Architecture

Life and the Geometry of the Environment

Quality of life in a built environment depends on having intimate contact with natural forms.

By Nikos A. Salingaros
Published August 22, 2011

Introduction

How can people live in a way that is more fully human? Quality of human life comes in large part from contact with nature, and from processes that evolved from our intimate contact with nature. Industrialization and mass production have unfortunately led to dehumanization. Confusing humans with machines represents the negative side of the industrial worldview.

In parallel with scientific and technological advances that raised the quality of life to unprecedented levels compared to what humankind had to accept before the industrial age, there followed a concomitant loss of human qualities. The predominant worldview in the developed countries now neglects effects on quality of life that come from non-quantifiable sources.

The machine aesthetic is part and parcel of the machine society. A mechanistic worldview negates the complex mathematical properties of nature, and in so doing it reduces nature and detaches human beings from the biosphere. Increasing efficiency has to do with industrial production, but nothing to do with human well-being directly.

Society by the 1950s had accepted the faulty equation linking the quality of life proportionally with energy expenditure. This relationship is false: it held true for a brief period in our history, but the effect is indirect and is misinterpreted. Governments the world over now promote social fulfillment through increasing energy use, which is catastrophic because it is unsustainable.

Following Christopher Alexander (2001-2005), I will introduce different metrics to measure the quality of life through factors that do not destroy our natural environment.

Re-orienting our worldview means rediscovering the biological connection between humans and their sensory space. Certain very specific geometrical properties of the natural and built environments exert a positive, uplifting effect upon our organism (Alexander, 2001-2005). The mechanism depends upon the intimate informational connection between human beings and nature.

Therefore, enhancing quality of life includes coding the geometry of the built environment to a considerable degree. This effect does not require the expenditure of energy: on the contrary, obtaining informational nourishment from the built environment could replace the present alarming consumption of fossil energy in the pursuit of a consumerist lifestyle.

The crux of the biophilic effect in the artificial environment is that science has discovered and demonstrated patterns in building that either objectively contribute to, or detract from our psychological and spiritual well-being. Current Western-inspired architecture not only lacks such patterns; it teaches architects and planners to build in such a way that the biophilic patterns aren't present.

The irony is that we worship an image of science that is not scientifically credible. To make that point clear, we need to set the stage for a change in consciousness in the reader.

The new scientific discipline of Biophilia describes how we connect in an essential manner to living organisms. Introduced by the American biologist Edward O. Wilson, biophilic effects are increasingly well documented, and these include faster postoperative healing rates and lower use of pain-suppressing medicines when patients are in close contact with nature (Salingaros and Masden, 2008).

Biophilia includes the therapeutic effect of contact with domestic animals. Explanations of the biophilic effect are still being developed, yet what is incontrovertible so far is that the very special geometry of natural and living structures exerts a positive effect on human well-being. It could be that Biophilia is a largely mathematical effect, in which our perceptual system recognizes and processes special types of structures more easily than others.

The most basic component of Biophilia is the human response to natural environments, and surroundings that contain a high degree of living matter. Since we evolved in living environments, we process that information in an especially easy manner, and even crave it whenever it is absent from artificial environments that we ourselves build. Hence the primordial human desire for a garden, or an excursion to the countryside to restore our internal equilibrium.

An information-theoretic approach to Biophilia would make sense out of our evolution as it occurred in very specific visual environments. Yannick Joye is working on this theory (Joye and Van Den Berg, 2010). Our neuro-perceptive system more easily processes a structural environment that embodies fractal properties and the organized complexity found in nature, than an environment whose geometrical order contradicts the spatial complexity of natural structures.

Our instinctive ability to recognize unnatural objects through alarm lies deep within our neurological makeup and is responsible for our being here today due to evolutionary adaptation. Certain geometries that we perceive as "unnatural" generate anxiety and alarm, and thus degrade psychological and physiological comfort when we are exposed to them for too long.

In the thesis proposed here, a major component of human physiological and psychological well-being is directly attributable to biophilic effects from the environment. Therefore, quality of life depends upon the presence of those very special mathematical properties. Since a major factor of Biophilia requires having intimate contact with natural forms, then saving the natural environment becomes a priority that is distinct from the usual arguments for conservation.

Up until now, Western conservationists have argued that saving the environment is necessary to maintain biodiversity, which is an explicit benefit for the biosphere and an implicit benefit for humankind. I am arguing that the natural environment has immediate benefits to our health, so that saving it provides not an implicit, but an explicit benefit for humankind.

