involved in design. Concomitantly, like the results of a personality test, a building reveals a self-portrait of its maker.

Another aspect of self-exploration is stated by Robert Kliment, who said: “I make what I want to be… In some respect, architecture is a way to create order and logic in my own life.” Along the same way of perceiving the self, Eisenman says: “I act through architecture… How else do I prove I am here?” In this concern, Cuff (1989) has pointed out that those architects deny the importance of buildings as finished products. Buildings are seen as steps within their own life. Another issue has emerged from Cuff’s interviews, since notions such as community, friendship, work relations, and social interaction appear to be ignored by name architects. As Cuff has commented, they deny the validity of social sciences in architecture.(4)

Overall, Cuff’s study demonstrates that the profession is facing challenging changes since the 1980s, and the response to those changes is very weak. Consequently, society places low values on architects, their profession, and their education. It also manifests that starchitects are immersing themselves in a matter of self-exploration and self-expression. As a result, buildings are dealt with through artistic expression, which is based upon the individual’s beliefs rather than human needs and social factors.

In an article written a few years back, which reviews the work of Nikos Salingaros, I adopted the premise that his writing marks a true beginning for seriously regaining what cultures and societies have lost throughout the years through the work of many architects, urbanists, and decision makers. While I explored his three monographs and presented them as a new “De Architectura” for 21st century architecture and urbanism, I place emphasis in this context on his book "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction."(5) The article reflected on Vitruvius’s De Architectura and highlighted selected evolutionary aspects of architecture and the anti-vitruvian practices that continued for hundreds of years, but intensified over the last century.(6)

In general terms, the views adopted in this discussion are based on the conviction that the theories and writings of Salingaros are a reaction and a conscious positive response to these practices, and that these writings will invigorate the creation of humane and livable environments. Here, I relate the argument presented in the article to the context of the profession and the way in which architecture is practiced and viewed by star architects, which I call "Anti-Vitruvian."

Since architecture became an established profession, architects are always in a continuous search for recognition and fame. The reason is that throughout history they have wanted to be the intellectual and social peers of their elite clients. According to Kelbaugh (2004), architects have established first local, then continental, and now global networks of criticism, critics’ circles, and publications in which awards, books, and magazines are the real medium of expressing their status. In such a medium, the photographs are privileged at the expense of the physical artifacts (7), and I would add here at the expense of the people who use them. The result is that “Architecture has become the exclusive domain of the so-called “Star Architect” (starchitect in common usage), no longer operating as a conveyance, but as a usurper of culture and identity.” (Salingaros & Masden, 2007:37) (8).

Architects still believe that they are eligible to use the act of building for personal exploration and expression. They are creating architecture that makes little reference to anything, only their innate gifts. Concomitantly, this sense of artistic entitlement empowered a few of them to design a few brilliant individual buildings. Yet, it has produced--and keeps producing-- fragmented and illegible urbanism. In response to these syndromes the recent article of Salingaros and Masden (2007) raises critical questions “How can these starchitects espouse to know what is best for the rest of the world? More importantly, how do we combat the aesthetic authority that such individuals now exert over our place in the world?” (Salingaros & Masden, 2007:37) (8).. I would argue that someone, some organization, a professional body, an architectural club, a client group, or whatever responsible entity should take these questions and seriously try to answer them in an attempt to stop or minimize the severe damages to cultures and societies in which those anti-vitruvian architects practice (6).

In “Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction” Salingaros introduces a collection of twelve essays in the form of a compilation that critically analyzes evolutionary aspects of modernism and post-Modernism, while heavily criticizing the resulting end-style of these two movements: Deconstructivism. Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction encompasses an interview with Christopher Alexander, and contributions and comments from well-known writers and scholars including James Stevens Curl, Michael Mehaffy, and Lucien Steil, among others.(5) The main argument of this manuscript lies in Salingaros’ belief that architectural deconstruction is not a new thing. It has started since the 1920s from the Bauhaus, the international style, and modernism, going through new brutalism and late and post modernism. Each of these “ISMS” is regarded as a cult that had tremendous negative impacts on the way in which we think about or approach architecture in practice. Salingaros argues that deconstructivists have disassociated themselves from the lessons derived from history and precedents, while distancing themselves from basic human needs and cultural contexts.

