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Architecture’s New Scientific Foundations

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Buildotech presents first part of the series of lectures by mathematician, urbanist and architectural theorist Nikos A. Salingaros who has worked for many years with legendary architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander to develop a new scientific basis for architectural design. The author presents a new model for architecture, and the teaching of architecture, based on cognitive science and human physiology. It discusses biophilia, design patterns, the golden mean, and the law of requisite variety.



What if we look at or visit an awardwinning building by a star architect and find the experience unsettling? How is it possible that we don’t appreciate this piece of architecture by a famous person (universally praised, or at least the global media make it seem that way) and just can’t feel comfortable with it? What if the building makes us illat- ease and even sick to our stomach? Or if nothing is obviously wrong with it — perhaps it merely feels odd and awkward to be in — yet long-term exposure to it makes us increasingly depressed, and we find that we get ill much more often than before? Could something be happening here that we don’t know about, and which is never mentioned?

A groundswell is taking place, with socially-responsible people turning to nature and science for techniques of building that will not destroy our planet. Young students and practitioners from all over the world are searching for precisely such methods, to free their creative potential while designing adaptive spaces that possess healing properties. New architectural principles such as Biophilia and Evidence-Based Design produce a
substantially healthier environment for the inhabitants of buildings. Certainly, this is a criterion that many young architects wish to apply; yet in the past, the design tools were not available.


Disparate material
brought together from outside conventional architectural thinking establish methods of innovative design and form-making. Truly adaptive architecture relies directly upon mechanisms of human biology and intelligence and therefore the need for wholesale revision of architectural education and practice. 

Resistance from the current paradigm

In my experience with architecture students, knowledge from their previous courses proves an obstacle to learning the new things. But it is not knowledge itself that is the problem, since incorrect facts are easily corrected by explanation. Prior education and exposure to others’ opinions taught as authoritative narrows the students’ worldview so much that it proves extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to learn new ideas.

What is now taught everywhere, fits into a very narrow and restricted niche and studiously skirts the topic of human adaptation. The typical course consists of being shown buildings by famous architects, while the instructor praises their supposedly outstanding qualities. Those qualities are never explained, yet students are expected to emulate them.

The second type of course, beginner students take is the “Great Buildings” survey. Here, the instructor describes the morphological features of buildings chosen from a big picture textbook. What harm is there in this? Well, the book’s author includes more recent buildings with seriously deficient appearance, performance, and environmental quality among the truly outstanding architectural creations of humankind. Both the student and the instructor accept the author’s selections uncritically. For the rest of the student’s life, those mediocre or unhealthy buildings will remain “great,” and no criticism of them can be tolerated.


Is architecture a service profession providing housing, working spaces and
environmental wellbeing for humanity? Architecture schools loudly proclaim that their real goal is to better serve humankind; instead, they teach students to copy the rich and famous architects. Architectural academia makes the basic error of equating what’s good for the star architects and their multinational  clients with what’s good for people. 

The New Methodology

Architects like to look at pictures rather than read text. Students learn to copy the famous architects visually, while the incomprehensible theory that is now taught tries to justify those buildings rather than offer any logical framework for understanding them. Those old theoretical texts are not, to my mind, useful in the least.

An innovative approach to architectural education relevant for our times has to offer a foundations 0course early on. This is when they pick up concepts that determine how they design. Students need tools that they can use to liberate their own creativity, unrestricted by fashion or convention, to produce new marvelously adaptive, human buildings. The new learning methods are meant to be self-contained, contain the details of the adaptive design method as well as the background of how the discipline has evolved to its present stage.

The motives and thoughts driving conventional design for close to a century are rooted in an entirely different basis from the methods needed for adaptive design. But, the new framework will have to be based on science and the experimental method. It should also be based on human feelings and our visceral response to structures in the built environment.


Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio is also on the architecture faculties of several universities. He was one of the “50 Visionaries who are Changing Your World” selected by UTNE Reader in 2008. In Planetizen’s 2009 survey, he was ranked 11th among “The Top Urban Thinkers of All Time.”

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