Neuroscience and Preservation: Measuring the Healing Properties of Places

By Special Contributor posted 26 days ago


By Nikos A. Salingaros

Buildings and urban spaces provide healing environments for people. Most people understand this intuitively, yet the reasons to preserve that we have codified into law are not based on data about the neuroscience behind this truth—they tend instead to be commandeered by those who wish to impose a particular ideology.

A city’s building stock, like the supply in any ecosystem, needs to be replenished on a continuous basis. Yet demolition and replacement have devastated large swaths of healthy living environments around the world solely to churn profits for an industry sector. Preservation should prioritize the therapeutic qualities of the environment and focus on the health-enhancing properties of older buildings and urban spaces.

A view from the interior of Phillip Johnson's Glass House—an example of biophilia tangible at a historic site. | Credit: Priya Chhaya 

The Biological Dimension

“Biophilia” is the attachment of humans to living structures, and it combines two distinct components. The first is the healing effect from intimate contact with living biological forms—for example, looking out a window onto plant and human life or being in urban spaces that optimize encounters with other people. The second requires our structures to mimic the mathematical processes that generate biological forms, including fractal scaling (that is, dimensions repeating all the way down to the smallest details) and the organization of complexity that produces ornamentation.

Older buildings and urban fabric evolved through daily human use as dictated by human biology. This goes a long way toward explaining why humans build in the first place. For millennia, our living and urban spaces gave us positive physical and psychological feedback that made us wish to use them. Today they bring us out into the street and make us walk for pleasure. Design variety expresses a culture’s creativity and innovation, with ornamentation serving a biological need akin to physical nourishment from air, water, and food.

But this fundamental truth is difficult to communicate today, following a century-old ideological prejudice against ornament. Architectural culture repeats mindless slogans condemning ornament—even after neuroscience experiments reveal its relevance to human health. The loss of ornament that accompanies demolishing old buildings is part of the cultural eradication of ornament from artifacts, textiles, and everyday utensils that follows elite-adopted Bauhaus-inspired trends. 

Preservation as Conservation

Conservation aims to preserve the diversity of life and existing ecosystems. All life is interconnected, so the survival of the human species depends on saving the natural ecosystems in which we are embedded. The same thinking applied to preservation calls for saving the older buildings that human beings connect with through biophilia. Significantly, this has nothing to do directly with their “historic” status.

For generations prior to the industrial-modernist age, buildings—from vernacular houses to religious and civic monuments—provided healthy feedback to their users, contributing to an environment that induced well-being and promoted healing. This therapeutic effect has been measured through preliminary neuroscience studies and is spurring a new direction in research. Additionally, a mathematical analysis of form and surface can effectively predict how people will respond to a particular structure.

Erasing ornamentation and the rich variety of existing form-languages parallels imposing industrial processes that erase local biological ecosystems. Industrialization in agriculture, for example, eliminates the complexity of an ecosystem in order to promote a single crop. Similarly, insisting on a minimalist, stripped-down architecture of concrete, glass, and steel as the only design style amounts to a monoculture. Simplification leads to fragility and ecosystem collapse unless vast energy is spent on fertilizers (in the case of crops) or fossil fuels (in the cases of both skyscraper cities and suburban sprawl). 

Mathematics and Neuroscience Collaborate

Neuroscience is beginning to validate the healing effect of pattern-based design methods. Documented “design patterns” combine instinctive human reactions to form with geometrical rules, and these relationships are found throughout traditional buildings. Industrial modernism reversed these intuitive rules in the pursuit of novelty, but neuroscience shows that doing so has generated stressful environments.

Neurological experiments verify the fact that mathematical rules determine which environments are healing. Those structural rules include fractal scaling, organized complexity, symmetries, and ornamentation as integral parts of mathematical coherence. These criteria represent a radical departure from those that are conventional for historic preservation; the intent is not to replace those conventions, but to complement them.

Christopher Alexander and his collaborators (myself included) have derived a set of guidelines for evaluating healing environments, as well as practical design rules for creating new buildings. This extensive, science-based body of research ranks the products of contemporary architectural culture rather poorly. As a result, some critics have dismissed the entire mathematical framework as “nostalgic” without bothering to understand it.

