Why Do Some People Choose Oppressive Environments?

Misunderstanding the difference between synthetic and natural processes can lead to buildings that go against our nature.

A tall concave ceiling enhances activities taking place in this grand room, but few people consciously attribute the positive ambience to the geometry.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

The act of building, a man-made transformation of the natural environment is an imposition on nature, necessary for human habitation. The process of assembling architectural and urban form, along with its underlying geometry, can differ radically: either it is inspired by and sympathetic to natural processes, or it is deliberately opposed to them. The difference between natural and artificial is fundamental. Architecture and planning that use unnatural geometric methodologies will inevitably conflict with nature. Often, forms that rely upon visual innovation as their sole inspiration reap acclaim for their architects. Unfortunately, structures that conflict with the processes of nature are ultimately unsustainable.

Traditional design approaches are utilitarian. Their processes and forms arose over generations by selection among natural alternatives, hence they are more sustainable. The most effective designs use evolved energy-saving solutions for building — factoring in local climate, local materials, and knowledge of local customs. Taking this more scientific approach, we can solve, dependably, problems of sustainability and human health.

Some environments soothe and heal; others induce anxiety and illness.

When people complain that our built environment makes them feel uncomfortable, they are dismissed as “old-fashioned” or “unappreciative of contemporary design”. But ordinary people’s reactions are in fact correct. Only architects and other design professionals, after years of conditioning in architecture school and practice, are able to override deeper biological instincts telling them that a structure is hostile (Salingaros, 2014). Architects have long used formal criteria to design and build structures that do not accommodate human sensibilities. They treat criticism by the public as proof that their designs succeed in provocation, which they equate with originality.

The root cause of profound disagreement on architecture between trained architects and the public boils down to whether or not a design embodies living structure (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2011). Reconciliation on this point is impossible. Living structure is the antithesis of provocative. Like it or not, the search for innovation through provocation renounces life-enhancing environments. And those architects who insist that better education will teach the public to love the same buildings they love, do not understand human nature.

We could change our design criteria and adopt a set of mechanisms and relationships, such as design patterns, shared by all “living” creations (Alexander et al., 1977). If the design of a city, a neighborhood, a plaza, a building, a room, or a window shares these living qualities, then we can be fairly sure the built structure will work well for its users. That would solve the problem.

Criteria for adaptive design success:

  1. The basis for judgment is both practical and psychological.
  2. Created forms and spaces are adapted to the human function they aim to accommodate.
  3. The forms and spaces make people feel secure rather than stressed.
  4. This complex network of sensations acts subconsciously.
  5. Body signals tell the truth, especially when they contradict the user’s expressed opinion.

A positive emotional reaction is not usually noticed because it is largely instinctive. It aligns with human neurobiological response, which leads to a healthy state. On the other hand, a negative reaction to an unnatural form and space triggers shock and anxiety. Our body is warning us of danger in the environment.

Yet in most contemporary architecture, innovation is based strictly on visual appeal. By rejecting practices based on science and utility, architects have opened a deep and perilous gulf between innovation that celebrates an abstract image and innovation that provides a healing environment. To force the public to put up with dysfunctional, unhealthy design solutions is not an accomplishment that architects should be proud of. Therefore design professionals must break out of their conventional thinking and embrace living patterns in their work if they want to help reconstitute what every human deserves: a healing environment (Salingaros, 2015).

Design rules that arise from the study of biological form, and also from traditional and vernacular architectures, produce a human-scaled environment. Most of the world continues to build its modest houses and complex urban fabric according to adaptive, intuitive rules. The vitality of traditional cities the world over is due to unwritten patterns. Self-building, or vernacular building, which lies outside the officially-sanctioned architectural paradigm, nevertheless has the possibility of variation to adapt it to human needs. The problem is how to get the profession to accept what the rest of humanity is doing, and identify the essential qualities of a healthy built environment.

