My title refers to John Ruskin and the current Prince of Wales. Both reward attention as individuals, but they are also representative of an abiding Anglo-Saxon approach to the natural world, and to human affairs. Indeed, they are good representatives of a way of looking at the world which is sceptical of abstractions, and reductive theories of all kinds: a way of looking at the world which was dubbed by Ruskin himself a “Science of Aspects”.
Ruskin was born on the edge of Bloomsbury in 1819, and died at Brantwood, overlooking Lake Coniston, in 1900. This nineteenth-century seer was interested and active in many – seemingly disparate – fields; yet all were illuminated to some extent by his profound love of nature, and the manifold forms he found there. In this respect Ruskin offers some clues to understanding what it is that unifies the disparate interests and activities of that later influential commentator, the Prince of Wales.
For a man of Ruskin’s generation and religious leanings, we should bear in mind that his expectations of nature were shaped to a large extent by the doctrines of a “natural theology”. He shared a then-widespread belief that nature was “God’s Second Book”, in its way as revelatory as were the Scriptures about the character of the Deity, who had “designed” it with humanity in mind. Even if we don’t share this point of view, however, the observations it gave rise to are still of enormous interest, as the atheist Peter Fuller was first to point out many years ago in his sensitive inquiry into Ruskin, Theoria: art and the absence of grace.
We see a fascinating pattern of responses evoked by Ruskin’s contributions to different fields. As he moved beyond the criticism of painting – where he was a recognised authority – his ideas became increasingly at odds with his times, and so took progressively longer to gain support. His writings of the 1840s on painting, contained in the early volumes of his Modern Painters, proved rapidly influential, and were resorted to by Pre-Raphaelite painters less than a decade later. His books on architecture in the 1840s and ‘50s – The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice – were cautiously welcomed by members of the profession, but the more radical tone of his contemporary lectures and pamphlets went unheeded by them. Even William Morris, and his “Arts and Crafts” colleagues, chose to follow him only so far and no further.
So it was arguably not before the turn of the century, when a young French writer translated Ruskin’s work on French Gothic – and was impressed by the importance accorded there to the faculty of “Memory” – that his deeper concerns began to make their mark on culture. The writer was Marcel Proust, for whom, of course, memory became a watchword. Ruskin’s decision to branch out in the 1860s and ‘70s into political, economic, and social issues took Ruskin further still from the field where he began. There were British Labourites who – mistakenly, as it turned out – claimed these writings for Socialism, but it was not until a young Indian lawyer read Unto This Last – the first of Ruskin’s forays into the world of economics – during a long train journey through South Africa, that his thoughts fell on more fertile ground. The lawyer, whose life was utterly changed by the book, was Mohandas – later the “Mahatma” – Ghandi.
Ruskin’s lifelong observation of the natural world produced visions in him which only he could see. Chief among them was the “Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”, the subject of two lectures he gave in 1884, in which, we can now see, he was describing the early effects of industrial atmospheric pollution. His way of looking at the world led him to recognise omens to which conventional science was still blind. And – as we will see – it was to be another whole century before science caught up, bringing such insights as Ruskin had about the environment into the mainstream. Much of Ruskin’s 60s and 70s – the last two decades of his life – he spent lapsing in and out of “madness”.
It is surely the sheer breadth of Ruskin’s interests – all grounded in a love, and real understanding, of the natural world – that links him to the Prince of Wales. Yes, there are other, less vital, points of comparison that also spring to mind: the shared ability to address the public on important issues over the heads of the establishment, and the professions; the tendency to be painted by others into narrow “stylistic” corners – Ruskin the “Goth”, Charles the “classicist”; and the prurient and distracting interest in their domestic lives. These similarities are not uninstructive, but what I am interested in here is how nature and the natural sciences are able to shed light upon, and give shape to, the diverse components of a life’s work like that of Ruskin or the Prince of Wales.
I would like to pick out two particular themes, echoes of which can be found throughout Ruskin’s work.
The first is his argument, in Modern Painters, that there is “a science of the aspects of things, as well as of their nature”; the second – developed at length in an 1874 lecture on Florentine art – is the superiority of an “Aesthetic” over a “Mathematic” view of the world.
Let’s look at these in turn. The first argument proposes that the truth, or the essence, of things can be found on the surface – you don’t necessarily have to dig for it. He felt strongly that “the love of beauty” was not “in all respects unscientific”. It is this conviction that links him to other English thinkers like Coleridge and Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as to the German Goethe. It might be assumed that Ruskin’s “science of aspects” – which drew him, for example, to dwell on the surface patina, rather than the underlying structure, of buildings – was a branch of cognitive studies, and therefore not a bone fide natural science; that it was concerned with the subjective responses of the mind rather than the objective quality of things. This would, however, be to overlook the lengths to which Ruskin went to apply its principles to the world around him.
His vehement opposition to vivisection was born of the conviction that the truth offered by the intact living organism was of a higher order than that which could be found by cutting into it. His rejection of iron in modern buildings, in favour of the traditional materials of wood, stone, and clay, was based on a similar premise: that the latter could readily be found on the surface of the earth, whilst the former could only be obtained by violating that surface, to mine the ore. The “pursuit of science”, he argued, should be “stayed by the love of beauty”; power should be constrained in the interests of harmony. Controversial positions, maybe, but ones that stemmed from a more fundamental concern than the effects of forms on the mind.
Turning to his second argument, the words “Aesthetic” and “Mathematic” have today acquired precisely the opposite connotations to those given them by Ruskin. Aesthetic matters are now popularly regarded as woolly, imprecise and subjective, while mathematics, by contrast, is assumed to be scientific, precise, and objective. However, Ruskin used the word “Aesthetic” to refer to what he called an “inexplicable grasp” of the whole; and he used the word “Mathematic” to refer to the opposite tendency, to be distracted from the bigger picture by “ambiguous and uncertain” details. He felt that those who looked at the world through a “Mathematic” lens could find themselves driven to seek solace from the exuberance of the real world either in “material objects” or “abstract theorems”. In saying this, he accurately identified two of the most common failings exhibited by architecture when facing up to the complexity of life: it becomes either too much preoccupied with buildings at the expense of context, or too conceptual to be bothered with the visual impact it has on the environment.
Those two propositions – the importance of a “science of aspects”, and the need to view the world “Aesthetically”, which is to say “holistically – laid for Ruskin the foundations of a damning criticism of the practice of architecture and urbanism in his own day; and, it might also be said, led him to forsee some of the more common errors of the the modernism which was to dominate architecture for three quarters of a century after his death.
He would refer to the work even of a favourite architect – George Edmund Street, designer of the Law Courts in the Strand – as “pure”. This sounds like a compliment, until you read what Ruskin had to say about a tendency among artists he called “Purism”. He distinguished Purism from, on the one hand, Sensualism, which dwelt too much in the dirt, and Naturalism, which accepted the world as it was, the good along with the bad: the latter being the philosophy he recommended. “Purism”, he wrote, “rejects truth … because it is humble, and consists not in choosing what is good, but in disguising what is rough”. Described in this way Purism has a lot in common with idealism – one consequence of a Mathematic outlook – which has always been viewed with suspicion within the Anglo-Saxon intellectual tradition to which Ruskin belonged.
When he addressed the ranks of the Royal Institute of British Architects in the mid-1860s, Ruskin repeated his accusation of Purism: of over-idealising, over-abstracting the task in hand. The streets of the nineteenth-century city, he claimed, were clearly nothing more than the “drains for the discharge of a tormented mob”: why, then, did architects continue to design for “cities in cloudless air”? It is clear that Purism was, For Ruskin, the quintessentially architectural vice.
So it is interesting that Le Corbusier – who benefitted from an impeccable Arts and Crafts education in Switzerland, and who would therefore have been quite familiar with Ruskin – chose “Purism” as the title of the art movement through which he launched his aesthetic programme for painting and architecture. And no better illustrations exist of those “cities in cloudless air”, that Ruskin waved aside, than Corbusier’s subsequent essays in “l’Urbanisme”. Modernism proceeded from that point to vaunt the very things that Ruskin had decried: it espoused, in other words, a “science of the nature of things”, and a “Mathematic” approach to life. Mies van der Rohe stripped away all inessentials from the work of the great Prussian classicist K. F. Schinkel, in order to get to its essence, retaining nothing of the surface qualities deriving from materials, traditional details, and the management of chiaroscuro; and the early English Brutalists of the 1950s were infatuated with the geometry of Palladio, whom Rudolf Wittkower had described as having reconciled “the task at hand with the ‘certain truth’ of mathematics which is final and unchangeable”.
From today’s perspective both this view of mathematics, and the practice of those architects and urbanists who, after the Second World War, were motivated by it, seem archaic. During the 1980s many scientists’ view of the world, and of the mathematics needed to make sense of it, changed radically. Remarkably this has meant that, over the last twenty years, science – along with some aspects of wider culture too – have been moving Ruskin’s way. There is growing agreement that a central problem of science lies in understanding the very complexity which Ruskin relished, and that the reductive science of old is powerless to help.
So we find that now, as GM foods prompt our equivalent of the vivesection debate, Ruskin’s twin concerns – of a “science of aspects” and an “Aesthetic” vision – are beginning to be given significant support by current thinking in science; and not only on the margins, but also increasingly within its mainstream.
Consider first the complexity of nature’s outward aspects. Stephen Wolfram, in his blockbuster A New Kind of Science, confirmed that “the idea of treating complexity as a coherent scientific concept potentially amenable to explicit definition is quite new”. He pointed out too how the “idealization” inherent in the equations of traditional science are apt to miss the sophistication of the systems they are intended to describe – which is often their most significant feature. The philosopher Roger Scruton, in similar anti-idealistic vein, has said that there is “no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden”. Indeed, according to Roger Kimball – art critic, editor of The New Criterion and friend of Scruton – the humanist instinct is “to recognize that the human world is … something more than a distillation of essences. It is, on the contrary, a world of appearances: of how things look and comport themselves”. This is a very different account of the “Age of Humanism” than the one offered by Wittkower to war-weary architects, looking for certainties, half a century ago.
Consider next the relationship between aesthetics and mathematics. The mathematician and Fellow of the Royal Society Ian Stewart said six years ago that “One of the most significant developments is that maths in general has become more geometric. Not the rigid geometry of Euclid: the visual geometry of the mind’s eye. One important consequence is that qualitative reasoning has been put on a formal basis”. And Wolfram’s comment about the “idealization” inherent in conventional maths also confirms the insufficiency of any abstract theorems to model this kind of complex geometry. His alternative, in A New Kind of Science, was to reintroduce a variety of “observational mathematics”, which demands something akin to Ruskin’s inclusive “Aesthetic” vision to make it work.
As I will try to show, this new emphasis on complex forms and on the need for unconventional scientific tools to understand them, has important – and inescapable –implications for planning and design: implications which Ruskin would have recognised, and for which the Prince of Wales has consistently argued. The complexity of life should, after all, be grist to the creativity of planners and architects, and if the conventional science which has underpinned their efforts to date appears wanting, this ought to give them serious cause for concern.
Given this return to Ruskinian values over the last two decades, was the late Peter Fuller – art critic and founder of the magazine Modern Painters – right to call Ruskin the first Post-modernist? In a way, yes he was, if we understand Post-modernism in its broader sense. Ruskin’s progressive loss of faith in a single method or philosophy to explain everything (reflected in, for example, his increasing interest in getting his message across to the public through every available channel), and his fascination with the surface of things, do indeed seem to mark him out as a kind of proto-Post-modernist. However, his unfailing belief in the value of order and wholeness (albeit a messy kind of order, and a complex wholeness) make him sit less easily in that category, and lead him into a brand of architectural criticism far from consistent with Charles Jencks’s standard reading of Post-modernism.
To see how much he differs from the Jencksian template, it might be worth summarising how Ruskin himself acted upon his insights, as he engaged with architecture over a thirty year period. Their most important effect was in informing an evolving critique of the role that architects played in the wider “building world”, and hence of the role that design – as the architect practised it – played in the world-at-large.
His view of these matters went through various stages. Early on in life, he accepted the architect’s own assessment of his powers. This is best summed up, perhaps, by the French rationalist Quatremère de Quincy, who argued – in his 1834 Historical Dictionary of Architecture – that only the architect could convey a true “Imitation of Nature”, by seeing through its distracting outer garments to the “types” that lay beneath. The artisan, by contrast, could only ever produce a “resemblance” of nature; a mere copy of what was before his eyes. Ruskin began to question the implied superiority of the architect’s vision, though, when – while recovering from an illness in 1843 – he took a stroll in the forest of Fontainebleau, and lay down on a grassy bank opposite an aspen tree. That tree would become immortalised in his autobiography:
Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced, - without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.
Here Ruskin equates the conventions for rendering nature taught him by his drawing masters – a form of abstraction – with men’s laws. The tracery of the aspen’s branches, on the other hand, was illustrative of God’s laws; and these, being “finer” – and therefore more respectful of the independent life of the tree – gave rise to a rich order which could not be reduced to any abstract convention or formula. Ruskin composed the account of his Fontainebleau epiphany many decades after the event it describes, but even if one compensates for dramatic effect, clearly something in nature led him, during the 1840s, to reassess his view of how law and life interacted to produce order in nature. It was shortly after this that he wrote The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which a lamp of “Power” (symbolic of the architect’s contribution) is deliberately balanced by a lamp of “Life” (symbolic of the craftsman’s).
