Episode 84: Creating buildings and environments that support life

nikosIn this episode I have the delight of connecting with Nikos Salingaros, who is a Professor in Mathematics, an Urbanist and Architectural Theorist. He is originally from Greece, but lives now in San Antonio, USA. Nikos Salingaros has for many years collaborated with Christopher Alexander and in our conversation we explore what it takes to create buildings and environments that sustain life and which resonate with our most basic human needs. Why is it that so much of what has been built for the last 100 years seem to go against what we have consciously and unconsciously learned throughout our human history (not to mention our almost 2 million years of evolution!). How come we still create urban landscapes that are stress inducing? Why is it that most towns in the world will have numerous examples of buildings that are physically and emotionally unpleasant? Which factors have played a part in the erection of so many self referential  buildings? (meaning buildings that don´t connect in appropriate ways to their surroundings or users). Given all these questions, what can we do to reclaim some of the sanity that was typically found in the more traditional ways of creating buildings and artifacts? How can we rediscover the wisdom that is embedded in marvelous buildings such as the Hagia Sophia or Taj Mahal, but doing so without copying the actual buildings themselves? This is precisely what Salingaros and Alexander have been working on and in the interview he explains some of the essential geometrical, mathematical and human factors that support the creation of wholesome buildings and environments.

 “Our society is drunk, it is intoxicated on pursuing novelty, it is pursuing novelty at all costs, even at the cost of civilization itself”.

 Nikos Salingaros, from the interview

If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here.

Episode links: 

Nikos Salinagaros, official website 
The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book 1 – The Phenomenon of Lifebook by Christopher Alexander,
Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity. A Companion to Christopher Alexander’s “The Phenomenon of Life — The Nature of Order, Book 1, book by Nikos Salingaros 

 

 

  • James Arnfinsen

    In our conversation we talk about Christopher Alexander´s “mirror-of-the-Self-test”. I also comment that I´ve found many links between the writings of Alexander and the practice of Aikido (a Japanese martial art). These possible links, I´m glad to find out, are more than just my own interpretation. On page 354 in his book “The Phenomena of Life” he writes the following (referring to the above mentioned test):

    “…I have since heard of another, comparable test, in which exponents of Aikido (one of the Japanese martial arts) are asked to compare the inner state they find themselves when comparing two actions; these Aikido-trained individuals are quite used to discerning , and then using, their inner awareness of relative greater harmony in themselves as a measure of the goodness of the actions contemplated”. In all these tests, the observers use observation of their own inner state, when comparing two systems A and B, to decide which of A and B is the more alive…”.

    I will pursue these links further in the coming years and would be glad to connect with others who see the same links!

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is the building I was specifically referencing in the interview, the building that makes me somewhat nauseated. The building, when finished, will house Trondheim Business School (article in Norwegian: http://www.adressa.no/nyheter/trondheim/article8407845.ece) .

  • James Arnfinsen

    I´m glad to announce that Levevei™ now is cooperating with resilience.org, implying that the interview with Nikos Salingaros can be accessed through their site as well. This will greatly improve the outreach of this (and future podcasts) and hopefully it will lead to increased cross pollination of valuable perspectives. Check it out: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-10-30/creating-buildings-and-environments-that-support-life

  • 19682010

    Except for Alexander is the work of Leon Krier one of the main inspirations for Salingaros. I was happy just to find a lecture by Krier made Octobre 13 this year, named “Architecture in the Age of Austerity”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCRqcFvdn8o

    Krier himself helds the lecture in English, it’s just a short introduction in Spanish.

  • Øyvind Holmstad

    In a recent article Salingaros and his friend Mehaffy go on in their criticism of modernist fundamentalism, and this is necessary, as we as a society have become brainwashed and indoctrinated, we need to be shaken to wake up. The article is a continuation of a former essay by the same guys, published in A Theory of Architecture and named Geometrical Fundamentalism. I was happy to found they have now put this essay up on the Internet including all the illustrations from the book: http://www.academia.edu/5074196/Geometrical_fundamentalism

    The new essay is very long too, but I like here to quota the last chapter of it. The Title of the new essay is A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of Its Parts: http://onthecommons.org/magazine/vision-architecture-more-sum-its-parts

    THE RECOVERY OF A SHAREABLE BASIS FOR LIFE

    “In such a discussion, it is never quite enough to critique the failings of the mainstream approach, even if it is catastrophic. One has an obligation to provide a working alternative, which illustrates a proposed path to addressing the challenge. Once we stop favoring the machine aesthetic that produces giant abstract sculptures in place of buildings, then we can turn to nature, science, and common human values for new design tools. This is what those of us who are harshly critical of the current “business as usual” — like the authors — must also surely do.

