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Building with Biophilia: An Interview with Nikos Salingaros

September 27, 2017

by Damien François

Philosopher and high-altitude mountaineer Damien François sat down with architectural theorist and mathematician Nikos Salingaros to discuss the way we shape our buildings, and how thereafter, as Winston Churchill remarked, they come to shape us.

DF: Prof. Salingaros, you’ve written extensively on the importance of taking human biology into account when designing human habitations. It seems reasonable enough: human buildings for human beings. When laid low following a recent dinner in a modernist, cube-style home, I was, for example, tempted to wonder whether my discomfort was as much architectural as oenological. True, the night had seen plenty of libations, so perhaps it’s not the best illustration of the phenomenon; but more generally, do you think that buildings can really make us sick?

NS: In this case I think it was the wine that gave you the headache. But, yes, architecture does affect the body, in two ways. First, there is an immediate effect from minimalist spaces, industrial surfaces, glare, lack of hierarchy, and possible air pollution that makes you uneasy, so you cannot focus on the present and don’t feel emotionally comfortable. Second, there is a long-term effect that lowers natural resistance to disease so that you fall ill more often. This is due to the same factors: a twofold lack of what I call “biophilia” and mathematical coherence in the built environment.

DF: The reference to biophilia is quite obvious, in this context, but the mathematical aspect is less so. Can you say more about it?

NS: The best description of the mathematical qualities of a healing environment — more abstract, and going beyond biophilia — can be found in Christopher Alexander’s 15 Fundamental Properties. Those are meta-rules on geometrical structure that lead to physical coherence. They are imprinted into our physiological-cognitive system, so we seek them in our environment. Their absence, on the other hand, leads to anxiety. The greatest human artifacts from traditional cultures the world over, for example, embody the 15 Fundamental Properties.

DF: Could you give us a concrete example?

NS: Sure. Look at any window or door built during tens of thousands of years before the Second World War. They have a thick frame. This is one of Alexander’s properties. An object or space is bounded and supported by a frame of specific dimensions: I conjectured that the width of the frame has to be close to 1/3 of the width of what it is framing. Mediaeval door and window frames are of that size, but they shrink as we enter the 20th century, and vanish with the industrial-modernist aesthetic. Have you noticed this effect?

DF: Absolutely! It is especially striking in traditional built environments. And the feeling of harmony that the perfect balance between all parts gives you is really soothing. In Nepal, for example, the beautiful world-famous architecture of the Newar in the Kathmandu Valley (UNESCO World-Heritage cities: Kathmandu, Lalitpur-Patan, and Bhaktapur) displays this property. There’s something harmonious about the materials they use—wood and bricks, mainly—that we tend not to feel in the presence of most contemporary structures made of glass, steel, and concrete.

Doorway, Kathmandu. By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, USA - Chusya Baha, CC BY-SA 2.0,

NS: Let us focus on the theme we started with: wide boundaries and borders. Yes, those are wonderfully present in the traditional architecture of Nepal. Now, what has happened to such patterns elsewhere—and what is very likely also happening with newer constructions in Nepal? They disappear as alleged inefficiencies or superfluities. But do people notice their gradual disappearance? Most people don’t consciously take stock of the large borders, yet slowly find their environment minimizing them, and eventually losing the frames altogether. Then they forget what used to be there in the first place, and how much those frames (and frames within frames) added to the positive psychological experience of place. So my question concerns whether people are aware of what’s going on, or whether they allow it to happen without realizing the loss.

DF: The mountaineer Reinhold Messner writes: “Our instinct is not only faster than our intellect, it is also more durable. Maybe because it has been part of our humanity longer than our intellect” (Über Leben, München: Piper, 2014, p. 79). What role does instinct play in all this? To what extent is modernistic design an “intellectualist” project, i.e. grounded not in human realities, but in abstract ideas, and traditional building an “instinctualist” one, based first of all in our physicality and encounter with the tangible world?

NS: The industrial-modernist takeover was indeed based first upon substituting intellect for instinct. That cut us off from our visceral and evolved reactions to what is good or bad in our environment. But the second step is the most important: the intellectual brainwashing that then conditions human beings to accept unhealthy situations and products. This is the great breakthrough of both the left and the right (mass indoctrination to support “Great Leaders”), to abandon one’s heritage and culture so as to work for global finance and advertising firms. All of this started in the 1920s, and its fruits were the Bolshevik movement, the Nazi party, and the triumph of product advertising and consumerism. To come back to your statement, it was and still remains essential for such projects to de-condition our bodily instinct. Once detached from our neural system, we can be manipulated to commit atrocities.

