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

“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.” Image of El Molo Hut, Lake Turkana, Kenya.. Image Courtesy of shutterstock.com

As you may have seen, 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.

A Theory of Architecture Part 2: The Adaptive Design Method

Image of Torre David in Venezuela, an unfinished skyscraper that has become a (modified/adapted) slum settlement. “The human need to make a building adapt through form, surface, and ornament is innate. Everyday people who own and build their own homes definitely apply a pattern language (albeit unknowingly) because they want their dwellings to be as comfortable as possible. Here we have an adaptive design method, which, were it not for the miserable conditions of life represented by the overcrowded slums of the world, is an excellent example for architecture schools to study”. Image © Iwan Baan

As you may have seen, 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 previous excerpt explained the difference between “Pattern Language” and “Form Language.” The following excerpt will establish how these languages can combine to form the “Adaptive Design Method.”

Proposition: An adaptive design method arises out of a complementary pair consisting of a pattern language and a form language.

I have indicated very briefly what a pattern language and a form language are we still need to understand what an adaptive design method refers to. Out of many contemporary approaches to design, there are very few that result in structures and environments that are adapted both to physical human use, as well as to human sensibilities. In the past, the opposite was true. Human use is straightforward to understand: the physical dimensions and geometry have to accommodate the human body and its movement.

By accommodating human sensibilities, I mean that environments should make human beings feel at ease; make them feel psychologically comfortable so that persons can carry out whatever functions they have to unselfconsciously, without being disturbed by the built environment in any way. This imposes a strong constraint on the design process to adapt to the many factors (both known and unknown) that will influence the user on many levels, including emotion. An adaptive design method should accommodate all these criteria, and this Chapter shows how this may be accomplished.

A Theory of Architecture Part 1: Pattern Language vs. Form Language

Galleria di Diana in Venaria Royal Palace, an example of Classical architecture. The Classical Language is an example of an “extremely successful form language”. Image Courtesy of shutterstock.com

As you may have seen, 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 following excerpt, the first, explains the terms “Pattern Language” (as well as“antipatterns”) and “Form Language.”

Design in architecture and urbanism is guided by two distinct complementary languages: a pattern language, and a form language.

The pattern language contains rules for how human beings interact with built forms — a pattern language codifies practical solutions developed over millennia, which are appropriate to local customs, society, and climate.

A form language, on the other hand, consists of geometrical rules for putting matter together. It is visual and tectonic, traditionally arising from available materials and their human uses rather than from images. Different form languages correspond to different architectural traditions, or styles. The problem is that not all form languages are adaptive to human sensibilities. Those that are not adaptive can never connect to a pattern language. Every adaptive design method combines a pattern language with a viable form language, otherwise it inevitably creates alien environments.

Architectural design is a highly complex undertaking. Heretofore, the processes at its base have not been made clear. There have been many attempts to clarify the design process, yet we still don’t have a design method that can be used by students and novices to achieve practical, meaningful, nourishing, human results.

In the absence of a design method and accompanying criteria for judging a design, things have become very subjective, and therefore what is built today appears to be influenced largely by fashion, forced tastes, and an individual’s desire to garner attention through novel and sometimes shocking expressions.

This Chapter puts forward a theory of architecture and urbanism based on two distinct languages: the pattern language, and the form language.

Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 3

Interior of the Horagolla Stables by Geoffrey Bawa, an example of architecture whose "form language blends and connects with Pattern Language" . Image © Dominic Sansoni/Three Blind Men Photography

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 posits that architecture’s geometric structure determines its “vitality,” a quality that should be the basis of architectural critique; it also explains  If you missed them, make sure to read the introductionChapter OneChapter 2A, and Chapter 2B first.

The perceived quality of life in buildings and urban spaces comes from the geometry (the form of structures on all scales, and their coherence), and how that geometry connects to the individual. It also catalyzes interactions among people — if it is done successfully.

The easiest way to perceive this quality of “life” is to compare pairs of objects or settings and judge intuitively which one has more “life”. After a series of such experiments, it becomes obvious that degree of “life” in architecture arises from geometrical structure.

Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 2B

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum is an example of the kind of architecture deconstructivist thinkers praise. In this chapter of Unified Architectural Theory, argues why the scientific approach is superior to that of the deconstructivists . Image © Liao Yusheng

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. Part one of Chapter Two outlined the scientific approach to architectural theory; the following, part two of Chapter Two, explains why Salingaros considers this approach to be superior to that taken by deconstructivists. If you missed them, make sure to catch up on the introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2A.

Some traditions are anachronistic and misguided, but as reservoirs of traditional solutions against which to check new proposals they are of immense importance. A new solution may at some point replace a traditional solution, but it must succeed in reestablishing the connections to the rest of knowledge. In the context of social patterns, architecture, and urbanism, new solutions are useful if they connect to traditional social, architectural, and urban patterns (i.e., all those before the 1920s). If there is an obvious gap where nothing in a discipline refers to anything outside, then there could be a serious problem.

Recently, Edward Wilson has introduced the notion of “consilience” as “the interlocking of causal explanations across disciplines” (Wilson, 1998a). Consilience claims that all explanations in nature are connected; there are no totally isolated phenomena. Wilson focuses on incomplete pieces of knowledge: the wide region separating the sciences from the humanities. He is happy to see it being slowly filled in by evolutionary biologists, cognitive neuroscientists, and researchers in artificial intelligence. At the same time, he is alarmed by people in the humanities who are erasing parts of the existing body of knowledge. These include deconstructive philosophers. Wilson characterizes their efforts as based on ignorance.

Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 2A

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.

Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 1

The Farnsworth House, by Mies van der Rohe, has influenced generations of architects — but is it really the best paragon for architecture?. Image © Greg Robbins

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, “The Structure of Architectural Theories,”  posits that architecture, if it is truly to work with natural ecosystems, must adopt a  scientifically-informed, systemic approach. If you missed the introduction, you may find it here.

Architecture is a human act that invades and displaces the natural ecosystem. Biological order is destroyed every time we clear native plant growth and erect buildings and infrastructure. The goal of architecture is to create structures to house humans and their activities. Humans are parts of the earth’s ecosystem, even though we tend to forget that.

Logically, architecture has to have a theoretical basis that begins with the natural ecosystem. The act of building orders materials in very specific ways, and humans generate an artificial ordering out of materials they have extracted from nature and transformed to various degrees. Some of today’s most widely-used materials, such as plate glass and steel, require energy-intensive processes, and thus contain high embodied energy costs. Those cannot be the basis for any sustainable solution, despite all the industry hype.

Resource depletion and a looming ecological catastrophe are consequences of detachment from nature, and a blind faith in technology to solve the problems it creates.

Unified Architectural Theory: An Introduction

“People react according to their biological intuition, judging their environment for its positive or negative effect on the human body. Architects, on the other hand, are conditioned to ignore their own bodily signals and to judge the world according to abstract criteria. In many cases, such judgments lead them to build anxiety-inducing structures that are bad for people’s health and wellbeing.” Brutalist building. Image © Andy Spain

In the following months, we at will be publishing ’ book, Unified Architectural Theoryin a series of installments, making it digitally, freely available for students and architects around the world. In the following paragraphs, Salingaros explains why we’ve decided to impart on this initiative, and also introduces what his book is all about: answering “the old and very disturbing question as to why architects and common people have diametrically opposed preferences for buildings.”

ArchDaily and I are initiating a new idea in publishing, one which reflects the revolutionary trends awaiting book publishing’s future. At this moment, my book, Unified Architectural Theory, 2013, is available only in the USA. With the cooperation of ArchDaily and its sister sites in Portuguese and Spanish, it will soon be available, in a variety of languages, to anyone with internet access. Being published one chapter at a time, students and practitioners will be able to digest the material at their leisure, to print out the pages and assemble them as a “do-it-yourself” book for reference, or for use in a course. For the first time, students will have access to this material, in their own time, in their own language, and for free!

The book itself arose from a lecture course on architecture theory I taught last year. Students were presented with the latest scientific results showing how human beings respond to different types of architectural forms and spaces. At the end of the course, everyone was sufficiently knowledgeable in the new methods to be able to evaluate for themselves which buildings, urban spaces, and interior settings were better suited for human beings.

This approach is of course totally different from what is now known as “Architectural Theory.”

The Quest to “Liberate” Architecture from Modernism’s Evils: An Interview with Nikos Salingaros

Courtesy of

Nikos Salingaros is unafraid of a controversial statement. A professor of Mathematics and Urban theory, he has been using his scientific approach to study architecture and urban environments for years, and has come to a conclusion: Modernism is just about the worst thing that happened to architecture.

