Unified Architectural Theory, Chapter 12

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 Chapter 12, Salingaros concludes his discussion of the physiological and psychological effects of architecture, demonstrating how ornament can lead to an enriching human environment. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.

Ornament and Human Intelligence

Ornament and function go together. There is no structure in nature that can be classified as pure ornament without function. In traditional architecture, which was more tied to nature, such a separation never existed. The breakdown of the human adaptation of architecture can be traced to the forced conceptual separation of ornament from function, a relatively recent occurrence in human history. It is only in 20th-century architectural discourse that people began to think of ornament as separate from function: see “How Modernism Got Square” (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2013).

A key aim of this book is to judge form and structure according to a whole system comprising the physical setting together with the observer. Any influence the object or place has on the user is part of its function. But any ornament will certainly also impact the user, so the actual experience cannot separate any particular aspect as pure function. Our mechanistic split of what we somehow decide to be function isolated from ornament is true for simple machines, but is invalid for situations in which humans are involved.

In the process of design, the end product will acquire qualities of life when we go through an interactive sequence of steps. This approach is very far from the usual satisfaction of a minimal list of uses and abstract requirements. How do we know that what we are designing on paper or on a computer screen actually satisfies those uses when built? We don’t. Actually, it is only through the re-use of solutions that have been found empirically to be successful that we can approach some measure of success in our designs.

Yet the fundamental lesson is that we cannot presume to know how to satisfy a purely functional need. A “simple” function without complexity does not give a good solution. Failure to take this evolved complexity into account has led to so many presumed functional solutions that immediately proved to be disastrous — unusable because they are inhuman. The search for geometric coherence, through the rules we have discussed at great length in previous chapters of this book, is what helps us here. Paradoxically to a person raised in the 20th-century mechanistic worldview, the search for coherence and wholeness leads us to a functional solution that is accurate and not illusory.

In this picture of how successful objects and places are built by paying attention to systemic coherence, ornament and function are inseparable. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about one and not the other — just as in natural forms. Therefore, we need to learn how to design things that have the quality of life, that possess wholeness. And in doing so, function and ornament develop together, without our having to pay any particular attention to either category separately.
Examining some outstanding design solutions from the past might reveal some real surprises. What we thought to be a strictly functional solution could just as easily have arisen (and probably did) from considering the wholeness of the geometrical configuration. This holds true on every scale, from artifacts, to rooms, to buildings, to urban spaces. They work and give pleasure at the same time.

The coupling of environmental information with our own participation ties us to our environment: see “Intelligence and the Information Environment” (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2012). It is therefore no surprise that the informational qualities of the environment have serious consequences on our biological structure. Although still under investigation, it seems fairly certain that our cognitive abilities are shaped and affected by the type of information embedded in our environment.

A variety of laboratory experiments on animals show beyond any doubt that the young raised in more informationally-rich environments develop measurably higher brain capacity and intelligence. Animals raised in minimalist, information-devoid settings are lowest on the intelligence scale. These are structural physiological changes that affect intelligence in a permanent manner.

This effect was finally recognized in 1994, when the Carnegie Task Force issued a report warning that minimalist environments (among those lacking sensory experiences of all kinds) could permanently compromise children’s intellectual development. And the type of information that triggers the tuning of our intelligence is precisely the ordered, coherent patterns we have described in this book: see “The Sensory Value of Ornament” (Salingaros, 2003) (available in Spanish here). For human beings, the best evidence comes from classical music, not art or architecture. Children who study classical music tend to do much better at school in all subjects.

Our neuro-physiological system developed to handle the specific information presented by our ancestral natural environment. When humans began making things, our evolved framework for cognition automatically produced a specific class of objects that reflected a particular geometric coherence. This was the same natural coherence that formed our cognition mechanisms in the first place. Our mind therefore extends out informationally into the physical environment through what we make.

Rolex Learning Center / SANAA. "The Carnegie Task Force issued a report warning that minimalist environments could permanently compromise children’s intellectual development". Image © Iwan Baan

An interesting clue comes from our paleo-history. There is, at present, a serious debate on whether or not Neanderthal Man created art and ornament, with many researchers claiming not. This topic is of crucial importance because our own species, Homo Sapiens, did produce art and ornament as an essential component of our evolving intelligence and development. The Neanderthals, by contrast, show no progress in their technology or culture during their era of about 200,000 years. In the end, we probably killed them off. It is easy to conjecture that our increased intelligence — which gave us our unprecedented evolutionary advantage — is somehow tied intrinsically to our ornamental production.

During the last 50 years, scientists have discovered how we interact with the information field presented in our environment. For example, the eye scans a scene by following regions with high detail, differentiations, contrast, and curvature: see “The Sensory Value of Ornament” (Salingaros, 2003). Furthermore, the image is formed by moving along connected lines, called “scan paths”. The eye-brain mechanism therefore recognizes and uses the regions of an image with high detail, contrast, and curvature to obtain information. This finding validates Alexander’s “Fifteen Fundamental Properties” (See Chapter 10 of Unified Architectural Theory online) and three structural laws of architecture that I proposed (Salingaros, 1995) (available in Spanish here).

