Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 2A

  • 10 Oct 2013
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Illustration portraying Heliocentrism theory of Nicolaus Copernicus. Image Courtesy of Iryna1, Shutterstock.com

We will be publishing Nikos Salingaros’ book, Unified Architectural Theoryin a series of installments, making it digitally, freely available for students and architects around the world. The following chapter, part one of Chapter Two, outlines the scientific approach to architectural theory. If you missed them, make sure to read the introduction and Chapter One first.

In order to discuss any supposed contributions to architectural theory, it is necessary to define what architectural theory is. A theory in any discipline is a general framework that:

(1) explains observed phenomena;

(2) predicts effects that appear under specific circumstances; and

(3) enables one to create new situations that perform in a way predicted by the theory.

In architecture, a theoretical framework ought to explain why buildings affect human beings in certain ways, and why some buildings are more successful than others, both in practical as well as in psychological and aesthetic terms.

One important requirement of an architectural theory is to coordinate and make sense of scattered and apparently unrelated observations of how human beings interact with built form. Another is to formalize those observations into an easy-to-apply framework that can be used for design.

Sadly, architecture is only now embarking on a long-overdue formulation of its theoretical basis. It is not an exaggeration to say that up until now, the field has been driven by personal whim and fashion rather than being supported by any theoretical foundation. As a result of a serious misunderstanding (due to scientific ignorance by three generations of architects), a voluminous body of writings has been mistaken for “architectural theory”, even though it is nothing of the sort. This material is taught to architecture students, and is studied by practicing architects; nevertheless, it merely serves to promote certain stylistic fashions and dogmas rather than an understanding of architectural form. Enough genuine architectural theory now exists to form a nucleus from which the topic can be built. This nucleus consists of the writings of Christopher Alexander (Alexander, 2001; Alexander et al., 1977), Léon Krier (1998), the present author (Salingaros, 2006), and a few others.

Genuine architectural theory has developed into two parallel strands. The first is the approach based on solutions that work historically. Not surprisingly, this strand turns to traditional architecture, using its typologies in an innovative manner. Architects ignorant of this strand of architectural theory misjudge it, falsely thinking that it merely copies older models, whereas in fact, it is using a well-developed vocabulary to generate novel solutions. The second strand of genuine architectural theory is based on science.

Here, models from biology, physics, and computer science are used to explain how architectonic form emerges, and why human beings react in certain predictable ways to different structures. The scientific approach is in many ways complementary to the traditional approach to design. The main difference in practice is that, since the scientific approach is not tied to any specific typology, it leads to a much broader design vocabulary than does the traditional approach.

Architects have difficulties in appreciating the scientific strand of genuine architectural theory, because of certain misstatements in the body of existing architectural texts. Authors claiming to explain architectural form using scientific theories and their vocabulary are invariably confused, and so confuse the reader. Much of this architectural literature is plainly incorrect, but architects have insufficient scientific knowledge to realize this. Well-respected architectural commentators write misleading statements that are taken as meaningful explanations by architects and students, who then become so bewildered that they cannot appreciate genuine scientific explanations. They confuse spurious explanations for the real thing.

This regrettably happens because in architecture, there is as yet no basis for judging between a true and a false theory. Other fields were able to develop their theoretical basis only after they instituted such a criterion, putting in place a mechanism for distinguishing sense from nonsense. Architects erroneously believe that such a set of criteria can exist only in an experimental subject such as physics, without realizing that architecture is itself an experimental field. The problem is that the observational, experimental side of architecture has been willfully neglected for several decades, to the point where its practitioners have forgotten this fundamental quality of their discipline.

Outsiders (which includes most people) naively assume that contemporary architecture possesses a theoretical basis, like for example chemistry and neuroscience, which explains why buildings ought to look the way they do. However, a mass of writings mislabeled as architectural theory only helps to generate and support certain images; those images are then copied, and used as templates for buildings in an alien style. That is not a theoretical foundation. Those writings fail to satisfy any of the accepted criteria for a theory in any field.