    So we work on new pattern language tools, new kinds of wikis, new strategies for making more walkable neighborhoods, and new types of buildings and places that learn from the successes of old ones. We believe that the problems we humans face today are largely of our own creation, and can be resolved by us too — IF we understand the structural nature of these challenges. But we also believe that it is long past time to surrender the dogmatic claim to a failing ideology of design — one that belongs to the last century and its failing industrial approach, and not to the next century and its biological lessons.

    In creating a shared language for architecture and urbanism, one that relies upon positive human emotional and physiological responses, we find universals that cross all cultures, periods, and locations. This appeal to a shareable language was a centerpiece of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, and is extended by Alexander’s The Nature of Order, the present authors’ own writings, and many others’ work. A commons-based shareable form of architecture supports life in all its complexity, all of its emotional and even hidden dimensions, through the geometry and multiple configurations. The experimental evidence has been mounting that, because of its self-imposed geometrical limits, Modernism and its variants simply cannot achieve this positive response.

    We have pointed to humans’ innate biological need to create and enjoy ornament, as witnessed in all societies. Indeed, the cultural wealth of human civilization, in all its myriad expressions around the world, comes down to its ornament — its “illumination” of the most profound aspects of ordinary life. A healthy society must affirm and enable such an approach, and continue to develop tools to support it and make it feasible. This is as much an economic challenge as a social and environmental one.

    Ironically, Loos was right, though in the opposite sense of what he intended: a crime had been committed, one that had inflicted “serious injury on people’s health, on the budget and hence on cultural evolution”. To that we can add injury to the planet’s ecosystems, and the life of cities around the globe. The crime was the adoption of a geometrical fallacy — geometrical fundamentalism — which is, quite simply, incompatible with a sustainable future.”

    A strong ending, but I’m sure it’s true, humanity has no future if we don’t break our relationship with Modernism.

    Personally I’m also convinced that we need to leave the old marriage between Capitalism & Modernism, to form a new relationship between true biophilic design and a new In-Group Democracy (IGD) visioned in another post here at Levevei: http://www.levevei.no/2013/02/episode-66-inngruppa-som-styrende-prinsipp-i-et-baerekraftig-samfunn/

  • http://www.permaliv.blogspot.com/ Øyvind Holmstad

    In a recent article Salingaros and his friend Mehaffy go on in their criticism of modernist fundamentalism, and this is necessary, as we as a society have become brainwashed and indoctrinated, we need to be shaken to wake up. The article is a continuation of a former essay by the same guys, published in A Theory of Architecture and named Geometrical Fundamentalism. I was happy to find they have now put this essay up on the Internet including all the illustrations from the book: http://www.academia.edu/5074196/Geometrical_fundamentalism

    The new essay is very long too, but I like here to quota the last chapter of it. The Title of the essay is A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of Its Parts: http://onthecommons.org/magazine/vision-architecture-more-sum-its-parts

    THE RECOVERY OF A SHAREABLE BASIS FOR LIFE

    “In such a discussion, it is never quite enough to critique the failings of the mainstream approach, even if it is catastrophic. One has an obligation to provide a working alternative, which illustrates a proposed path to addressing the challenge. Once we stop favoring the machine aesthetic that produces giant abstract sculptures in place of buildings, then we can turn to nature, science, and common human values for new design tools. This is what those of us who are harshly critical of the current “business as usual” — like the authors — must also surely do.

    So we work on new pattern language tools, new kinds of wikis, new strategies for making more walkable neighborhoods, and new types of buildings and places that learn from the successes of old ones. We believe that the problems we humans face today are largely of our own creation, and can be resolved by us too — IF we understand the structural nature of these challenges. But we also believe that it is long past time to surrender the dogmatic claim to a failing ideology of design — one that belongs to the last century and its failing industrial approach, and not to the next century and its biological lessons.

    In creating a shared language for architecture and urbanism, one that relies upon positive human emotional and physiological responses, we find universals that cross all cultures, periods, and locations. This appeal to a shareable language was a centerpiece of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, and is extended by Alexander’s The Nature of Order, the present authors’ own writings, and many others’ work. A commons-based shareable form of architecture supports life in all its complexity, all of its emotional and even hidden dimensions, through the geometry and multiple configurations. The experimental evidence has been mounting that, because of its self-imposed geometrical limits, Modernism and its variants simply cannot achieve this positive response.

    We have pointed to humans’ innate biological need to create and enjoy ornament, as witnessed in all societies. Indeed, the cultural wealth of human civilization, in all its myriad expressions around the world, comes down to its ornament — its “illumination” of the most profound aspects of ordinary life. A healthy society must affirm and enable such an approach, and continue to develop tools to support it and make it feasible. This is as much an economic challenge as a social and environmental one.

