Architectural memes in a universe of information. Nikos A. Salingaros
Department of Applied Mathematics, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas 78249.
Abstract: I describe here a symbiosis between ideas, images, texts, and biological forms. Human culture consists of created objects as information, which form an integral part of what we are -- i.e., an essential extension of our biological bodies into our environment. This sensory, informational extension and mechanism for interaction defines a universe of information. With the advent of electronic communications, a relatively autonomous virtual world has been created. The space of information has proved a fertile breeding ground for the same informational entities -- called "memes" -- that formerly inhabited only human minds and artifacts. Architectural memes that took generations to diffuse through a restricted society can now spread around the world almost instantly, and will eventually alter its physical appearance. This paper aims to understand this process.
Intelligence distinguishes human beings from all other life forms. Much of our intelligence results from (or is manifested in) our ability to construct artifacts. A central component of the human intellect is devoted to establishing connections, such as those between elements in a design that leads to an artistic advance; or those between cause and effect that leads to scientific understanding; or between ideas and applications that leads to a technological advance. This is but a very sophisticated manner of treating information. Human beings are the best information processors among all the animals. Our technology and culture extend our informational abilities artificially, magnifying them by orders of magnitude.
Our desire and ability to connect to the physical world through touch, hearing, odor, taste, vision, and a mental understanding of physical structure extend our conceptual mental apparatus into the external world. Viewed in this way, artifacts are an artificial extension of our memory. Computer memory chips and hard disks are thus merely the latest technological manifestation of a trend that started with bone carvings and progressed through wood, stone, and bronze sculptures, to writing, to printed books, to the media we now have and use.
It is by developing these abilities of connection and memory that humankind has succeeded in dominating other living forms (to the point of eliminating a large number of them). Recognizing and recording patterns is the key to daily survival, and may also be seen as the origin of scientific, philosophical, and artistic developments. A recurring relationship once established among several elements of our world acquires meaning in memory as a pattern. This relationship can then be recorded or codified into a scientific result. It thus becomes part of collective human knowledge, just as our artifacts may be said to codify our collective material culture. The pattern can guide our behavior, or the production of artifacts. The same act of recognizing recurring relations among elements of our world anchors our relations with it, by enabling us to describe, explain, and know it, and thereby act and transform its physical aspects. Certain "patterns" represent informational entities in our minds. These serve to connect (1) the world's organization, (2) the organization of our knowledge, our artifacts and cultural expressions, and (3) the organization of our interactions with the world.
We now live part of our lives in a universe of information, where information storage and its retrieval have increased dramatically. It hardly appears that we are biologically ready to handle this explosion of capacity, which is threatening to change our world in ways that we cannot yet anticipate.
Starting with radio commercials and early advertising images in the 1920s, the world of electronic media has grown and enveloped us. Most people naively think of it as a separate universe, but in fact we inhabit it just as much as the tangible, physical world. It is more accurate to say that human beings inhabit a hybrid world formed from the overlap or merging of the physical universe with the universe of information.
It is necessary to ask then: what entities other than ourselves inhabit this informational universe? Sure enough, we share the physical universe with all biological life forms, but here is a non-biological realm. Which entities compete with our ideas, our knowledge, our thoughts, and our cultural products? The answer is as simple as it is disturbing: pieces of freely propagating clusters of information. These are called "memes". They are informational entities that are greatly simplified versions of patterns, and which gradually replace patterns in organizing our interaction with the world.
Since the beginnings of human communication (that is, several millennia before the advent of new information technologies), memes arose in the informational universe defined by communicating human minds, crossed over to the physical universe as artifacts, then crossed back again as transmittable images and ideas.
A realizable image, movement, or rhythm can be transmitted from one person to another. If the information defining it can assume physical representation as an artifact, this facilitates its transmission. Many artifacts are utilitarian, or have a deep meaning, but a great number of them acquire special communicative properties that aid in their diffusion. By so doing, they add reasons for their existence that are independent of their strict utility, and thus totally distort their intrinsic value (if they had any in the first place). These extra qualities often help to transmit a useless artifact: this is the mechanism whereby patterns are replaced by memes. The cycle closes when an abstract idea's physical representation serves to propagate that idea to other persons.
Sometimes, the connection between an idea and its representation is unexpected and possibly bizarre. An idea can be tied to things that have no relation whatsoever with it, but which nevertheless aid in its transmission. Once established, however, even an absurd connection survives in our memory. Therefore, an idea, together with its representation and the connection between itself and its representation, form a transmissible unit. This defines a "meme" (Dawkins, 1989; 1993; Dyens, 2001; Salingaros & Mikiten, 2002).