What is Biophilia?

Human evolution occurring over the past several million years (from the era of a common ape ancestor not recognizably human who however possessed all of our sensory apparatus) determines how we interact with our environment. Living in nature predisposed us to process fractal information, color, and to interpret spatial experiences in a very precise manner to guarantee our survival.

Our neurological imprinting then determined how we began to construct our built environment, mimicking and developing upon prototypical concepts of spatial experience, with interesting natural details becoming ornament, and color used to enhance and provide joy in the artificial environment.

In this manner, the mathematical structure of the built environment evolved right along the lines defined earlier by human biological and social evolution. As in all evolutionary developments, subsequent adaptations had to rely upon previous elements in place. It is therefore essential to re-discover archetypal qualities that generate human well-being directly from the built environment.

To apply Biophilia to the artificial environment, consider our sensory apparatus. We have evolved to process complex information that is of a very specific mathematical type: organized complexity where a lot of information is presented in terms of detail, contrast, pattern, color, and texture that mimics in an essential manner similar information already found in nature.

At the same time, all of this information needs to be organized using mathematical techniques such as connections, symmetries, patterns, scaling symmetries, harmony among distinct colors, etc. (Salingaros, 2006). A delicate balance between the two complementary mechanisms of increasing information and increasing informational coherence generates an optimal state of biophilic information in the artificial environment.

There are significant implications of this thesis to the large scale. The original geometry of human settlements underlies a form of "urban genetic code", and subsequent developments in the industrial and electronic ages develop on top of these original pieces of code. We can discover these early segments of urban code as "patterns": buildings enclosing a central plaza, low-rise but high-density occupation and mixed-use buildings, a pedestrian network connecting distributed plazas, a vehicular network superimposed on the pedestrian network, etc. (Alexander et. al., 1977).

When cities are instead planned according to abstract and formal designs, then we have rejected the urban code that evolved along with us. Replacing genetic code in biological systems could lead to an unsustainable disaster because evolution has been violated. That is analogous to species extinction or even genocide, since the process is deliberate and is carried out by humans themselves upon a particular set of inherited "genetic" information.

In the urban case, building cities according to a code that is neither evolved nor tested generates one of three situations: a) a dysfunctional region that is abandoned by its original inhabitants and may later be occupied and transformed by squatters; b) a dysfunctional region that cannot be abandoned (e.g. social housing blocks) whose brutal geometry generates rage, crime, and self-destructive behavior; or c) an urban region that is kept functional only via a tremendous expenditure of energy.

Cities with an urban geometry poorly adapted to human activities can indeed be propped up by extending the normally requisite energy and transport networks that drive a city to function, but their geometry requires wasteful energy expenditure. Most cities today suffer from the imposition of such non-evolved urban typologies, misleadingly labeled as "modern". Someone pays for showcasing the sculptural geometry of such non-evolved urban fabric.

The first human settlements defined a connective geometry that enables people to interact on the pedestrian scale, and to coordinate the many distinct functions of simple human society within a very compact spatial region. That is the definition of a city built on the human scale. Contemporary cities are most successful in those regions where the original "genetic" material has been respected, and a hierarchy of subsequent developments has been added on top of the original code.

By contrast, where the original code has been erased and substituted entirely by twentieth-century urban typologies, the urban fabric is found to be dysfunctional, unsustainable, or dead. True, in large metropolises the population forces are so strong that even dead urban fabric can be kept artificially alive, but the energy cost is tremendous, and the cost to residents in terms of psychological stress is even greater.

Five Points for Regeneration

Several factors contribute to a positive quality of life for human beings. I am going to focus on those factors that are related to the immediate environment (and thus relevant to architecture and urbanism) and ignore all the others. Let me list some of the necessary points here:

  1. Access to clean air, water, shelter, and living space.

  2. Access to biophilic information in the natural environment: plants, trees, and animals.

  3. Access to biophilic information in the built environment: texture, color, ornament, and art.

  4. Access to other human beings within an anxiety-free environment: public urban space, open-access residential and commercial spaces.

  5. Protection from anxiety-inducing objects: high-speed traffic, large vehicles, threatening human beings, cantilevered and overhanging structures.