DF: In architecture and design, it sometimes seems that all the hype surrounding designers and builders is akin to the modus operandi of religious cults.

NS: Well, a portion of my book Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction develops the thesis that architecture became a pseudo-religious cult, starting with the Bauhaus in the 1920s. This was the only way I could explain the persistence of inhuman practices in a society where information is freely available. My friends who practice traditional architecture find my description of contemporary architecture and the hold it has on the minds of the rest of the world alarmingly accurate!

DF: In your book Unified Architectural Theory, you write that you are “arguing for the need to understand design in a manner that actually represents reality, not wishful thinking” (Chapter 23, p. 148). Does this dichotomy correspond to a “clash of cultures” between modernistic and traditional architecture, a clash between ideology (Modernism) and reality (Traditionalism)?

NS: No, here I don’t agree with your wording. We are not facing a clash between Modernism and Traditionalism, which is too easy to twist and brand as reactionary. The clash is between a sterile, alien, artificial worldview, and nature. Our body reacts to reality, and traditional architecture does give us natural, healthy signals. Yet there are infinite possibilities for architectural innovation of the sort one might call “modern” that can create healing environments. Those do not copy traditional buildings or styles. But their mathematics is indeed the opposite of the stubbornly anti-human Modernist typologies.

DF: When you see the “sterile, alien, artificial worldview” of Modernism opposed to Nature, what exactly do you see in the latter that is so healthy? Do you mean that there is something the nourishing complexity contained in the forms found in Nature—fractals, for instance, or the shapes of trees, leaves, and so on?

NS: You know the forms of nature better than I, since you have spent so much time out in the wild, and also climbing mountains all your life. By “sterile” I mean the deliberate removal of certain mathematical qualities from man-made structures, namely those qualities that characterize living and natural forms. Our body reacts negatively to a “bio-deficit”, and that can make us sick in the long term. Again, I emphasize this as a deliberate design strategy, going back to the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and some of his contemporaries.

DF: But what exactly are these “mathematical qualities” that are so hospitable to life?

NS: At lower altitudes you derive pleasure from the plant life, which is a direct exposure to biology. In the higher altitudes you are intimately exposed to natural structures, ice formations, weathering of rocks, etc. that make an impression because they envelop you and remove you from any man-made environment. If you didn’t get an intensely positive—and physiological—“high” experience from those, then you wouldn’t risk your life to climb mountains! All of those structures, both the plant forms and the weathered landscape, obey Alexander’s 15 Fundamental Properties. Those resonate with your cognitive system. In other words: Biological structure obeys very strict mathematical rules of coherence. Natural weathering of natural materials generates fractal-like subdivisions in the original form, and therefore juxtaposed distinct materials show a highly complex fractal.

DF: Nietzsche wrote: “To be alive means to be in danger”. I, for one, do prefer the danger of, say, Mount Everest, where I feel very alive, to bad architecture, where I feel just the opposite. If I understand you correctly, the very structure of everything natural “feeds” the human mind, through the visual and tactile senses, with a soothing and nourishing experience. It is not just about the sublime, it is not just aesthetics, it is deeper and less intellectual than that.

NS: I’m not a big fan of Nietzsche, but you have half the story correct. Yes, you are in danger on a mountaintop, but you are also in a fantastically healing environment that invigorates you and creates deep positive memories. Contrast this to the oppressive industrial-modernist environment: you could be in danger from physical aggression, or from a passing truck, but at the same time you are in a psychologically deadening environment. There is no longer any nourishing background in our cities against which to balance life’s daily ups and downs. No moral support from the built structures, only depression and nihilism.

DF: You developed your own “Unified Architectural Theory” in the book mentioned earlier, of the same title. Can you explain why you wrote this “companion to Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, Book I”, and also what Alexander’s book is about?

NS: Christopher Alexander’s four-volume book revolutionizes the way we perceive the world. It is called “The Nature of Order” and explains the origins of order in the universe. It’s worthy of a Nobel Prize! Since Christopher is also an architect, he connects all of this to human architecture. My own book collects lecture notes of a course I gave on his theory at my university’s architecture school. I wanted to present my own approach as well as to explain Christopher’s work to the students. For those who don’t know, Christopher’s work remains neglected by the architecture community, and is certainly never presented in courses. My course was entirely innovative. It’s a pity it was never repeated. Some students questioned why all this extraordinarily important material was not even mentioned in their other courses. But as it is quite contrary to current architectural orthodoxy, it is likely to remain untaught in the near term.

