circumventing our immune system

-Text from Nikos Salingaros, A Theory of Architecture

7.Circumventing Our Immune System

A meme acting as a virus uses packaging or surface configurations. An attractive shell (that appears beneficial to the organism) permits a biological virus to attach to a host and inject its DNA. In the case of an architectural meme, the analogous packaging 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. There is no human immune system against information viruses, though any suspicion or alarm is bypassed through ideologies of expertise and progress.

Apparently, the only defense mechanism we possess against harmful memes is a basic conservatism: we feel uneasy when confronted with memes that contradict what is natural; what has worked in the past generations; what has evolved along with us. This resistance to change works also against any potential innovation, so we have learned to override the signals of alarm. Memes created by people promoting their own agenda convince us to ignore our innate suspicions by promising innovation. The reaction to bioth innovation and harmful memes is physical, in which our body becomes anxious and alarmed in preparing for a potential threat fromt he unfamiliar.

For example, the initial attraction of modernist architecture in the 1920s was the claim of a “a liberation from the oppressive hegemony of Traditional Architecture” (and by implication, from all tradition). But then, when people actually move into modernist apartment houses, they realized that the promised liberation was a myth, and the apartments were cheaply built, unrelentingly dull, difficult to heat or keep cool, low-ceilinged, and had awkwardly placed windows and impossibly cramped kitchens.

The meme’s encapsulation was then change 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 untrue. 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(int he 1920s) industrial materials, while mass production fit ideologically with many social agendas of the time.

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, entirely unfounded, 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 and architectural meme. Those memes are so deeply embedded in the emotional portion of our brain that is extremely difficult to get rid of them. Suggesting to architects that these ideals are actually meme encapsulations representing clever deceptions creates panic; the whole concept of modernity and social progress suddenly appears to be at stake. This emotional reaction is a testament to the effectiveness of the memes’ encapsulation.

The situation is artificial, but totally unlike the analogous world of computer viruses, where everyone agrees on the level for a virus. A computer virus damages a computer system, and its creator is punishable by law. The community acts together to identify, tag, and rid infected computers of the virus as rapidly as possibly. By contrast, advertising, architectural, and political memes are actively promoted by their respective established industries (although usually created by individuals as those who write computer viruses). We accept those memes because they are intentionally (though deceptively) tagged as “beneficial”. In a curious reversal of roles, individuals who question this deception are the ones ostracized by the establishment.


Categories: Theory


studying: architecture design


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