We will be publishing Nikos Salingaros’ book, Unified Architectural Theory, in a series of installments, making it digitally, freely available for students and architects around the world. The following chapter outlines architecture’s connection to biology, and how biology influences our perception of form. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.
The idea of a biological connection to architecture has been used in turn by traditional architects, modernists, postmodernists, deconstructivists, and naturally, the “organic form” architects. One might say that architecture’s proposed link to biology is used to support any architectural style whatsoever. When it is applied so generally, then the biological connection loses its value, or at least becomes so confused as to be meaningless. Is there a way to clear up the resulting contradiction and confusion?
Up until now, architects and those scientists interested in architecture have focused on the morphological imitation of nature. Sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, natural forms, including biological forms, have inspired the constructions of human beings. Nevertheless, I believe that an understanding of the biological roots of architecture and urbanism requires another component that is independent of structural imitation. This more elusive aspect of the problem is concerned with how we connect and perceive form to begin with. As such, it has more to do with our own internal structure as human beings than with more general biological structures. The answers are to be found in cognitive processes, perception, and neurophysiology.
In order to begin a search for how biology influences architecture and urbanism, we must establish some overall map of the problem. Because this is a vast subject, it is useful to divide it into a series of questions like the following. This is not meant to be a complete set of questions, only a starting point for an investigation.
1. Why do some built forms resemble biological forms?
2. What types of built forms correspond more closely to biological prototypes?
3. Are human beings predisposed to like and feel comfortable with certain types of forms?
4. Are human beings also predisposed to build certain types of forms?
5. Is it worthwhile mimicking biological forms in what we build?
6. Do we gain more than just aesthetic pleasure — such as physical and psychological benefits, for example — from an environment that captures the essence of biological structure?
7. Can we damage ourselves by living in and around forms that contradict biological forms?
8. Do we really understand biological structure well enough to mimic anything other than its superficial appearance?
These questions can hopefully provide researchers with an impetus to resolve long-standing problems in how humankind relates to its natural and built environments. I would like to focus here on the connection between architecture and urbanism, on the one hand, and inherited structures in the human brain that influence the function of “mind”, on the other. A group of innovative architects and thinkers are beginning to formulate the basis for a new architecture that arises out of human needs, and which is supported by an improved understanding of biological structure. Our cognition makes us human; it is certainly responsible for how we perceive structure. Human neurophysiology is therefore essential for answering at least some of the above questions.