Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is Professor of Mathematics and Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. As an internationally recognized architectural theorist and urbanist, he was a visiting professor of Architecture at Delft University of Technology, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Querétaro, Mexico, and Università di Roma III. He holds a doctorate in Mathematical Physics from Stony Brook University, New York.
His publications include the books Algorithmic Sustainable Design, Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, A Theory of Architecture, Principles of Urban Structure, and Unified Architectural Theory, plus numerous scientific articles. He collaborated with the visionary architect Christopher Alexander in editing the four-volume The Nature of Order. Salingaros won the 2019 Stockholm Cultural Award for Architecture, and shared the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award with Michael Mehaffy.
Michal Matlon: How did your journey start? How did you get to work with architecture and architectural theory?
Nikos Salingaros: My journey began when I discovered the work of Christopher Alexander while I was a graduate student in theoretical physics. I’ve always been close to art and architecture. I used to paint when I was young.
I went to study physics and mathematics, but during that time, I read all the architecture books I could. And what I noticed was that none of them made any sense. Except for when I discovered Christopher Alexander’s first book, Notes on the Synthesis of Form. He immediately attracted me, because he was also trained as a physicist and mathematician, so we spoke the same language.
Later, when I was in graduate school, Pattern Language, Alexander’s collection of design patterns, appeared and I instantly recognized its value. Then, when I became a faculty member, I went to visit one of my students in Berkeley. And I thought to myself, I’ll look up Christopher Alexander because he lived there. We met and eventually, we became very good friends.
He asked me to edit The Nature of Order, a four-volume work which he published twenty years later, between 2001 and 2005. I got so involved in this topic during those 20 years, that towards the end, I thought to myself that this is too important for Christopher to do alone. Someone has to join him because this will change the direction of architecture as we know it.
So I gave up my work in physics and mathematics and started publishing in architecture. I wanted to do research that would add to our knowledge of how architecture influences humans. I wanted to help architects create better architecture for people, their health, and society. And that was quite a new idea to a field, which for the past few decades has been focused on form and abstraction.
The Pattern Language
Natalia Olszewska: Could you summarize what Christopher Alexander’s work and theories are about?
Nikos: Let me separate it into two parts. The first part, which was published in 1977, is the pattern language. Pattern language is a language that is composed of design patterns. Each design pattern describes a kind of a relationship between a certain type of environment and the human person, discovered in the most loved and appreciated architecture all around the world. It combines a certain geometry or a type of space with how the human being interacts with it. And the criteria for a successful design pattern is if the interaction is beneficial for the person who is experiencing it.
So, say a Small Public Square pattern was made by observing small public squares around the world. It was discovered that such a square usually has a certain dimension range, it has pedestrian access. And then there are criteria that make a small square successful — features and qualities it needs to have to be pleasant and useful.
The design pattern now is documented in a book like the Pattern Language. Someone in Colombia who wants to design a small square can read the design pattern and use it as a guide to design it themselves. In the book, each pattern is only about two pages long, so it’s easy to use. If you use them, then in most cases, your design will be useful and used. It saves you the nasty surprises.
However, what is the usual practice today? An investor or a government agency asks an architect to design a public square. The architect then sits in their office, works on a computer screen, looks at the plan, and designs something they think looks good.
They often have no idea how it’s going to be experienced by the users and are not drawing on the available knowledge about how people use and experience such places. For the design profession today, the criteria are usually strictly abstract and image-based, and most of the aesthetics don’t work well with the general population anyway.
So when such a place is built, you don’t know what your experience will be like. It might be pleasant to walk through it, or it may be anxiety-inducing. And architects often don’t investigate what are the criteria for a successful place like this, they don’t revisit and research the places they created and how they worked out with the users.
Our society is also complicit in this because it usually doesn’t condemn a place that works badly. We throw the blame on the people, saying they are ignorant or can’t appreciate good design. But the people are not ignorant. They have a real experience with the space, they feel it with their nervous system. And they know if their experience is pleasant and welcoming, or not.
The design patterns allow an architect designing a place to pick a few of them and apply them to their project so that it works on the human side. Many architects tell me that they don’t want to use the patterns because they don’t want their creativity to be constrained. But that’s not how it works. You can create an infinite number of possible designs based on these patterns. It’s just that they help you design something that’s going to be successful and loved.
