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Architecture's New Scientific Foundations

A new book-in-progress aims to change the way architecture is evaluated and, thus, to change the way it is practiced.

By Nikos A. Salingaros
April 7, 2015

Editor’s note: ArchNewsNow is beginning a new series of lectures by the mathematician, urbanist, and architectural theorist Nikos A. Salingaros. Nikos has worked for many years with legendary architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander in helping to develop a new scientific basis for architectural design. Despite the crucial importance of this work for implementing a truly sustainable design practice, it remains outside the architectural mainstream. Thus, we are very happy to be able to present parts of a new book-in-progress by Nikos, as an exclusive and original project. He is appearing on ArchNewsNow for the first time. © Nikos A. Salingaros, 2015, published here with permission from the author.





Health prompts a new approach


Do we need another book on architecture? Aren’t the rows of books full of photos of the latest award-winning buildings more than enough to define what good architecture is? If we have any doubts, the leading architecture critics (Western, that is) will tell us in no uncertain terms who is a great architect today: world architecture is defined exclusively by their projects. After all, they are champions of the largest construction companies and the biggest multinational engineering firms, and they do the most prestigious projects around the world. That alone should validate their work!


But... there is a nagging doubt. What if we look at or visit an award-winning building by a star architect and find the experience unsettling? How is it possible that we don’t appreciate this piece of architecture by a famous person (universally praised, or at least the global media make it seem that way), and just can’t feel comfortable with it? What if the building makes us ill-at-ease and even sick to our stomach? Or if nothing is obviously wrong with it – perhaps it merely feels odd and awkward to be in – yet long-term exposure to it makes us increasingly depressed, and we find that we get ill much more often than before? Could something be happening here that we don’t know about, and which is never mentioned?


This collection of essays offers an unbiased view of what a group of friends and colleagues consider to be good (and bad) architecture. The book’s goal is to change the way architecture is evaluated, and thus to change the way it is practiced. All of my arguments come from science and the scientific method. A groundswell is taking place, with socially-responsible people turning to nature and science for techniques of building that will not destroy our planet. I describe essential new methods I wish to introduce into the architecture curriculum. Although central to architecture for millennia, these methods are not normally known to architects today, and, moreover, are not easy to locate.


The innovative design tools described here are intended to help young people in their education, and consequently in their architectural practice. The results are experimentally verifiable. Young students and practitioners from all over the world are searching for precisely such methods, to free their creative potential while designing adaptive spaces that possess healing properties. New architectural principles such as Biophilia and Evidence-Based Design produce a substantially healthier environment for the inhabitants of buildings. Certainly, this is a criterion that many young architects wish to apply; yet in the past, the design tools were not available.


The material in this textbook is presented for an introductory architecture course. It is not necessary that all of the chapters be covered then and there. There is so much material new to the architecture curriculum that adopting any portion of it would be beneficial. Hopefully, people will be attracted to all the new and unfamiliar material. The book informs an instructor of methods leading to results that he or she was probably not aware of for presentation in class.


Resistance from the current paradigm


In my experience with architecture students, however, I find serious conceptual obstacles to teaching them adaptive design. Knowledge from their previous courses proves an obstacle to learning the new things I’m trying to teach. But it is not knowledge itself that is the problem, since incorrect facts are easily corrected by explanation. Prior education and exposure to others’ opinions taught as authoritative narrows the students’ worldview so much that it proves extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to learn new ideas.


What is now taught everywhere fits into a very narrow and restricted niche, and studiously skirts the topic of human adaptation. Most architecture professors typically adopt for the standard theory course several books chosen from literature, music criticism, philosophy, etc. While interesting in themselves, they thoroughly distract the student from the meaning of architecture. The typical course consists of being shown buildings by famous architects, while the instructor praises their supposedly outstanding qualities. Those qualities are never explained, yet students are expected to emulate them.


The second type of course beginning students take is the “Great Buildings” survey. Here, the instructor describes the morphological features of buildings chosen from a big picture textbook. What harm is there in this? Well, the book’s author includes more recent buildings with seriously deficient appearance, performance, and environmental quality among the truly outstanding architectural creations of humankind. Both the student and the instructor accept the author’s selections uncritically. For the rest of the student’s life, those mediocre or unhealthy buildings will remain “great,” and no criticism of them can be tolerated.


An innovative approach to architectural education relevant for our times has to offer a foundations course early on. Some of my friends expressed doubts: “Can inexperienced students actually comprehend your scientific arguments? How can young people decide what is true or not true? They will become confused and frightened and dismiss what you are saying. They want to be architects so as to emulate today’s famous architects: while you, an outsider, criticize those same architects!” Nevertheless, this is precisely why it is imperative to reach out to students at the very beginning of their architectural education. This is when they pick up concepts that determine how they design.