Every discipline has a store of knowledge accumulated over time, which explains a huge range of phenomena. (Architecture has been collecting information for millennia). Some of this knowledge is codified into a compact theoretical framework; other parts are strictly phenomenological but tested by observation and experiment. Facts and ideas combine in a particular manner, common to all proper disciplines.

The crucial characteristic of a valid theoretical framework is a transparent internal complexity coupled with external connectivity. This arises from the way explanatory networks develop in time:

1. More recent knowledge about a topic builds upon existing knowledge.

2. Older knowledge is replaced only by a better explanation of the same phenomenon, never because a fashion has changed — this process creates multiple, connected layers of knowledge.

3. A theory in one discipline must transition sensibly to other disciplines.

This means that there ought to be some interface where one discipline merges into another, all the way around its periphery. Any theory that isolates itself because it is incomprehensible to others is automatically suspect. A tightly-knit internal connectivity, along with a looser external connectivity, provides the foundations for a mechanism of self-correction and maintenance. This holds true for any complex system.

Architecture as a profession has repeatedly disconnected itself both from its knowledge base, and from other disciplines in an effort to remain eternally “contemporary” (the much-publicized recent connections to philosophy, linguistics, and science notwithstanding, since they are now exposed as deceptions). This is, of course, the defining characteristic of a fashion; the opposite of a proper discipline. Again and again, architecture has ignored derived knowledge about buildings and cities, and has embraced nonsensical slogans and influences.

Those who profit from the instability and superficiality of the fashion industry are deathly afraid of facing genuine knowledge about the world. It would put them out of business. Architects and critics periodically change the reigning fashion so as to keep the market stimulated. They have to devote an enormous amount of resources to promoting whatever ephemeral style is in vogue. In order to sell their fashion, they are obliged to suppress any application of accumulated architectural knowledge. This prevents a theoretical basis from ever developing. Ever-changing fashion is parasitic on timeless processes.

Critics dismiss neo-traditional buildings as facile copies of classical prototypes, even though those need not resemble anything built in the previous two millennia. The architectural media declare that “a classical column represents tyranny”, and that by confessing to an attraction to classical architecture, we somehow support totalitarianism. At the same time, a liking for non-classical vernacular architecture of any kind is ridiculed. In this instance, we are branded as being ignorant and “sentimental” (which, in contemporary architectural values, is an unforgivable offense). Novel buildings with human qualities, which nevertheless have nothing to do with the classical typology, are also forbidden.

People are now misled to believe that the “architecture of the future” is necessarily broken and twisted, and made out of glass and polished metal. Any doubt is dispelled by awarding their architects the most prestigious prizes. Some of those who participate in disseminating this style act from an almost religious conviction. They fervently believe that they are doing civilization a favor, promoting the future and protecting us from backwardness and retrogression. Architectural schools are steeped in righteousness. Ever since the Bauhaus of the 1920s, many schools’ aim has been to restructure society for the betterment of all people; whether those welcome this or not. If ordinary people are sentimental about past methods of design, and crave buildings that appeal to the human scale, that is only an indication of human weakness.

We stand on the threshold of a historic architectural reckoning. A new architecture mixes exuberant curved forms and fractal scaling with the broken forms of deconstruction. Let me suggest that architects who wish to be contemporary ought to drop their deconstructive baggage. They should instead extend a hand to those whom they have formerly disdained and slandered — I mean the traditionalists, and those innovative architects who respect human scale and sensibilities. By mixing novel forms with typologies that have undergone a competitive selection during historical time, we can define a new architecture that is fit for human beings instead of remaining forever alien. Younger practitioners have been duped into identifying novelty with the essential “alien look” of deconstruction. Nevertheless, a new generation of architects is intelligent enough to realize what is going on, and to snap out of an unfortunate deception.