DF: Far more than a technical treatise on, say, the physics and mathematics of architecture, the work offers a philosophical vision.

NS: My book is indirectly philosophical. When you finish reading it, my expectation is that it has changed the way you see nature, and the way you conceive of life itself. That’s exactly what happened to me when I first read Christopher’s books. They have that life-changing quality about them because they present a new way of looking at the world: which upon reflection is really a much more human and natural way of experiencing the world. What is really happening is a re-discovery of our deep nature and a clearing away of the accumulated garbage that consumerist society has filled our mind with.

DF: One of the refreshing insights that I would call highly philosophical is your reminder that we are living beings, not inert matter. It is obvious enough, but it has tended to be obscured by a longstanding tendency of Western philosophy towards the hyper-rationalization of life, rather than attention to the non-rationalistic phenomena that are so important to our being.

NS: This is your topic! You are a professional philosopher, whereas I write about mathematics and architecture and maybe unwittingly generate philosophical insights. But I do see that something terrible has been happening to our civilization, a terrible transformation of human beings into non-thinking machines.

DF: Le Corbusier’s famous maxim says it all, in fact: “A house is a machine to live in”. But such a view invariably mechanizes the inhabitants, too. The human divorce from nature has deep roots—as deep, some would argue, as some of our earliest myths concerning man’s control of fire.

NS: You might be right, though my historical focus is a little more limited: I’m concerned with how our built environment is shaped, and has been shaped since the industrial-modernist era began around 1920. Here is where I part company with the general contemporary philosophical approach, because it helps perpetuate inhuman architecture. According to post-structuralist philosophy, everything is a matter of opinion, and, therefore (so goes the flawed logic), twisted glass buildings that make us sick to experience cannot be labeled “unhealthy”, just as coherent buildings obeying Alexander’s 15 Fundamental Properties in their design that are healing to experience cannot be labeled “healing”: such judgments are groundless truth-claims. But when we drop this sort of philosophy and enter experimental science, we can measure those effects precisely. Thus the above labels are true, unequivocally, in a scientific sense. So if the misuse of our reason has in part gotten us into our present predicament, it can nevertheless, if it is sensitive to the rest of what we are as human beings, help get us out. It’s my hope that this is something the rising generations of architects and urban planners—and the homeowners, corporations, and civil authorities who employ them—will see, and seeing it, will do what they can to reshape our built environments.

Nikos SalingarosNikos A. Salingaros is the author of six monographs on architectural and urban design, translated into six languages, and over 120 academic papers. His work emphasizes deriving evidence-based rules for the built environment using scientific methods to replace outdated working assumptions that have created dysfunctional urban regions, especially following World War II. His work links human-scale urbanism to developing architectural movements such as P2P Urbanism, the Network City, Biophilic Design, Self-Built Housing, Generative Codes, and Sustainable Architecture. Prof. Salingaros has collaborated with the visionary architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander, helping to edit the four-volume work on The Nature of Order during its twenty-five-year gestation. His work has been widely recognized: he is a member of the INTBAU College of Traditional Practitioners and is on the INTBAU Committee of Honor; his work has been highly praised by, among others, Prince Charles; he was one of the “50 Visionaries who are Changing Your World” selected by the UTNE Reader in 2008; and in Planetizen’s 2009 survey, he was ranked 11th among “The Top Urban Thinkers of All Time”. He is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is on the architecture faculty of Università di Roma Tre, Italy and the Tecnologico de Monterrey, Campus Queretaro, Mexico. You can read more about his work here, and find his books here.

Damien François is an author and cultural anthropologist from Belgium. He has taught at various universities and at a film college in Germany. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at and received his Ph.D. from the University RWTH Aachen (Germany) in 1999; the dissertation appeared the following year in book form as L’Immédiateté: Anthropologie culturelle critique. Dr. François has done fieldwork with various Native American tribes (in the U.S.A. and Canada) which resulted in the book The Self-Destruction of the West: Critical Cultural Anthropology (2007), co-written with Sioux/Oglala author Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), as well as in the film Slumach’s Gold, for which he served both as an actor and a scientific consultant. His mountaineering expeditions have led him to Canada and to the Himalayas, where he has been travelling every year since 2005. His most recent book is Holy Mountains of Nepal (2014).

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