Architecture For People, Not Machines

The majority of contemporary design caters to machines, not people. Adaptive design offers another way.

Traditional corridors employ natural light and numerous, visually-interesting patterns to create a healing environment, giving us a positive feeling: “This space is so nice that I should spend some time here instead of just walking through.” 

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

How machines differ from organisms

Throughout their lives, people are continually exposed to entirely distinct types of architectural experiences. Explaining the difference comes down to the contrast between the machine and the organism; these definitions are crucial for understanding and judging architecture (Salingaros & Masden, 2008; 2015).

The crucial distinction between machines and organisms goes far beyond architecture, of course, and is nicely clarified in the Santiago School of Cognition (Hallowell, 2009). Let me summarize this important work by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela here.

First, organisms evolve in a competitive and hostile natural setting. A living organism is defined as  a fairly self-contained entity that possesses mechanisms for responding and adapting to its environment. Biological forces continuously triggered by environmental factors help keep the organism alive, and determine the living system’s behavior. A mobile organism decides where to move and where to stay, using an exquisitely developed sensory system to navigate its surroundings. Recurring physical situations that enhance the organism’s life define its living patterns: the organism will seek those out of instinct. Conversely, the absence of living patterns puts an organism on alert.

The organism senses external agents that influence its environment and could interfere with the organism’s natural response-driven choices. Any departure from living patterns triggers survival mechanisms. Forcing an organism to deviate from its innate living patterns only results in disturbing the organism’s natural complex functions and actions. It reacts to our interventions in unexpected ways — unexpected, yet perfectly logical according to the organism’s own program for survival. We might think that an animal or person would love cantilevered overhangs, for example, yet those create alarm if you are underneath them. Our design choices change the dynamics of the living structures the environment contains, in ways we need to understand.

In contrast to an organism, which responds to stimuli and thus is difficult to control, a simple machine or inanimate entity is entirely subject to control from external agents. It can be molded or changed in many different ways: it has no intrinsic patterns that it prefers or falls back on. With rare exceptions, a machine does not interact with its environment, and so transforming its immediate setting has no effect.

Corridor built according to the logic of the machine affects human users by generating negative emotions: “This space is dreary and depressing; I need to pass through it as quickly as possible.”

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros 

Designing for organisms vs. machines

Designing for organisms is challenging: in adaptive design, we cannot control intrinsic biological needs and sensitivities to the environment. We need to first discover the organism’s repertoire of living patterns, and then develop design rules for achieving them in practice. We must gather primary feedback in order to shape an accommodating environment and determine whether a building adapts to its users. Discoverable tools, such as design patterns, must be filed away and used to help identify potential reactions to design before it is even built (Alexander et al., 1977). It’s up to the designer to anticipate a user’s negative and positive responses.

In comparison, designing for machines is easy: this is the industrial approach to form. Design thinking focuses primarily on cost, efficiency, and materials. It requires no feedback. The architect quickly invents whatever shapes, spaces, and surfaces are minimally sufficient for what one wants the machine to do, or what one thinks the machine should be doing, and this is built without any questioning or testing. It’s safest just to copy previous industrial typologies. Efficiency suppresses emergence, lacks awareness of living structure, and certainly does not admit living patterns into the design process.

The contemporary built environment tends to be dominated by monotonous repetition of industrial typologies, interspersed with unique singular forms, yet neither follows any adaptive logic. These pervasive practices represent the antitheses of responsive environments anchored on living patterns. We create machines but not organisms.

Following Maturana and Varela, design decisions come down to interference and control versus feedback and learning. Does one wish to dominate the environment and all it contains, or to acknowledge, respect, and accommodate its living patterns? If we choose the latter, then we have to document and interpret the effects that interventions in the built environment have on humans and nature. Our design goal is then to support, through a material framework, the natural patterns of living structure.


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

Ronan Hallowell (2009) “Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Contribution to Media Ecology”, Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association, Volume 10, pages 143-158.

Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden (2008) “Neuroscience, the Natural Environment, and Building Design”, Chapter 5 in: Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen & Martin Mador, Editors, Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, John Wiley, New York, pages 59-83.

Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden (2015) “Architecture: Biological Form and Artificial Intelligence”, A+U, Part 1 in No. 540, September 2015, pages 130-135. Part 2 in No. 541, October 2015, pages 152-155. Part 3 in No. 542, November 2015, pages 209-212. Part 4 in No. 543, December 2015, pages 124-129. Updated version of an older article with new sections added.

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