The Importance of Listening to Lessons From Nature

The ninth installment of the ten-part Biophilia and Healing Environments series juxtaposes innovative form for its own sake with biophilic design.

Hospital Maggiore Vecchio in Lodi, Italy, 1504. Without modern medicine, healing depended even more strongly upon the biophilic convalescent environment, here a typical monastic cloister.

Drawing by Nikos Salingaros

Our lives are intimately linked to our surroundings in ways that we are not normally conscious of. Architecture that walls off the design process from natural human instinct has blinded us to that vital reality. For years we have created architecture on the basis of abstract aesthetic appeal, formal concerns, superficial or random innovation, and short-term economies. We are by now numb to the result, a defense mechanism that protects us from our own built environment. Yet we can be re-sensitized, and even “reform” the built environment through our own direct experience, designing instead based on how humans move through and react to that environment. Design must be influenced by the health and social aspects of life no less than by the aesthetic and financial aspects of architecture.

Every form, space, structure, surface, and detail that adds to the amount of organized information in the built environment helps connect users with buildings in a healing manner. Certain precise mathematical properties of the environment produce a healing effect. To some extent, we already know the rules of biophilia (see “What Do Light, Color, Gravity, and Fractals Have To Do With Our Well-Being?”). Broadening out beyond biophilia, we can choose living patterns that foster healing (Alexander et al., 1977; Leitner, 2015; Salingaros, 2015). These socio-geometric solutions work because, long before science identified a connection, they already embodied healing mechanisms. Building methods evolved because, generation after generation, builders habitually and instinctively chose to use “best practices” identified by earlier practitioners as conducive to human wellbeing at every scale of activity in life, from walking up a set of stairs to building a city. We can easily do this again.

Adaptive design profits from mountains of accrued knowledge in architecture. A vast amount of building experience once enabled architects to intuit how people interact with the built environment. That knowledge may not be written down but is embedded in the geometries of space, surface, and detail just waiting to be deployed in ways that improve our wellbeing. Let us take care to preserve the most wonderful built structures from our past, and not demolish them out of a misplaced aesthetic fanaticism.

A healing environment allows people to draw emotional support from their settings. It frees them to move around and interact unselfconsciously, to combine their lives with the lives of others. This psychological vitality of built space depends on the high number and the high quality of visual and intuitive interactions among elements of a space and its users. Such interactions can be classified into those among (i) the structural components themselves, and (ii) interactions of material and space with the users. Different types of symmetries and physical connections govern mutual interactions among design elements (Salingaros, 2006: Chapter 5). Physiology and psychology, in turn, govern interactions between structural elements and human beings.

Healing arises from interaction among human beings, and between individuals or social groups and the built environment. Our visceral experience of space depends upon the geometry of artificial structures that do not necessarily resemble or relate to biological form. A complex structure with healing qualities incorporates several diverse factors to which we react. Healthy socio-geometric configurations in society rely upon our inherited intuitive response to built forms and natural settings, and generate even more healthy social interactions by encouraging their spontaneous occurrence.

Specific geometrical configurations, forms, spaces, structures, surfaces, and connective frameworks act as catalysts for human contact, generating effects through their geometry that can include healing. These special built settings encourage vibrant life in the city (Salingaros, 2015). Geometrical configurations in structural design are essential to foster human life and social interaction.

Historical selection driven by countless design choices — a sort of Darwinian process among architects and builders — reveals an unvarying set of configurations that trigger the biophilic effect. Traditional forms and structures evolved precisely in this manner, over time, in architecture and urbanism. The biophilic design of buildings therefore mimics the evolutionary growth and multiplication of natural organisms. Geometrical configurations that possess a healing effect represent biophilic design’s genetic material. This information was embedded over millennia into the pre-industrial built environment.

We can and do evolve such forms entirely in software. But in that kind of a procedure everything depends on the selection criteria used. With few exceptions, the selection rules are not adaptive — that is, they are not constrained by limitations that mimic the organized complexity of nature. Bottom-up processes that “grow” a form using a computer program work strictly within computer memory: they are isolated from the real world and are not subject to adaptive selection. Such computational procedures, very much in vogue today, are used to produce forms that look organic but are useless as architectural solutions. The visual novelty of such forms is architectural gimmickry unrelated to natural adaptation.

The adaptive design program of Bruno Postle (2013) transcends this limitation. Using several of Christopher Alexander’s living patterns as design constraints (Alexander et al., 1977; Leitner, 2015; Salingaros, 2015), the software evolves an optimal configuration for a house, a larger building, or a cluster of houses. Simulated evolution is very slow, as millions of configurations must be considered. Since the patterns built into the program are intrinsically biophilic, the result is both biophilic and adaptive. Notably, the program automatically adapts a distinct solution to different sites and conditions.

With all the scientific advances that permit us to create healing environments today using the latest technology, we face an almost insurmountable barrier to implementation. Our minds are walled off against healthy design by conventional stereotypes of what “modernity” looks like. These stereotypes were ill-conceived a hundred years ago when a machine aesthetic was mistaken for machine efficiency. Today, designs based on human health and social vitality are typically rejected because they look “old-fashioned”. Our collective consciousness still has not grasped the essential fact that built structures based on biological processes are intrinsically healing. Our brain recognizes it but our education rejects it. Architecture based on natural evolutionary procedure must necessarily inherit a certain resemblance from what came before — the design process that gave it birth. This kinship, this relationship to the past, comes from the mathematical implementation of a healing geometry. To reject that is to reject the healing effect.

From childhood, members of our industrialized society are plugged into a system of artificial visual media that replaces reality. This system has cut us off from a corrective feedback loop fed by the lessons of nature. Generations of people have grown up with a rigidly mechanistic view of the world. Being surrounded by powerful machines in the age of cheap energy and a rapidly developing technological base has given society the mistaken impression that the world is equally machine-like. Conventional design builds such a world. We have far less practice in interacting with other persons, animals, and living systems than did our ancestors.

Can architects take their focus off innovative form for its own sake, and design a more healing environment today? A new generation of conscientious designers can choose to newly embrace a moral responsibility we abandoned long ago. We can no longer in good conscience simply impose alien forms on people, because every form and every space enclosed by it changes the behavior and lives of those who have to experience them.



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

Helmut Leitner (2015) Pattern Theory, CreateSpace, Amazon.

Bruno Postle (2013) “An adaptive approach to domestic design,” Journal of Biourbanism, Volume 3, Nos. 1 & 2, pages 29-49.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2006) A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal. Chapter 5 “Life and Complexity in Architecture From a Thermodynamic Analogy” first appeared in Physics Essays, Volume 10 (1997), pages 165-173.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) “Living Structure Comes From Patterns”, Part 1, Part 2, e-Architect, 21 August 2015.

Categories: Ideas