Nikos Salingaros recently informed me about a collection of essays he wrote on the topic of biophilia and how it embodies healthy principles for designing the built world. The essays are available online as a handy, printable booklet (PDF) through the Terrapin Bright Green website.(1)
I’ve previously mentioned Nikos and my admiration for his work, which brings his mathematical perspective and applies scientific principles to the study of how architectural and urban forms may be generated. Underlying this is his belief in fundamental rules governing certain generative patterns that resonate with human beings because they are consistently found in the natural world.
The biophilia hypothesis, first popularized by Edward O. Wilson, suggests there is an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems. According to Wilson, our affinity for nature is innate, shaped primarily by our genetic inheritance rather than by cultural influences. Upon its introduction, Wilson’s hypothesis was a point of controversy. Nikos and others have taken up the biophilia mantle from Wilson to advance the belief that our biology should play a principal role in the design of the physical settings we inhabit. To the extent this belief may remain controversial puzzles me because the precepts that underlie the hypothesis appear not only convincing but also intuitively obvious.
Simply put the goal of biophilic design is the creation of places supportive of biological organisms. Presuming our affinity for nature is ingrained in our genotype, truly supportive and healthful built environments should viscerally connect us with the natural and biological forms the human species developed within and still resonate most consonantly with. As Nikos asserts in one of the published essays, human sensory organs and systems evolved to respond to natural geometries, which are characterized by colors, fractals, scaling, and complex symmetries. Citing extensive research as evidence, he says we react negatively—becoming anxious or ill—when restricted to settings deprived of these geometries.
It’s important to understand the principles of biophilia and how we apply them to architecture because many of us have turned our back to them for far too long. Their importance is a direct consequence of more than a century’s worth of design culture that, consciously or otherwise, largely rejected our inherent, natural impulses in favor of a minimalist, unnatural aesthetic implanted by ideologues and self-appointed tastemakers. Nikos describes this approach as so unnatural that it is actually “biophobic.”
So, how do we apply biophilic design principles in our work? The answer is not an easy one and may demand a willingness to abandon a lifetime of inculcation within a failed paradigm. This is where the ten-part series of essays written by Nikos and published online by Terrapin Bright Green may be helpful. They are persuasive, concise, and yet comprehensive, covering aspects as diverse as human scale design, neurobiology’s preference for complex geometry, and the link between ornament and human intelligence. If you haven’t previously been aware of Nikos’ work, they also serve as a primer for his other writings and investigations, which may come as a revelation to designers unfamiliar with the relevance of generative rules, adaptive structures, and systems theory to architecture.
The challenge for architects is to fully understand the principles of biophilia. It’s far too easy to simply give lip service to them and superficially apply “organic” motifs while engaged in willful form-making. Truly biophilic design dives deeply, applying actual rules and lessons from nature to generate life-enhancing, healthful environments. Biophilic design isn’t an ego-driven, top-down approach but rather one that works from the bottom-up, rooted in patterns from which both complexity and wholeness at many scales can arise.
The paved path winding around the Acropolis Hill in Athens, Greece. Designed by Dimitris Pikionis, 1957. Sketch by Nikos Salingaros
(1) Terrapin Bright Green is a sustainability consulting and strategic planning firm that helps organizations make smart decisions that lead to environmental and financial sustainability through research, planning, guidelines, and product development. Terrapin will soon make the booklet available in paper form as well.