In time, though, it became apparent to him that architects were rather too wedded to abstraction, and so unprepared to allow the building artisan the freedom that nature’s model demanded. He turned then to his friends the Pre-Raphaelite painters and sculptors, who had learnt to place great value on the aspects of nature, in the hope that they might assume the architects’ mantle. He managed to get John Everett Millais to produce some stunning Gothic windows. One of these could be seen on the walls of the Royal Academy last year: filled with tracery devoid of abstract lines, and made up entirely of the bodies and wings of angels. Ruskin came to believe Pre-Raphaelites would be better equipped than the professional architect to develop the latent sympathies of building craftsmen for the natural world around them. It was then – in the second edition of his Seven Lamps of Architecture – that he laid down what remains his most famous, and controversial, assertion, that
the architect who was not a sculptor or painter, was nothing better than a frame-maker on a large scale … the idea of an independent architectural profession was a mere modern fallacy.
Some twentieth century critics tried to dismiss Ruskin tout court by saying that what he meant by this was that a building without decoration could not be architecture (an assertion which modernism set out to disprove to the point of tedium), but that wasn’t his point at all. In saying that architects should be like sculptors and painters he was calling for a less idealistic approach to nature from those responsible for the built environment – one that was both holistic and concerned with outward aspects.
He was soon to be disappointed by the Pre-Raphaelites, when he tried to put them to work alongside the artisans on the new Oxford Museum: with a few honourable exceptions among the sculptors they quickly made their excuses. They preferred to dream rather than get their hands dirty, so while Ruskin was urging them to help Irish navvies compose capitals from the ferns and flowers gathered from the Botanical Gardens, they preferred to spend their time in a different corner of Oxford, painting romantic scenes from the Morte d’Arthur on the walls of the new Union building.
But it was this final disappointment that prompted Ruskin’s most radical thought about building: a thought that anticipated one of the central convictions of present-day complexity science. What if the law and life of building did not reside in the two separate classes of artist-architects and artisans at all; what if both qualities were inherent in building craft traditions themselves? If so, then such traditions might be capable of creating forms of great sophistication – the Pisan Duomo or the Venetian palazzo – independently, without the overarching control of an architect or other deus ex machina. In fact, what Ruskin intuited in his later years – that building traditions were capable of “restraining by their severity and mystery the wantonness of the newer life” of evolving building practice – is an example of a phenomenon that complexity science would now call “emergence”. The physicist Stuart Kauffman has described a class of emergent systems he calls “autocatalytic sets”, which – because of the particular mixture of rule and contingency to be found in them – are poised on the boundary between chaos and order. These systems are such that they can give rise to order seemingly spontaneously. Indeed, the appearance of order out of chaos, with no clear external cause, is a more common natural phenomenon than we might at first suppose, emergence of this kind being, many think, a key to much of the organised complexity we see in the world.
The logic, then, of Ruskin’s belief that human creativity should mirror that seen in nature, led him ultimately to a vision of architectural form as being capable of emerging – relatively spontaneously, like Botticelli’s Venus from the tossing waves – from a living building culture which combined traditional rule and natural cunning in the right proportion.
The path we have traced in Ruskin’s thoughts about the relative roles of architect and building culture – of, so to speak, intelligence and creative chaos – leads to very different conclusions from those reached by Charles Jencks. Jencks. Over the last decade – in books such as The Architecture of the Jumping Universe and The New Paradigm in Architecture – Jencks has outlined a Post-modern view of how new science relates to architecture. He would, however, clearly not get beyond the second of Ruskin’s steps: he would agree that the aspen tree contained a lesson, but would interpret that lesson on behalf of architects whose role as designers secured them relative dominance over the building process.
As is clear from Jumping Universe and New Paradigm, this bias in fact leads Jencks to misinterpret much of what complexity science has to say to architecture. He commandeers concepts like “phase jumps”, “symmetry breaking”, fractals, and emergence as formal “pretexts” rather than procedural models for the architect. This wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps, if he wasn’t averse to recognising that all these concepts are intended to account for order in the world. Instead, he favours their potential for disordering the conventional formal assumptions of architects, which is why he concludes that new scientific thinking provides support for the experimental dislocations of the Peter Eisenman/Frank Gehry/Daniel Libeskind variety.
