What Ancient Chinese Philosopher Mo-Tzu Can Teach Designers Today

Mo-Tzu’s “three-prong method” remains highly relevant, emphasizing how we ought to use an empirical basis to shape our built world.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

With creativity constrained by 20th Century architectural ritual, innovation can only come from abandoning alignment and latent symmetries. “A Casa da Música”, Porto, Portugal, 2005.

The teachings of ancient Chinese philosopher Mo-Tzu (also known as Mozi, Mo Di, or Micius, 470–391 BCE) are based on identifying truth by comparing ideas and practices to Patterns (which he called models, or standards). Those are not Confucian ritualistic standards, but practices that have been verified and tested in actual use. His books did not survive the totalitarian governments that followed the period when Mo-Tzu lived; however, Mo-Tzu’s “three-prong method” remains highly relevant to design today as a precursor to Living Patterns, and points to how we must use an empirical basis to shape our world (Veryard, 2015).

Mo-Tzu did not consider everything set by the ancients to be worth following simply because of precedent. He tried to teach ordinary people how to determine whether ideas behind practices are true or not. This is the opposite of performing some established ritual, which is repetition without analysis. Mo-Tzu evaluated actions that benefit the population as a whole, not some tiny elite. The measure is how well they contribute to the “greatest good of the greatest number” (Mozi, 2016). Mo-Tzu opposed Confucianism because he considered conforming to ritual and following elaborate celebrations to be mindless. Celebrating rituals with great pomp presupposes an aristocracy that directs such practices, and which could also dictate artistic and architectural taste.

Mo-Tzu’s conception of knowledge is eminently practical, not theoretical or abstract, and derives from hands-on experience with the world. The Patterns of Mo-Tzu are verified by appeal to nature and to natural processes, not from some divine command — and even less so from political authority. As with design patterns (Alexander et al., 1977), the truths by which people ought to live by are shared discoveries that connect directly to experience.

Architectural ritual shapes everyday life

Design methods that incorporate discovered information on adaptive design rely on the principle of collaborative testing because they have already been shared by and with generations of builders from the past. Patterns re-use known tools, so that we don’t have to re-invent and adapt every component for each project each time. Collaborative/investigative design based upon inquiry and verification nevertheless generates opposition from these other approaches: (i) design that prioritizes individuality and visual innovation without testing, (ii) design that is closed to input from others, living or dead, (iii) design that ignores context, and (iv) design that remains within strictly prescribed architectural ritual.

Ritual is a set of actions to be performed without thinking. It is monolithic and cannot be taken apart or reassembled. The ritual itself is handed top-down, being the opposite of a collaborative or adaptive evolution. Today’s practitioners don’t normally employ living patterns, precisely because that design method is exploratory and iterative: it generates a large number of solutions, which are then selected according to their adaptivity (plus the fixed external constraints of the project specifics). It’s so much easier to employ fixed ritual images and fit the project to them in a minimally-satisfactory manner. One gets almost instant results without bothering with steps towards adaptation. But that practice detaches the actual result from what is claimed to be the intent and achievement.

I’m not talking here of everyday social rituals that a building can adapt to and contain, but about a very different architectural ritual that generates the building irrespective of its intended uses. This type of ritual is practiced by the architect, not the user, and is meant exclusively for the benefit of other architects. Since the spaces in a building shape the social activities they contain, once built, the structure exerts an enormous influence on the life of the users. In this way, architectural rituals shape our social rituals in ways we don’t normally notice.

A designer needs constraints. Otherwise, there is no convergence, and the design process cannot stop. Those who don’t use patterns as constraints necessarily use something as a substitute — constraints that are not living patterns tend to be visual and stylistic ones instead. Entirely non-adaptive constraints do not relate to human life, and therefore have to be remembered as an abstract ritual. Those constraints are fixed in one’s subconscious during training. Internalized images shape output — a designer is unaware that he or she is following a ritual (Salingaros, 2014a; 2014b).

What are the architectural rituals practiced today, which need to be re-examined, and if necessary, abandoned? I suggest the industrial minimalism of the International Style, including plate-glass coffee tables, curtain walls, punched-out borderless doors and windows, horizontal strip windows, flat roofs, brutalist concrete or shiny metal surfaces, etc. Every student of architecture has been taught that those generate good architecture. Do these practices contribute to our health and wellbeing? No. They are merely elements of a ritual that our dominant culture believes will make us “modern”.

Since the early 20th century, the ritual of architecture has focused on formalism and what could be interpreted as a form of sacred symbolism. Although architectural ritual governs the world within architecture, and the media make a huge effort to extend it to society at large, much of it doesn’t make sense to common people (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2011). Nevertheless, the cultural mainstream expects that people conform to whatever spaces are designed for them. Just as in religious ritual, opposition by outsiders only helps to solidify the group practicing the ritual (Salingaros, 2014a, 2014b). Celebrating specific rituals holds the dominant architectural culture together, but closes it to external innovations. This is why architectural expressions in the ritual’s idiom all tend to look very similar.

Since ritual imposed on architectural expression is not open to creativity, innovative architects have to turn to other means such as pointless non-adaptive expressions to show any individual difference. Contemporary architects love to detach and twist forms, pretend that some piece is about to fall down, and reference older architectonic elements in an “ironic” way — but such jokes fall flat with the general public, which is not in the “in-group.” Those elements are never helpful for a building’s function, or for the wellbeing of the users. A trillion-dollar global building industry has bought into design as ritual, thus encouraging and perpetuating this practice. But that ignores any possibility for living systems to respond.


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

Michael W. Mehaffy & Nikos A. Salingaros (2011) “Architectural Myopia: Designing for Industry, Not People”, Shareable, 5 October 2011. shareable.net/blog/architectural-myopia-designing-for-industry-not-people

Mozi (2016) Wikipedia entry.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2014a) Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, Fourth Edition, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2014b) “Cognitive Dissonance and Non-adaptive Architecture”, Doxa, Issue 11, Norgunk Publishing House, Istanbul, January 2014, pages 100-117. zeta.math.utsa.edu/~yxk833/cognitivedissonance.pdf

Richard Veryard (2015) Towards Next Practice Enterprise Architecture, Lean Publishing Books. leanpub.com/NextPracticeEA

Categories: Design Education, Ideas