We have been 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 14, the final chapter of the online version of the book, Salingaros concludes by recounting the effect that the teachings included in his book had on students in a class he taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio, during the Fall Semester of 2012. If you missed them, make sure to read the previous installments here.
At the conclusion of this course, the students told me that they had learned a great many things that are crucial to an understanding of architecture, but which are hardly ever taught in other architecture courses. To be precise, students had previously been told about the importance of various factors to the success of a design—site, surrounding architecture, regional adaptation, ornament (or rather excluding it), the relationship among distinct structural scales, proportions, trees and green areas—but were never taught exactly how to manage them. Now, those factors were taken into account by learning why they arise out of our own biology and natural processes.
An overall useful concept was connectivity: between open spaces, between structures, between different scales of a structure, between user and building, and so on. It is a basic tool for coherent design. Yet, connectivity is usually considered coincidental—an accidental effect of your design—or as secondary to structure and form. Students understood connectivity in a new way through our discussion of system complexity, where each part depends upon and adapts to every other part so that the system can work coherently as a whole.
As far as ornamentation, it now appeared to be much more important than just something pretty to look at: see Chapter 12 “Ornament and Human Intelligence”. Ornamentation is linked to patterns on all scales—ultimately going back to the intense connectivity characteristic of good architecture (that is, good for our health). And ornament is tied to Biophilia, which for some students was the most striking and ultimately useful concept they learned in this course: see Chapter 10 “Biophilia: Our Evolved Kinship To Biological Forms”. They were especially disturbed that Biophilia usually goes unnoticed in a lot of designs that pay attention to totally different concerns. Since Biophilia makes such a big difference in the quality of life, it has to be integrated into designs.
All in all, students expressed a newly-found power to judge a building using objective criteria, no longer having to rely on vague notions of what is “correct”. It is now possible to use a set of universal principles and criteria, such as Alexander’s Fifteen Properties, to judge a building’s attractiveness independently of any group’s opinion: see Chapter 11 “Alexander’s Fifteen Fundamental Properties”. Students recalled occasions in the past when they had to acquiesce to an instructor’s appraisal of a project, even when they felt that it was wrong, simply because of the power of authority. But such opinions were never explained; they just had to be accepted by the subservient party, which was terribly frustrating. The student learned nothing from such interactions.
Particularly telling was the admission that, before taking this course, they would have been seduced by Peter Eisenman’s arguments in his debate with Christopher Alexander, but now saw things in a different light. They had developed a new appreciation of human feeling as the basis of adaptive architecture, and this is what Alexander emphasized. At the same time, they understood the evolution of architectural styles and the theories behind building design much better. They got a deeper glimpse into the process of innovation that respects factors essential to life.
The students were excited by the prospects of practicing architecture as an empirical, scientific process. Taking concepts from biology and applying them to their own work, for example the design purpose of individual parts, the evolution of organic form, innovation through adaptation, selection through feedback, etc. This new way of thinking establishes a clear difference between abstract art as a personal statement by the artist, and architecture for human use. Students said that they would previously get really excited by innovative forms, including ones that looked “organic”, but now know that the image is not important, and instead look for the adaptive process leading to the structure. “Good” architecture is both beautiful and functional, and makes a person psychologically and physically well.
In addition to the chapters presented here on ArchDaily, the printed version of Unified Architectural Theory includes some arguments explored in more depth, case studies and further supporting evidence. Order the International edition of Unified Architectural Theory here, and the US edition here.
Christopher Alexander & Peter Eisenman (2004) “The 1982 Alexander-Eisenman Debate”, Katarxis Nº 3. Reprinted as Chapter 33 of Nikos A. Salingaros: Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013.