November 6, 2015
Living Structures Should Come From Living Patterns
Dr. Nikos Salingaros explores the architectural theory behind patterns of human behavior in this, the second post in a series of articles about the influence of patterns on living structures.
Space that exists “out there” is used only reluctantly by human beings, because of deep psychological reasons. Contrary to what one hears and reads today about the spaces of “modernity” and “post-modernity”, there are still only two types of urban space: human versus inhuman.
Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros.
What is a living pattern?
Patterns describe essential relationships among the elements of systems, and provide a unique and useful tool for handling and organizing complexity. This truth, embodied for centuries in the practice of creating human habitation, has in recent years been dissected and catalogued by science. Computer researchers have adopted the pattern method both to understand and to manipulate complexity. Advances in our knowledge of how patterns reflect the ordered complexity of nature has led to breakthroughs in computer technology that continue to fuel economic growth and development not just in industry but in every realm of our society (Leitner, 2015; Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015).
Patterns of behavior, and of practice in any field of human endeavor, evolve over time with constant repetition, each repetition embedded in and learning from its predecessors. Any pattern arising from such evolutionary selection over generations is irreducible; that is, it cannot be understood in terms of simpler components. It is not a multiplication of a prior component but an accretion to its complexity. It grows ever more subtle, ever more useful, and comes closer and closer to reflecting how nature works: It is a living pattern. Such a pattern can be combined with others into a system that reflects an ever-higher level of useful relationships (Salingaros, 2005: Chapter 8).
We rely on techniques akin to genetic programming to discover evolved solutions as general methods for manipulating complexity without destroying its order. By examining an enormous number of possible small variations, a pattern is selected as the optimal configuration, the one that provides the most useful feedback. Direct simulated evolution is computationally very intensive, so the results, once obtained, are worth documenting in a pattern format.
Twelve living patterns help define human spaces
The key question in architecture is how to design a space that feels reassuring on at least an unconscious level. Incredibly, we have been producing hostile, anxiety-inducing spaces or dreary, depressing spaces for decades, at least as judged by their users. A dozen living patterns selected from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (Alexander et al., 1977) can help architects get beyond this deplorable practice. The following pattern summaries are my own, and they focus on spatial aspects. The reader is urged to consult the original, lengthier version of each numbered pattern, which includes research material giving detailed arguments and/or scientific validation for the patterns.
Pattern 61: Small Public Squares. Build public squares with a width of approximately 60 feet. Their length can vary. The walls enclosing the space, whether partially or wholly surrounding it, should make us feel as if we are in a large open public room.
Pattern 106: Positive Outdoor Space. The built structures partially surrounding an outdoor space, be it rectangular or circular, must define, in its wall elements, a concave perimeter boundary, making the space itself convex overall.
Pattern 115: Courtyards Which Live. The best courtyards have many entry points, a view to the streets beyond, and enclosing walls that are fenestrated, not blank. These are used most often.
Pattern 124: Activity Pockets. The success of urban space depends on what can occur along its boundaries. A space will be lively only if there are pockets of activity all around its inner edges.
Pattern 167: Six-Foot Balcony. The minimum depth of social space for a balcony is six feet, preferably with its space partly enclosed, either canopied, protected from nearby observers by side screens, or partly recessed into the facade. Recessed balconies provide an excellent sense of enclosure. But if balconies are narrower than six feet (going out), are totally exposed or entirely cantilevered, they are rarely used.
Pattern 179: Alcoves. To heighten the sense of intimacy indoors, build a useful smaller space within a larger space, partially enclosed with concave boundaries and a lower ceiling. Its width and depth could both be approximately six feet.
Pattern 180: Window Place. A concave boundary can incorporate windows. Examples range from (small) a window seat where the wall is deepened to create a space around the window, to (medium) a bay window where windows wrap around an extruded portion of the space, to (large) a glazed alcove where windows partially wrap around a room.
Pattern 183: Workspace Enclosure. The best place for working has no more than 50 to 75 percent of its perimeter enclosed by walls or windows. A workspace needs at least 60 square feet of floor area for each person.
Pattern 188: Bed Alcove. Give the bed its own partial enclosure. The space should feel comfortable, not too small, with a lower ceiling than the main part of the bedroom.
Pattern 190: Ceiling Height Variety. Give a building’s rooms different ceiling heights to enhance comfort at every scale of activity. High ceilings contribute to formality, low ceilings to informality, with the lowest height for the greater intimacy of alcoves.
Pattern 191: The Shape of Indoor Space. Indoor space should be roughly rectangular in plan with straight, vertical walls for practicality, but with concave wall portions where possible, and a roughly symmetrical vaulted ceiling. One-sided, sloped ceilings and sharp, slanted, or re-entrant angles in walls generate discomfort.
Pattern 203: Child Caves. Create small “cave-like” spaces in a house, or outside, for children to experience and play in.
Reading these living patterns should evoke a sense of human space that envelops and nourishes us; it goes far beyond strict mechanical utility. This is a primal, biological sense of space, freed from often-irrelevant architectural accretions. It is what architects have long sought, but few have actually grasped. The hard, empirical facts encoded in patterns nonetheless lead us towards understanding the elusive properties of “living” spaces, which exist on a higher level than we are used to thinking about.
Morphing a tall building’s footprint and shape to create a semi-enclosed urban space saves what was psychologically unusable exterior space. The usable interior volume nevertheless remains the same.
Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros
Recurring themes run throughout the above spatial pattern summaries, such as partial enclosure balanced between too little and too much, and the need for concave boundaries to create convex space — Alexander called it “positive” space. We need a new methodology for adaptive design, to re-awaken our lost spatial sensitivity and focus once again on creating “reassuring” spaces. These are vital for health and comfort in the built environment. If an architect expresses repulsion at the supposed “sentimentality” of these patterns, that is merely evidence of ideological conditioning to reject healing spaces.
Closely related to biophilic design patterns, spatial design patterns also enjoy scientific support (Browning et al., 2014; Kellert et al., 2008; Ryan et al., 2014; Salingaros, 2015). First, the inherited memory from our ancestral evolutionary environment certainly includes clearings, tree canopies, and caves as prototypes. Those settings provided a reassuring sense of enclosure at the right dimension. Second, neurological responses that were developed for our general survival long ago act now to interpret a space’s geometry as either friendly or hostile. Adaptive design relies on these two qualities of what made us human.
Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.
William Browning, Catherine Ryan & Joseph Clancy (2014) “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design”, Terrapin Bright Green, New York. Available from:
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.
Helmut Leitner (2015) Pattern Theory, CreateSpace, Amazon.
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. Available from:
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 (2015) “Biophilia and Healing Environments”, a 10-part essay series in Metropolis, August–September. Published together as a booklet by Terrapin Bright Green, LLC, New York. Available from: