A Theory of Architecture Part 2: The Adaptive Design Method

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 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 major source of confusion is that a design method could adapt to a style, but not to human use and sense of wellbeing. For example, it might adapt to (conform to) a set of predetermined geometrical prototypes, such as cubes and rectangular slabs. It takes on that particular form language. Minimalist modernism has a clearly-defined geometrical goal; i.e., its peculiar crystalline form language. It is successful on its own terms while at the same time ignoring, or not trying to accommodate, human patterns of use and the sensory response to built form and surface. This is the reason why minimalist modernism is incompatible with Alexander’s Pattern Language. In this Chapter, I will use the term “adaptive” to refer strictly to fitting the built environment to human beings, and not to abstract ideas or geometries.

Since there exist an infinite number of patterns that can contribute to a pattern language, and an infinite number of form languages, there are of course an infinite number of adaptive design methods that combine two languages. Each adaptive design method is unique. The crucial point is that there are also an infinite number of design methods that act against adaptive design by producing structures which are not suitable to human needs. In the absence of an accepted term for design that ignores human needs, I will call such actions “non-adaptive design.

Post-industrial design is not fundamentally adaptive. Its form language (or rather, set of related form languages) produces structures that are often hostile to human sensibilities. Studies by environmental psychologists have confirmed physiological reactions such as the onset of anxiety and signals of body stress in such environments. I want to look for systemic causes of this non-adaptivity. For reasons already discussed in Chapter 6, minimalism effectively precludes the use of patterns, both visual and Alexandrine patterns. That means that patterns of human activity cannot be accommodated within its design canon, thus characterizing it as non-adaptive. To proudly proclaim such a design method as “functional” is a mockery of the term, but it is admittedly a remarkably effective propaganda ploy that helps in its proliferation.

Architectural form languages survive because they often acquire non-architectural meaning, after which they can ignore the need to be adaptive to human needs. In that case, a form language is no longer part of an adaptive design method; it becomes split from its complementary pattern language. Instead of expressing an adaptive tectonic culture, the form language becomes a set of visual symbols that operate under the guise of moral principles (and thus become emotionally loaded). Using that form language then becomes an end in itself, detached from human life. This architecture has little to do with buildings that accommodate human beings, or with tectonics, but is a statement using a formal visual vocabulary. Such an architecture has its own purpose, disguised with moral precepts that together define a completely different world-view for those who accept them.

An adaptive design method requires the union of a pattern language with a form language. If either the pattern language or the form language is flawed, then the design method will fail to create adaptive structures. For example, high-rise towers set in vast open spaces satisfy neither a viable form language nor a pattern language — they are iconic design failures that get repeated because architects make a lot of money building them. One may claim to employ a pattern language together with a primitive form language to create structures barely suitable for human habitation and use, such as contemporary buildings that try to use Alexandrine patterns. Those buildings may partially satisfy some functional patterns, but the more they stick exclusively to a minimalist or high-tech form language, they more they will feel dead and alienating, so that their users are uncomfortable. 

Two instances of partial success come to mind. In the mixed example of central Tel Aviv, an early modernist form language is tied to a traditional European urban pattern language, as laid out by Sir Patrick Geddes, with successful results. The buildings do not connect so much on an architectural scale, yet they do connect well on the urban scale to create a lively environment. Other illustrative examples with mixed success include dwellings built by alternative “counterculture” architects soon after the Pattern Language appeared. They satisfy all the patterns, but they look somewhat chaotic and unbalanced — far from satisfying Alexander’s original intent of ordered geometrical coherence. The reason is that their builders had no form language to draw upon. These buildings were built within a culture that did not wish to refer to any tradition, and did not have the capacity to create a new form language (the multicolored “psychedelic” art of that culture was never applied to architecture in a way that would help the geometry).

In the opposite instance, one can use antipatterns together with a form language to damage both built and natural environments. Twentieth-century buildings were built using a distorted version of the Classical form language that are inhuman either because of scale, megalomania, or the desire to intimidate. They may look nice from a distance, but are hostile in actual use. This is a characteristic of Fascist architecture. 

Some modernist architects were also very fond of employing parts of a form language of rich, detailed materials, but to intentionally create alien forms. The surfaces are adaptive in these cases, but the geometry is not (sending a mixed message of attractive materials in a hostile setting). Another failed example is found in recent traditional-looking mansions isolated in American suburbia. They use a form language (that happens to be irrelevant to the site) but no urban pattern language, so those buildings remain disconnected. They have a great image, but no functionality on the urban scale. It is only the correct pairing of pattern language with form language that results in an adaptive design.

The architecture of squatter settlements is an interesting case of genuinely adaptive application. Those slum dwellers use a form language that is determined by available scrap materials to build their own houses. Residents are preoccupied with basic survival, and have no wish to copy elements of a form language that was generated outside their immediate circumstances. There are simply no resources available to make an architectural “statement”, although ornament and surface decoration appear on the most modest structures because they are felt to be essential. 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.

As the above examples make clear, an adaptive design method provides the means of creation, but not the product. It gives one the framework and tools for creative expression. It still requires a talented architect or sensitive non-architect to use the language to design a building. Working with a complete, richly-expressive language makes that task immeasurably easier. Great architects can use an existing form language in an innovative manner to create new architectural expressions, or they can invent their own form language. (A pattern language, however, cannot be invented: it has to be discovered). A primitive form language severely reduces architectural expression. With a flawed form language, new or old, even the greatest architect has trouble making something useful and adaptive.

Nikos A. Salingaros, “A Theory of Architecture” (see this book’s Wikipedia entry) is now available in an international edition HERE with 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 HERE. Translation into Chinese HERE, and Persian HERE.

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Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "A Theory of Architecture Part 2: The Adaptive Design Method" 30 Mar 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/491122/a-theory-of-architecture-part-2-the-adaptive-design-method> ISSN 0719-8884

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