2. Memes, or informational viruses.
In the universe of artifacts, images, and other elements of human culture, some entities act more like viruses than higher organisms (Salingaros, 2004). Just like in the biological case, the virus/organism distinction is based on complexity: the virus has a markedly reduced structural complexity. In the biological case, this is achieved by eschewing large-scale structure and metabolism, retaining only the most rudimentary ability of replication. For this reason, a virus has an organizational advantage for propagating over even the smallest organisms, which have to both replicate and metabolize. (Like airline passengers, those with only carry-on baggage go through faster than those with many heavy suitcases).
A similar thing occurs for computer viruses, which are the simplest pieces of replicating code: they do not perform any useful function as other software does, and so require no complexity overhead.
The secret of memes is this: the simpler they are, the faster they can proliferate. Simple slogans, tunes, and images have enormous mnemonic power. In the visual world, this phenomenon has been analyzed in a discussion of comics by Scott McCloud (1993). The progression from a complex, individual image to an abstract, simplified image increases the image's applicability.
This secret was already discovered by early modernist architects of the 1920s. They dropped all elements that made architecture individual according to context, reducing their buildings to simple forms and surfaces. By so doing, they attained the standardization of architecture that was their goal. The "international style" of cubes and rectangles made out of flat surfaces, and using glass and steel was the result of stripping out all complex elements. This style composed of architectural memes replaced architectural patterns, and spread around the world with astonishing rapidity (Salingaros & Mikiten, 2002). Removing any structural information that made buildings adapt to individual human users, local climate, architectural and cultural traditions, and surrounding structures created a generic style that could be erected anywhere. The modernist movement confused the universal with the generic.
3. An ecology of memes.
As soon as human beings began to establish a network of storage devices for their acquired knowledge, this network became a vehicle for other, useless entities. These are the "memes", introduced by Richard Dawkins as pieces of information that travel from human mind to human mind (Dawkins, 1989; 1993). Memes are propagated in the collective mind of a society. A meme could be a catchy tune; an advertising jingle; a visual image; a religious or cult symbol; a political slogan; a chant; an idea or opinion (either sensible, or totally unfounded) about some topic; a message tied to an emotionally appealing issue, etc. Memes spread not because of any benefit or advantage to us, but because they have something attractive that makes them stick in one's mind. Memes offer seductive features to people, who then propagate them.
Even if we cannot speak of intention in memes, we have to consider them as acting for their own benefit. A meme's advantage lies in having more efficient techniques of propagation. Something that is advantageous for a meme is frequently disadvantageous for human beings. In the case of intentionally harmful memes, such as computer viruses, their intention is coded into their structure. One can largely explain the harmful properties of memes by their propensity to destroy and replace other mental entities. In the informational ecosystem of the human mind, now tremendously extended by new information technologies, memes are simply parasites. They have but one goal: to replicate themselves. This normally occurs by displacing other conceptual and informational entities.
The point is a simple one: opening human minds up so as to extend our consciousness into the outer world also opens them up to invasion by mind viruses. One cannot have one without the other. The price we pay for our vast intelligence is paradoxically our weakness to be influenced by cults, advertising, and political slogans. Advertising devotes an entire commercial industry to meme production. Most advertising memes tend to range from benign to harmful in the long term, whereas certain memes from extremist politics and destructive cults have proven deadly.
A meme spreads because it finds "receptor" or "attachment" sites in the receiving organism. Everyone copies from everyone else, regardless of whether a particular meme is harmful. Here is where the meme/virus analogy comes in useful -- many features of meme propagation are explained by the way biological and computer viruses act.
Since memes are entirely dependent on human beings to propagate them, they must offer either a real or imagined benefit. The most successful memes come with a great psychological appeal (Dawkins, 1989). Advertising memes promise to satisfy our desire for sex, attractiveness, and power. Political memes offer superficially plausible answers to deep economic and social problems. Religious memes about justice in the afterlife offer some hope during a bleak existence in an unjust reality. Putting religion aside until the end of this section, most memes' psychological appeal is a deception. Using a standard ploy from product advertising, biological viruses, and computer viruses, a harmful but successful meme presents itself in an attractive package or encapsulation.
As is well known from the world of advertising, memes compete fiercely against each other for our attention. We choose to accept one meme over another on the basis of its psychological appeal. Paradoxically, we tend to misinterpret this competition as a straightforward struggle of beneficial versus harmful informational entities (memes as well as patterns); whereas in most cases the blatantly competing entities are different memes, which are equally harmful to us. Genuinely beneficial memes are rather few in number, and there is as yet no indication that beneficial memes exist in the long term.
