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Architecture's New Scientific Foundations, Part 3

Adaptive vs. Random Complexity, Part 2. Nourishing environments are complex yet highly organized, but cannot be minimalistic.

By Nikos A. Salingaros
September 15, 2015

Editor’s note: ArchNewsNow is presenting this 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. So, we are very happy 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.


Note: This article is the second part of a work whose first part appeared in ArchNewsNow, May 12, 2015, available here.



Why complexity needs to be organized


We intuitively suspect that the tedium felt in minimalist environments may be blamed on their lack of complexity. That is correct (Salingaros, 2005; 2012; 2015). And yet trying to fix such dead places by adding the wrong sort of complexity only adds to their imbalance. It is common nowadays to design and build using non-adaptive complexity, which adds no vitality, liveliness or life to a place. Complexity is organized or disorganized. Organized complexity adds to a place’s existing framework of adaptivity, fostering life by building on a place’s life-enhancing architectural features, understood as such by a history of use, tested by human action and interaction. The opposite of this, disorganized complexity, is random. Either it adds little to the absent adaptivity of a dead minimalist environment or it undermines the adaptivity of a complex, living environment. The two types of complexity do not add to a place’s adaptive stability, but cancel each other out.


Humans cannot “plug into” randomness; disorganized complexity cannot feed into life processes (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015). Our sensory and cognitive systems have evolved to process only what is organized. That’s not surprising, since we are part of nature, and our life is just another natural process of system organization. There is no way we can profit from or profitably connect to randomness. It follows that built randomness actually degrades human life.


Iconic buildings and urban projects that embody random form are arbitrary whims, designed without human needs in mind. These forms do not adapt to the built environment, but impose themselves brutally over it (Salingaros, 2015). The disorganized complexity of these structures almost never matches (and then only by accident) the organized complexity of people’s emotional and functional needs. There is a basic mismatch in the kind of complexity. Apply the substitution test: any randomly complex design can be replaced by any other, or even by a minimalist one, without making any difference, because their adaptivity to life is negligible.


Design and construction was different in the past. For millennia, organized complexity was a natural feature of the building process. Vernacular buildings were erected in ways that satisfied human needs, functions, psychological dimensions, etc. Their designers did not need to consciously incorporate adaptivity to human needs, because the parts of all buildings and the challenges of fitting them together in the way that worked best had been thought through already. There were no well-established building parts or time-tested ways of putting buildings together that did not adapt to human needs. Changes in such needs had always influenced design and building practice going forward. For centuries design flowed directly from human experience. Nothing was ever built or even conceived that did not facilitate connectivity, necessary flows, economy of movement, climatic needs, life functions, and the dynamic utilization of space as defined by human perception on the ground.


Only the most monumental of structures were designed with such human functionality taking second place to aesthetic symbolism. Typically, very few things were designed as abstractions on a drawing board. Buildings and associated structures (urban space and street furniture) evolved from the best accommodation to human use. Over time, they evolved into the complex forms of traditional architecture that we inherited, and would have continued to evolve had disorganized complexity – in the guise of artistic novelty – not interrupted a natural process that intuitively incorporated the DNA of success.


Today we are used to exerting direct control over every aspect of our environment, and that includes our constructions. The design process has become terribly deliberate. But our anxious deliberations negate the possibility of adaptively evolving a design using a framework of organized complexity. Our randomly shaped iconic buildings are designed directly by sophisticated software that generates construction drawings and even building components, without much mental exertion, let alone real creativity. Our taste for design as sculpture, supported by engineers paid to push the envelope of the laws of physics, leads us to misunderstand and denigrate the essential adaptive processes from our past.


Complexity and living structure


People are beginning to ask crucial questions, such as: What properties of the built environment make it more “alive,” in the sense (deeper than surface appearance) that it works like an organism or ecosystem? The answers will determine how humankind can finally go forward in a sustainable and resilient manner – which is far different from the current focus on technological gadgets and “gizmo green” responses to environmental degradation. Fortunately, a lot of work has already been done on this topic, although it remains far outside conventional design discourse.


Christopher Alexander devotes much of The Nature of Order to defining living structure (Alexander, 2001-2005). Following Alexander’s thinking, I introduced a model that measures life as organized complexity (Salingaros, 2006). A quantitative model estimates the “life” of any building as its degree of organized complexity, based on simple estimates using design metrics such as detail, differentiations, symmetries, curves, color, and contrast.