The Nature of Order
The second part of Christopher Alexander’s work is the Nature of Order, on which I participated as an editor. In it, he developed a general theory of the geometrical order of the world and communicated it in a language understandable to an architect. He also created a set of design tools, separate from the Pattern Language, which can be used by architects to create loved and comfortable places. Among them are the 15 Properties of Wholeness, Mirror of the Self Test, the concept of Coherence, and many others.
Natalia: How would you explain the link between mathematical or geometrical order and human psychology and physiology?
Nikos: Christopher Alexander developed his work before the currently existing research in neuroscience, using his thoughtful observation and experience from practice. He was a professor at Berkeley for many years and together with his students, he participated in many projects, where he gathered his observations.
We are tremendously fortunate that we have neuroscientific experiments today which support what Christopher did many years ago. The human body is a sophisticated sensing machine that has evolved in the natural environment over millions of years. That natural environment has certain mathematical properties. Those properties gave rise to our neural system because the neural system developed to optimize our survival in an environment with such geometry.
The organisms that didn’t interpret the natural environment so well just didn’t live long enough to reproduce. And since information coming to the brain is, in our case, mostly visual, the geometry of nature is very important to our optimal functioning.
I have been documenting these geometric properties and communicating them in simple mathematical terms so that designers can understand them better. If we create an environment that is aligned with these properties, it’s pleasant and soothing for us. But if we violate them, we create anxiety and stress, because our brains have to work much harder to understand such an environment. And we know how harmful prolonged stress and anxiety are to our minds and bodies.
Natalia: So there is an evolutionary link…
Nikos: Yes, we have evolved to fit within nature. And what is the geometry of nature? That’s what I focus on in my papers. There is fractal scaling, and nested symmetries. There is the symmetrical alignment around the vertical axis, caused by gravity. We have receptors in our brains that specialize in recognizing vertical symmetry, causing a “vertical fluency”. When we see a symmetry around a tilted axis, the brain spends much more energy to process that sight.
So when we see a building that has the right kind of multiple symmetries in its design, we feel comfortable, even if we don’t know why. These are usually subconscious experiences. But we design a lot of places and buildings that go against these principles, which create stress. And they certainly contribute to the pandemic of mental illness we experience. But we ignore it.
On the bright side, many wonderful young researchers are starting to work on applying psychology and neuroscience to architecture. This was almost unheard of in the previous decades. So these are very exciting times, though the mainstream architecture has not fully appreciated this yet — it’s still drawing on the Bauhaus ideas from the 1920s.
A New Architectural Education
Michal: I can see this being a slow change, especially since the projects we build now are often so huge, expensive, and difficult to finance. It’s like changing the direction of a large ship. And it needs to be approached from all sides — architecture, real estate developers, municipalities, policymakers… But let’s stick to architects for now. If you put yourself in the shoes of today’s architecture student, how would you go about shaping your education so that you learn these things? Since universities often still don’t teach them…
Nikos: In anticipation of that question, I have created two online courses that any student can access for free and take at their own pace. We are now working with several universities in India to offer these courses for credit.
I often receive emails from students from all over the world. They tell me: “I discovered your article and it led me to discovering all this wonderful stuff I never knew existed. It will really help me to become a better architect,” that’s the first half of the email usually.
And the second half of the message says: “Unfortunately, I went to my architecture professor and I showed this to them with great enthusiasm. And they told me that if I continue reading it, they are going to fail me.”
The academic profession often feels threatened by these facts, because their teaching is based on the tradition of modern architecture, Bauhaus, and such. But now, there’s a suspicion that it might not be psychologically very good for people after all. And many of the teachers are working in this paradigm for too long to change now.
Natalia: The other day, I was listening to an interview with an Australian biologist. He said that as a biologist, he is reluctant to create explanations of the world that are based on abstraction. Of course, biology can already base the explanations on hundreds of years of observation and experimentation.
But what is interesting is that when we recently talked to architect and researcher Itai Palti, he said that during his architectural education, most of the things he was taught were just abstractions — all very far from the realm of humans, their psychology, and biology.
So when I’m listening to that, it seems to me that the solution is very simple. We need to start teaching architects, from the very beginning of their education, topics like human biology, psychology, evolution, and so on. Why isn’t that happening?
On the other hand, I understand there’s significant resistance in the architectural circles. I had a very interesting conversation with one of the best students in America. She is from Romania and she graduated from Yale. She won a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects.
Initially, she was very open to some sort of collaboration, but when I started to speak about science, psychology, biology, she just exploded! She told me the conversation is not inclusive, that there is already a lot of existing architectural theory and that I need to respect that. That made me think. Maybe I have a very clear idea about how things should connect, but architects are also a product of certain education and we have to work through that first.