As long as people fail to recognize that memes show some of the properties of viruses, they continue to spread. Infectivity depends on the number of copies present in the environment, both as physically-embodied examples, and in pictures shown in magazines, books, and the media. Proliferation is thus exponential, like a biological or computer virus, because the rate of spreading is proportional to the current population. The world is alarmed (by the media) to learn that HIV infection is increasing, but people in general ignore infection with harmful memes. They misinterpret them as benign, or as fashionably desirable, or as a sign of cultural progress and modernity.
I have the greatest respect for Dawkins as the originator of the meme idea. Nevertheless, he is, I believe, mistaken to classify religious ideas strictly among the harmful memes. Religion is an organizing system of knowledge (real and imagined) about the universe, which has proved essential for humankind to maintain itself. It is probable that the rise of increasingly complex religious ritual during humankind's earliest days played a significant role in developing our mental capacity. Furthermore, the progressive disappearance of religious practice we witness today, coupled with new information technologies, could have contributed to the unprecedented emergence of destructive memes in our society. We may argue that memes, which "develop only for themselves", are vastly different from patterns, which serve to connect us with our world, and thus to link the physical world to the spiritual world. If people no longer have universal aspirations, and if we are distancing ourselves from the physical conditions of our existence, then mental models begin to develop strictly for themselves, and end up as memes.
4. Co-evolution of memes and human beings.
Rather than looking at the process of meme creation and propagation as one-sided, Ollivier Dyens describes it as really a two-way process (Dyens, 2001). Humans generate memes, which in turn change human society. The process is one of co-evolution, where it is impossible to say what influences what. That's the whole point of cultural evolution: once a beneficial or harmful meme is adopted by a society, it helps to develop that society for better or worse. Just as early humans' mind opened up to memes, they, in turn, are suspected of forcing the multiplication of the brain's processing power in order to handle the increased input.
This created a self-reinforcing loop that could have driven the human brain to quadruple its size during our evolution.
Now, the capacity of the human brain is just as easily filled with junk as with useful information, just as a computer hard disk can contain either a million copies of the same image, or a doctoral thesis. This example only underlines my insistence on the value of information not being relative, and that there exist criteria for judging this quality. The informational universe unfortunately contains and transmits both types of information indiscriminately.
Dyens (2001) elegantly describes how memes require brains (not necessarily human ones) and languages to emerge and spread. "Organic beings and cultures are profoundly entangled in each other ... Media environments -- more specifically, the Internet and telecommunication networks, but also such things as the publishing, music, or film industry -- enable cultural replicators to free themselves from dependence on organic beings. Cyberspace, for example, is an environment where replicators can reproduce and disseminate independent of organic beings. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, media environments are more effective, faster, and less brittle than organic ones." (Dyens, 2001; pages 17-18).
Part of this picture has already been adopted by one group of evolutionary biologists, who view evolution as an ecosystem phenomenon, rather than as an isolated process acting on an embedded organismic type. To them, what evolves is the ecosystem and not just the individual organism. Another part of this explanation is tied to realizing that human development is not limited to biological -- i.e., genetic -- channels, but takes place within a network of artifacts (see the vast literature of paleoanthropology, which says this), neurons, and increasingly, electrical circuits.
One should not confuse memes with patterns. One reads, for example, that birdcalls are a meme for birds. I interpret this otherwise: they are patterns rather than memes. Bird songs are extremely useful for the birds; and they are also very beautiful, both to them and to us. Furthermore, they serve to connect the birds' lives (i.e. their behavior) to the physical world. If there is indeed a co-evolution between memes and human beings, we should not confuse that with another co-evolution, surely more fundamental, between human beings and their patterns (as I defined in the Introduction). It seems that this confusion exists in the literature on memes, which indiscriminately lumps together all mental entities as "memes". In the same way, all biological organisms are not viruses, and all organized informational entities are not memes. Even though this article is primarily devoted to memes, one of its goals is to point out that today, memes have proliferated to the detriment of other informational entities.
5. Memes disguised as playful images in an informational universe.
Architectural memes depend on people and human society for their existence. An informational virus is merely a handy description of actions that persons willingly take to reduce organized complexity in different media. Some individuals strongly believe in the propagation of a particular type of structure over the earth, and they devote their energies to this task. Most architectural movements in the twentieth century were driven by images tied to some questionable ideology (Salingaros & Mikiten, 2002). Alternatively, as in a political movement, persons who do not believe in the ideology might support it nevertheless, because it provides a means of livelihood, income, or career advancement. Some memes propagate because it serves the interest of a group of persons to propagate them. Even if the long-term effects on society are clearly negative, some individuals profit in the short term.