Kenneth Masden and I developed this topic further by listing seven properties of living structure (Salingaros & Masden, 2006), and discussing how they arise in architectural and urban form. This model relates to artificial intelligence and explains how mobile robots work, in a remarkable parallel to how adaptive architecture affects its users.


We identified the seven properties of living structure as follows:

(i) Organized-complexity.

(ii) Metabolism.

(iii) Replication.

(iv) Adaptation.

(v) Intervention.

(vi) Situatedness.

(vii) Connectivity.


Architects wishing to create a new, sustainable built environment can apply this line of investigation to generate architecture with life. The green building movement would do well to incorporate these and related scientific principles from outside the architectural mainstream. Up until now, innovative design for a better future has been held back by a confused idea of what constitutes living structure. A detailed description of the above seven properties is given in our paper (Salingaros & Masden, 2006; Salingaros, 2013: Chapter 31).


The key to the creation of living structure lies in organization, which reduces entropy or randomness. The above model quantifies complexity, and is based on thermodynamics. It formulates the problem in terms of physics instead of style or appearance (Salingaros, 2006). Living structure arises from the collaboration of processes that generate complexity even as they use specific mechanisms to organize it. Observed complexity merely reflects deeper phenomena at work. Up to a certain point, we talk about a general type of living process, and only then do we have to branch out into two related but distinct cases: organisms on the one hand, and the design of the built environment on the other.


Biological information vs. man-made information


The energy collected by life forms is converted into matter to sustain and expand their complex bodies. It is used to run metabolic processes. It is also encoded into DNA, which permits the living mechanism itself to be perpetuated – reproduced – before the structural materials and repair processes come to the end of their natural span. Life is the urge to encode structural information as complex material configurations, which permits life forms to use energy from the environment to continue their existence.


Man-made complexity can be viewed as a sophisticated extension of the life process. Humans have the innate urge to encode useful information into the material structures of their surroundings. This mechanism is responsible for the invention of writing as a means to preserve spoken language. Let’s go back further. Spoken language is itself a complex invention of regularity and patterns that convey meaning. Words enabled our ancestors to communicate and cooperate among family members and a social group. The success of the relatively weak humans over other, naturally stronger animals is as much due to social cooperation and coordination as it is to our evolved innate intelligence.


Going even further back in our evolution, recording insights arising from observations of our natural environment required us to invent mechanisms of physical documentation: regular markings on bone and stone; paintings on cave walls; patterns on pottery; regular patterns of the sound of our voice that became song and language; and regular complex patterns of the movement of our bodies that became ritual dance, etc. We humans needed to create complex patterns whose organization encoded information and meaning vitally important for understanding the world. Every parent selectively exposes their children to complexity, teaching them how to handle it by organizing the knowledge, and the types of order they need to process it, in their memory. This is the process of learning.


When we finally reach historical times, written language in the West decouples from ornamentation in the built environment. This important practice continues in the Islamic world, however, where calligraphy is an indivisible part of architecture, or was until very recently. A major problem arises when the built environment no longer carries meaning through organized complexity: it loses its psychological coherence. Because the modern built environment no longer, for the most part, encodes information relevant to human life, architecture has become random for the first time. Until the 20th century, designers instinctively and correctly regarded randomness as destroying information encoded through ordered complexity in our environment, and was shunned. But with the paradigm shift of erasing this information, our environment is fast becoming either minimalist (no information) or random (lots of useless information).


Uniformity and randomness destroy organization


There exist two distinct opposites to organized complexity: disorganized complexity or randomness, and extreme simplicity or uniformity. Neither of these extremes is recognized by our cognitive apparatus as representing a working complex system. Complexity is not a linear problem, so don’t think of one line with opposite ends but rather of two separate axes in a mathematical space where we can plot different degrees of complexity (Salingaros, 2006; 2014).


One distinct opposite of organized complexity is disorganized complexity (randomness). This occurs when many elements, not necessarily complex, lack mutual connections. Randomness has no organization. Individual pieces do not link together into a working system. If they do work at some level, connections are weak and there is no coordination with other levels. Any organization that might be present within individual pieces is unexpected. A random state is heterogeneous without any correlations, since it consists of many different non-interacting pieces.