Ceiling height and emotional wellbeing in rooms

So far we have not sufficiently reflected on architects’ responsibility for how they influence the emotional lives and long-term health of their fellow human beings. In fact the 20th century industrial paradigm does not take into account the inevitable reactions of the natural system in general, and the human actors in particular. Denying human nature (and the very mechanism of life) becomes an essential precondition for shielding inhuman environments against legitimate criticism. The architectural media ignore scientific results that point to adaptive design errors in buildings that architects have been in the habit of erecting during several decades.

How can a more subtle attention to the malleability of built form create living space? Psychology suggests strong constraints on the shape of ceilings as they define the experience of indoor space. We tend to feel more at ease under a domed ceiling rather than a flat ceiling. Depending on the dimensions, a dome or vault gives a comfortable sense of being enveloped in the space. Variations of ceiling geometry and curvature cause major changes in user wellbeing (Alexander et al., 1977: Patterns 190 & 191, see Living Structures Should Come From Living Patterns). Flat, horizontal ceilings have a generally neutral effect on users. Symmetric pitched ceilings are also acceptable: they approximate the perceived enveloping effect of a cylindrical vault.

Departures from vaulted, symmetric, and flat horizontal ceilings generate a feeling of unease. Flat slanted mono-pitched ceilings sloping only to one side could make us feel anxious–their lack of bilateral symmetry pulls us horizontally. Then, anxiety definitely increases under a ceiling that drops downward in the middle. A sagging ceiling perceived as “coming down” on our head produces considerable alarm. This ominous effect is felt with a ceiling whose center hangs, such as a catenary sheet that is experienced from below as convex, or a symmetric negative pitched ceiling angled downwardly.

Although it looks perfectly fine in a model or rendering, a heavy convex ceiling creates an ominous sensation so that people experiencing this space don’t enjoy it.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

For the standard flat horizontal ceiling, the floor-to-ceiling height is very important for shaping our psychological response. Traditional ceiling heights originally followed sensible, commonly agreed upon standards. For example, in the East people sit on the floor, so domestic ceilings tend to be lower. Rooms in owner-built dwellings in Europe were sized to satisfy the psychological comfort of their occupants, and ranged from 2.6 m to 3.3 m (8 feet, 6 inches to 10 feet, 10 inches). These dimensions were established as minimum standards in many European municipal building codes. For those who could afford them, even more generous residential ceilings prevailed before World War II, with many measuring 3.50 m to 3.66 m (11 feet, 6 inches to 12 feet) or more.

Ideally, rooms should have ceiling heights that vary according to function and intended degree of public use or private intimacy. Several discourses are devoted to this crucial topic (Alexander et al., 1977; Salingaros, 2005), broadly defined. Practical results for design come from a more general investigation of how living patterns help to define a psychologically secure space.

Le Corbusier’s monomaniacal insistence on ceilings that he could touch, which he justified with a mystical numerical system that has since been debunked as nonsensical (Salingaros, 2012), set a floor-to-ceiling height of 2.26 m (7 feet, 5 inches) that violated French building standards, which were waived for him by the housing minister himself. We are still stuck with those low ceilings today!

Construction in the 20th and early 21st centuries, fueled by opportunism and extreme cost cutting, squashed people under oppressive ceiling heights of 2.13 m to 2.44 m (7 to 8 feet), turning dimensions below historically minimum limits into present-day standards. This violation was reinforced by an industrial design aesthetic. User reaction based on human feelings was no longer recognized by the industry after commercial motives were accepted as a priority.


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” also titled “The Architect Has No Clothes”, Guernica, 19 October 2011. Available from: <guernicamag.com/daily/the_architect_has_no_clothes/>

Nikos A. Salingaros (2005) Principles of Urban Structure, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2012) “Applications of the Golden Mean to Architecture”, Meandering Through Mathematics, 21 February 2012. Available from:


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

Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) “Biophilia and Healing Environments”, a 10-part essay series in Metropolis, August–September. Published together as a booklet by Terrapin Bright Green, LLC, New York. Available from: <terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/biophilia-healing-enviro-salingaros/

Categories: Arts + Culture, Design Education, Uncategorized