Monday, April 9, 2012

The Architecture of Hell

The satanic is rebellion against God. In more abstract and secular terms, it is rebellion against all order that is not a matter of unconstrained human choice. Either way, contemporary intellectual culture often tends toward the satanic. Extreme idealization of human autonomy makes willfulness, transgression, and subversion seem like virtues. They destroy traditional standards, which are felt as shackles, and emancipation is thought the highest human good.

A problem with that kind of free-floating emancipation is that no movement that embraces it can be self-sustaining. It will be parasitic, pathological and destructive. Man is not complete in himself but part of something larger. An order we create by our own will can’t sustain human life or even itself. It can only exist by setting itself against the remnants of natural and traditional order that are still needed to carry on social functioning. It disrupts the things that make life possible.

When theorists like Bernard Tschumi cite Sade favorably or emphasize violence and murder they offer their adepts hope of meretricious advancement through superiority to conventional standards. Nonetheless, perversions of thought do not make life better for anyone. They are especially likely to make things worse when the theorists are architects, and their theories actually get built.

The principles that order the built environment matter, because man is rational and symbolic. To act in a human way we must identify, classify and interpret experience quickly and consistently. That means applying coherent rational principles. We may be unaware of those principles, just as we may be unaware of the grammar of our own language, but we have them and live by them, and we pick them up from the symbols that surround us. We surround ourselves with things that make sense to us. Conversely, we learn to make sense of life by means of symbolic representations of how things are. We are immersed in a built environment that teaches us the principles that inform it.

What happens then when the City of Man is built not on the principles of utility, beauty and harmony but on those of Pandemonium—when willfulness, transgression and subversion stop being intellectual provocations and acquire credibility as principles of action through incorporation in the built environment?

Presumably, we get oppression, violence and lies. That’s supposed to be a good thing. The idea, I suppose, is that there is no God, no given order that transcends human will, so beauty, harmony and perhaps in the end utility are fraudulent and oppressive and must be fought. If so, though, where does the “must” come from? And why put up with the oppression of building anything at all? If you want destruction you can get it straight.

The intellectual appeal of nihilism comes from the hope it offers of a certain rigorous purity. The hope is deceitful, because we are dependent and constantly find ourselves in complex situations we must deal with somehow. There is no short-cut to intellectual purity. The choice we have is not between acceptance or rejection of an order of things that precedes and sustains us, since we always accept such an order, but among understandings of what that order is. God cannot be abolished. If He could then the inhabitants of hell would not be so obsessed by Him. Their obsessions mock their claims of freedom.

[The foregoing remarks were inspired by Nikos Salingaros’s Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, a book that includes a short piece I wrote.] - James Kalb

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