Humans depend on complex organized information in their surroundings to inform their existence. Architecture as a material practice can change the way we perceive, and thus conceive, the human-built environment. For nearly a century architects have been prompted, if not compelled, to envision the built world through an industrial model that is both unnatural and inhuman. In an industrial paradigm, information is reduced to extend the economy of standardization. This purposefully minimizes the degree of structured information. In contrast, pre- industrial buildings typically carry within their designs the degree and type of information needed to effectively sponsor a greater sense of wellbeing by engaging human intelligence. Complex organized information is necessary in a human-based and naturally sustainable architecture. The modern education of students of architecture continues to suffer from a reductive way of thinking. Science provides insights on how to re-situate the pursuit of architecture as something made better by way of human intelligence.
ARCHITECTURE AND HUMAN INTELLIGENCE
One of the key messages of human-centered design (as opposed to image-based design) is that design adaptive to human beings is intimately linked with human intelligence. This interrelation holds true for fundamental biological reasons. Experiencing adaptive design establishes mental connections that aid intelligence; and conversely, engaging in adaptive design is an exercise in problem solving. We have every reason to believe that adaptive design increases the conceptual and reasoning abilities of the designer — that it can actually raise the designer’s overall intelligence. An analogous reasoning lies behind parents’ conviction that exposure to complex structures such as mathematics, other languages and music at an early age increases their child’s intelligence.
How does contemporary architectural design utilize this connection between adaptation and human intelligence? For the most part, it doesn’t. What is actually happening? In the twentieth-century design milieu, new ways of looking at the world — distinct from those we evolved with — were pursued. Greater industrial productivity overrode natural materiality, giving precedence to synthetic and engineered materials. The economy of mass production favored homogeneity.
We are rather alarmed at the pervasiveness of this disconnecting way of thinking in architecture. Good architecture is founded upon the mechanism underlying human intelligence that connects thoughts and ideas. We strive to establish connections while at the same time digging deeply to make sure they are logical ones, and are not based strictly on surface appearances. Intelligent architecture makes efforts to connect ideas laterally (among bits of information on the same level) as well as vertically (depth of understanding), in analogy with neural connectivity. In this manner, we can build an intelligent framework into the discipline itself.
A little bend here, a little crumple there, mixed with some creative dialogue and presto: you have yourself a fine piece of architecture, or so architecture students are misled to believe. The truth is that you have only a piece of construction paper that may at best support an allusion to architecture, but only at the smallest scale. So complex are the geometries at work here that the professor is unable to explain them in any way but as a celebration of abstract form and its superficial appearance. But all this model building occurs at the expense of adapting the design to human needs; indeed, this sculptural process can take place only if adaptation is willfully ignored. Glossing over the real issues of materials and structures necessary to even begin to conceive of such a form, professors encourage this type of expression from their students.
An abstract theoretical pursuit laid the ground for what is academic design today. Without a true understanding of how humans use external information to help situate themselves within an environment, both modernist and contemporary expressions of design offer little more than the appearance of machines. This holds true today after sustainable architecture has been aestheticized as something that must appear industrial (i.e. technological) in nature. Over the course of the twentieth century, architecture would progress, and digress, through every sort of formalism imaginable. Existential considerations have only individual expression as their purpose, however. The variant forms of modern design, propagated through the guise of newness and novelty, only represent the image-based ideals of industrial progress. As symbols of a new world, these designs are easily commodified across the field of modern media.
Is architecture, at its highest level, a symbol of the values and beliefs of a culture? Is architecture a formal expressionism meant only to excite and draw attention to its own unique peculiarities or those of the architect? Or is architecture something more, i.e. something that renders a greater sense of wellbeing in humans while providing for functional needs such as shelter and housing?
When students enter an architecture program, they normally bring with them expectations of what they hope to learn. These are some of the questions that dwell in the minds of many incoming students:
- What is architecture? Does architecture play an inherent role in human engagement with the world, or is architecture simply defined as whatever today’s star architects do?
- What is the accumulated knowledge base — i.e. books, articles, oral tradition, and built examples — that defines the discipline of architecture? Which individual teacher or course of instruction is more likely to teach me what is most relevant to becoming an architect?
- Which parts of this body of knowledge do I need to master to prepare myself to be a good architect? What indeed are the qualities of a good architect?
- What are the characteristics of a good space? How is it created? How far can an architect go in exploring design and innovation, without losing the positive properties of good architectural space?
- Who are the real architectural champions and leaders of today and the recent past? Whom should I seek to emulate as representing the highest ideals in our discipline? Who has brought significance to architecture among all other human endeavors, and can thus serve as true inspiration to students?
- How do I choose from among differing points of view? Are there any established criteria for judging what is good or bad architecture? Why is it that many buildings that are praised as being great architecture don’t instantly appeal to me? Is contemporary architecture meant to be an acquired taste?
- Can I learn from the architecture of the past and the architecture I have experienced in my own culture? Why are the only architectural examples I see today limited to what is featured in the glossy magazines for and by contemporary architects?
8. What methods, materials and systems are required to construct a building adapted to human needs and sensibilities? Is the industrial material palette — preferred by most contemporary architects — mandated by modernist design? Does the prevalence of industrial materials suggest that these are somehow best for architecture? Are there any moral or historical reasons for this preference?
9. What is the long-term role and responsibility of an architect, as seen in terms of a building’s effects on its immediate and global environment, its inhabitants and their social organization?
10. Should what is best for human beings and humanity be reflected in architecture? Is a more human architecture also a more sustainable architecture?
What is disconcerting is that these questions, for the most part, go unanswered and remain with many architecture students beyond their university experience. Worse, when answers are given, they are often less than honest, serving principally to promote certain styles, ideologies or individuals. This misleads students into adopting a set of false principles and values. Current pedagogical models seldom concern themselves with educational imperatives that speak to the true nature of adaptive design. They certainly don’t address the above questions. Given these circumstances, we believe that drastic measures are needed for reforming architectural education.
A process of limiting connections is firmly in place in today’s design practice. This is an operation founded in mistaken analogies. We see this phenomenon in individuals and cultures that have a restricted base of scientific knowledge, or are cut off from it. Mistaken analogies could be due to lack of a technological advancement, a lack of education, or choosing ignorance and superstition in the midst of a knowledge-based society. In extreme cases, human beings raised in isolation do not develop the necessary connections to fully assess systems outside those they themselves have generated.
Pre-modern cultures that tried to reconstruct objects of the modern world — airplanes and guns as sculptures, strictly through appearance — lacked an understanding of how these devices operated, and thus failed to replicate their function/utility. This is not to say those people could not understand the process involved in the design and fabrication of airplanes and guns; they simply were not taught how. Once exposed to the applicable knowledge base, people from those cultures were able to make the connections necessary to fully replicate technology.
Mistaken analogy is an established way of thought celebrated by famous contemporary architects, who declare that their buildings are on the point of “flying off” just because the edge resembles a wing. But, like primitive sculptures of airplanes in the jungle, the buildings refuse to take off. Architects embrace mistaken analogies as a way of thinking and talking about their designs, and are ironically awarded prestigious prizes (via the celebrity factor more than the value of their designs). This success through rewards keeps the entire discipline — the media, critics, clients, and academia — fixated on the mistaken analogy of surface appearances.
Idealizations are concepts that cannot be anchored on observable phenomena. Modern psychology tells us that whenever the human mind is confronted with an insufficient knowledge base for constructing logical connections, it invents or manufactures a nonsensical explanation for phenomena (Salingaros, 2014). Inventing untenable models follows an essentially anti-scientific practice. Yet, still, this strategy persists in architecture.
Psychologically indeterminate concepts tempt architects into a false model. Meaning consequently becomes a mental construct. False assertions about reality survive because their truth cannot be assessed in terms of physiological states and processes. Far from being recognized as a shortcoming, however, proponents of such a concept try to make it look more determinate than it really is. In comparing a conceptual construct with actual objects, one needs to pay close attention to the nature of the metaphor. It is crucial to rely upon empirical verification in drawing an analogy.
