Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 3

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 introduction, Chapter One, Chapter 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.

However, the perceived life has nothing to do with formal geometry. It arises rather from configurations, the complexity and patterns in a situation; often unexpected juxtapositions and shapes that work very well, and that usually evolved over time and were not planned at the start.

A building’s geometry is a result of applying a particular form language chosen by the architect. This will determine, to a large extent, the emotional and physiological response of the user. A form language can aim at maximizing the perceived degree of “life” in the building. Otherwise it can have other, entirely distinct objectives, depending on the preference of the architect who employs it or creates it.

A form language includes the basic elements: floors, walls, ceilings, volumes and their subdivision, windows, materials, ornamentation, and the rules for combining them. Architectural composition within the context of a particular form language enables design in that idiom.

Every traditional architecture has its own form language: more accurately, a group of related languages, since languages evolve with variations over time and across locality. The language depends upon climate and local materials. It is also a continuation of traditional arts, social practices, and material culture.

Architecture is adaptive if its form language blends and connects with the Pattern language, and all traditional evolved form languages do so. Nevertheless, a form language could have other goals and not be adaptive.

The 20th century witnessed a new phenomenon: form languages that were detached from Pattern languages. Those form languages were no longer part of an adaptive system of architecture, but became self-sufficient entities. They were validated from artistic, political, and philosophical criteria.

Another related phenomenon that arises when architectural practice is not rooted in a Pattern language is the replacement of an evolved Pattern (which accommodates human life and sensibilities) by its opposite — an Antipattern. An Antipattern could be dysfunctional, and could cause anxiety and physical distress. A form language could attach itself to Anti-patterns, but that of course does not make it adaptive.

Form languages can be studied separately from their link to Pattern languages. Form languages can have different degrees of internal complexity. Just like written and spoken languages, form languages are characterized by their size of vocabulary; richness of combinatoric rules for generating new expressions; adaptability to the situation at hand, which might be novel. Or a form language could be very primitive, with limited vocabulary and combinatoric rules.

A particular form language may have very poor adaptation, but could appeal visually. This feature is sufficient to assure its survival in contemporary society, especially since the communications revolution. It is doubtful whether this would have occurred in a historic traditional society where resources were scarcer.

In contrast to historical times, today’s global consumerist culture treats a form language as a commercial product. Thus, its success depends upon both the marketing strategies of its proponents, and profits to be made by those who apply it. Adaptivity does not enter the equation. 

A form language lives or dies based on rather commonplace considerations: (i) Someone decides to use that form language for a new building, and (ii) society values an older form language sufficiently to leave its examples alone. Decisions on new buildings could be based on adaptive value, how comfortable people feel in a building, ease of use, proven environment for human productivity, proven durability of materials, practicality for re-use, etc. Or a client could use totally different motives, such as perceived marketing appeal, re-use of a commercially-successful typology in speculative building, cost cutting, maximization of usable space, etc. 

Another crucial factor is the inertia that comes from embedded bureaucratic costs invested by the banking, construction, and insurance industries. These all resist technical changes in their established way of doing business with architecture and construction. 

For the second factor, which presents threats to conservation, every generation faces the siren call of giving older buildings and urban spaces a face-lift to follow new fashions. Human societies crave to appear to be up-to-date, and decide what to sacrifice in pursuing this desire. 

Putting aside questions of adaptation, it is essential to catalogue and classify disparate form languages. A single building, group of buildings, the work of a single architect, or an entire architectural movement depend upon a form language. The fact of being built provides information on the form language. Another architect can extract the form language by studying built examples.

In rare cases, an architect writes down the rules for the form language, so that it is then easy for someone else to apply it. Most of the time, however, the rules have to be derived from the buildings themselves.

Architects can learn a form language, and then use it to build many buildings, without altering the language in any way. Other architects vary a form language to different degrees, introducing their own changes, which may be adaptive or not. Others still invent their own form language so that their buildings become a “brand”. This helps achieve success in an age of corporate branding.

Some architects can go through their careers switching from one form language to another, either traditionally-evolved form languages, or ones that they themselves have invented. For this reason, it is not always possible to identify an architect with a specific form language.

All traditional form languages had to evolve in conjunction with adaptive design, and this presupposes a certain complexity threshold. Just as all human languages share an underlying complexity that permits a variety of expression. Newer form languages, however, follow no such constraint. 

There are many examples of form languages from the 20th century that fall below the complexity threshold. That is true for two related reasons: (1) the language has been invented and has not evolved, and (2) it did not have to adapt to a Pattern language.

I will use a biological analogy for architecture and its two languages. We consider the Pattern language as the metabolizing part of organisms, and the form language as the replicating portion of an organism’s structure. Architecture is thus directly identified as a living process (more on this later). Humans interact with buildings in order to use them and repair them, an analogous process to metabolism.

The replicating function is taken care of by the form language. A type of architecture survives only by generating copies and variations of itself using a specific form language. Just as with organisms, however, a replicating entity does not need to metabolize.

Viruses are replicating organic complexes that do not metabolize. For this reason, they therefore have a far lower complexity content. As a result, they replicate far more efficiently than more complex metabolizing organisms can.

This course attempts to present a genuine theory of architecture, as the notions we study have predictions that can be verified. Simpler forms propagate more rapidly and can end up displacing more complex entities. Indeed, simplified form languages using industrial forms and materials proliferated in the 20th century, replacing form languages that were adaptive — hence more complex. 

There is another phenomenon that now has some sort of explanation: why Pattern language is not routinely taught in architecture schools. The reason is that, since the form languages of Modernism did not couple with Pattern language, the latter ceased to be of any interest to a profession that focused exclusively on Modernism.

Pattern language determines the human adaptation of buildings, however, and the connection of buildings to nature. In order to create a responsive and sustainable built environment, Pattern language has to once again take its central position in architecture.

The 20th century form languages were, and continue to be, a tremendous marketing success. They have generated enormous sales and profits for the architects and builders who use them, and greater brand recognition. But that does not mean they had the best interests of the user and the environment in mind. In fact, the reasons habitually given for those form languages’ success, like new industrial materials that permitted greater spanned spaces and building heights, already occurred at the end of the 19th century. Those factors pre-date and have nothing to do with the characteristic modernist “look”. 

Today, with the looming ecological collapse, our attitudes are less narrowly profit–oriented for the strict benefit of individuals or small groups. We are more concerned with sustainability in the real sense, not just with gizmos added on, and for society as a whole.

Connection to the deep needs of human beings and the natural order brings us back to reconsidering using Pattern language once again. We would like to be able to distinguish between form languages that connect to nature, from those that are merely fashionable symbols of success. Such symbols are based upon criteria set by others, but they are not expressions of deep human values.

Victor Horta's 1898 house and studio, now known as the Horta Museum, is an example of architecture whose "form language blends and connects with Pattern Language". Image © Flickr CC User mksfca

Further Reading:

Christopher Alexander, The Phenomenon of Life, Chapter 2, “Degrees of Life” (Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, 2001).

Christopher Alexander, sampler from “A Pattern Language”, available online at http://www.patternlanguage.com/apl/aplsample/aplsample.htm

Or see the book itself: C. Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King, and S. Angel A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, New York, 1977). Spanish version: Un Lenguaje de Patrones: Ciudades, Edificios, Construcciones (Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 1980).

Nikos Salingaros, A Theory of Architecture, Chapter 11, “Two Languages for Architecture” (Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, 2006).

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

About this author
Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "Unified Architectural Theory: Chapter 3" 11 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/447456/unified-architectural-theory-chapter-3> ISSN 0719-8884

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