Although we should be careful not to overextend the viral analogy, there is one further insight to be gained from it. Biological viruses have an inert, crystalline form in which they can survive in a hostile environment for a long time. The biological virus becomes active only in an aqueous medium, in which it seeks a particular organic structure whose deconstructed material it will use to make copies of itself. There is something analogous happening in the architectural world. The archival forms of an architectural meme include a building, its photograph, or a design generated on a computer. The image's active form, however, inhabits human brains, and commandeers their attached bodies to create copies of the image.
Architectural images inhabit both the physical world and the attached world of information at the same time. This environment comprises the following interlinked components:(1) The human sensory system, especially the eye, which inputs information into the brain.
(2) The brain, which processes and stores that information as neural circuits.
(3) Various communications media such as the Internet, newspapers, television, books, and magazines that transmit information to the human eye.
(4) Structural information encoded in buildings.
(5) Media for information storage such as computer hard discs, the world-wide web, books, magazines, etc. encoding visual and textual information.
In this respect, information and communications technologies are instrumental in spreading architectural memes worldwide.
Computer-Aided Design (CAD) programs have become an essential component in the universe of information. That is because a virtual building is trivially easy to represent on a computer screen, as compared to actually erecting a physical structure. One might characterize the electronic world of virtual design as a laboratory in which new architectural memes are bred, before being unleashed into the outside world. In an interesting case of co-evolution, popular Computer-Aided Design software has now adapted itself to facilitate the representation of alien forms, by making it easier to generate them, while at the same time making it more difficult to design traditional structures containing coherent complexity on different scales (which is one characteristic of living structure).
In a virtual laboratory setting, one might have no idea of the destructive power of a particular architectural meme being developed, which becomes evident only after the design acquires physical embodiment as a building. An image very rarely provides the same sensory feedback as the eventual full-scale structure. Virtual design is very much "a game" pursued in the supposed quest of architectural innovation. (I explain elsewhere why this justification is a myth (Salingaros & Mikiten, 2002)). Since students and architects see computer-generated images much more than they complete actual buildings, this is a very effective method of transmitting unrealizable structures to their brain.
This way of working has actually turned into a brilliant coup, since those translucent images of unbuilt projects are so ambiguous as to be readable in many different ways. The viewer can inject his or her own conception into the ambiguous image, and so develop a liking for it. Small images on a screen can look "nice", "cute", or "exciting", thus creating a positive emotional attachment with the viewer. Many architectural commissions are won this way. The same cannot be said of the finished building, however, which does not possess any degree of ambiguity -- a flaw architects try to counteract by using a lot of glass and reflective surfaces.
Architectural memes make an emotional promise: they attract our attention because of their novelty. Forms that depart from our inherited idea of what a building ought to look like offer us surprise. At the same time, the complete separation of forms from real human needs helps to create a new link to a supposed innovation. We are sold the myth that whoever appreciates those memes (or, perhaps, whoever pretends to appreciate them) is a sophisticated, up-to-date individual. If such forms provoke anxiety, all the better, since this is a well-known method in advertising: provoke visceral emotions -- it doesn't matter which emotions -- to better fix an image into our subconscious.
Generating alien forms on a computer thus becomes an innocent game because it is divorced from the physiological and psychological consequences those full-size built forms will have on human beings. In very much the same way, a teenager can enjoy slaughtering virtual persons in a computer game; whereas real-life combat or terrorism takes a genuinely hardened character. Virtual reality provides a great training-ground for the real thing, not only because it sharpens skills, but especially because it fools the trainee into thinking it is all just a game.
6. Images that define an alien universe.
Even a cursory examination of currently popular architectural books and magazines reveals an alien universe of images, so radically detached from the real world of life and human beings. As I outlined earlier, however, this virtual universe is merging into the other, real one, so that one can no longer make this distinction. It is most definitely not a preference between two different ways of architectural expression -- say, blobs on a computer screen versus traditional buildings drawn on paper -- having equivalent aesthetic validity. Rather, I wish to distinguish between architectural patterns that benefit human life, and destructive memes that subjugate the physical world to a virtual one.
In the majority of architecture schools today, memes are realized as approved models; design examples offered as good ideas to copy; and computer-generated designs. Academic architects conform to those memes in the belief that they are being "original". Those architects tend to live in an isolated world of images, not necessarily having anything to do with buildings. Their creative output can nowadays be judged strictly via a virtual portfolio. Architectural competitions and prizes are awarded on the basis of virtual designs, and so on.