PATTERN LANGUAGE STUDIO
Architecture, as a highly complex system of overlapping geometries and phenomena, extends human consciousness outside our bodies in response to the needs and desires of life. Architecture is thus predicated on the multiplicity of human patterns: how human beings collect, how they live, how they prepare their meals, and what they seek in terms of comfort from the world. Christopher Alexander and his colleagues set about documenting and defining patterns of inhabitance. In their groundbreaking book A Pattern Language (Alexander et al., 1977) they present the geometries that work to delineate the space that human beings occupy in their everyday events and over their lifetime. From these patterns, students will begin to understand how architecture operates as an extension of human spatio-temporal negotiations with the outside world. Having that knowledge prevents patterns from being dismissed as nostalgic and romantic by those who do not understand their importance.
A design studio based on socio-geometric patterns could establish several projects of increasing scale. Practicalities for implementing the pattern-based method of design are given in the co-author’s book (Salingaros, 2005), which explains their combinatoric language. This studio will follow the existing process of design, design review, with a final critique of plans, sections, elevations, and models at the completion of each project. Students should be equipped to deal with basic design issues, from visual structure to physical engagement. Modifications from the customary studio consist of the addition of full-scale renderings of details, colors, textures, surfaces, and spaces. Whenever possible, at least one portion of each project should be modeled at full scale showing all levels of detail, in order to be able to ascertain its psychological feedback (Salingaros & Masden, 2010).
Human activities follow certain patterns, which lie at the basis of the complexity of traditional architecture and urbanism. Whereas some designs are specific to culture and location, many are indeed universal. For this reason, documenting successful patterns found in the built environment is a primary step towards achieving adaptive design. Patterns improve the quality of human life, and are not simply someone’s individual preference. They are unrelated to formal architecture, and are closely tied to biophilic design (Kellert et al., 2008). Patterns constrain design, but do not dictate form. A building that satisfies patterns is more flexible and adaptable to other uses later. If students are concerned that using design patterns might restrict design creativity, they have not yet fully understood the process of combining them, creatively and accurately, according to a set of combinatorial rules.
Design principles establish the fundamental necessity of design patterns as a human interface with the earth, giving explicit directions for students to begin to engage our evolved intelligence in their work. Architecture is practical by its very nature; as such it must not be left to the open-ended pursuit of pure artistic expression, under the guise of a false intellectual premise. Architecture should operate as the foundation for human adaptation to the physical world.
Biophilia is the notion that human beings require intimate exposure to the structure of biological forms, this being essential for human health, both physiological and psychological (Wilson, 1984). Biophilia is grounded in human evolutionary development occurring in a natural environment, and opposes the notion that modern human beings can ignore their own genetic make-up and detach themselves from natural settings without consequences. Biophilia helps to explain why human beings gain improved mental and physical health by being close to nature. The greatest of traditional architectures were achieved by instinctively following the operating mechanisms of design based on both intelligence and biophilia.
Biophilia relies on the emotional and sensory attraction that people have toward complex habitats and living objects in their immediate surroundings. It is now believed that human preferences toward things or conditions in nature, while refined through experience and culture, are the hard-wired product of biological evolution and thus inextricably human. Biophilia explains, for the first time in a scientific manner, how the mathematical structure of our environment influences us as human beings on the most basic biological level. Innate responses to our environment can now be more effectively described and more readily understood.
Appreciating biophilia requires us to recognize our basic sense of wellbeing. The combined physiological and psychological state of our own body can be either sick/anxious/oppressed, or healthy/comfortable/elevated. A person’s wellbeing is negative or positive according to multiple factors. One of those factors is feedback from our environment; others include internal health, influence from external events, etc. The important point of biophilia is that our internal state of health is affected by the external natural environment, and not only by the presence or absence of invading pathogens. The inner world is connected to the external world more than our modern society is willing to admit, even though this relationship has long been a basic focus of traditional philosophies.
Research has uncovered undisputed clinical advantages (pain relief, faster hospital healing) of natural environments, and those artificial environments mimicking geometrical qualities of natural environments. Our neurological mechanism reacts positively to the information field generated by the specific geometry of natural forms, detail, hierarchical subdivisions, color, etc. The mechanism relies on a connection established via external information: visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, etc. We engage emotionally with the built environment when we encounter appropriate forms, spaces, surfaces, and details. Engagement induces a physiological reaction altering the state of our body. Thus, we experience our built surroundings no differently than we experience natural environments, other living creatures, our pets, or other human beings.
Biophilic design (Kellert et al., 2008) merges artificial structures with natural structures, but not in any superficial manner. The design method involves a variety of natural processes such as: using natural materials and surfaces, allowing natural light, and incorporating plants inside a building. Artificial information such as in cheap artificial plants should be the last resort. Honest use of natural materials as structural components works best; veneers are only slightly better than having nothing natural at all. (But industrial materials, artificially shaped to reduce organized information, turn out to be the opposite of biophilic.) More fully incorporating a building within a natural environment — instead of purposefully erasing nature beforehand, as is too often seen in the reigning authority of the tabula rasa — respects biophilia.
DESIGN THROUGH INTELLIGENCE
Biological intelligence has evolved to adapt our bodies and actions to the natural environment, enabling our survival through appropriate responses. This deep notion of INTELLIGENCE AS ADAPTIVITY extends to adaptive design (and includes the rapidly-growing movement of sustainable design). Design in nature is driven by adaptation, but not all of human design is adaptive. Those architects and urbanists throughout history who sought and achieved adaptivity through their intuition succeeded in generating healing environments. Traditional architectural training was aimed primarily at developing this intuition. It is only recently that we have been able to use scientific knowledge to explain successful design processes that were until now somewhat mysterious, and thus vulnerable to subversion by ideology.
Psychologists can now utilize physiological sensors such as skin conductivity gauges, blood pressure monitors, etc. to measure the level of stress in an observer when exposed to good and bad examples of environments. We see firsthand the immediate implications of the physical environment on human wellbeing. Physical and virtual modeling, as well as image-sequenced processes can be tested to determine their effectiveness at full scale. From this, architectural practitioners can easily develop a detailed knowledge of physiological processes through which evidence-based results can be interpreted and later applied to design. We can establish intelligent criteria and a classification system for forms and surfaces that give either a negative or positive physiological response.
Architects can then develop methods of documenting and evaluating this experiential dimension of architecture.
Given that this knowledge is recent, there exist few teaching models that could be used as examples, and appropriate texts are only now beginning to be written (Alexander, 2001-2005; Kellert et al., 2008; Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015; Salingaros, 2013). Nevertheless, this new design experience is actually very close to timeless vernacular techniques. The model is established through extensive research into the phenomenon of external information processing and retrieval. It explains why emotionally-nourishing art has that effect. The guidelines presented here underpin a developing corpus of architectural knowledge that is authentic to human life, and which is the basis for adaptive design.
STUDENTS AND THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT
Today more than ever, useless information — images, slogans, and memes — saturates our conscious mind. Like white noise, an unintelligible veil disrupts our ability to engage genuinely with useful information when it is presented directly. Abstract forms in our surroundings (buildings devoid of organized information content) further exacerbate this condition by intensifying or concentrating the barrage of useless, or non-existent information. This experience is dangerously unhealthy. An architectural education that is adequate to our psychological needs has to teach students about the levels and types of structured information that humans depend upon, and that buildings can present.
Contemporary educational imperatives for unencumbered creativity are based upon a curious misunderstanding, and a lack of real scientific data. It is illogical to expect students to design before they understand human perception and socio-geometric patterns. Creative thinking in and of itself does not lead to good architecture. Only after students have a firm grasp of the cause and effect of material structures can they begin to effectively test and apply their knowledge in hands-on design. In the study of other professional and scientific-based disciplines (e.g. medicine, law, engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology), an operating knowledge of that discipline’s processes, principles, and procedures is taught first before any theoretical enquiry takes place. Serious learning begins when students have acquired a solid understanding of the evidence-based knowledge for their discipline.
