The 21st Century Needs Its Own Paradigm Shift in Architecture

The first in a series of articles about the way that living structures should come from patterns.

Non-adaptive double-loaded skyscraper corridor destroys urban space. Interior spaces are not much better in this energy-wasting formalist statement.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

For well above half a century, most new buildings delivered by architects to owners have had extremely poor spaces, both inside and out.

I blame this sad state of affairs on the criteria used for the critical evaluation of the built environment. Buildings that are expected to inspire other architects and evolve new building practices are assessed in the design media as well as in academia as the latest fashions in form. It’s hard to see them as major advancements in the art and science of creating human habitation. Excited write-ups and the latest round of design awards praise buildings seemingly intended to induce the greatest level of personal anxiety by those who use them. All this merely lays the ground for the next round of psychologically debilitating places. Such failures, on the part of academic institutions and professional designers, would not have been tolerated by architects operating in any other age of human history.

The early 20th century paradigm shift that came with replacing traditional ways of building by modernist design methods was a wrenching experience; it replaced centuries of cultural preference for humanly adaptive spaces, and imposed on us, instead, an acceptance of psychologically damaging ones. To undo the last century’s paradigm shift will be similarly traumatic for everyone involved in design and construction today. A whole set of practices and institutions need to be dismantled: Architecture prizes awarded by august committees of practitioners, academics and critics with long resumes, distinguished patrons smiling for photos next to pasteboard images of buildings — these are easily dispensable, but no less necessary to end than the decades of professional, academic, and critical myopia that have buttressed the industry’s ability to tilt the architectural playing field against a more healthy, humane way of building. The forces that validated deficient design would be, and should be, discredited in a new paradigm shift–the sooner the better.

We need to begin again from zero.

We do not merely require a new architecture. Such an objective would be immediately misinterpreted as simply a new design style. What is proposed here is the foundation of a new kind of architecture: an entirely novel way to think about and practice architecture, extending far beyond any superficial novelty of appearance. Triggering a new paradigm shift, one that revalues the value of living structures, won’t be easy. We recognize that a new shift in the way we evaluate the built environment would be as destabilizing to today’s established order the one that occurred in the 1920s.

The 21st century solution is to re-discover and document the properties of responsive spaces that adapt naturally to human needs. Fortunately, we have tools that make this gigantic task much easier than before. The design patterns of Christopher Alexander from 40 years ago provide pieces of the solution that we can put together for a contemporary understanding of space (Alexander et al., 1977). And there is an enormous amount of new material from current research that was not available back then (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015).

But first, what can we do to motivate a paradigm shift? We cannot turn back the clock. To misinterpret our program as merely returning to pre-war traditional architecture is a mistake. Such an error is behind the most facile and intellectually empty arguments against change, used to block progress in adaptive design. In fact, we wish to leave the non-adaptive past behind us, and jump forward to a new, adaptive architecture in which spaces and surfaces are exquisitely responsive to human biology.

This movement is both motivated and justified by modern science, and has nothing to do with fashion or design ideology. Resistance to introducing an adaptive mode of design is extremely strong, because the cultural mainstream is invested in what is, not what could be. People are frightened of abandoning conventional ways of interpreting the world, even if those ways are demonstrably false. Here, convention and familiarity trump truth and science. It has always been thus with humankind.

The need for a new language

We require a new design language to describe the proposed paradigm shift because today’s design language is simply incapable of expressing the elements of “living” space. Our common language possesses neither the vocabulary nor the syntax to do so. Otherwise, we are forced to reach back to words and expressions from other topics, especially the romantic descriptions of the 19th century and beyond, to explain contemporary scientific results. That would be inaccurate and misleading. Furthermore, it risks condemning the whole effort to failure, from the beginning, because it gives the false impression that we are going back to those historical times instead of moving forward to a better future.

Already by 1977, when A Pattern Language was published (Alexander et al.), the cultural mainstream had brushed aside living space as an irrelevant concept, and for this reason it was never assimilated. Consequently, there was no need to describe it in words.

The notion that space could be “alive” was relevant only to an antique worldview, which was considered valid until the 20th century. But the mass consciousness of the population has changed radically since then. There was no one within mainstream culture who was ready to assimilate this information in 1977. Even those individuals who recognized the tremendous potential for these ideas were hesitant to adopt them, because they would have to re-organize their mental structures in order to do so, and reject common cultural assumptions. The implied hierarchical re-organization was too radical. Society was not ready to abandon comfortable ways of thought.