I clearly distinguish between nourishing and anxiety-inducing environmental information. Although this distinction is fundamental, events in the art world have confused our natural instincts with fashions (but discussing this issue generates controversy). It just so happens that much contemporary art avoids connecting positively to a viewer via visceral physiological responses. Regardless of how this type of Art may be valued in the art-gallery circuit, appraised on the art market, and promoted in the press, it is not healing.

Any doubt is resolved by referring to Biophilia. Healing emotions include a set of physiological responses that reduce distress and empower the body's natural defenses to work so as to maintain a healthy steady state. Art that generates healing emotions uses our neurophysiology to induce positive neurological, hormonal, and other responses within our body, but Art is not healing if it generates the opposite feelings of alarm and anxiety.

From gallery-type art - objects, sculptures, installations, etc. - we move into public art such as urban installations in public places: large sculptures, fountains, monuments, benches, tree planters in plazas, etc. For the past several decades, such public art objects have also been representative of geometries that are not biophilic. Those objects tend to range from non-healing (neutral) to anxiety-inducing (negative) provocations and therefore directly influence the quality of the urban space in which they are placed.

For stylistic reasons, very little biophilic structure is now being erected in the public realm. And yet, our experience of a public space is determined to a large extent by its public art installations. Worst of all, architects are being commissioned to "upgrade" an older public space by inserting non-healing objects, and by so doing destroy the space's useful biophilic function.

Every human being responds physiologically in the same manner, and thus is able to judge viscerally whether a work of art or architecture is providing emotional nourishment, or its opposite. This is really a key point. In my description above of what healing emotions entail I assume that psychological conditioning cannot alter our biology, and our instinctive reaction is the one we need to pay most attention to.

It matters very little to the user's physical experience if a non-biophilic object or building is praised in the press and by newspaper and magazine critics. Whenever persons face such a deep contradiction between emotions and bodily responses that are antithetical to the authority of experts, the individual goes into cognitive dissonance and is confused.

A person can either remain in cognitive dissonance indefinitely (itself a state of high emotional and physical stress), or eventually come out of it by deciding to trust his/her own bodily responses. The anxiety-inducing objects are supported by an ideology or selfish agenda.

Let me now discuss the five points listed above for the quality of life. The first requirement, Point 1, concerns a person's private domain, the inside of one's dwelling. For a large portion of humanity basic housing itself still remains a problem, because there are not enough living quarters. People in the developing world have to build their own houses out of scrap material, often in unhealthy or dangerous terrain. The result is the slums and informal settlements of the world.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that many slums are economically vibrant, and the quality of life there is enhanced by ornamentation by their owners, something that is forbidden in a state-sponsored social housing block (Turner, 1976). As outlined elsewhere (Salingaros et. al., 2006), the forced move from informal settlements to government-built social housing blocks gains in health but loses in biophilic qualities.

Point 2 addresses our contact with nature. It is possible to achieve a balance with the natural environment such as occurs in traditional villages and cities that are not too poor. Even in slums, if vegetation is abundant, the residents profit by having intimate contact with nature. Nevertheless, there are examples of the degeneration of the natural environment in informal settlements that ranges from dwellings built among vegetation towards the other extreme of a city built from junk without any trace of plant life. The need to use wood for heating and cooking can soon destroy the biophilic component of an informal settlement.

On the other hand, the wealthiest Western societies habitually cut down trees to build suburban sprawl, and replace the native vegetation with lawn. The grass that makes up a lawn is a monoculture plant that is non-native to the majority of sprawling suburbs. A lawn is thus a reduction of nature and a cruel joke on people who buy those suburban houses.

Urbanists after World War II created a city fit only for the car, applying a fundamentally reductive conception of nature. "Green" in the city or suburbs is substituted by its superficial appearance from afar, thus lawn glimpsed as one drives by is judged to be enough for a contact with nature. But this is a deception: the biophilic effect depends upon close and intimate contact with nature, and definitely increases as the complexity of the natural environment increases.

Human beings experience its healing effects from having contact with a fairly complex natural ecosystem, even if that only means a tree with some bushes, but not from just looking at lawn. Biophilic interventions in hospitals create small complex gardens inside hospital public spaces, and interweave complex gardens with the fabric of the hospital wall so that patients can experience the plant life at an immediate distance.

Point 3 concerns architecture itself, and underlines a drastic schism between the architecture of the twentieth century and all architecture that occurred before then. Ornamentation was banned from the built environment after 1908 (minimalist environments becoming a fetish with architects thereafter), so that we progressively lost the healing effects of ornamentation in both interior and exterior built spaces.