Order the International edition of Unified Architectural Theory here, and the US edition here


  • Christopher Alexander (2001) The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Book 1, The Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.
  • Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Andrew Bulhak (1996) “Postmodernism Generator”, available online from <http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern>.
  • John Huth (1998) “Latour’s Relativity”, in: A House Built on Sand, Edited by Noretta Koertge, Oxford University Press, New York, pages 181-192.
  • Léon Krier (1998) Architecture: Choice or Fate, Andreas Papadakis, Windsor, England. Retitled The Architecture of Community, with new material, Island Press, Washington, DC, 2009.
  • David Lehman (1991) Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, Poseidon Press, New York.
  • Christopher Norris (1989) “Interview of Jacques Derrida”, AD — Architectural Design, 59 No. 1/2, pages 6-11.
  • Nikos A. Salingaros (2006) A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany.
  • Roger Scruton (2000) “The Devil’s Work”, Chapter 12 of: An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana.
  • Alan Sokal (1996), “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, Social Text, 46/47, pages 217-252.
  • Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont (1998) Fashionable Nonsense, Picador, New York. European title: Intellectual Impostures.
  • Edward O. Wilson (1998a) “Integrating Science and the Coming Century of the Environment”, Science, 279, pages 2048-2049.
  • Edward O. Wilson (1998b) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Image of Copernicus’ Theory of Heliocentrism via Iryna1, Shutterstock.com

Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 2A" 10 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=433898>
  • Andrew Carija

    I find the amount of vitriol and aggressive language the author levels against modern architecture quite off-putting. For a book that claims to be a scientific approach to architecture, I find this level of unsubstantiated criticism quite unprofessional and unscientific.

    • Kyle Rogler

      I am afraid that there will be at least another 6 chapters of this. Nikos is a life-long friend of Christopher Alexander and the two have collaborated together extensively. Among the circle of Traditionalists and New Urbanists, his work is a rally cry to gather the troops and is spoken in a way that reaffirms that group’s predominate view of architecture while demonizing the opposing side. For outsiders this rhetoric is very hostile and will reduce the credibility of the arguments.

      Here is my suggestions for everyone. Watch Lance Hosey’s talk at TEDCity (starting at 1:28:14 on Session 3. View here: http://new.livestream.com/tedx/cityenglish). Lance discusses the exact same facts that Nikos will get into around eventually in a very positive and professional manner that allows for the growth of the profession to consider mathematical and biological principles.

      • Alexandre Collaço

        Agree, as I read these Nikos arguments presented here and in his books, most of the times it seems he is as you said gathering troops against demons and this approach really reduces credibility and also leaves the feeling of missing the important point, the theory per se.

  • Hugo Oosthuizen

    He has a couple of points I find interesting, but I agree with Andrew Carija. It is worded quite strongly. I think the reason is simply to underline the idea that we should not read this book with our education and what we learned there in mind, as well as that this chapter still feels like part of an introduction somehow. Read it like the first book on architecture you have ever read.

  • Daniel

    I find it somewhat confusing that an essay which begins by calling into question the rigor of nearly all 20th century architectural theory ends with paragraph after paragraph of unsubstantiated and oddly vague accusation.

    “Certain stylistic fashions and dogmas…”
    “Critics dismiss…”
    People are led…”
    “Those who profit …”
    It goes on and on.

    Which dogmas, exactly? There seem to be a lot of them floating around these days, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Who are all of these people? Wouldn’t at least a few specific cases need to be investigated, in order to establish something resembling an objective understanding of the general condition of design? Perhaps I’ll just have to wait for the next zany installment.

    This stuff drives me nuts but I can’t not read it, like a roadside car crash, I can’t look away. Must be why you’re publishing it. Personally I think (in all seriousness) this gentleman should listen to the recent Kanye interview and learn a thing or two.

    This piece has the tenor of juicy vintage propaganda. I feel a strange compulsion to, I don’t know, grow a victory garden, or buy a war bond… or something.

  • anti-anti-architect

    he digs Alexander and Krier, despises everyone else, and wants a novel/traditional synthesis?

    I was made to understand there was a theory here…

  • Dimitar V Dobrev

    Just because his arguments, data and synthesis thereof are of a scientific nature, does not necessarily dictate that his language must be so. Remember, he is trying to make this work accessible to everybody, not just intellectuals because if you gentlemen and women haven’t noticed, scientists tend to write in a very dry and boring manner. Furthermore, his criticisms are substantiated in his other works and publications. @anti-anti-architect: there is a big difference between despising a PERSON and strongly disagreeing with a PERSON’S methodology / idea. Get it?