The other distinct opposite of organized complexity is extreme simplicity (uniformity). It represents the homogeneous case it is without variety. Extreme simplicity occurs when a group’s various components are essentially copies of one component. Here, every piece is expected, and the group carries no additional information because there is no variety or complex structure. The set no longer has any distinguishing characteristics. Every piece decomposes into its simplest components (which are the same). The end result of reductionistic simplicity is uniformity. Even with possible correlations among its component pieces, there is insufficient variety to define a system, and therefore it could not have arisen naturally.


In conclusion, humans have evolved to recognize and respond to complex systems in nature. The most sophisticated systems are virtually alive. By contrast, a non-system such as a built environment that celebrates unnatural or non-living qualities detaches us from the world. Ordered complexity is the foundation of our ability to adapt. Its absence is the root of all confusion, or worse.


The lesson from complexity found in nature


The organized structure of matter offers the most basic example of natural complexity. Components of matter on different scales, from the subatomic to the microscopic to the macroscopic, bind coherently to define larger and more complex structures. What is observed is the result of stability among all the components, which is a consequence of system organization (otherwise it wouldn’t survive, and we wouldn’t be seeing it).


Organic forms arose for the purpose of converting energy into information. Energy input from the sun, but also from some geothermal sources, drives organisms over eons of time to structure their bodies to utilize this energy. The energy goes into building and upkeep of the organism’s complex structure. More evolved life forms show precisely the same elements of organization relevant to their design: alignment, local symmetries, spatial correlations, and scaling symmetries that aid life processes.


Life thus defines a definite direction for the transformation or build-up of organized complexity: proceeding from simple or random states toward states of concentration in complex and highly organized systems. The same holds true for adaptive environments. Energy and information are locked up in either static systems or in dynamic systems that are highly organized. This has implications for us, since human life evolved in highly organized, complex, natural environments. But life also extends itself outside the body: whenever organisms are able to erect surrounding structures, those embody the same type of organized complexity as living structures.


Transformations of organized complexity also take place during metabolism. Animals eating food digest complex organic matter that dissolves into slightly simpler components (nutrients), which are then re-assembled as essential components into the complex body of the animal. Animals feed on complex organic molecules, whereas unintelligent plants feed on rather minimalist chemical compounds. Chemical energy stored in the food is released and used to power the metabolism of the organism doing the eating. Organisms profit from various energy cycles they have invented (which work by transforming complexity).


The death of an organism marks the onset of decay, where more complex structures become less complex, less organized, and the organism’s constituents break down into chemical states either of more randomness or of uniformity. When natural structures decay, scaling hierarchies and local symmetries dissolve, generating randomness as the level of organization decreases, accompanied by the production of components unrelated to each other. That’s how a system decomposes.



Also by Salingaros:


Architecture's New Scientific Foundations, Part 2

Adaptive vs. Random Complexity, Part 1: Architects often assume that complexity, in general, must be designed. That's a misconception, and rarely conducive to human wellbeing.

May 12, 2015


Architecture's New Scientific Foundations, Part 1

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

April 7, 2015




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.


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. Chapter 8: “The Meaning of Complexity” originally appeared in Metropolis, 30 March 2012.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2005) Principles of Urban Structure, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal. Chapter 4: “Complexity and Urban Coherence” originally appeared in the Journal of Urban Design, Volume 5 (2000), pages 291-316.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2006) A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal. Chapter 5: “Life and Complexity in Architecture From a Thermodynamic Analogy” originally appeared in Physics Essays, Volume 10 (1997), pages 165-173.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2012) “Urbanism as Computation”; Chapter in: J. Portugali, H. Meyer, E. Stolk & E. Tan, Editors, Complexity Theories of Cities Have Come of Age, Springer, Berlin, pages 245-268.


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


Nikos A. Salingaros (2014) “Complexity in Architecture and Design”, Oz Journal, Volume 36, pages 18-25.


Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) “Biophilia and Healing Environments”, 10-part series published in Metropolis, August-September 2015, available here.


Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden (2006) “Architecture: Biological Form and Artificial Intelligence”; The Structurist, No. 45/46, pages 54-61. Reprinted as Chapter 31 of Nikos A. Salingaros (2013) Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon, and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, pages 217-230. Expanded version with new material published in A+U – Part 1 in September, Part 2 in October, and Part 3 in November 2015.


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.