Book Review: A Theory of Architecture

A Theory of Architecture by Nikos A. Salingaros

Professor of mathematics, urbanist and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros is one of a group of thinkers, based around the writings of Christopher Alexander, espousing the qualities of traditional architecture and urbanism, and therefore countering most contemporary movements in the same, which he has strongly criticized in the past. These past critiques, collected in 2004's Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, lacked alternatives, positive examples to what Salingaros sees as destructive tendencies within the architectural profession foisted upon the public sphere. In his latest book, Professor Salingaros takes that positive stance, using mathematics and science as a framework for creating an architectural theory that students and practitioners can apply to projects great and small, though it is a theory tempered by the same criticisms of contemporary architecture and the deconstructivist strain.
The book is comprised of twelve essays spanning over ten years that are culled from various academic and professional journals, like Journal of Architectural and Planning Research and Nexus Network Journal. Though not explicit, the book is organized into roughly three general areas, from beginning to end: scientific views on architecture, visual patterning in architecture, and arguments against contemporary (i.e. Modernist in origin) architecture. This last is what Salingaros is known for in architectural circles, though its location at the end of the book seems to be misplaced, as these arguments appear to justify the content of the rest of the book. Regardless, the essays can be read in any order, individually or as a whole; what pervades throughout -- and can be seen as the first of three critiques of Salingaros's theory presented here -- is its limitation to the visual, in particular surfaces, making for a theory focused on aesthetics but ignoring the context of architecture, be it political, economical, or social.
Considerations throughout include contrast, order, symmetry, and hierarchy, recalling traditional architecture, which the author admits buildings designed per his theory would resemble. Herein lies the second critique: does the outcome merely resemble traditional architecture or does the theory attempt to replicate traditional architecture, aided by mathematics and a scientific, objective justification for it? Historical precedent is strong in the work of Alexander, Salingaros, and others, so it is not off base to contend that the latter is true.
The third, and last, critique of his theory is not the application of science and math to architecture and its process -- a claim Salingaros explains thoroughly, though not necessarily convincingly enough to sway readers who accept if art and intuition have a place in architecture -- but the manner in which it is done. One example is the author's application of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, which he translates as simply disorder, a justification for symmetry and alignment in the arrangement of buildings and the architectural elements thereof. But if one takes the law a bit more literally, then it points towards the ways in which buildings use energy, an argument more aligned with sustainability than aesthetics. Is Salingaros's theory, perhaps inadvertently, asserting that the architect's role is limited to merely aesthetics, a traditional view that has changed in the last two centuries? It is an important question at a time when architects are seen to play a role in aiding global warming, and therefore to play a role in reversing it or slowing it down.
Even with these three critiques, it must be said that some of the essays are successful in placing the human experience above all, something severely deficient from architectural theory today. While Salingaros's theory is incomplete, as it fails to address the complex issues that are today typically lumped under sustainability (limiting energy use, preserving biodiversity, respecting natural ecosystems), he has presented something that attempts to place architectural theory where it belongs: in the human experience of space and place, rather than in formal novelty and invention.