Living Patterns As Tools Of Adaptive Design

As we learn to identify unhealthy technologies, let’s explore healthy and time-tested solutions that enhance our wellbeing.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

Our world is dominated by typologies promoted by an ideology linked to industrial materials. Simplistic forms—the opposite of living patterns that embody ordered complexity—are widely used as non-adaptive design prototypes. Those represent the most rigid type of design constraint, divorced from human life. These typologies have been declared, by so-called experts, as: “healthy,” “socially liberating,” “designs of the future.” Applied and spread through copying, they survive because they are judged against an image, not from actual feedback during use. They continue to be part of design vocabulary out of habit; people repeat them without asking whether they work or not. But now it has become obvious that the once-celebrated simplistic forms have failed to achieve whatever marvelous effect was promised.

A tradition that precedes Modernism evaluates emotional responses to shapes, spaces, and surfaces in the built environment. It is a tradition that privileges living patterns: “good” and robust solutions developed independently by different people at different times. This tradition prevented living patterns from being ignored or replaced under the pretext of design innovation. That safety mechanism—as important as our body’s immune system—has been abandoned, encouraging the proliferation of unhealthy typologies. Nevertheless, design problems that arise again and again may still find their solutions in living patterns.

What makes a living pattern is the fact that it’s repeated in a variety of times and places; it forgoes selecting solutions that do not enhance human life. The criterion for judging the effectiveness of any pattern is its usefulness to the overall project, including its setting, and not on narrow considerations of style or ideology.

The ubiquitous suburban lawn is not a pattern! It solves only one problem—the visual need for green—but fails to connect to living patterns that guarantee garden use, as well as to those defining the pedestrian network.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

After selecting a pattern, the designer must figure out the correct combinatorics of other patterns to be used, and make sure that those patterns enhance human health while solving the problem at hand. This checklist relies on the broader organization of complexity in which the patterns are components (Salingaros, 2005). Adaptive design is a problem in mathematical complexity and human physiology/psychology, not in visual aesthetics.

Repetition does not make a pattern

Difficulties in applying patterns to design arise from a misunderstanding of what a pattern is. Many wrongly believe that a pattern is just a repeating solution, so they tend to look at the most common solutions to solve specific design problems. As a result the solution they end up examining is often a mediocre typology; it’s a pattern that has become embedded in design practice for reasons independent of its capacity for healing. Its implementation has never undergone adequate scientific evaluation, or any evaluation at all. Worse yet, the result of applying it may be disastrous.

We lived through an era when unhealthy typologies replaced living patterns. These typologies are selected by criteria other than the enhancement of the wellbeing of the largest number of users.

Patterns are the basic tools for organizing complexity. They do not erase complexity. Patterns are used by those who build complex systems. During the 20th century, modern patterns became popular as architectural and urban forms were oversimplified. The design disciplines as a whole became reductionistic (Bhat & Salingaros, 2013) and professionals learned to ignore the complaints of users. Users, in turn, had to learn to numb themselves to the work of professionals—sadly, a necessary defense mechanism in an unresponsive built environment.

Table. Five patterns on gardens and parks from “A Pattern Language” (Alexander et al., 1977) with my own summaries:

PATTERN 60: ACCESSIBLE GREEN. People will only use green spaces when those are very close to where they live and work, accessible by a pedestrian path.

PATTERN 111: HALF-HIDDEN GARDEN. For a garden to be used, it must not be too exposed by being out front, nor completely hidden by being in the back.

PATTERN 171: TREE PLACES. Trees shape social places, so shape buildings around existing trees, and plant new trees to generate a usable, inviting urban space.

PATTERN 172: GARDEN GROWING WILD. To be useful, a garden must be closer to growing wild, according to nature’s rules, than conforming to an artificial image.

PATTERN 176: GARDEN SEAT. One cannot enjoy a garden if it does not have a semi-secluded place to sit and contemplate the plant growth.

Evaluating new patterns

Simple tests can validate a living pattern and distinguish it from a non-adaptive typology prior to implementation. For instance, check to see if a pattern links to tested patterns outside its immediate domain. Focus on emotional feedback from real-life instances where it has been applied. These measures can give clues to whether we are dealing with a pattern or an arbitrary typology, and predict if it is going to be useful or harmful (Salingaros, 2005).

In order to discover optimal solutions quickly, design students may look at simple situations rather than explore all possible variants and precedents. Furthermore, mainstream design culture abhors looking to pre-industrial solutions and re-using them to shape the contemporary built environment. As a result, fundamental patterns are often missed altogether.

Because a living pattern solves a group of linked problems, its complexity is often underestimated. Most living patterns have evolved in context, embedded in highly complex adaptive systems from which they cannot be easily isolated. They work because they satisfy many different system dynamics (some of which may not even be known). Ignoring adaptation and complexity can lead to superficial solutions that prove inadequate or wrong. Typologies that fail to solve a problem adaptively, yet are tried again and again despite their poor utility, fool us because they could solve one part of a problem. They also generate some serious problems in other parts of the system.

When will architects finally read the scientific results proving that visual organization is irrelevant to socio-geometric organization?

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

Case in point: Social housing, everywhere, is invariably built by following the principle of monotonous repetition (Salingaros, 2011a). But this simple geometrical ordering precludes adaptation to locality, climate, solar orientation, inclusion of usable urban space, etc. It solves only one problem—cost-cutting through repeating the same design endlessly. But it ends up creating an inhuman living environment. Monotonously repeating forms cannot satisfy the multiple emotional and physical needs of the occupants; instead, we can generate inexpensive urban fabric through a step-wise adaptive sequence that uses feedback from occupants at every step of the design process (Alexander, 2001-2005; Salingaros, 2011b).

We need to select precisely those patterns required for any adaptive solution. Do we have all the relevant patterns ready, worked out and documented? It might be that, while we have access to some living patterns, no pattern has yet been discovered for each of the new problems we face in the 21st century. The task of the designer, architect, and planner is to invent or extract such living patterns before proceeding further.

How many living patterns do we include in trying to solve a design problem? Work with too many, and we confuse user and over-burden the designer (Salingaros, 2005). So use only a small set of the most relevant patterns at any one time.

The most robust links among individual patterns are not always obvious, nor do techniques for combining them necessarily follow a simple logic. Here is where Christopher Alexander’s work on organizational coherence provides the tools to solve the problem (Alexander, 2001-2005). The strategy is to take steps to combine the chosen patterns in increasingly coherent geometrical and functional configurations. And remember, it’s impossible to achieve such coherence in one step.


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.

Ramray Bhat & Nikos A. Salingaros (2013) “Reductionism Undermines Both Science and Culture”, New English Review, March 2013.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2005) Principles of Urban Structure, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2011a) “Why Monotonous Repetition is Unsatisfying”, Meandering Through Mathematics, 2 September 2011.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2011b) P2P Urbanism, book draft available online for download: 116 pages. 

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