Further research links the way we perceive our surroundings with the way this information is stored in our brain, and is then used to govern our actions and decisions. Our lives are in large part governed by these innate mechanisms of capture, integration, and response to external information. Our instinctive response to forms is hard-wired into our organism.
We come up against a contradiction between the design of buildings and our physiology, however, starting with the modernist period. It seems that their architects go out of their way to deny the visual and morphological features required by human cognition and physiology. Could this be an accident? I don’t believe so. Contradiction and elimination of perceptual coherence is systematic, so it has to be the result of deliberate action.

I wish to develop the thesis that ornament is a primary manifestation of human intelligence. A false but widely-accepted assumption in architectural discourse for over a century states that ornament is simply imitative of nature, but that’s not true. Ornament arises as a spontaneous creative act of the human brain. Someone could also create ornament that imitates nature only visually, but that is a separate matter.

The proof of the above thesis comes from individual neurons that have the specific function to recognize ornamental components: see “The Sensory Value of Ornament” (Salingaros, 2003). Everyone knows of the retinal cone cells that react to different color hues. What is less known is that those same receptor cells are responsible for our ability to see fine detail. Furthermore, the phenomenon of “color constancy” links color perception to the brain’s advanced computational capacity. We automatically adjust actual color hues under different light conditions to perceive the “natural” color — only a brain with high intelligence can see colors.

Even less known outside scientific circles is the existence of a large number of cortical neurons inside the brain that are triggered only by ornamental elements. These include specific responses to crosses, stars, concentric circles, crosses with an outline, and other concentrically-organized symmetrical figures with some complexity. These patterns are therefore built into our cognitive neural structure. Since those neurons are there for a reason, we should be stimulating them.

Individual neurons that fire in response to higher patterns of complexity are situated in increasingly advanced (from the evolutionary viewpoint) regions of the brain. The relative number of pattern-sensitive neurons also increases as we progress from the more primitive to the more recently-evolved layers of the human brain. This finding correlates the perception of ordered visual complexity and ornament anatomically with the evolution of intelligence.

Now we need to describe what happens when this wonderful apparatus for perceiving geometric coherence in our environment, and generating it in artifacts and structures, is frustrated. Our body reacts with physiological and psychological distress. Minimalist and otherwise information-deprived environments lead to depression.

Colorless and featureless environments do not necessarily produce a numbing response, but can trigger distress with an active feeling of threat. The reason for this active effect is that minimalist environments trigger signals of our own pathology. There is a group of diseases that make us experience a normal, informationally-rich environment as if it were a minimalist environment, which creates alarm: see “The Sensory Value of Ornament” (Salingaros, 2003).

For example, macular degeneration and retinal detachment create anxiety because we lose our image of the environment. Or a cataract makes the eye’s lens opaque. These are all diseases of the eye. Other pathologies occurring within the brain itself give similar signals of alarm. Cerebral lesions from a stroke or carbon monoxide poisoning can cause “visual agnosia”, where a person with perfectly-functioning eyes cannot “see” because their brain is no longer capable of recognizing forms and colors. Such “agnosic” patients cannot recognize structural coherence.

Another condition of brain damage that mimics a minimalist environment is “cerebral achromatopsia”, when patients see only in shades of gray. This condition is far more severe than regular color blindness, where the number of perceived color hues is reduced by one. With cerebral achromatopsia, however, everything becomes gray. Organic objects such as people’s faces and food become repellent because they express death. Those unfortunate patients live out their lives in a state of despair in a depressing world.

This material is taking architecture into a whole new direction, and people may not be ready for it; certainly those in the present educational system aren’t. It is important nevertheless because it reveals that designed environments have significant effects (either positive or negative) on users. Obviously, this needs to be part of the curriculum so architecture students are forced to learn it. Perhaps an effective way to teach these lessons is to apply this method to build buildings that have positive effects on their users, then architects will learn from those built examples. Furthermore, within the context of form languages, it’s possible to combine this method with the way we are constructing today so as to generate something interesting that will draw attention.

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


  • Christopher Alexander (2001) “The Awakening of Space”, Chapter 11 of The Phenomenon of Life: Book 1 of The Nature of Order, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.
  • Michael Mehaffy & Nikos Salingaros (2012) “Intelligence and the Information Environment”, Metropolis, 25 February. Reprinted as Chapter 7 of Design for a Living Planet, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon (2015).
  • Michael Mehaffy & Nikos Salingaros (2013) “How Modernism Got Square”, Metropolis, 19 April. Reprinted as Chapter 3 of Design for a Living Planet, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon (2015).
  • Nikos Salingaros (1995) “The Laws of Architecture from a Physicist’s Perspective”, Physics Essays, Volume 8, pages 638-643. Revised version is Chapter 1 of A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany, 2006; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.
  • Nikos Salingaros (2003) “The Sensory Value of Ornament”, Communication & Cognition, Volume 36, No. 3-4, pages 331-351. Revised version is Chapter 4 of A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany, 2006; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

About this author
Cite: Nikos Salingaros. "Unified Architectural Theory, Chapter 12" 16 May 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/632062/unified-architectural-theory-chapter-12> ISSN 0719-8884

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