Nikos Salingaros on Peer to Peer Urbanism

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This is the text of an email interview conducted in September 2008

Interviewer is Michel Bauwens.

For a more complete version see here at


Q1: We've been covering some of your work on a new 'peer to peer' urbanism in our blog. Perhaps we can explore this connection further. First of all, do you agree with that assessment of your approach being in line with the peer to peer ethos. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to your current thinking and practice. Finally, could you also what you think of my characterization of your work as neotraditional. What I mean is that premodern and what I would call 'trans'modern thinking are both concerned with the primacy of value and the immaterial, and that freed from the modernist rejection of all things traditional, we can now have an open mind and freely draw from thousands of years of human experience.

NS: At the basis of my approach (and my team of collaborators on architectural and urban issues) is the empowerment of the individual. That is certainly at the heart of the peer-to-peer ethos. It is also a fundamental reversal of what has been the norm for close to a century; namely the rule of a self-appointed elite to dictate the tastes of the people as far as what living and built environments ought to be like. Generations have been told that they had to live in a certain type of house that was unpleasant to be in, to live in cities with an unpleasant, often inhuman form, and we can go further. Generations have been forced to go against their natural, instinctive responses to an inhuman environment, and to accept it as "modern" and "contemporary". This has been happening since the 1920s. The end result is massive cognitive dissonance, which confuses a person's instincts to the point that they are then very easy to manipulate.

Now there are two schools of thought as to how this happened. If you are going to be kind, you can say that well-meaning, nice people with good intentions wanted to build new types of buildings and cities so as to better humanity and create a more just society. If you are going to be harsh, you can claim that those very same people collaborated in a dangerous mass experiment in social engineering, with the goal of creating a submissive consumer class of people who are easily brainwashed. The end result is the same: an inhuman built environment founded upon energy wastage and a neurotic class of people who everyday have to put up with urban and architectural stress. The beneficiaries are the so-called experts who sold all the utopian ideas, and who were well-rewarded for their role, and of course, that section of society that created all this inhuman urban structure.

To get out of this disastrous mode of life -- and it is really a philosophy and world view, not an architectural choice -- we need to go back to traditional values. Sure, the social revolutions around the First World War rejected tradition precisely at the time these new "experts" were selling their utopian ideas, but that was the key to the manipulation. People were ready to reject everything and adopt a new way of life, and were not paying attention to the possible dangers of being manipulated. If we look back to all the architecture and urbanism of the past 3,000 years, we find human-scale solutions that can be adapted for today's society. For the moment, the constant attacks from those who accuse us of going back to the past have prevented people in general from appreciating the wealth of solutions available. I'm talking about small-scale, both low and high-technology solutions that break out of the stranglehold of the consumerist society. I'm also talking about satisfying basic human emotional needs, such as a human-scale environment, a healing environment, that we can create with very low cost once we jettison the fashionable or dogmatic architectural "statements".

The modernists rejected all things traditional, as their basic cult dogma. Thus, they threw out solutions developed over millennia, which can never be substituted by any high-tech images. Some of my friends think this was simply an industry trick to sell all that steel and glass being produced in mass quantities from the new factories. In that view, the Bauhaus was simply a publicity outlet for industrial materials, which is ironic considering how Marxist most of the Bauhausler were. But then, the Left embraced industrialization wholeheartedly, just as fervently as did the consumerist society that was supposedly on the political right. Communist countries erected vast, inhuman buildings and cities, and the same typologies were applied in the capitalist countries. A curious ideological agreement between the two antagonists on the industrialization and dehumanization of human beings!

Peer-to-peer solutions represent the opposite of this dehumanization. I see an attempt to regain value for the individual, and hopefully to enable solutions to evolve outside the controlled industrial system. There is nothing wrong with industry, but I do not condone the massive manipulation of entire populations, and the forced consumption of inhuman building and urban typologies. People will buy industrial products, and will build their houses and cities: what I want to see is a vastly improved range of choices and the ability to make individual decisions. I expect the latest cutting-edge industrial techniques, such as just-in-time production, to play a major role in this revolution. We are now promoting a curious and unexpected combination of tradition with the latest technological possibilities made available by the Internet. I don't believe that it was even possible to think about implementation before, even a decade ago, but now the whole process of information, coordination, distribution, linkage, and expertise, can take place on the Internet. That's why I support an open publishing environment so strongly. Information that can change people's lives, that can change the lives of entire population, must be freely available.

What we have not been able to break through, so far, is the brainwashing. The vast majority of the world's population is suffering from an inhuman built environment, from inhuman living spaces, from inhuman building surfaces, from inhuman furnishings, and it is putting up with it because of a basic terror. Psychological manipulation has convinced them from birth that to go against the "modern" iconography will mean economic collapse. Those images have become religious in their hold on people's minds. Just try to suggest to someone that steel and glass may not be the best materials in a desert or polar climate (only to mention the heat losses). But they cannot envision a world without those iconic "glass and steel" qualities, because that image represents "progress" since the 1920s. Slum dwellers make do with waste materials to build their homes, but when they can afford to, they move out into an inhuman house built in "industrial" style, often in an inhumanly designed high-rise, or worse, in a socially dead suburb. That is their ultimate success: they have made it out of the favela and into the inhuman utopian environment, and now they can contribute as a pawn in the global economy.