Within this world of images, everything architectural is reduced to visual representations. Nowadays, architectural training consists in large part of substituting this artificial universe for the real world. From their first days in architecture school, students are told that their instinctive notions of traditional beauty, natural structure, coherence, and balance are outdated, and that in order to become architects, they must adopt formal, iconic criteria. Many architects and students have been taught to discredit their own sensory equipment, and interpret the world according to a contradictory viewpoint. Those conditioned persons can no longer interpret what they see and touch, but function according to an alternative stored worldview.
Whenever a building is erected according to a set of eerie images, it is a material realization of the virtual, alien universe. This criticism has nothing to do with computer technology itself, which can be used either way by its human programmers. The same technology, appropriately applied, could help us to generate adaptive, humanistic buildings. Computer-Aided Design programs currently under development incorporate fractal rules and will try to automatically generate an optimal degree of design complexity.
Alien buildings impact humankind because they conflict with -- and replace -- traditional architecture. They also make it impossible to build new, innovative buildings that comprise living architectural structure. Visible examples do far more damage to civilization than the obvious one inflicted upon the built environment, however. Alien images penetrate into our conscience, and thus profoundly influence our world view. The ideological memes of simplistic, broken forms have acquired physical vehicles (e.g. buildings; visual and electronic media) that make possible their transmission to the minds of the population at large. One could make the analogy with the HIV virus, which is suspected of originating in a small group of apes residing deep in the central African forest. By crossing over into the human population with its international travel routes, HIV has successfully spread over the entire globe. It found a vast new population of hosts and more efficient methods of transmission.
Alien buildings embody a physical randomness that is the antithesis of nature's organized complexity. The danger is that such buildings are now registering subconsciously, to be used as mental templates for understanding and creating complex physical order. One's worldview is stored in the brain's permanent memory, which is being corrupted by alien images of a sleek, transparent, and broken architecture. It follows that these images will influence everything we design -- undoing all our achievements in understanding complex systems and how our world works.
7. Circumventing our immune system.
Any virus -- and a meme is no exception -- uses packaging or surface configurations permitting the virus to attach to a host and inject its DNA. In the case of an architectural meme, this includes the appearance of aesthetic and social progress and the promise of prestige and career success for the transmitter. A virus has the ability to change its packaging so as to circumvent defenses. Because of a continuous mutation to avoid being eliminated by the natural immune system, viruses are not automatically recognized as damaging intruders. We have evolved our immune system to protect us. A virus cannot make headway unless it also develops sophisticated strategies to fool our immune system. Informational viruses suppress the human immune system through ideologies of expertise and progress.
For example, the initial attraction of Modernist architecture in the 1920s was its claim of "a liberation from the oppressive hegemony of Traditional Architecture" (and, by implication, from all tradition). But then, when people actually moved into modernist apartment houses, they realized that the promised liberation was a myth, and the apartments were cheaply built, unrelentingly dull, difficult to heat, low-ceilinged, and had awkwardly placed windows and impossibly cramped kitchens.
The meme's encapsulation was then changed to: "the modern architecture is hygienic and promotes better health". That was enough to last for a while, until people realized that this, too, was a piece of propaganda. It was then the turn of: "the modern architecture represents the latest engineering results applied to buildings". The industrial materials promoted, however, were more expensive and less durable than traditional materials. But there was a fetish with the new (in the 1920s) industrial materials, while mass production fit ideologically with both Marxist and Nazi efforts at industrialization (Salingaros & Mikiten, 2002).
These encapsulations have been extremely successful, and continue to be employed by today's architectural memes. Some more recent meme encapsulations include slogans such as: "free curves liberate us from the restrictive architecture of cubes and right angles"; and "contemporary mathematics of chaos and fractals decrees that we should build broken forms". The latter is, of course, pure nonsense, but both meme encapsulations help to promote contemporary building styles.
And yet, buildings that do not adapt to their human users; that ignore local traditions; and that refuse to use local materials turn out to be excessively costly, alien to local culture, and often dysfunctional (Salingaros, 2004). Their only reason for existence is to realize an architectural meme. Those memes are so deeply imbedded in the emotional portion of our brain that it is extremely difficult to get rid of them. Suggesting to architects that these are meme encapsulations that represent clever deceptions creates panic; the whole concept of modernity and social progress suddenly appears to be at stake. This reaction is a testament to the effectiveness of the memes' encapsulation.
8. Some architectural memes.
The undeniable success of twentieth-century architectural movements poses difficult explanatory problems. Starting from early modernism, architectural memes have been extraordinarily successful, winning over a determined group of followers. Nowadays, the deconstructivist movement and its ethereal, blob-like successors are in vogue in the architectural world. I have argued elsewhere that modernism and its postmodernist mutations (which include deconstructivism) are opposed to what is naturally preferred by people (Salingaros, 2004). That makes the reasons for those styles' success even more mysterious.