Is architecture a service profession providing housing, working spaces, and environmental wellbeing for humanity? Architecture schools loudly proclaim that their real goal is to better serve humankind; instead, they teach students to copy the rich and famous architects. Architectural academia makes the basic error of equating what’s good for the star architects and their multinational clients with what’s good for people. It fails to resolve a basic contradiction: is good architecture merely an extremely expensive fetish of erecting giant sculptures that look stunning on the covers of architectural magazines? That is a question that few architecture professors address, since the answer is embarrassing.


I offer tools that students can use to liberate their own creativity, unrestricted by fashion or convention, to produce new marvelously adaptive, human buildings. At the same time, these methods make clear why any building judged to be poorly designed should not be copied just because its architect is famous. Criteria for judging value should not be applied in post-occupancy evaluation, when it is too late to fix major problems, but in the design stage. We know with some degree of accuracy beforehand whether or not a building will provide a physiologically and psychologically healthy environment, and can indeed anticipate difficulties in how it will interact with its users.


And this is where I run into trouble with my architectural colleagues. They get excited whenever the methods I propose explain a successful aspect of a building by a famous architect. They immediately see that we have useful new tools to analyze form and users’ response to it. The analysis seems like a very good idea. However, they recoil from those same methods if an iconic building is judged as deficient. They have a strongly negative reaction whenever the value of an architectural icon is questioned. They are terrified by the risk that new methods pose for the established order. Their admiration for the wonderful explanatory and predictive power of those methods and their results turns into alarm: the implications are far too dangerous.





The present course is meant to be self-contained, so that students should not need any textbook other than this collection of notes. Nevertheless, a core of accumulated knowledge is set forth in books by Christopher Alexander, my own books on architecture and urbanism, and several other texts. These books contain the details of the adaptive design method, as well as the background of how the discipline has evolved to its present stage. This is essential material for future designers to learn. Younger architects are eagerly looking for precisely these results. It is with delight and pleasant surprise that they can now find this material readily available, and in practical form. But that knowledge remains, for the most part, outside the conventional architectural paradigm of image-based formalist design.


“And what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” asks Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Architects like to look at pictures rather than read text. Students learn to copy the famous architects visually, while the incomprehensible theory that is now taught tries to justify those buildings rather than offer any logical framework for understanding them. Those old theoretical texts are not, to my mind, useful in the least.


The motives and thoughts driving conventional design for close to a century are rooted in an entirely different basis from the methods needed for adaptive design. This new framework is based on science and the experimental method. It is also based on human feelings and our visceral response to structures in the built environment.


While the following list of books does not contain all of the writings of Alexander and myself (nor several useful books by other authors), it provides key references that define a basis for adaptive architecture.


Christopher Alexander (1979) The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, New York.


Christopher Alexander (2001-2005) The Nature of Order, Books 1-4, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California. Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, 2001; Book 2: The Process of Creating Life, 2002; Book 3: A Vision of a Living World, 2005; Book 4: The Luminous Ground, 2004.


Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford University Press, New York.


Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen & Martin Mador, Editors (2008) Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, John Wiley, New York. Chapter 5, “Neuroscience, the Natural Environment, and Building Design”, is written by Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden.


Léon Krier (1998) Architecture: Choice or Fate, Andreas Papadakis, Windsor, England. New edition, The Architecture of Community, Island Press, Washington, DC, 2009.


Helmut Leitner (2015) Pattern Theory: Introduction and Perspectives on the Tracks of Christopher Alexander, CreateSpace, Amazon.


Michael W. Mehaffy & Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science, and the Human Future, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.


Malcolm Millais (2009) Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, Frances Lincoln Limited, London.


Stephen A. Mouzon (2010) The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, Guild Foundation Press, Miami, Florida.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2004) Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; Fourth Edition 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2005) Principles of Urban Structure, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2006) A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2010) Algorithmic Sustainable Design: Twelve Lectures On Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2013) Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.


Ann Sussman & Justin B. Hollander (2015) Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, Routledge, New York.



Nikos A. Salingaros collaborated with visionary architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander, helping to edit the four-volume “The Nature of Order” during its 25-year gestation. He has been recognized by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the INTBAU College of Traditional Practitioners, and was one of the “50 Visionaries who are Changing Your World” selected by UTNE Reader in 2008. In Planetizen’s 2009 survey, he was ranked 11th among “The Top Urban Thinkers of All Time.” Author of seven monographs on architectural and urban design translated into several languages, his work links human-scale urbanism to developing architectural movements such as Biophilic Design, Evidence-Based Design, P2P Urbanism, the Network City, Generative Codes, and Sustainable Architecture. Dr. Salingaros holds a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics, and is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is also on the architecture faculties of several universities, and directs Ph.D. students in architecture and urbanism around the world.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Photo of Bharatanatyam dancer by Marie-Julie Bontemps, 2014.