Building footprints adapt to climate, flows, and other existing buildings. Allowing each one to differ from the others helps to create usable urban space.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

Is society more receptive today? I believe it is. We have become technological, and ironically, advanced technology has revealed the inadequacies of the early industrial model. It is now possible to take the language of contemporary technology, and use it to describe a new kind of architecture.

Alexander recognized the need for a new language, which he addressed in his book, The Timeless Way of Building (1979). In it he describes the “Quality Without A Name” — the QWAN, as it is known in computer science — which for practical purposes can, indeed, be named. It is the quality of a living environment. It describes systemic harmony, organized complexity, and coherence in our surroundings, and can be distinguished from crude mechanical principles that have dominated design in the machine age. It is present in structures that make us feel healthier whenever we are exposed to them. We receive sustenance from artifacts and settings that possess this healing property, which reflects the processes of biological reproduction and development. This healing process occurs in environments whose positive emotional quality comes from innumerable mutually reinforcing and psychologically nourishing interactions.

But this did not solve the problem. While Alexander’s Zen-like treatment of the linguistic problem appealed to some — and continues to appeal to them very strongly — mainstream architects did not embrace it. And so, unfortunately, that opportunity was lost, and it was not picked up again until decades later by pragmatic computer scientists. After 20 years, with The Nature of Order (2001-2005), Alexander offered another solution, developed in great detail over four volumes, by introducing the concept of “wholeness” and his “theory of centers” as part of a new design vocabulary.

Designed monotony versus natural variety

Monotony and variety can apply to both the natural and the artificial environments. In our artificial or built environment are two distinct classes of object: copied and generated. A template, or set of design rules, that allows some freedom of execution generates objects; it does not copy them. A copy is literally stamped out. Designing and building in a generative process involves many steps, each of which addresses a range of factors, introducing variety, just as in nature. Variations are the result of environmental forces that differ from place to place and in the same place at different times.

In The Nature of Order (2001-2005), Alexander emphasizes that traditional and vernacular architecture is of this generative type. We see enormous variety and little monotony in tribal settlements, in traditional urban fabric, in historical and vernacular buildings, even in architecture designed according to rigorous classical orders of ancient pedigree. The reason is that, as a natural function of their production over and over again by humans, they adapt to the complexity of the actual conditions in place.

With industrialization, our design paradigm underwent a drastic shift: from generating form to copying form. This was the point of early mass production. Identical copies, with their supposed high degree of simplicity and low cost, became the norm and the primary objective of industrial design. But producing identical copies means isolating design from local forces — indeed, any adaptive forces. The industrial age came to insist on linear, monotonous alignment of identical copies (Salingaros, 2011). This triggered monotony as society’s principal psychological reaction to the ideals of repetition and mechanical alignment.

Monotony in our environment has profound consequences on our psyche. A worldview that exalts visual monotony has taken over an earlier environment shaped by the variety of natural forms. If industrial production tied to economic growth and prosperity necessarily generates monotony, then design variety is sure to be considered a drag on the operation of our economy. Indeed, this substitution of monotony for variety now dominates our society, especially in fields that claim to exalt creativity, including architecture.

Nature certainly shows little monotony (Salingaros, 2011). This might appear surprising, since geological mechanisms follow the same basic tectonic forces to produce change — erosion, pressure, glaciation, heat, plate shift, fracture, etc. — while biological mechanisms follow the same basic organic principles to grow, reproduce, and decay. Organisms use DNA to generate copies. One would expect the results to be identical, but they are not. Everything in nature is “generated” but is, in fact, never “copied”. Each example of an object or organism is created from the same design template, yet the result differs slightly each time. Individual objects and organisms differ because step-by-step generation creates small variations. Thus, the positioning on the evolutionary timeline of each natural entity, be it a rock formation or a salamander, is always complex, never monotonous.

References:

Christopher Alexander (1979) The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, New York.

Christopher Alexander (2001-2005) The Nature of Order, Books 1-4, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California. Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, 2001; Book 2: The Process of Creating Life, 2002; Book 3: A Vision of a Living World, 2005; Book 4: The Luminous Ground, 2004.

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 (2015) Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science, and the Human Future, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2011) “Why Monotonous Repetition is Unsatisfying”, Meandering Through Mathematics, September 2011. Reprinted in the Cornell University Library Arxiv, September 2011. Available from: <arxiv.org/pdf/1109.1461v1.pdf

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