Distinct families of architectural memes began to be created by architects starting at the beginning of the twentieth century. All of these informational viruses share common characteristics, yet by now define a broad range of visually different styles. It would be useful to have a taxonomy of architectural memes available, showing how one strain evolved from another, and also noting which meme crossed over from another discipline such as philosophy or politics into architecture (analogous to biological viruses transferring from animals to humans).
It is not the aim of this essay, however, to systematically classify the known architectural memes. Some obvious examples can be described as follows:
(1) The largest scale is dominant, with no visible differentiations on any lower scale. This meme generates smooth, "pure" forms, with either plane or curved surfaces.
(2) Empty modules that, when joined together, show no substructure. This is the ancestral meme for plate-glass walls, reflective metal sheets, and flat, prefabricated concrete panels.
(3) No proper boundaries. Walls just end in a sharp edge. No wide differentiation frames a structural element. Columns end abruptly instead of having a differentiating capital.
(4) Contradict the rectangular forms of traditional architecture (which, however, is often very relaxed), and also its rounded forms, whose curvature arises out of the geometry. Normally, tectonic needs are expressed in terms of arches and vaults, by a curvature that is tied to symmetry and to the rectangularity of the rest of the building. In traditional architecture, we find superimposed on forms that may be rectangular on the largest scale, smaller curved scales that facilitate human actions and sensibilities. Many borders are frequently curved. There are three different methods of opposing this geometry:(i) Strict rectangular edges and corners, with an unnecessary precision, eliminating all curvature.
(ii) Edges and corners are made as sharp and obtrusive as possible, using acute angles.
(iii) Rounded edges and corners that avoid any straight lines. The overall building form must look like a free-flowing sculpture.
Obviously, these three means of opposing the geometry attached to traditional architecture contradict each other, but what they have in common, which is also their goal, is to depart from a normal, unforced tectonic geometry. Sometimes, they are all used together, applied to different sections of a contemporary building.
These are just a few of the very powerful visual memes that have been evolving since the early 1920s. The point I wish to make is that there is absolutely no practical or even aesthetic reason to adopt any one of them, and many architects have argued that they degrade the life and structural qualities of a building.
The memes described here come from political ideology, and have nothing whatsoever to do with satisfying people's (or architectural) needs. For example, the meme for curtain walls is linked to freedom. Modernist texts of the 1920s talk about how to liberate the human spirit by using glass as a construction material. A manifestly false idea "transparency = liberation" has nevertheless very attractive iconic and ideological properties. Considering the times in which it was born, this meme relied on very strong social forces. After it was adopted by society, it became a central credo of contemporary architecture, even as its initial (phoney) justification was forgotten.
Another meme is responsible for eliminating all ornament from architecture. It is also deeply-rooted in modernist ideology. Dating from 1908, this meme propagates the identification "empty surfaces = intellectual progress". Its roots are to be found in a confused jumble of ideas about industrial production and the role of artisan handcrafts in an ideally egalitarian society. This meme has acquired an enormous dominance because of the negative but catchy slogan: "ornament = crime". Today, nobody thinks that this statement has any truth in it, but it is too late, since this meme has long ago been incorporated into the collective architectural subconscience.
It is easy to see how these architectural memes have found an ideal new ecosystem in the universe of information. For example, computer-aided designs of buildings on a computer screen show only the largest scales. The software itself works by filling within fixed edges as smoothly as possible, and so naturally generates smooth surfaces. Columns and walls are mathematically simplest to extend linearly until they come up against another structure. The simplest drawing algorithms, therefore, support the first three architectural memes listed here. The memes listed in (4) compete with each other in the universe of information, representing extreme departures in opposite directions away from normal tectonic forms that arise from using traditional building materials.
As long as one builds with natural materials, which are ultimately fragile or available in modules of small size, one is forced to adopt a particular geometry so that the building doesn't fall down. The structure is, in part, a solution to the problems of erecting a building against the gravitational force and physical stresses. This naturally imposes a restricted vocabulary of forms. The nature of the materials defines a spectrum of possible structures: walls of a roughly rectangular geometry; vaults; columns; arches, etc. A column's capital and base are necessary for tectonic reasons when one builds with traditional materials.
Modernist and postmodernist architecture is a reaction to the geometrical restrictions of traditional buildings. At the same time, many contemporary buildings in a traditional style are in fact memes -- because they are expressed with industrial materials that do not define that vocabulary of forms. They are images that are entirely independent of tectonic forces. What interests us in this article, however, is the expression of images that have no reason for being other than their opposition to traditional forms: visual memes motivated by an anti-traditionalist ideology.
