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A Theory of Architecture Part 3: Why Primitive Form Languages Spread

As you may have seen, ArchDaily has been publishing UNIFIED ARCHITECTURAL THEORY, by the urbanist and controversial theorist Nikos A. Salingaros, in serial form. However, in order to explain certain concepts in greater detail, we have decided to pause this serialization and publish three excerpts from another of Salingaros’  books: A THEORY OF ARCHITECTURE. The first excerpt explained the difference between “Pattern Language” and “Form Language,” while the second established how these languages can combine to form the “Adaptive Design Method.” The following, final, excerpt distinguishes between viable, complex form languages that have evolved over time and primitive, “non-languages” that have come to dominate the 20th century due to their iconic simplicity (and despite their non-adaptive characteristics).  

Independently of their technological achievements, all groups of human beings have developed a richly complex spoken language. Differences arise in specificities, in the breadth of vocabulary for concepts important to that culture, and in their transition to a written language, but those do not affect the general richness of the language. Every language’s internal structure has to obey general principles that are common to all languages. A primitive language or non-language, by contrast, is characterized by the reduction or absence of such internal complexity and structure. The complexity of human thought sets a rather high threshold for the complexity that any language has to be able to express through combinatoric groupings. 

Turning now to architecture, a viable form language is also characterized by its high degree of internal complexity. Furthermore, the complexity of different form languages has to be comparable, because each form language shares a commonality with other form languages on a general meta-linguistic level. A primitive form language severely limits architectonic expression to crude or inarticulate statements. 

So, while each form language may be distinct in its components, it is not really a complete form language unless it possesses a complex internal structure. The exact details of this structure must necessarily parallel the internal structure of any other fully-developed language, and in particular, that of a pattern language. Roughly, these properties can be described as combinatorial, connective, and hierarchical features, which we see in our own written and spoken language.

A form language that adapts to human beings contains and codifies certain very specific geometrical properties such as fractal structure, connectivity, coherence, and scaling (as discussed in the previous Chapters of this book). Again, a form language that does not contain these mathematical properties is a primitive” form language, or “non-language, because it is too sparse to define a rich language of forms. There exists a range of form languages, from non-languages, to primitive form languages, increasing in complexity of combinatoric expression up to genuine form languages. 

This argument is borne out by the enormous number of distinct form languages developed independently by different peoples around the world. It is reasonable to claim that for each spoken language, there is also a form language that those people use to build and to shape their environment. The means of verbal expression and accumulated culture defining a literary tradition has a parallel in an ornamental tradition and material culture, which includes a form language that is an expression of inventiveness in geometry and tectonics. Each traditional form language is distinct, yet possesses a comparably high degree of organized complexity in terms of visual vocabulary and combinatoric possibilities. Erasing a form language erases the culture that created it. It is no different than erasing a culture’s literature, or its musical heritage. 

It is only in recent years that the mathematical sophistication of traditional form languages has begun to be documented. Mathematicians and ethnologists are doing this work, while the architectural establishment continues to ignore indigenous building cultures and the human value of what they represent. For example, traditional building and urban geometry in sub-Saharan Africa is now revealed to be essentially fractal, thus revising our customary (and totally erroneous) conception of those cultures as mathematically under-developed — fractals were re-discovered in the West only very recently. Loosely (and deprecatingly) classed together as “vernacular architectures”, this vast body of diverse and complex styles, geometries, and ways of understanding space and structure shames the poverty of contemporary architectural styles. Traditional form languages are rich, complete, and technically (not industrially) advanced. In terms of richness and underlying substance, which are crucially important to life, contemporary form languages promoted by the Western architectural design magazines would seem to represent an evolutionary regression. 

Separate from preserving traditional form languages for their informational and cultural value, the inevitable evolution of form languages makes possible entirely innovative architectural expressions. Such an evolution is possible only if a form language retains the high level of its internal complexity. Traditional form languages around the world were dismissed as “primitive” by Western colonial and economic powers, and were replaced by variants of Neo-Classical or Beaux-Arts form languages. Cultural colonialism in architecture comes about by destroying languages that are thousands of years old, as an affirmation of superiority and power.

The linguistic analogy makes it difficult to understand why a primitive form language would ever survive, let alone dominate another more evolved form language. Why maintain a system in use that severely limits one’s expression? The reason we do this is that every form language has extra-linguistic attributes that help in its proliferation. Once invented, the limited visual vocabulary of a primitive form language may be copied unthinkingly by more and more persons. Unlike a true language, which survives through its linguistic utility, a form language can survive strictly through its iconic properties (and not its linguistic ones). Indeed, constant repetition through visual copying is the key to its transmission, promotion, and acceptance by an increasing number of architects. 

We know of biological entities that split from more complex organisms so as to propagate freely and with enormous success: they are the viruses. Because of its nature, the virus can exist in an inert, easily-transmittable form such as a powder. This is possible because a virus is a biologically simple structure with very low informational overhead.

In the propagation of architectural images, the media play a key role, showing and praising carefully selected structures and urban projects (and ignoring everything else). Our architectural schools and press have also done a very effective job of promoting primitive form languages while unwittingly suppressing true form languages. Familiarity makes people overlook a form language’s linguistic deficiencies.

Someone who has been raised in the twentieth century and has been taught through association that “beautiful” objects have no hierarchical organization will then apply this rule subconsciously to design a building or a city. Even though people might find such environments intellectually acceptable, they can never overcome the negative sensations that such an architecture brings into play.

Why did this occur only at the beginning of the twentieth century and not before? I believe that it had to do with radical social changes spurred by population pressure and political oppression so that for the first time, many people saw a chance of radical social improvement through technology. They were willing to sacrifice adaptive design in exchange for the (false) promise of a better future offered by industrialization. Prior to that, people on all socioeconomic levels shaped their environment as far as they could to provide physical comfort and emotional wellbeing.

Another contributing factor was the creation of a new communications network formed by the convergence of telephone, telegraph, newspapers, magazines, and film. The new media tied the world together as never before, yet also made possible the rapid proliferation of advertising and political propaganda. The spread of modernism, combining visually simple images with the promise of a new utopian world, could never have occurred were it not for the new media. Advertising created the desire for industrial products that we didn’t really need. Just as in the case of internet computer viruses, which could not exist before the internet, primitive architectural form languages could spread only through the first architectural picture magazines. At the same time, advertising favors the transmission of simplistic messages, slogans, images, and ideas. 

As a result of its tremendous power to shape people’s minds, advertising quickly transformed from a medium for transmitting commercial information to an instrument of social change and control. Its first target was cultural traditions that blocked the consumption of inferior new industrial products. These inhibitions were overcome by making individuals ashamed of their instinctive preferences, labeling them as “backward”, and thereby opening up the public to market influence. Thus, form languages that threatened the supremacy of the post-industrial aesthetic of glass, steel, and concrete slabs were stigmatized by the architectural critics. This style based on a specific industrial “look” could not be sold to the world until traditional form languages were eliminated. The way the built environment looked anywhere in the world would henceforth be controlled by the advertising media; all traditional form languages condemned to extinction in the interest of Western industrial and ideological dominance.

Nikos A. Salingaros, “A Theory of Architecture” (see this book’s Wikipedia entry) is now available in an international edition HEREwith shipping to anywhere in the world. Readers in the US can choose between the new printing with Index HERE and the original printing, which is selling at half price HERETranslation into Chinese HERE, and Persian HERE.

Image of El Molo Huts via

Cite:Nikos Salingaros. "A Theory of Architecture Part 3: Why Primitive Form Languages Spread" 06 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>