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 this chapter, Salingaros moves his discussion towards our physiological and psychological reactions to the built environment, and the science of healing spaces. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.
Biophilia: Our Evolved Kinship To Biological Forms
The organized complexity in artifacts and buildings, as I have described it, leads to a positive response from users. This is the perception of “life” which we sense in certain structures and places in the built environment. The physical structure of the world has a massive effect on human beings. A crucial task of architectural theory is to explain and predict the impact that living structure — or its absence — has on us.
It all resides in the geometry. A certain class of configurations generate stress in the user. Another class of configurations, those we perceive as possessing life, do not generate stress, and moreover, release us to feel positive feelings. In the second instance, we are freer to experience a multitude of healing effects, precisely because we are not dragged down by environmental stress.
Our goal, therefore, is to discover the precise qualities that a healthy environment possesses, and which make you feel free. This is an environment in which no energy is automatically spent in conflict with stress-producing configurations. Alexander’s “pattern language” is such a system: each Pattern is the solution to resolving some conflict in the environment (Alexander et al., 1977).
As long as a configuration is wrong, it continues to generate stress. No amount of superficial “dressing up” will resolve the basic conflicts. This is why my group of friends in Italy and I argue that any money spent on “cleaning up” the Corviale housing complex is wasted. Painting its walls, or creating a “contemporary sculpture garden” on its grounds will not fix it. Only by changing its monolithic geometry could the problems experienced by its residents be solved, but that is precisely what the modernist Italian architectural establishment is fixated on protecting: see “Evidence-Based Design,” Chapter 11 of Design for a Living Planet (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015).
What are the precise geometrical qualities of an environment that endow it with healing qualities, so that in such an environment we feel liberated to live our lives to their full potential? We already have the “mirror of the self” test, which is very useful in comparing alternatives, but does not answer this question (see Chapter 9A & Chapter 9B of this book published on ArchDaily).
The first step to discovering the geometric qualities we are looking for is to examine natural environments. This brings us to the effect of Biophilia: the kinship human beings feel with other biological entities. The biophilic effect promotes mental wellbeing and also helps in physiological healing and recovery. The positive effects of biophilia are clinically documented.
A view from a hospital bed onto a natural scene is found to decrease recovery time and to decrease the level of painkillers required: see “Biophilia,” Chapter 12 of Design for a Living Planet (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015). This example of Biophilia at work elevates the traditional valuation of natural environments from “pleasant places to be in” to the more important “healing places.” Indeed, traditional cultures do associate natural environments with healing far more than we do in the contemporary West. And yet, using biophilia in healthcare drastically improves the economics of healing patients, which is what our system supposedly prioritizes.
It makes sense that we feel most comfortable in environments similar to those in which we evolved, and, reciprocally, feel stressed in environments with alien qualities. Our neuro-physiological system was developed precisely to deal with those ancestral natural environments: natural light, fresh air, savannah, open plains, bushes and trees, visual access to water, etc. Our body has an extremely sophisticated ability to detect environments that are good for us.
Alexander, myself, and our students have gone further, to argue that the biophilic effect is not some mysterious vitalistic property of biologically living organisms, but rather an effect due to their geometry. Therefore, it follows that we can approximate the biophilic effect from the right inanimate structures. Much of traditional art and architecture embodies biophilic qualities, intuitively sought after by their makers.
The biophilia hypothesis thus turns traditional architecture on its head: we did not build only for utilitarian purposes, but to give ourselves a form of continual nourishment from the result. In brief, we built structures that made us feel good and that healed us: see “Neuroscience, the Natural Environment, and Building Design” (Salingaros & Masden, 2008). This tradition stopped sometime in the 20th century. We chose not to receive nourishing feedback from the environment, such as all of our ancestors had enjoyed.
Direct biophilic nourishment comes from close contact with plants, animals, natural light, and the texture of natural materials. In artificial environments, human beings use a variety of design tools to achieve a similar effect. We shape our living spaces according to very specific geometries, and use colors, ornamentation, and patterns to obtain similar environmental nourishment. This process is not a surface imitation of nature, but rather the generation of natural geometry.
Scientists are beginning to document how environmental factors, including information coming from the environment, affect our physiological well-being. It appears that geometrical features found in traditional architectures, such as ornamentation and fractal structures elicit a positive reaction from our neurophysiology. And this reaction is built into our organism.
My former student Yannick Joye is discovering that fractals and complex organized patterns responsible for the biophilic effect are somehow built into our cognitive system (fractals are described in great detail in “Scaling and Fractals”, Chapter 6 of (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015), and in “Fractal Art and Architecture Reduce Physiological Stress”, included as Chapter 26 of the print version of this book). Our reaction is emotional and visceral rather than intellectual. Architects can offer all the intellectual arguments they want, favoring minimalist or high-tech design, but those are not going to affect the way we react physically to forms and environments.
Applying biophilia to design implies the intimate merging of natural with artificial structures. In practical terms, this means building with meandering complex boundaries that interweave the buildings and natural growth. Plants incorporated into environments will be part of complex, not monofunctional green ecosystems. It also implies emphasizing intimate human scales, rather than only the large scale.