Free to imagine anything at will, with no obligation to address the responsive dimensions of design, architecture students are drawn toward open-ended speculation. Without any evidence-based criterion to guide their explorations, many simply conceive the most unnatural structures imaginable. After students have been mesmerized by this new abstract world, they begin their studies in materials, methods and structures. At this point, students who have not successfully adapted to abstract design thinking have typically withdrawn from the school. Those who remain have managed to develop a skill-set of artificial creative expressions, and have internalized their intellectual pretext. Seduced by this abstract process, and no longer concerned about real architecture, the remaining students seldom attempt to reconcile what their material classes are teaching them with what they are designing. Throughout their academic studies the gulf between what is real and what is imagined is so great that few ever attempt to bridge the distance.
It is only when they graduate and step out into the real world that architecture students begin to emerge from their fantasy-based educational conditioning. For many this proves to be difficult if not impossible, and what follows for them is a career of frustration and misgivings. Architectural offices are full of such persons. Recent graduates find that after their formal training, their artificial habits of abstract creative thinking cannot solve problems of everyday design. Their education has effectively removed, negated, and confused vital knowledge about the physical world: knowledge that is essential to establish a foundation for architecture authentic to its purpose.
Design that operates through human awareness sponsors a greater sense of wellbeing and a more positive engagement with the world. Design that operates artificially or abstractly, by contrast, provides little more than the appearance of culture. Over the course of the twentieth century much of the traditional knowledge that served to structure a truer, more substantive expression of architecture was either forgotten, or categorically abolished. New scientific knowledge, which could provide a sustainable foundation of human interaction with the natural world, has either been excluded from architecture, or misappropriated in the service of contemporary architects seeking to propagate their personal ideologies.
Architectural education’s emphasis on contemporary images tied to electronic media trains students through cognitive feedback processes to produce specifically non-adaptive structures. Architects have all but lost their ability to make corporeal value judgments on their own, or to understand how to decipher perceptual and physical stimuli. Architectural training, in effect, psychologically conditions future architects to work against their own neurological impulses and physiology. Students become co-dependent on image making, which leaves them at the mercy of their professors’ value system or that of the dominant ideology. Obscure philosophical writings, dialogue, and discourse misleadingly presented as “architectural theory” only creates in designers a greater dependency on images without relevance to human life.
This unbalanced state creates an anxiety in the study and practice of architecture, which manifests itself in design arrogance: but arrogance based on insecurity. Never having been taught how to perceive and judge for themselves what good space is, what good light is, what good materials are, students are left to contend with the designs of the strongest egos. Forgetting how to recognize our innate perceptions — those that instinctively guide us through information content towards what is nourishing to our body and our psyche — allows aspiring young architects to be controlled by the dominant paradigm.
MODELS AND REALITY
At the present time, design studios typically train students by asking them to make models at a scale that is too small for any measurable proof of concept. Such models do not reveal the design across a perceivable range of scales, or the experiential problems that would be present in such a structure. A small model teaches students to regard a building as an object, as a thing with a particular form fixed in full scale when made. Such small-scale work reveals little about the nature of construction that will generate the building. As a result, models are judged by criteria such as: formal expression, conformity to the latest architectural fashion, conformity to the machine aesthetic and technological appearance, or how dissimilar they are to traditional buildings. These criteria are irrelevant to how the actual built structures will perform as buildings.
Students fall into a false world of visual representations (i.e. image-based designs) that subverts reality. There is a very tenuous connection between a model and a building, yet students are trained exclusively to create the former. It is therefore necessary to train students in experiencing effects of form and surface on a larger, near REAL or ACTUAL scale. Today’s students must build near full- scale mock-ups and adjust those structures to optimize perceived feedback. Then go back and revise their drawings and miniature model to capture the observed physical effect experienced from the large-scale mock-up. As with all exercises that utilize full-scale models, these are best accomplished through group effort. Architecture, as a human endeavor, is not the exclusive domain of one person’s ideas, so students must learn to work together on design: holding their egos in check while trying to realize the universality of human physiological perception.
The current situation is even more inadequate for understanding the architectural use and misuse of color. Minimalism (an aesthetic by-product of industrial modernism) eschews color, leading to drab and depressing surfaces and interiors. With few exceptions, a minimalist design ideology rules out pleasant/joyful environments. The proscription of color goes back to extreme political and pseudo-philosophical tenets of the early twentieth century, yet those unfounded ideas continue to be taught in architecture schools today. Few people know that the raw primary colors used by some modernist architects came from the dictates of a religious sect (Salingaros, 2006: page 82). Color used within the industrial model is often as an arbitrary artistic gesture, without any understanding of human emotional response to the color experienced in a real building. When allowed, colors are sometimes harsh and arbitrary, not meant to enhance the geometry and achieve coherence.
Interior designers eventually have to learn about color on their own. There is a wealth of data obtained by experimental psychologists on color, and it is important to use that information in design studio. Commercial advertising depends upon the strong emotional effect that colors have on human beings. The best reference on achieving human wellbeing via harmony in architectural color is Chapter 7 of Christopher Alexander’s “The Luminous Ground” (Alexander, 2004). As in the above discussion, it is impossible to judge the effects of color unless experiments are undertaken at full scale. The experience cannot be reproduced on a play model or on a computer screen.
Architectural space is arguably the key concept in all of architecture, yet it is woefully misunderstood. How to create experientially-useful space is certainly not taught in any satisfactory manner today. Nor do we know by what criterion it would be considered successful in today’s ambivalent architectural discourse. Architectural space that is experienced with positive emotions has to be judged by the appropriate scientific criteria. Architectural space — the space we make when we build buildings — is formed as a material volume containing human beings and their perceptive fields. The inhabited, perceived volume itself should determine the design of the material structures that bound that space, and not the other way around.
Our goal is to offer the tools to imagine “how can I generate a space in which I feel most alive?” (i.e. the definition of wellbeing), and to be able to generate living structure that nourishes human beings. Virtual models have their uses, but the danger is that they cannot show the information field at full scale in its entirety. Architectural experience is real and emotion-based, and its essential qualities — as opposed to its formal ones — are almost impossible to judge on a computer screen. We encourage architects to delve more deeply into the informational geometry of their design. Knowledge of Biophilic Design is a pre- requisite. Architects should always aim to generate living structure in their projects.
Having mastered the technique of documenting “how do I respond emotionally to this design?” students can then move on to its more challenging corollary: “what space and texture will produce this particular emotional response?” Different techniques will apply to the same project, helping to develop separate aspects of it. Final design decisions in a project will be facilitated via the usual pin-ups of drawings and presentation of models, but the criteria for judgment should be how closely the result follows the logic of adaptation, and whether a particular design satisfies certain positive informational qualities. Designers can apply experimental techniques of objective judgment learned from Biophilic Design to the final analysis of their projects.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, teachers have either emphasized the building’s external elevation, downplaying both the interior volumes and the exterior urban space, or they have concentrated on the plan, relying upon the idea that “the plan is the generator of the entire design”. The volume is then simply the vertical extension of its plan: a method that denies design in the vertical dimension altogether. A decades-old expediency of treating architecture as a strictly two-dimensional design problem, teaching at best two dimensions plus one, undermines anybody’s understanding of space. Neither approach teaches a student how to generate intelligent, connective architectural space.
TEACHING DESIGN FOR LIVING ARCHITECTURE
First and foremost, students need knowledge skills about biophilia and environmental psychology to begin to design responsive environments. An explanatory framework bypasses a long-standing conceptual mismatch between stressful and healing environments, and fundamentally aligns architecture with wellbeing. The experience in biophilic design studio resembles an experimental laboratory more than the traditional studio. Its purpose is to build large (i.e. near full-scale detail) physical models, and then measure physiological and psychological responses. In this way, the students learn the visceral biophilic effects on their own body. The goal is to distinguish which spaces and surfaces give either a negative (oppressive, hostile, overly-exciting) or positive (elating, peaceful, nourishing) physiological response.
Healing design arises out of ARCHITECTURE AS AN EXTENSION OF BIOLOGY. This is the main idea of biophilia: the built environment is much healthier for human beings when it is compatible with biological structures in a fundamental sense. From the very beginning, buildings and cities are to be understood and studied as essential parts of living systems. Undoing the artificial twentieth-century split between design and natural processes, new standards of architecture will be inherently sustainable. This notion of sustainability has always resided in living systems for over two millennia, prior to the industrial revolution and the alienating influence of technology as a replacement of nature.