As Salingaros explains, not only is it impossible to have any “Green” architecture within a modernist framework, but, moreover, Modernism encourages us to deny our biologically-evolved senses and embrace an unnatural, inhuman built world – and why? Because there’s a whole lot of money and power behind those “modernist boxes.” As Salingaros puts it:

“Architectural Education ever since the Bauhaus, and continuing to the present day without interruption, teaches students to interpret built forms according to very peculiar abstract criteria, and not through their own biologically-evolved senses and cognitive intelligence. This is radical training in sensory denial: desensitizing people so that their interpretation of the world can be defined by others with an agenda.”

I interviewed Salingaros to get to the bottom of his theories and understand his anti-Modern crusade. Read it all, including Salingaros’ incendiary takes on Architecture education, sustainability, and urban planning, after the break…

Why Green Architecture Hardly Ever Deserves the Name

7 World Trade Center / SOM. Image © Ruggero Vanni.

The following article, by Michael Mehaffy & Nikos Salingaros, originally appeared in Metropolis Mag as “Why Green Often Isn’t”

Something surprising has happened with many so-called “” buildings. When actually measured in post-occupancy assessments, they’ve proven far less than their proponents have claimed. In some cases they’ve actually performed worse than much older buildings, with no such claims. A 2009 New York Times article, “Some buildings not living up to green label,” documented the extensive problems with many sustainability icons. Among other reasons for this failing, the Times pointed to the widespread use of expansive curtain-wall glass assemblies and large, “deep-plan” designs that put most usable space far from exterior walls, forcing greater reliance on artificial light and ventilation systems.

Partly in response to the bad press, the City of New York instituted a new law requiring disclosure of actual performance for many buildings. That led to reports of even more poor-performing sustainability icons. Another Times article, “City’s Law Tracking Energy Use Yields Some Surprises,” noted that the gleaming new 7 World Trade Center, LEED Gold-certified, scored just 74 on the Energy Star rating — one point below the minimum 75 for “high-efficiency buildings” under the national rating system. That modest rating doesn’t even factor in the significant embodied energy in the new materials of 7 World Trade Center.

What’s going on with these supposedly “sustainable” buildings? Read on, after the break…

Designers Don’t Get Science (And That’s A Dangerous Thing)

Santiago Calatrava’s Bodegas Domecq. Image © v=L. Alberto Ramos

This article, by  and Nikos Salingaros, originally appeared in Metropolis Mag as “Science for Designers: The Meaning of Complexity. 

Today’s designers seem to love using new ideas coming from . They embrace them as analogies, metaphors, and in a few cases, tools to generate startling new designs. (Computer algorithms and spline shapes are a good recent example of the latter.) But metaphors about the complexity of the city and its adaptive structures are not the same thing as the actual complexity of the city. The trouble is, this confusion can produce disastrous results. It can even contribute to the slow collapse of an entire civilization. We might think that the difference between metaphor and reality is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, such confusion pervades the design world today, and spreads from there into the general culture. It plays a key role in the delusional expectation that metaphors will create reality.

Psychiatrists speak of this as an actual disorder known as “magical thinking”: if our symbols are good enough, then reality will follow. In the hands of designers, this is very dangerous stuff.

More after the break…

How Modern Architecture Got Square

Grand Central Station (1913) in front of the MetLife (formerly Pan Am Building, 1963) and next to the Chrysler Building (1930). Image Courtesy of emin kuliyev / Shutterstock.com

This article, by David Brussat of The Providence Journal’s editorial board, first appeared at providencejournal.com.

In a rating of energy efficiency by the Environmental Protection Administration, New York’s venerable Chrysler Building scored 84 out of 100 points; the Empire State Building, 80; but the modernist 7 World Trade Center scored 74 (below the cutoff of 75 for “high efficiency”); the Pan Am Building, 39; Lever House, 20; the Seagram Building, 3. The New York Times reported this story last Dec. 24 under the headline “City’s Law Tracking Energy Use Yields Some Surprises.”

It was no surprise to Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy, who have investigated why modern architecture thrives despite its inability to live up to any of its longstanding promises — aesthetic, social or utilitarian.