Abandoning Hostile Design for a Living Architecture

The phenomenon of “emergence,” and its importance for the creation of healthy, living environments, is explained.

A complex space whose structural components add with and reinforce each other. A simple table and chair create a relaxing, unselfconscious whole by integrating into the fixed coherent framework.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

Living architecture relies upon emergence

Spaces that feel the most alive, and catalyze the highest intensity of human life, are the result of emergence. This phenomenon requires that an enormous number of environmental forces align and collaborate to generate “flow”, “coherence”, or “wholeness”. Three conditions are necessary for emergence to occur, although their presence does not guarantee it.

1. A tectonic framework of volumes and supports whose basic components are additive: i.e. the parts relate to each other. In this setting, other, less permanent additive components can be introduced in a way that maintains coherence.

2. An emotional connection established with spaces, details, and surfaces of the built environment, and with other persons and life forms within that space. This requires a number of positive forces — above some threshold — coming from the surroundings.

3. The coordination and integration of all these forces. If many forces are randomly present and cancel each other, they won’t lead to any emergence. For that to happen, the forces will have to be additive.

Since emergent properties arise from real interactions at the physical level, they are never evident in a building’s rendering and construction drawings. You can control all the components of a design or building, and imagine that everything together will combine into a harmonious whole, yet when it’s assembled, it has strange and surprising qualities—sometimes interesting, but more often not good at all. Emergence could be positive or negative (while its absence is neutral). The built space acquires a character of its own—either hostile, or welcoming—but never planned for. The complex dynamic system, comprising building-plus-user, generates unexpected effects on the real scale. In the negative case, our visceral response to such emergent properties might turn out to be deleterious to our wellbeing and sensory experience of space.

Emergence, coming from complex interactions among design components, spaces, and users, spells the beginnings of autonomy, and that threatens systems that work with top-down control. When shaping the built environment strictly for machines, the design process requires no feedback. Machines are not usually additive with their environment. And yet complex machines themselves exhibit internal emergence.

It has been discovered in computer science and large electrical power grids that increasing complexity does tend to nudge artificial systems slightly closer to organisms. Emergent properties in very large complex networks and software make intervention tricky: beyond a certain high threshold of complexity, those artificial systems begin to react in unexpected ways. Even though we build up their complexity piecewise, the total complexity eventually becomes too large for us to grasp all at once. Interactions that we never anticipated or programmed for could occur (Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015; Salingaros, 2005).

Such a complex system somehow generates behavioral patterns. In those cases we (the system’s creators) must switch from trying to understand exactly why the system behaves the way it does, to running rigorous tests that make sure the system does what it’s supposed to do. This utilitarian approach reassures us that the system performs its designated tasks as we try to understand and catalogue its emergent patterns. We accept some degree of emerging autonomy while instituting a separate pragmatic mechanism for checking out the system’s behavior.

Emergent phenomena in highly complex artificial systems should not be uncritically confused with the onset of intelligence as occurs in organisms, however. This question is crucial to designing intelligent buildings. Evolved responses consist of emergent properties that help an organism’s survival, and those have long-term value when documented as patterns. Emergence in complex machines, on the other hand, acts randomly (like random mutations) and in general doesn’t help anything. Emergence is useless without a selection mechanism in place that maintains system coherence.

Intentionally hostile environments

Emergence strongly shapes our experience of architecture. It would be wonderful if we could create inviting, healing environments through design coherence; at the same time, we need to understand how negative emergent properties can create a hostile space.

A current trend in contemporary architectural culture is to use biophilia, biomimicry, and various techniques aimed towards sustainability. This is a marvelous step forward, away from the crude industrial typologies we have been subjected to for over a century. To more sensitive users, those buildings and urban spaces were hostile and soul-destroying. Hopefully, we are at last breaking out of that highly restrictive design paradigm.

And yet, something doesn’t always click. Despite the best efforts and intentions of eager young architects, the results of biologically-based design can still turn out to be surprisingly ugly. This is not a trivial observation, nor is it an aesthetic critique. It goes to the fundamentals of how we are built as organisms. Our body is hard-wired to respond with empathy to structures that truly incorporate biophilia (Browning et al., 2014; Kellert et al., 2008; Ryan et al., 2014; Salingaros, 2015). Therefore, if we perceive something as ugly, then it was not designed by following the principles of biophilic design carefully enough. Perhaps it contains vestiges of sterile industrial design, simply because that habit is so hard to break.

The model of early industrial modernism is still almost universally applied to our living and working environments. It is thought sufficient to provide minimal living conditions, as in the notorious Bauhaus existenzminimum, meant to accommodate “der neue Mensch” (the new man). Design does not pay attention to forces that shape our emotions and influence our long-term health. Present-day architectural culture accepts this approach as being perfectly legitimate, twisting philosophical discourse to make it seem inevitable.

A nice large room with a carpet, yet the plate-glass table severs this space. Derivatives of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1930 Tugendhat Coffee Table lacerate the living spaces of millions of families.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

A specific hostile style of design is founded upon violating the three conditions listed at the beginning of this essay: its rules are to just do the opposite. Individual components  are not additive; or additive components are used but are not allowed to connect into a coherent whole, and we instinctively perceive this fragmentation and conflict as a condition that creates anxiety. This approach to form derives from neglecting human feelings and focusing on machine-like efficiency. Our world is being built according to an architectural fashion that shatters wholeness by disconnecting everything from everything else.

Design with disconnected components has its own disturbing philosophy. It consciously uses known human responses to our environment, but applies those to disturb the user. Deliberate violations of reassuring space were hardly contemplated before the beginning of the 20th Century. We would not have dreamt of erecting shapes that alarm us — it goes against the human desire to seek safety in the built environment. Furthermore, when using traditional materials, such forms would not stand up for long.

Some architects even go so far as to intuit the factors responsible for hostile environments and then purposefully strive to build those into projects. This is probably not done out of pure malice, but rather in the pursuit of innovation: of creating shapes, spaces, and surfaces that were never seen before. Taken as a distinct set of rules, hostile design extends industrial design—which does not care to adapt to human sensibilities—one step further. It still seeks to dominate. But in this instance, we can no longer say that cost and efficiency damage the environment simply through ignorance or negligence. Industrial built environments may be uncomfortable by coincidence, whereas hostile design seeks out disturbing effects by intention. Its very goal is to arouse and disturb the psychology of the user. Judged exclusively as a commercial product, as long as clients commission such negative environments, mainstream culture has to accept them; it moreover privileges them for their undoubted novelty. Physiological and psychological comfort is abandoned for anxiety-inducing forms that break both with nature and with traditional vernacular architectures and artifacts.


William Browning, Catherine Ryan & Joseph Clancy (2014) 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, Terrapin Bright Green, New York.

Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen & Martin Mador, Editors (2008) Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, John Wiley, New York.

Michael W. Mehaffy & Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science, and the Human Future, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Catherine O. Ryan, W. D. Browning, J. O. Clancy, S. L. Andrews & N. B. Kallianpurkar (2014) “Biophilic Design Patterns: Emerging Nature-Based Parameters for Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment”, Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, Volume 8, Issue 2, pages 62-76.

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 (2015) Biophilia and Healing Environments, 44-page booklet published free online by Terrapin Bright Green, New York, and available printed from Off the Common Books, Amherst, Massachusetts.

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