Regional construction assemblies, using load-bearing walls and local materials, are typically the most sustainable buildings possible. While we look to science and technology to help in achieving sustainability, adaptive solutions have already been developed in vernacular architecture. None of that is “trendy”, however, because fashionable architects prefer to implement high-cost, high-tech approaches to sustainability (or to aestheticize and commodify regional forms to carry their own signature designs). We instead study vernacular architecture for use today, as an affordable solution to the world’s building and housing crisis. More contemporary methods can help local traditional construction systems to evolve, without replacing them. A culture of sustainable building can form only if patterns loved by their users can be built easily with relatively low-skilled labor. Lest we forget, THIS IS HOW TRADITIONS ARE FORMED.
In the current design paradigm where architecture arises out of an artificially- generated worldview, notions of sustainability have to be imported from outside the discipline. There exists a basic incompatibility between formal abstract geometry and our recent understanding of the earth as made of interdependent biological and physical systems. A great deal of effort is now being made to join two incompatible approaches, inventing technological fixes for non-adaptive architecture in order to make it less damaging to the natural environment. That is deceptive and leads nowhere.
In architectural academia, students struggle to make sense of design problems and instructions that purposefully lead them away from reality. Typically, their assignments are couched in the notion that such exploration removes limits or preconceptions that students might place on their design. They are given abstract paintings, poems, literature, or digital metaphors to guide their design work, none of which is related to genuine architectural solutions. In an open-ended question, students are told to proceed without any direct instruction about architecture from their professors. Operating under a mistaken analogy with the true heuristic method, teachers believe that students must simply begin to produce with as little influence as possible, in the hopes that they might discover something — the so-called “eureka moment” — beyond themselves and their understanding of architecture! This practice goes back to misunderstood similarities between the process of design, and genuinely heuristic scientific models. Ironically enough, the current flawed method taught to architecture students (which remains in place later to subconsciously guide design professionals) presents false positives, triggering the desire for the fashionable image. This strange and peculiar design process is not directly heuristic either in structure or observance.
True heuristic design directs a search through the space of all possible solutions to a problem. A heuristic method is an exploration based on experience, which can be used as an aid (but not as the only means) to solve design problems. This method uses successive evaluations of trial and error to arrive at a final result. Each intermediate result is tested empirically against reality, thus each attempt at a solution is assessed and used to improve subsequent attempts. The search method follows an iterative process in which information gathered at each step is used to decide on the next step. The heuristic search locates one of several optimal solutions under a given set of conditions.
Genuinely heuristic exploration in design is a directed inquiry guided by known principles such as Alexandrine patterns — freedom is given to explore within a broadly-defined solution space. People make decisions, come to judgments, and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems with incomplete information. The discovery process occurs because the student finds pieces of information along the way — pieces that the instructor already knows to be there. Used properly, heuristics require constraints such as pattern languages. Much can be learned from a process led by evidence-based knowledge; but equally, everything can go wrong if heuristics are misused as the means to a pre- determined end.
In architecture, a designer explores the solution space by varying the forms and materials, which can lead to unexpected solutions. This is what happens in the best cases: variation of the parameters expands the loop in solution space so as to catch a solution that had previously escaped. This exploration is made possible by a controlled injection of randomness (corresponding to genetic mutations in Darwinian processes) that generates variants near the original position in solution space. Of course, deviations from a known solution will most often not lead to any solution at all, and this is where feedback and evaluation become critical. A single optimal solution usually does not exist for complex problems such as can be solved using heuristic methods.
Genetic algorithms based on Darwinian processes try to mimic evolution and natural selection. These apply heuristic design coupled with selection based upon well-defined fitness and survival criteria. Darwinian processes have already been investigated in architectural design. Pattern languages provide constraints for locating general solutions. Nowadays, however, the architectural solution space is strongly narrowed by a specific style, and thus the designer is not free to find adaptive forms. This conformity is the opposite of the process of natural selection, where organisms adapt to optimize their chances for survival in a given environment. Despite the expectation of design freedom, selection criteria in contemporary design are not based on fitness, but are instead used to match pre- determined iconic prototypes. Unsurprisingly, therefore, heuristic design in architecture schools leads everywhere to the same image-based results.
