The Growing Demand for Spaces That Consider Our Health

The sixth installment of the ten-part Biophilia and Healing Environments series considers the inclusive, “bottom-up” biophilic design that is needed to sustain our health.

The Fagus shoe last factory in Alfeld, Germany, is the prototype for thousands of hospitals and schools around the world. Its adoption as a universal typology could be attributable to the increased natural light compared to most 19C buildings — one factor of Biophilia. Designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, 1913.

Drawing by Nikos Salingaros​

Our emotions control a good deal of how we ward off disease. The new discipline of psychoneuroimmunology is learning more about how our nervous system affects our immune system, hence our ability to heal. Tinkering with our individual sensibilities is not a substitute for medical treatment, of course, but rather seeks to improve the effectiveness of treatment by boosting it with endogenous healing mechanisms. With stress-induced and autoimmune diseases, the relative importance of environmental factors increases significantly. As a result, much traditional or “native” doctoring practice using the environment is now getting more attention in mainstream health care.

Evidence both from scientific sources and from traditional wisdom is giving rise to a healthier environment. Re-connecting humans with their surroundings applies the special geometry of nature to improve mental and physical nourishment. This is how biophilia works. The aim is to lower the stresses on the human body, helping its built-in defenses to fight illness and to promote healing. For most of history, medicine took the environment seriously as a factor in health and healing. Alas, the environment got ignored after the industrialized world adopted increasingly technological processes. Health care focused ever more narrowly on direct intervention via drugs, surgery, etc. This approach is now seen to have its limitations.

A healing environment arises when human beings draw from the complexity of nature, and conceive of themselves as in touch with their inner feelings and emotions. People are increasingly demanding environments that lower stress: living and working spaces that act to keep us healthy. Architects can find design tools to help achieve this goal only by looking beyond mainstream architecture, which buys into the same overly technological worldview as conventional, intervention-focused medicine today. The groundwork for these tools has been done largely by scientists — in particular by architectural theorist and practitioner Christopher Alexander and his collaborators (Alexander, 2001-2005; Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015).

The healing effect of biophilia in architecture can be explained largely through precise and measurable geometric properties (Alexander, 2001-2005; Kellert et al., 2008; Mehaffy & Salingaros, 2015; Salingaros, 2013). As more architects jump on the biophilic design bandwagon, however, the mathematical basis of biophilia and healing environments has tended to be obscured. Much of what architects assert about biophilia in the helter-skelter race to win major commissions is either untrue or very poorly understood. (It’s not enough that a designer becomes conversant with scientific terms; some understanding of science is essential.) Clients and the public are thus misled to expect some vague and mysterious vital force. Biophilia is not mystical at all, but quite specific and verifiable by the usual scientific methods.

The word biophilia is sometimes misused by architects to buttress the case for “green” aspects of otherwise non-adaptive designs. Yes, the presence of plants is therapeutic — a key property of biophilic architecture — but a building’s structure itself must be healing as well if it is not to induce anxiety. The healing properties of sculptural buildings by star architects will be seen as inadequate once the lessons of biophilia are better understood. Biophilia does not mean adding “green” elements to sculptural designs in order to make them more alluring to clients. That is top-down design. Rather, biophilia means designing structures from the bottom up by infusing architecture’s schema with processes parallel to those of biology to develop and reproduce. These processes heal because they reflect the ordered complexity associated with the adaptivity of natural systems. Correctly applying biophilia presupposes a desire to learn from nature. With or without shrubbery, top-down sculptural design actually impedes the workings of nature. Mixing real pieces of nature with anxiety-inducing forms and surfaces is not biophilia but schizophrenia.

Many architects believe that they can superficially copy an organic form to achieve a healing space. All that achieves is to create an abstract sculpture. Working knowledge of biophilia is sacrificed for the sake of visual novelty. The image-based design paradigm, however widely applauded by architecture critics and the global media, misunderstands biophilia and repudiates nature’s role in the design process. To mimic natural forms is not to be inspired by nature. To use nature’s genius to design places that are genuinely more natural, hence more healthy, is truly to be inspired by nature.


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.

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.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2013) Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon and Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal. Chapter 16 (No. 10 online) “Biophilia: Our Evolved Kinship To Biological Forms” is republished in ArchDaily, May 2015.

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