Q2: Here's the next question, and I'd like to play advocate of the devil for a while. I hear your charge that modernists build inhuman cities and spaces, but I wonder if they were not just reacting to tradition, which was already gone in the 1920s and perhaps more against industrial dehumanization itself? I'm just assuming that there was a emancipatory charge to the work of many, but that the law of unintended consequences did not allow them to foresee all the results of their ideas and plans. Similarly concerning tradition, it is steeped not just in positive and communal ways of living, but also in authoritarian social structures. My question is therefore, if you look at tradition, by what method can you distinguish the wheat from chaff, what is the operating procedure or methodology you can use to do this kind of selection. Is it related to the patterning approach by Christopher Alexander? Tell us a little more about the latter, as not all of our readers may be familiar with that important work. In addition to him, who else has been of major inspiration to you and your colleages. An additional question: how do you react to the fact that the new moderns in East Asia, seem hell bent on repeating the mistakes that you describe, on perhaps an even grander scale?

NS: Every generation has reacted in some form (positive or negative) to tradition, and different social classes react in different ways. It is wrong to conclude that only the oppressed react negatively to tradition, since we have seen ideas that destroyed a society emerge from those who were well off -- they did it for the fun of it, as an intellectual exercise, because those persons were psychopaths, or just to "be different". While changes after World War I might be attributed to a reaction against industrial dehumanization, they actually drove the world into a more complete industrial dehumanization, so I don't know if this is ironic or tragic. Here we move from design into the minefield of politics.

There is a very simple criterion for how to judge the positive qualities of tradition, or specific pieces of tradition: if it empowers the individual to lead a healthier, more fulfilling life. Not necessarily happier, or more just, since all the right conditions in the world cannot guarantee that, but a full life without affecting other human beings negatively. Rather than utopian promises that can only be fulfilled by a state revolution -- and which invariably turn around an oppressive system into another oppressive system -- I see the value of peer-to-peer ideas of a personal validation of human beings. By contrast, reaction to oppression channelled into a mass movement is often commandeered by another elite to construct its own power structure.

Clearly, one can write down a set of patterns that have been used successfully to manipulate or oppress people, so we must include a value system in evaluating patterns. In computer science, it's straightforward: patterns are those solutions that help a program run better, while anti-patterns are those recurring pseudo-solutions that keep making things worse. I have classified patterns that manipulate the majority of people for the benefit of a small group, as "anti-patterns". Most of what we see as architecture and urbanism today, as taught in schools and shown in the media, consists of anti-patterns. I do not ascribe "oppressive" intention to them, however, since in many cases they were actually developed with the best of intentions, and are often linked tightly to an attractive ideology of political emanicipation. Their result is oppressive despite all the good intentions. Both cynical and naive practitioners just apply them for fun and profit, and like to re-use the original claims of "liberation".

Christopher Alexander gave the Pattern Language to the world, and if people had read it, it would have liberated every individual from the tyrranical dictates of an architectural and urban machine (in the sense of an oppressive system). The patterns in that book are a true liberation, establishing people's own deep feelings about the built environment as sound and valid. The reason this is so important is that architecture schools, the media, and most architects have been implementing the very opposite for close to a century. And they have been justifying their inhuman product by a massive advertising campaign, exactly like soft drinks and junk food replacing genuinely nutritious food, because some people make a lot of money promoting them, and those same persons would make a lot less money selling and distributing wholesome foodstuff. We now have a significant percentage of the world's economy driven by the soft drinks and junk food industry, just as we have another major percentage of it driven by the construction of glass and steel skyscrapers and dehumanizing concrete buildings. The architectural/urban situation is "soft" oppression, where a vast power system geared to promoting an unhealthy and dehumanizing built environment is driven by subconscious suggestion. In only a few instances is brute power used, as in monofunctional zoning, and bulldozing owner-built houses so that someone can make a profit by building concrete high-rise blocks.

The situation with the new Asian states awakening from their competitive slumber is absolutely tragic. They are swallowing all the deceptions that originally sold city-destroying, soul-destroying, and culture-destroying architectural and urban typologies to the West. If this were the 1950s, then OK, we might excuse this error as a lack of experience. But we have several decades of mistakes, endlessly documented, endlessly discussed and debated. Why are the new Asian states copying the worst that the West did to their own people and to their own cities? Probably, the reason is that the West itself is still promoting the same destructive typologies -- only a minority of us are condemning them, whereas the system is still stuck in a heroic city-destroying mode. We have a bunch of western "experts" that have advised the new Asian states to do precisely what they are doing now. And those experts are making huge fortunes from the ensuing devastation... many people are profiting financially from all this construction, and it churns the country's economy. But the product is toxic. Incidentally, many people don't see this in this way; all they see is exciting new buildings and highways going up in the East. The devastating realization will occur when the energy costs are added up, and people realize that they have destroyed their own society.

Some additional explanation of the pattern concept:

Identifying any type of pattern follows the same criteria in architecture as in hardware or software.

1. A repeating solution to the same or similar set of problems, discovered by independent researchers and users at different times.

2. More or less universal solution across distinct topical applications, rather than being heavily dependent upon local and specific conditions.

3. That makes a pattern a simple general statement that addresses only one of many aspects of a complex system. Part of the pattern methodology is to isolate factors of complex situations so as to solve each one in an independent manner if possible.

4. A pattern may be discovered or "mined" by "excavating" successful practices developed by trial-and-error already in use, but which are not consciously treated as a pattern by those who use it. A successful pattern is already in use somewhere, perhaps not everywhere, but it does not represent a utopian or untried situation. Nor does it represent someone's opinion of what "should" occur.

5. A pattern must have a higher level of abstraction that makes it useful on a more general level, otherwise we are overwhelmed with solutions that are too specific, and thus useless for any other situation. A pattern will have an essential area of vagueness that guarantees its universality.

More Information

Nikos Salingaros