9. Monsters and robots.
In a few science-fiction films, an extraterrestrial alien or virus invades a human's memory, replacing it with copies of itself, or with instructions to produce copies of the alien. In contemporary society, our own technologies are playing the same invasive role of replacing our neural memory banks within our brains. As Dyens states: "Machines control our memories, they own the fundamental materials that shape us, and they manage the structures that generate human meaning and perspective." (Dyens, 2001; page 38).
Ironically, humankind has feared the possibility of intelligent, emotionless robots running amok. The danger is instead realized from within our own species, from humans merging with the universe of information. It is not mechanical robots that we have to fear, but human beings conditioned to act as intelligent robots (the opposite to the dumb, mobile robots we are now building). Throughout history, human beings have been indoctrinated through psychological conditioning so as to block their primary sensory brain circuits, leaving only the higher-level circuits operational. Those persons are only partially connected to their environment. By intentionally blocking their lower-level circuits in the intelligence hierarchy, we have created unemotional human machines operating with the intellectual capacity to destroy.
Individuals whose memory has been replaced by memes can be effective in unpleasant or dangerous tasks. They are indeed examples of the ideological "modern man", produced for industrial purposes. Such persons can be directed to erect and inhabit discomforting structures: something any human being with keenly-developed feelings finds emotionally and physiologically difficult. Programmed individuals have no qualms about destroying living structure in nature, and that present in what other human beings have painstakingly produced before them.
Normally, those objects, creations, and built environments are emotionally nourishing to our senses, so much so that it is painful to eliminate them. Cultural memory encompasses artifacts harboring an organized complexity that is very close to both biological and inanimate natural structures. Persons who are not otherwise programmed by visual memes feel an intimate rapport with such artifacts and with nature. Victims of brainwashing provoked by the media, however, -- human beings conditioned to follow industrial and postindustrial fashions without reflection -- are largely detached from this complexity. They are thus ideal occupants for towers of apartments or offices that are the twisted skyscrapers in the latest architectural style.
The "modern man" continues to play an active role in transforming our world. He is in part the product of a co-evolution between human beings and memes of the postindustrial culture. For those of us who might not like what humankind is evolving towards, we need to understand this process before attempting to influence it.
10. Knowledge versus information.
Human intelligence is dependent upon evolutionary development of the brain/sensory system. The brain and sensory systems co-evolved in a hierarchy of layers. The older (lower) layers act to give an instantaneous response to stimuli in the environment. Input and output get more and more sophisticated with additional layers, with more computing power being expended to interpret stimuli, and more processing before output. Finally, we acquired the conscious processing and analysis of thoughts that distinguish human beings from other animals. This layering corresponds pretty well to what we know as the anatomical layers of the evolved brain. The higher levels are either missing in the lower animals, or they are present in significantly lesser quantities, showing a remarkable growth and development in humans.
The complexity of modern life produces huge amounts of information that we must somehow deal with. Actual mastery of the material relevant to building becomes very difficult. Immediate availability through computer networks of everything anyone's ever said or done on any topic whatever exacerbates the problem. We have a plethora of information, and become ever more dependent on "experts" who select which of this information we should be exposed to; because it is physically impossible for us to wade through all of it. The situation, therefore, is ultimately no different than in ages when information was not freely available, and an authority controlled the information to be released. The only difference now is that, once individuals locate the right sort of information, the situation can be reversed almost overnight, and the control of the "experts" thrown out.
Central to my thesis is the recognition that culture evolves in a positive direction by organizing complex information that connects us to the real universe. Increasing the number of connections among informational entities leads to greater complexity, and thus it becomes necessary to organize that complexity into a comprehensible (hierarchical) system. The opposite process, usually leading to retrogression, consists of losing both complexity and organization -- losing information that has been painstakingly gathered and organized as human knowledge, or losing the connective structure that makes it accessible.
The majority of memes are harmful because they replace the complexity of the universe and the relations we establish with our world, with a false, disconnected reality. Memes carry very few connections, and those they do have are meaningless, which moreover prevents the creation of true connections necessary to our understanding of the world. While it is true that memes always coexist with knowledge, they represent a useless wiring of the network forming our knowledge base.
This fundamental problem was already addressed by the architect Christopher Alexander. He tried to identify true architectural knowledge in recognizing patterns that recur throughout the history of humanity and all over the planet (Alexander et. al., 1977). These patterns organize our treatment of built space and our relationship to it. Alexander decided to make explicit knowledge that up to that time had been only implicit, and to do this in a way that would prevent the propagation of crazy notions about architecture. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, unfounded ideas have governed the construction of buildings and cities (which I have described in this article as an invasion by harmful memes). In explaining this stock of architectural knowledge, Alexander chose to also describe the specific manner in which information is organized: a "pattern language" is a hierarchical informational structure (Salingaros, 2000) composed of relatively autonomous patterns connected as follows: (1) to each other on different hierarchical levels; (2) to the physical and biological world as well as to patterns of living appropriate to distinct human civilizations; and (3) to the totality of human knowledge, empirical, scientific, and metaphysical.