    Ironically, Loos was right, though in the opposite sense of what he intended: a crime had been committed, one that had inflicted “serious injury on people’s health, on the budget and hence on cultural evolution”. To that we can add injury to the planet’s ecosystems, and the life of cities around the globe. The crime was the adoption of a geometrical fallacy — geometrical fundamentalism — which is, quite simply, incompatible with a sustainable future.”

    A strong ending, but I’m sure it’s true, humanity has no future if we don’t break our relationship with Modernism.

    Personally I’m also convinced that we need to leave the old marriage between Capitalism & Modernism behind, to form a new relationship between true biophilic design and a new In-Group Democracy (IGD) visioned in another post here at Levevei: http://www.levevei.no/2013/02/episode-66-inngruppa-som-styrende-prinsipp-i-et-baerekraftig-samfunn/

  • James Arnfinsen

    I recieved an email from Bin Jiang, who is affiliated with KTH Research School, Department of Technology and Built Environment, at the University of Gävle, Sweden, and he wanted me to post the following comment regarding fractals (a topic which Nikos and I discuss in the interview above):

    “Thanks for the wonderful conversation, which I enjoyed very much!
    I have one comment on what fractal is. It can be simply expressed by the notion (or pattern) of far more small things than large ones. Note that “far more small things than large ones” indicates a nonlinear relationship, so it differs from “more small things than large ones”, which is a linear relationship. More importantly, the pattern of far more small things than large ones recurs multiple times rather than just once. The large and small things can be differentiated via head/tail breaks, and the multiple times lead to ht-index for characterizing fractal or scaling property.” – Bin Jiang

    You can read more about Bin Jiang´s perspectives pertaining to fractals in the following academic articles:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1209.2801 (on the head/tail breaks)
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.0883 (on the ht-index)

  • James Arnfinsen

    When I´m not reading books, meditating, practicing aikido or making podcasts, I actually do work, you know, like a real job! I teach in a primary school were I work with the second graders (8-9 years). One of my subjects is math and recently I´ve been exploring how to integrate some of the wisdom found in the work of Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros into this setting. Understanding symmetry, I believe, is a valuable skill and it´s interesting to see how quick the kids understand it. The same goes for the principle of “local symmetries” (referring to one of Alexanders 15 properties), although I didn´t use this terminology with them.

    In the exercise I had them make several “mandalas” and then choose which one they preferred. These “coloring mandalas” were ready made, so they only had to choose colors and alternating patterns etc., but nevertheless, I think it was possible to see varying degrees of life in what was produced. It was also interesting to observe them when they decided on which mandala to hang up on the wall. I guided them by saying something like “choose the one that you feel best represents your self” (or something in that direction). They really observed and always made a sharp distinction.

    Another interesting observation was how calm and composed most of them became when doing this work, and especially so amongst some of the more active and extrovert children.

    Below you can see some of their work and if you´re a teacher or parent wanting to try this out just google “coloring mandalas”.

  • http://www.permaliv.blogspot.com/ Øyvind Holmstad

    On pages 15 – 30 of this presentation you find examples of the “mirror of the self” – test: http://dreamsongs.com/Files/NatureOfOrder2.pdf

  • Noogin

    This podcast discusses similar issues about disharmonic architectures which degrade human psychology from a more fringe science type of perspective. Overall, I think it’s interesting to see how animals may be effected by inharmonious buildings too.

    https://eqafe.com/downloads/787-psychic-animals-the-sheep-part-1.mp3

    • James Arnfinsen

      Hi Noogin. Maybe you could give some more context for this podcast. Who has made it and what do you mean by “fringe science type of perspective”? I listened to the first five minutes, and my first impression was “wow, this is weird”…

  • Noogin

    Here’s a link to the full sereis if you’re interested.

    https://eqafe.com/searches?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=Psychic+Animals+-+The+Sheep+

    The podcast is made by Sunette Spies who runs a group called Desteni. I called it fringe science because what they’re doing through their podcasts does seem to be a form of scientific research even though it doesn’t fit within the mainstream framework of science today.

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a picture of the new National Museum that will be erected in the heart of Oslo. Needless to say, the structure-destroying design in this building is extreme. I don´t really know what to say, other than it makes me really sad and frustrated, even angry. An interesting quote
    from the article (in Norwegian): “ Jeg tror det handler om å bryte ned de mentale sperrene. De monumentale byggene fra 1800-tallet er meget vakre, men jeg tror mange føler en avstand til dem. Dette nye museet skal tale til det moderne mennesket, sier Eckhoff.”
    http://www.osloby.no/oslopuls/Slik-blir-det-nye-Nasjonalmuseet-7538051.html#.U1KqXOZ_u9c