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. In the following chapter, Salingaros continues his discussion of Christopher Alexander's “Mirror of the Self” test introduced in Chapter 9A, and revealing how it can be used to provide all-important feedback to enable evidence-based design. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.
Evidence-based design is now fast becoming a standard tool used in school design. (See Peter C. Lippman: “Evidence-Based Design of Elementary and Secondary Schools”, 2010). And yet its current application, while laudable, is missing the other key components necessary for adaptive design: Biophilia, Intelligence in the environment (two topics discussed in this book), and Pattern Language. All of these have to work together to give optimal design results.
Evidence-based design permits an architect to evaluate a design, and variations of that design, to see if they contribute to human wellbeing. This makes possible informed choices that push and guide a design towards a more adaptive final form. We know the result is going to be more adaptive since we check each intermediate stage of an evolving design.
The second aspect of evidence-based design is the use of feedback. In practical terms, adaptive design proceeds by iterations, where each step is checked against the evidence of increasing or decreasing wellbeing. The process does not use a formula, nor does it conform to any abstract rules or images. A design adapts through recursions, with physiological indicators checking every step in the process.
Clearly, this method works best when we make the design process an evolutionary one, with many adjustable steps. It doesn’t work at all in cases where the architect or designer reaches a solution in one step. Where is the adaptation there? There is none.
Neither can evidence-based design work in an architectural practice where designs conform to untested prototypes. Why are some, now standard, building typologies copied over and over, but are never tested for evidence of their adaptation? It doesn’t occur to those architects to undertake medical response experiments just to make sure that what they are doing is not making people ill. Those untested environments may in fact be stressful or otherwise harmful to their users. The problem is that architects are not at present trained to measure physiological indicators.
Unhealthy designs have something in common: they conform to some a priori image or abstract conception of what a building ought to look like. Someone provided the image initially, and everyone else happily copies that image without reflective thought. This visual iconic model is so authoritative as to be placed above the need for evidence. Indeed, if the evidence comes in negative, the original model is supported with religious zeal, while the evidence itself is dismissed. Architects cannot accept failures, being too proud to admit they made a mistake.
The “mirror of the self” test can help reverse this unfortunate practice. Any person can be trained to use it. There is thus no need to be wired up to physiological indicators that would measure body stress levels. Those detect a failed design unambiguously. Anybody can use the test to distinguish between two environments, one of which is more or less healing.
Had people consistently applied the “mirror of the self” test, we would probably have avoided some of the inhuman environments built over the past several decades. One such typology is the extremely long apartment block, which houses thousands of people in a box of about eight stories. From the prototype built by the Nazis on the island of Rügen, Germany, to the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, to the Corviale complex in Rome, all have been failures.
Such examples of typologies based on low design complexity cannot adapt to human use and sensibilities. Their architects forgot about people, or were well-meaning but didn’t know what they were doing. Design became an intellectual exercise in pure form - unfortunately, builders adopted this typology because it is cheap to build. The typology becomes money-driven.
Simplistic forms may ignore people’s humanity, yet are loved by today’s architects who value them on aesthetic grounds. But formal purity and simplicity have no meaning for the users. Ordinary people are not caught up in architects’ intellectual games. By contrast, we see an incredible degree of organized complexity when people build for themselves, as in informal settlements, which are perhaps less than optimally organized. Those represent the opposite of formal design.
The problem boils down to critics judging buildings from their image, and not from direct personal experience. Critics on the whole don’t care if things work, or if they really fit. Critics also depend upon famous architects, and on the major engineering firms those architects work with, and thus never dare to criticize their work. Architects designing strictly for the admiration of other architects, and critics being dishonest in their duty results in a profession that is unlikely to break out of a vicious circle of irresponsible self-validation.
So far during the 20th and now the 21st centuries, the seductive power of iconic images has overridden all other considerations. Rigid geometrical typologies are applied unthinkingly. Even worse, bad typologies are used as the basis for architectural innovation, but the new shapes unfortunately carry over all the worst characteristics of the parent. Evidence-based design and the “mirror of the self” test can help us to get free from this unproductive practice.