Each pattern is presented as a process of resolving a recurring architectural problem: the relationship between a certain context, the forces that recur in this context, and a spatial configuration that permits these forces to resolve themselves (Alexander, 1979). This allows designers, builders, and inhabitants to discuss collectively what can serve as architectural patterns and models. Altogether, this method gives rise to results that constitute genuine architectural knowledge.
The tool of pattern languages has been enthusiastically adopted by the Computer Science community to handle the structure and production of increasingly complex software (Gabriel, 1996). These practitioners define, in addition to patterns, the concept of an "antipattern", which is a false solution that is nevertheless reutilized. An antipattern possesses formal characteristics that trick whoever adopts it into thinking that it is the result of a logical development. There is in fact no difference between an antipattern and a meme.
Knowledge is fragile and much less prolific than raw information, depending as it does on discovery and confirmation. By contrast, informational junk can be generated in any context, and in any quantity. Traditional stores of knowledge represent customary wisdom. I am referring, in particular, to knowledge and beliefs that are not scientifically verifiable, yet are in fact necessary for the proper working of human society, and even to maintain scientific knowledge. Belief systems cannot be justified in the way science can be justified; they rely on informal connections, practices, and understandings.
There is value as opposed to information in the highest of human creations. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion is worth far more to civilization than two hours of television soap operas interspersed with commercials. I know that postmodern philosophers have tried to argue the opposite, but I believe they are terribly mistaken. Ultimately, we will have to appeal to the value of information so as to distinguish between memes (beneficial and harmful) and true knowledge.
Human beings can recognize intuitively elements of their world and the connections that unite them to it. Sensory and mental connections occur almost instantly. This innate ability enabled us to survive and evolve. More advanced problem solving, however, entails a stepwise process that establishes a sequence of transformations from the problem to its solution. The alternative to intelligent design is unreasoned matching to some given visual or mnemonic prototype -- a meme.
In that case, there is no transformation nor adaptation to the criteria of the problem. A standard solution is given by visual memes, which are thereby imposed on the situation. The method is now one of substitution instead of resolution. Memes replace the constraints of the problem by visual images. That requires no intellectual effort; only the acceptance of an image provided by somebody for whatever reason. By replacing the sequence of adaptive design steps, one is in fact suppressing in part the mechanisms for intelligent thought in general. This can lead people to live in a false reality; such as is accomplished by psychological conditioning.
One's internal worldview can be replaced entirely by a set of memes. These will then define an alternative, alien universe for that particular individual. As our society is living more and more in the universe of information, the dangers of altering one's internal reality multiply with the number of memes around us. Whereas in the past, one would normally worry only about particularly virulent cults, advertising, and political campaigns, today we are immersed in a virtual universe of memes that can very easily substitute for the physical universe. It's like an alternative religion. In this essay, I tried to point out some features of this interdependence, and to focus on the dangers posed by architectural memes freely propagating in the universe of information.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Many thanks to Ollivier Dyens, David Miet, and Terry Mikiten for their advice.
Christopher Alexander (1979), The Timeless Way of Building (Oxford University Press, New York).
Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King, and S. Angel (1977), A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, New York).
Richard Dawkins (1989), The Selfish Gene (New Edition) (Oxford University Press, Oxford), Chapter 11.
Richard Dawkins (1993), "Viruses of the Mind", in: B. Dahlbom, Ed., Dennett and His Critics (Blackwell, Oxford), pp. 13-27.
Ollivier Dyens (2001), Metal and Flesh (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
Richard Gabriel (1996), Patterns of Software (Oxford University Press, New York).
Scott McCloud (1993), Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Harper Perennial, New York).
Nikos Salingaros (2000), "The Structure of Pattern Languages", Architectural Research Quarterly Vol. 4, pages 149-161.
Nikos Salingaros (2004), Anti-architecture and Deconstruction (Umbau-Verlag, Solingen).
Nikos A. Salingaros & Terry M. Mikiten (2002), "Darwinian Processes and Memes in Architecture: A Memetic Theory of Modernism", Journal of Memetics -- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission Vol. 6, approximately 15 pages. Reprinted in: DATUTOP Journal of Architectural Theory Vol. 23 (2002), pages 117-139.