While many critical statements are made by Salingaros in different parts of the manuscript, one should note his criticism of the critics, the articulate and fancy rhetoric and writings of Charles Jencks and Bernard Tschumi. In this respect, in two important essays, Salingaros made important arguments where he refers to Jencks as a “phrase maker and style tracker.” He points out that Jencks’ understanding and use of scientific concepts to justify and celebrate deconstructivist architecture is simply superficial. On the other hand, Bernard Tschumi’s two major writings titled “The Manhattan Transcripts” and “Architecture and Disjunction” were closely examined by Salingaros. He concluded that Tschumi’s work is a collection of meaningless images that resembles advertising and a false claim of knowledge of mathematics in analogizing it to architectural form.(5)

Undoubtedly, the questions and issues that are raised by Cuff in the 1980s and by Salingaros" in 2000s represent logical voices against style-based practices and other professional attitudinal problems. It is no surprise that many of the syndromes that characterize the profession since the 1980s continue to exist in recent years. While the work of Cuff is conservative in a sense, it reveals many of the negative attitudes on how architecture is seen by starchitects. The more recent work of Salingaros is provocative as it introduces critical arguments against those attitudes. I would argue here that without a critical examination of these professional malfunctions the profession and its education will continue to suffer a lack of credibility in the eyes of the public. In response, I conclude this editorial with the following four wonders and one wish:

• I wonder if anti-vitruvian architects are able to deal with different segments of societies other than serving the rich and only the rich.
• I wonder if they have the ability to protect the tangible built heritage within the intangible cultural and societal contexts.
• I wonder if they can democratize design practices and if they know how to involve people affected by design decisions in the process of making those decisions.
• I wonder if they are able to deal with problems and paradoxes associated with different sub-cultures including the disabled, children, seniors, and the under-represented(9).
• I wish I could see anti-vitruvian architects able to solve a housing problem in a village or in a dense urban region, or able to introduce change in a poor community, or a squatter settlement. While anti-vitruvian architects are immersing themselves in exploring new innovations to foster their fame, two thirds of the world’s population lacks shelter or lives in substandard houses.


1. Salama, A. M. (1995). New trends in architectural education: Designing the design studio. Raleigh, NC: Tailored Text Publishers and Unlimited Potential Publishing.

2. Salama, A. M. (1998). Towards a New Role for the Architect in Society. Medina Magazine. (July - September 1998): 72 - 73.

3. Salama, A. M. (2009). Transformative pedagogy in architecture and urbanism. Solingen, Germany: Umbau Verlag.

4. Cuff, D. (1989). Through the looking glass: Seven New York architects and their people. In D. Cuff and E. Russell (Ed.), Architects’ People (64-102). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

5. Salingaros, N. (2004). Anti architecture and deconstruction. Solingen, Germany: Umbau-Verlag. (with contributions from Alexander, C., Hanson, B., Mehaffy, M., & Mikiten, T.).

6. Salama, A. M. (2007). Nikos A. Salingaros: A New Vitruvius for 21st-Century Architecture and Urbanism?, ArchNet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, 1 (2), 114-131.

7. Kellbaugh, D. (2004). Seven fallacies in architectural culture. Journal of Architectural Education, 58(1), 66-68.

8. Salingaros, N., & Masden, K. G. (2007). Restructuring 21st century architecture through human intelligence. Archnet-International Journal of Architectural Research, 1(1), 36-52.

9. Salama, A. M. (1999). Incorporating knowledge about cultural diversity into architectural pedagogy. In W. O’Reilly (Ed.), Architectural Knowledge and Cultural Diversity (135-144). Lausanne, Switzerland: Comportments.

Ashraf M. Salama
Architects for Peace, September 2011

Dr. Ashraf M. Salama is member of the editorial board of Architects for Peace. He is an architect, scholar, and academic, He is Full Professor of Architecture and the Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University. He has held permanent, tenured, and visiting positions in Egypt, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. He is the chief editor of Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, collaborating editor of Open House International-OHI, editorial board member of Time-Based Architecture International, and a reviewer for journal of design of research, journal of architectural education among other journals.


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