Design is often turned inwards (i.e. disconnected from evidence). Contemporary architectural education intentionally limits the field of enquiry of the design process to a very narrow set. In this way, architects deliberately isolate themselves from any explanatory elements of learning, such as design patterns. They avoid content-based connections between ideas and reality. Architecture has generated its own artificial and abstruse language. An intentionally isolated approach to generating form results in oversimplified yet meaningless exercises in abstraction. On the other hand, spurious connections are encouraged, based on analogies such as superficial resemblance. Architectural academia de- contextualized architecture even further through the conveyance of images in which endless forms of visual speculation replace what is real.
“Undirected play” is the undying legacy of the Bauhaus, wherein students are supposed to learn architecture through this activity. This is as unrealistic as expecting a child playing with a computer keyboard to come up with a Shakespearean play. More often than not, undirected play is not a learning initiative, but an expediency of not having an effective method in place for students to assimilate their experiences. Under these circumstances, training in architecture schools generates an artificial worldview for the student, based on unnatural images and supported by a near cult-like ideological structure.
Introducing information content is nothing like the formal projects that are typically taught at modern architecture schools. If a student has been exposed to the visual form-making paradigm, then studies towards producing a fully realized living piece of architecture may be frustrating for them to consider. The reason for this is that investigating the full range of perceivable architectural information, from the smallest perceivable scale and working upwards in increasing scales is not an exercise in mindless play. The student has to pay attention to structured patterns and details. One of the first exercises that students should participate in is the visual observation and scale analysis of existing buildings.
During the second part of the twentieth century, creativity has been the principal stated criterion for teaching design. Students challenged to be original have been led to believe that pure creativity depends upon having no preconceptions. That idea is false. Students weren’t told that creativity is possible only with general working knowledge and rules that can be applied to new situations. Problem solving occurs by developing alternative solutions and knowing how to choose from among them. Without definite principles, being told to “create” without precedents, consequence, or understanding turns to copying that which “appears” to be original — what one sees as visual originality in the work of designated fashionable architects. But since magazines and critics select from what the elite and powerful vested interests choose to promote on society, the quest for originality becomes little more than mindless conformity.
As the 21st Century continues to unfold it is clear that the architectural ideals, born of the twentieth century, have not sponsored the better world proffered by their advocates. To envision a better world would be to imagine a world that is both human in its dimensions and effect, and sustainable in its material form. Not surprisingly, these two facets of architecture are neither independent nor mutually exclusive; they are in fact interdependent and functionally congruent — which may explain why the modern built environment appears to fail on both accounts.
The challenge of a genuine sustainable architecture cannot rest with either industry or ideology; it cannot be found through the superficial imitation of nature or by way of advanced Western technology (which the poorest portion of the world cannot afford); nor can it be left to the disparate criteria of any self- promoting institute or council. Genuine sustainable architecture needs to fundamentally connect with people to provide a sense of belonging that invests them with a desire to maintain their place in the world. The buildings themselves must convince their users not to tear them down every 20 years only to rebuild anew, thus wasting both energy and materials. To do this, architecture must have at its core the essential structures of the physical world through which such vital (i.e. human) connectivity is made possible.
The nobility of 21st-Century architecture lies in the architect’s ability to make the built environment something that connects intelligently with human beings. The grandiosity of the heroic Modernist architect has come and gone. The splash and splatter of more and more titanium is now little more than wasteful white noise. Knowing what we now know through science, and what we see in the years ahead for humanity, it would be more than arrogant and irresponsible for the architects of the 21st Century to put their personal interest above what is in the best interests of humanity.
The new paradigm for architectural design must be human-based. For human life to be sustainable and carry with it the essence of what it means to be human, architecture must again be based on intelligence. In the service of humankind, architecture finds the greatest expression of the culture of a new millennium.