Biophilia also requires the partial replacement of industrial materials with natural materials, and the re-introduction of ornament using industrial materials. This latter practice was very widespread in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, but soon stopped. From a certain point onwards, industrial materials were used exclusively in a fetishistic manner, to communicate a severe industrial “look”. Since the early modernism of the beginning of the 20th century, architecture has been focused on abstract, formal notions about space, forms, and materials. Human physiological and psychological responses played no part in this thinking, and the same approach continues today: see “How Modernism Got Square”, Chapter 3 of Design for a Living Planet (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015). While some architects have recently re-discovered the need for plants and nature, the biophilic connection uniting structures with humans and with nature is still not obvious to the profession as a whole.
As a world based upon impersonal images was substituted for the real world of emotions, two distinct but related visions shaped our built environment. First came the mental association of industrial polished metal, porcelain, plate glass, and plastic surfaces with an antiseptic environment. This occurred despite the fact that the “hospital look” is not necessarily cleaner or more germ-free than a more “messy” old-fashioned environment built using natural materials.
Second, architects for some reason latched onto the slogan “honest tectonic expression” to imply moral superiority, when this is only another fetish with industrial materials. There is no “morality” in a physical structure. As a result, however, we are now surrounded with so-called “honest” surfaces that are not merely unconcerned with biophilia, but which deliberately strive to prevent any biophilic effect. Brutalist concrete surfaces are unnatural and hostile. If there is a moral judgment to be drawn here, it is that those architects are acting against human nature. One would think that, by letting go of personal ego and focusing on the mental and physical well-being of the user, an architect stops defending alien forms and becomes a better person ethically.
The empirical evidence gathered around biophilia helps to explain the “mirror of the self” test, which uses our body as a sensor of stresses in the environment . Now we understand that the source of those stresses is due to departures from a very specific geometry that is akin to the complex geometry of natural structures. 20th and 21st century architects have deliberately celebrated forms and surfaces that look industrial because they contrast with natural forms, so the built environment generates stress.
More specifically, the minimalist environments often favored in styles with an industrial appearance are linked to signals of alarm in our body. Colorless, drab, and featureless surfaces and spaces reproduce clinical symptoms of diseases and pathologies of the eye-brain system. Naturally, when the environment gives us those same signals, our body believes it is breaking down, and reacts with stress.
The interesting research of Judith Heerwagen revealed that zoo animals kept in minimalist environments exhibited neurotic, aberrant, and antisocial behaviors. Returning them to a more stimulating and naturalistic environment resulted in more normal and healthier behavior patterns. Some of the award-winning zoos built in a modernist style in the 20th century proved to be terrible for their residents, and finally, zookeepers were allowed to shape the animals’ environments by introducing complexity.
Like zoo animals, children are also affected by their habitat, but cannot articulate the reasons why. The suppression of biophilic nourishment during our children’s development has dramatically negative effects. The necessity of informational stimulation during a child’s growth can no longer be questioned. We can use laboratory animal studies to draw conclusions by extension. Young animals showed up to a 20% increase in brain size and intelligence when raised in information-rich environments. If we are interested in continuing the human race and optimizing our children’s intelligence, we need to pay careful attention to these effects. (The mechanism linking information, human intelligence, and ornament will be outlined later in Chapter 12 of the present online book).
One final point questions the value of tests where subjects were asked for their preferences of minimalist versus organized complex environments. Many such surveys were conducted with only a moderate preference for the latter, or with widely divergent results that made the study inconclusive. Nevertheless, more recent laboratory experiments using body monitors showed dramatic preferences for organized complexity. The subjects did not express any marked preference when asked; yet their body did. Physiological responses to our environment are thus shown to be innate, and, moreover, to be largely decoupled from personal preferences. What we “like” has nothing to do with what is good for us.
As argued earlier, our likes and dislikes are conditioned by learning, media influence, preconceptions, and crowd psychology (where we are forced to agree with the majority in order to avoid cognitive dissonance). What we think with our mind is not what we physically feel. A building can look interesting but not agree with what is felt while experiencing it. People will not listen to their own body, if that prevents them from “fitting in” with a social position.
Another complicating factor is human nature itself, which seeks thrills from experiences that are close to damaging. We human beings have always been fascinated by things that scare us, precisely because those generate distress — the ensuing adrenalin rush creates an emotional “high”. The experience has to be carefully balanced so we feel in danger and safe at the same time. For this reason, people watch horror films, go on dizzying amusement-park rides, visit the “Haunted House”, practice extreme sports, racecars, and go skydiving. Japanese businessmen eat Sushi made from the almost poisonous flesh of the blowfish, and so on. Architecture that stresses our body does attract us for exactly the same reason. But obviously, such transgressive excitement is not healing.
- Christopher Alexander, “The Impact of Living Structure on Human Life”, Chapter 10 of The Phenomenon of Life: Book 1 of The Nature of Order, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California, 2001.
- Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.
- Michael Mehaffy & Nikos Salingaros (2015) Design for a Living Planet, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon.
- Nikos Salingaros (2014) “Cognitive Dissonance and Non-adaptive Architecture”, (in English and Turkish), Doxa, Issue 11, Norgunk Publishing House, Istanbul, pages 100-117.
- Nikos Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden (2008) “Neuroscience, the Natural Environment, and Building Design”, Chapter 5 of Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, edited by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen & Martin Mador, John Wiley, New York.