Those associated with the Prince’s Foundation, of all institutions – which has always tried to position the creation of buildings and places within a participatory framework – ought to be aware of the very different implications of the new science if we follow Ruskin’s logic to the end, and allow ourselves to contemplate a different role for the architect than he/she presently fills. A much better guide to doing this than Jencks is a man who has in the past had ties with the Prince of Wales: Christopher Alexander.
If you put the four volumes of Christopher Alexander’s new book, The Nature of Order, alongside Jencks’s New Paradigm, you will see that many of the same scientific sources are cited, but that the authors draw diametrically opposite conclusions from them. While Jencks sees complexity science as supportive of avant garde deconstructivism, Alexander sees it as a vindication of traditional building processes. In Jencks’s view science treads the same path it has throughout the modern age – towards an unknown future; for Alexander it reveals a way back to a way of building we feared was lost. Is it simply that – as has often been said of Christology – both authors merely treat science as a mirror, reflecting their own prejudices, or is their another way of accounting for this difference in interpretation?
In fact, the difference can be explained entirely by the two authors’ different views of the role of the architect, and therefore of “building culture” in general, which leads them to address different audiences. Jencks – as the architectural Post-modernism inspired by him over the last quarter-century goes to show – has never been interested in defining a Post-modern role for the architect. The most enthusiastic section of his audience remains those young, ambitious students who want to be in control, and enjoy hearing about esoteric systems designed to help achieve that end. Much of the movement he helped inspire (which even Jencks himself now dismisses as “PoMo”) has been little more than an act of putting “lipstick on the gorilla” – the gorilla in this case being a venal building process unchanged since its genesis in the heady days of modernism. Alexander, on the other hand, has spent the last quarter century proposing building processes alternative to the ones now current. His seminal book, A Pattern Language, the publication of which in 1977 coincided with Jencks’s first book on Post-modernism, was accorded cautious respect by the architectural establishment, but went on to make its real impact among self-builders, who have managed to establish it as one of the best-selling architectural works of all time.
Christopher Alexander’s audience was once identical to Jencks’s, but he performed a volte face of Ruskinian dimensions in his mid-20s. Before he took up architecture he was a scientist at Cambridge, in the years that Crick and Watson were active. His doctoral thesis – Notes on the Synthesis of Form – proposed a mathematical basis for design method, and met with great acclaim from his architect-contemporaries. As this acclaim grew, however, Alexander’s faith in the work diminished. In the same way that Ruskin used the second edition of The Seven Lamps of Architecture to announce the death of the architect, Alexander used the second edition of his Notes to declare that the equations in his book were perhaps a little less compelling than he – and his architectural admirers – had supposed.
One does not have to search long among recent works by scientists, to find a reason why equations for design method of the kind that appeal to architects are bound to fall short in dealing with complex problems. Stephen Wolfram’s “Principle of Computational Equivalence” addresses the issue most succinctly: the processes unfolding in nature are the same as those unfolding in us; our perceptual mechanisms are in this sense equivalent to those we observe; which means that the world is, and will remain, computationally irreducible to us. In short, Wolfram’s argument means that the world is resistant to our abstractions. Abstractions are a falsehood: the “truth” of the world can only be discovered by letting its inherent processes unfold. Emergent processes are such, Ian Stewart has warned, that we are unable to traces their effects back to first causes. If all this is true then all design method is a fiction: which, while it might be music to the Post-modern sensibilities of Jencks, poses a huge difficulty to any architect needing to grapple honestly with complex problems on a practical level.
Alexander likes to illustrate the sheer scale of the difficulty with reference to the model, given by Stuart Kauffman, of the “fitness landscape”, through which natural processes move in order to find fit solutions. Relating this concept to the architect’s or urbanist’s search for apt solutions, in a world which renders abstraction futile, he concludes that
the good solutions are so tiny, like specks of dust in the vastness of [that landscape]. The relatively rare living structures [ie. good and adaptive solutions], viewed as points in [it], are so small and so far apart, that the chance of finding them by search, by design, is almost vanishingly small. It is to all intents impossible.
In Book Two of his Nature of Order, then, Alexander sets out the parameters of an alternative process to “design”, which is able to navigate the “fitness landscape” in the same way that natural processes do. At the heart of it are what he calls “Structure-Preserving Transformations”, meaning interventions which leave the structure of the whole intact or enhanced (the “whole” in The Nature of Order being not some loose New Age concept, but rather a distinctive, nested, mathematically-definable structure), and which at the same time “help” their own constituent structures to grow stronger. He argues also that new structure needs to be “generated” rather than imposed, that each step should be adaptive to what has gone before, and that increasingly strong “centers” need to emerge as the process unfolds.