Does Architecture Have a Theory?
Nikos: The issue is that most of what’s called architectural theory today is not really a theory. It is a retrograde explanation for the current way of doing things. To give a parallel, during communism in Russia, you had respected academics who would publish books about the theoretical underpinnings of Stalinism — a terrible, oppressive system. But this so-called theory was used as a basis for supporting it.
A theory has to be based on experiment and observation. It has to be evidence-based. So even though the evidence-based design has been used for several decades, it’s only now being developed into a proper theory. I think we will soon look back at most of the current architectural theory and see how it doesn’t make sense. And I know because as an architectural theorist, I have to read it all.
I’m guessing that the Romanian student had a shock of cognitive dissonance when she realized that her accepted worldview was being seriously threatened. Lashing out with accusations for inclusiveness, preposterous when architectural academia has excluded living architecture because it looks “old-fashioned”, is a knee-jerk reaction. Scientific discovery poses an existential threat to such a way of thinking.
Michal: When we talked to Harry Mallgrave, I used your quote as a question. You said that a theory needs to have a predictive value. So we need architectural theory, which will be able to predict, with a good enough probability, that if you design a building in a certain way, it will have a positive effect on people. This is not what the current theory deals with — the quality of the human experience is talked about very little there.
Nikos: You perfectly summarized the situation. A theory has to have a predictive value. Otherwise, how can you test if it’s correct? But the current architectural theory wants to avoid testing because it’s mostly just proposing some dogma.
Changing Real Estate Development
Michal: So, we looked at the point of view of an architectural student, but let’s take a look at real estate developers. We are starting to see some promising people coming onto the scene. We just recently met a US architect, who is developing a neighborhood in Arizona, based very much on the knowledge about how to create cities good for people. So if you put yourself into the shoes of a starting real estate developer, what would you do to do things better?
Nikos: To help answer that extremely important question, I want to use an evolutionary analogy. We have descended from mammals, who were peripheral animals at the beginning because dinosaurs were the main species. Then the dinosaurs proved incapable of changing in a rapidly unfolding catastrophe — probably an asteroid. But the mammals were much more flexible and much smaller back then and they were the ones to later evolve into humans.
That’s my solution, by analogy. You need to find a small real estate developer and convince them that this will help them sell their product. They might have to convince the local authorities to change the codes because most building codes are based on modernist thinking and they don’t enable the creation of human-scale cities.
So the real estate developer then can go and proclaim that they are designing a project which is going to be more popular and appreciated by people — their customers. And everybody believes in money. The breakthrough is to actually get that first project done, but you’re not going to get a large developer to accept that because the large developers are already making a lot of money.
So it’s the small developers that are willing to take risks. And when they use those tools — design patterns, biophilic design, evidence-based design, they are going to get a healthier product that will appeal to the consumer better. And the people will see that after two years, they’re much happier living there. This is what the New Urbanists have done to tremendous success.
Michal: If you think back to everything we talked about today, could you give us an example of a building or a place, which you would consider as a positive example, which incorporates these principles?
Nikos: The campus of the Eishin School outside of Tokyo, Japan. It was created by Alexander and his colleagues in 1985. Interestingly, when you look at photographs of the school, it looks traditionally Japanese. This was the great achievement of Alexander — to create something new that feels so comfortable to the Japanese students. And I will tell you an anecdote about the school.
Before, the school was located in downtown Tokyo in some horrible concrete building. There’s a school bus which takes the students back home at the end of the day. Normally, the school bus was full right at the end of the classes, because everyone wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. But ever since the new campus was open, the first three buses are usually empty. The students love spending their time there!
But architectural academics look at pictures of the school and they say: ”Oh, well, Alexander didn’t do anything innovative or special there. He just copied traditional Japanese architecture and he’s trying to fool us.” But he didn’t.
He created his own form language and pattern language for the school. It’s totally innovative, but it looks and feels traditional because it feels neurologically comfortable. People feel attached to the place because their psychological needs — and the design criteria — are satisfied.
Michal: If someone was to start reading into the work of Christopher Alexander, and yours, where should they start?
Nikos: A good start would be the free online course Unified Architectural Theory, which I mentioned. Then they can get a copy of Christopher Alexander’s Nature of Order, volume one, which is called The Phenomenon of Life. And from there, they can also get into the Pattern Language. If they start in this order, it will be immediately clear why the patterns are useful.
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