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Architecture’s new scientific foundations – II

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Nature and the built environment are both complex. But they don’t always have the same type of complexity. A “natural” complexity is not “designed” in the sense that one person – the designer – determines all details beforehand, says mathematician, urbanist, and architectural theorist Nikos A. Salingaros in the second part of his lecture series.

Nature shares much of its organized complexity with what we build and this affects our body and eventually our health. The greatest healing effects are found in man-made environments of traditional and vernacular character. In fact, architects would love to know how to use mathematical knowledge to design complex forms, and then build them as actual structures.

Adaptive v/s Random Complexity

Architects and the educated public often assume that complexity in general must be designed. That’s a misconception and rarely conducive to human wellbeing. Designed (invented) complexity cannot automatically reproduce or imitate the organized complexity found in nature, except in the most superficial, non-functional manner. And yet we certainly want to understand how to employ complexity so as to generate a better, more adaptive environment.

That doesn’t stop architects from trying to “design” complexity. Computer programs generate complex, innovative shapes that look impressive on a screen. But those designs are relevant only to style, not to functionality. They fail to embrace the primary quality of evolutionary adaptation, the organized response to variable conditions. Many complex contemporary structures are mathematically disorganized, hence random. There exists a simple criterion for determining whether a structure’s impact on adaptation is organized or random: if any other structure could be erected in its place, and its degree of adaptation to conditions does not rise or fall, it is randomly adaptive.

Random design, typically conceived by architects as jagged surfaces or as curved anomalies in a building’s interior or exterior form is not meant to be adaptable to human needs. It is abstract art, design as styling, a pursuit dealing with appearance and not the function of a building or the needs of its users. Using random input for generating a design might produce a visually striking sculpture. If that’s what the client wants, then everybody concerned is satisfied — except perhaps the hapless user in those cases, hardly infrequent, where client and user are different people.

The methods of generating organized complexity are to be found in techniques of design that are deliberately adaptive. These techniques organize existing elements that respond to actual and latent complexity. All you have to do to design adaptively is to organize emerging complexity as it is being generated in each step. By focusing on adaptation and organization, the result will be organized complexity that is adaptive to human use and physiology.


True sustainability depends upon creating genuinely organized complexity, where all different structural scales link together coherently. The “organized” part is its most vital characteristic, hence the most difficult to achieve.

How to build organized complexity

The secret to adaptive design is to organize the emergent complexity during the design process, instead of trying to eliminate it. The standard techniques for organizing complexity include:

Connecting the parts of a system or structure through various geometrical means, most often with multiple connections.

Aligning multiple adjoining flows so they reinforce each other (but not to a rigid axis or grid).

Creating local symmetries (but not an imposed global symmetry).

Implementing spatial correlations using similarities at a distance and scaling symmetries (i.e. similarity under magnification).

Repeating things adaptively, so that they will vary in each repetition. Monotonous repetition, on the other hand, implies a lack of adaptation.

Building a system or structure up using a sequence of adaptive steps, where the organized complexity arises from an evolutionary process.

Recognizing complexity as the result of dynamic processes rather than as the result of a conventional static appliqué of “art”.


Look at any one of a number of recent award-winning buildings. Their shapes are interchangeable (except for specialized interior features that actually serve a function). After such a virtual switch, the substitute building does not adapt any better to its site, nor to its surroundings. The original did not adapt, and neither does any contemporary alternative. The reason is that we have a group of fashionable buildings that do not care to adapt to anything at all.

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