The intensity of the effect is not in question here: studies of Biophilia repeatedly demonstrate that ornament which is derived from natural structures induces the same healing effects as actual natural structures themselves, only to a lesser extent (Salingaros and Masden, 2008).

Although some architects refer to this as mere "copying", I do not believe this to be the case. Yannick Joye argues that the biophilic effect depends upon the brain's ability to effortlessly process complex information, and thus it is irrelevant whether this biophilic information comes from a living or an artificial source (Joye and Van Den Berg, 2010).

Point 4 forces us to focus on the destruction of the public pedestrian realm in our cities following planning practices after World War II. Governments the world over engaged in a frenzy of rebuilding that replaced human-scaled city centers with environments fit only for fast-moving vehicles. The human pedestrian city was erased by forces linking the automotive industry and the steel industry with governments that satisfied every wish of those powerful political lobbies.

Just as public space was erased from the built environment, however, private space was being offered in shopping centers outside cities, isolated within a car environment. People still crave personal contact in an urban space, but in many locations this is only possible in a commercial shopping center or mall. Governments now used to working with builders and real-estate developers who build such malls promote this model.

Point 5 focuses on certain environmental forces from which we have to protect ourselves, because they degrade our quality of life. The growth of the car city means that most outdoor environments are now threatening to humans unless they are protected inside their car. Automobile connectivity and the infrastructure it requires have been allowed to take over and replace the human-scale city.

Therefore, the vast open spaces in the world's cities are either psychologically unsafe, or are fast becoming so.

Such spaces are not spaces to live in, because they are threatening and anxiety-inducing. The actual living city of sheltered pedestrian experience has therefore been reduced to internal space, whether private living space, private commercial space inside restaurants or bars, or to equally private commercial space in shopping malls.

Another aspect of being protected from anxiety regards structures perceived as threatening, and this can occur for several different reasons. We cannot re-wire our perceptual apparatus to suppress neurological signals of alarm at buildings and structures that are twisted, unbalanced, or which protrude towards us.

Such buildings generate feelings of alarm. Perhaps they are interesting to look at from afar, but having to be next to them, enter them, and use them generates psychological and physiological anxiety. The same is true for sheer impenetrable walls and glass floors: the former communicate exclusion and lack of escape, whereas the latter generate anxiety and vertigo.

These anxiety-inducing features routinely appear in contemporary buildings, but that does not change their negative effect on our sense of well-being within the built environment.

References

Alexander, Christopher 2001-2005. The Nature of Order, Books 1-4, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.

Alexander, Christopher, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King, and S. Angel 1977. A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.

Joye, Yannick and Agnes Van Den Berg 2010. "Nature is easy on the mind", paper presented at the 8th Biennial Conference on Environmental Psychology, Zürich, Switzerland, 6-9 September 2009.

Salingaros, Nikos A. 2006. A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany.

Salingaros, Nikos A., D. Brain, A. M. Duany, M. W. Mehaffy and E. Philibert-Petit 2006. "Favelas and Social Housing: The Urbanism of Self-Organization", in: 2º Congresso Brasileiro e 1º Iberoamericano, Habitação Social: Ciência e Tecnologia, Caderno de Conferências, Pós-Graduação em Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil, pages 28-47.

Salingaros, Nikos A., and Kenneth G. Masden II 2008. "Neuroscience, the Natural Environment, and Building Design", Chapter 5 of: Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J., and Mador, M., Editors 2008. Biophilic Design: the Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, John Wiley, New York, pages 59-83.

Turner, John F. C. 1976. Housing by People, Marion Boyars, London.


This is adapted from a paper published in The Athens Dialogues E-Journal, Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies, October 2010; and reprinted by The Permaculture Research Institute, October 2010.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, as well as a noted urbanist and architectural theorist. You may visit his website.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted August 22, 2011 at 09:27:32

Interesting piece, Nikos. Having just read a bit about the biological effects of cortisol on the human body, especially at young ages, your article illustrates some of the ways our external environments can act as a biological stressors.

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By DeepCreek (registered) - website | Posted October 29, 2012 at 05:41:11

Interesting perspective you have there, though I have to disagree on some points. While I agree that that the more buildings, heavy equipment, machinery and electronics surround us, the further we feel from nature. However, that does not necessarily mean we are losing our quality of life.

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