Alexander’s “Process of Creating Life” – which keeps Order and Wholeness to the fore in a manner highly reminiscent of Ruskin – is both complex and challenging, and requires a book of over 600 pages to do it justice. A more succinct description of the implications of such a process for planning and design was, however, given to me by the biologist Brian Goodwin during a recent interview. He ventured the thought that
planning, to be effective, has to be a kind of facilitation that is prepared to engage with and hold a process of confusion and chaos long enough for something new and relevant to emerge from what has passed as history. This is rather like the alchemical process of dissolution prior to transformation, or the Dionysian aspect of communal action that holds off Appolonian order while new possibilities are explored and experienced. The new order cannot be predicted or planned in advance if it is to be genuinely relevant to context, but … choice and influence can be exercised in the fluid phase of emergence.
Such a picture envisages the planner – or any “designer” – not as a “law-giver” or “form-giver” dealing with the world from on high, but rather as one actor among many within a seething cultural milieu. It is difficult at first to understand where such a milieu might be found in connection with building. Perhaps wider public participation – of the kind the Prince of Wales has long argued for – could reproduce the kind of creative “confusion and chaos” that Goodwin speaks of. But there is also another possibility, which lies within the process of building itself.
The kind of building culture that Ruskin began to celebrate late in his life has always been a ready source of “confusion and chaos”. The influential architectural theorist Abbé Laugier, writing in the mid-eighteenth century, pointed out that “In contemplating the builder’s art, all indeed that strikes a vulgar imagination, are, confused mounds of incommodious ruins; dangerous scaffoldings; a frightful clatter of hammers, tools, and working machinery; [and] an army of slovenly bespattered labourers and workmen …”. Yet, as Ruskin intuited, the simple guild structures and “rules of thumb” that guided this slovenly crew, and the commonplace mechanisms that enabled craft knowledge to be passed on from generation to generation, contributed to the conditions in which sophisticated, nature-like, forms could emerge in buildings. Just like Kauffman’s “autocatalytic sets”, traditional building culture can be interpreted as a set of particles just rule-bound enough to begin to generate structure spontaneously. Both systems exist alike on that margin between order and chaos which has been shown to be so fecund for the generation of structure.
One of the difficulties which the Abbé Laugier, and professional architects ever after, have had with the “builder’s art” is that while, with a little effort, the architect could come to understand the builder’s art, the builder seemed indifferent to the finer points of the art of architecture. There always had to be, in their account, some shadowy puppet master lying behind the efforts of the faceless gangs of labourers. Yet once one understands the key concept of complexity science – emergence – the intelligence of the builder seems irrelevant. The mathematician Ian Stewart has described emergence as something that helps “make respectable the idea that a collection of interacting components can ‘spontaneously’ develop collective properties that seem not to be implicit in any way in the individual pieces” [my emphasis]. Steven Johnson, in his book on Emergence, is even more to the point, when he describes the phenomenon as one which allows nature to “solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single intelligent ‘executive branch”. It is almost a sine qua non of emergent systems that these “stupid” elements – which, in themselves, reveal little if anything of their ability to solve problems gracefully – produce better fitted, more adaptive, solutions to complex problems than any intelligent executive can. It is a point which Nikos Salingaros, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas, has recently elaborated upon in a paper on the value of “collective intelligence” in architecture. And yet the history of the professionalisation of architecture over the last two and a half centuries has been a history of architects telling us the opposite – that the elevated vision of the designer is superior to the short-sightedness of the builder. Like Ruskin, we might point to the basilica of St Mark’s, or the Cathedral at Amiens, and ask whether anything architects have produced during that time can equal these.
Charles Jencks refuses to deconstruct the one thing that stands in the way of the fullest application of new scientific principles to architecture, which is the modern role of the architect, for whom the “building world” has become a mere instrument. If we return to nature with Ruskin’s eyes – looking not for forms but for processes – we will discover things – as Christopher Alexander has – that shed a wholly new light on traditional building culture. If so much of what we admire in the architecture of the past was the product of “relatively stupid elements” within building culture, what price the keen architectural “intelligence” of a Daniel Libeskind, and the fractured forms he gives us, which surely offer no more than a poor simulacrum of nature?