When deciding whether to conserve a threatened structure—even a modest building—it helps to ask: “Will the replacement building have equal or more life-enhancing properties compared to what it proposes to replace?” The answer is usually “No.” Let us judge an older building by the number of living design patterns it embodies—the more, the stronger the argument for its conservation.

A not very significant building may also be worth preserving if it represents a node in a larger urban system. To make this determination, we need to identify the relationship of each building to its urban context. If an urban region is “alive,” it ought to be preserved along with all its links, connections, and mutual supports. This is the attachment of life to place—the antithesis of the stand-alone iconic building that willfully defies its context. 

Preserving Life-Enhancing Places

It is notable that most urban fabric worth preserving was built when transportation systems privileged pedestrian dimensions. Such environments encourage social engagement and an intimate response to place. Pedestrian users demanded spaces that not only accommodated human connectivity but also made approach and entry enticing. Industrial modernism abolished human dimensions and restricted pedestrian access in order to promote fast vehicular traffic exclusively. This suggests a “cutoff date” for preservation—the era when buildings began to be shaped by radically greater distance and speed of approach.

Even areas blighted by disinvestment, high levels of poverty, homelessness, and lack of opportunity should be preserved if their architectural and urban morphologies are potentially healing. Real-estate speculators have torn down perfectly good urban fabric all over the world, evicted politically powerless inhabitants, and erected monstrous and often shoddy high-rises. In the human-scale slum, people preserve their humanity by establishing networks that enable them to survive very challenging social conditions. But when those people are forcibly displaced to industrial-modernist boxes and towers, their original social networks—the only remaining safety net in a hostile world—are destroyed. Moreover, at some point in the future, when the economic wheel eventually turns, the older building stock could take off with only a few renovations. On the other hand, it would be financially difficult to replicate the old urban fabric that had been built with permanent materials and the correct human dimensions. Replacing almost any building built before World War II with a glass or concrete box drastically diminishes the mathematical qualities of life in the environment.

The present system is abused to save industrial-modernist buildings and urban complexes that, according to neuroscience experiments, create distress. For example, hospital healing rates are boosted by contact with and views onto trees and diminished in stark, “industrial” environments. Brutalist 20th-century buildings are preserved because of alleged historic value, even though their mathematical qualities oppose human well-being. Exceptions should be made for buildings and places of historical significance—for example, Auschwitz—but we have to acknowledge their lack of humanity. As anxiety-inducing buildings and environments age and become eligible for preservation, we should not automatically preserve them. 

Building New

Can we build healing environments today? Most certainly—using mathematical rules that distill the knowledge that evolved from traditional and vernacular architectures. Older and new innovative form languages, which traditional and vernacular architects the world over use to create healing environments, are equally applicable. According to Michael Mehaffy, “It’s important to conserve the ‘software’ (the knowledge of how to make successful beautiful, sustainable places) as well as the ‘hardware’ (the remaining buildings and other structures).”

But our architecture schools do not teach techniques for creating environments that we know to produce healing. Practitioners who understand these design methods learned to apply them by observing beautiful and successful places. Instead, our architecture schools train students to destroy healing structures rather than generate them. Disingenuously, architectural culture replaces older healing places with new developments that have superficially similar design characteristics—but their detailed structure turns out to be inhuman. Courses instill a skewed value system through psychological conditioning: buildings and public spaces without life are supposedly “good” if they have a certain look that negates our past—privileging minimalist and high-tech designs for buildings, and “hard” urban plazas—whereas older ones with a high degree of life are less desirable. This reversal of values has wrought havoc on our cities. 

Another Approach

Re-aligning the fields of architecture and preservation to emphasize the therapeutic qualities of buildings may resolve trenchant divisions within the disciplines. Present-day architectural culture abandons historical buildings to their fates because they do not satisfy the preferred canonical abstract style, which seeks to preserve only industrial-modernist buildings. Historians take up the cause for preservation, but naturally use historical criteria. Focusing on buildings exclusively as historical artifacts disregards the qualities of healing environments.

To preserve what is significant to our communities, our building culture, and our  heritage of healthy environments, we need to apply new tools. 


Neuroscience in Architecture

Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa, editors (2015) Mind in architecture: Neuroscience, embodiment, and the future of design, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2017) “How Neuroscience Can Generate a Healthier Architecture,Conscious Cities Journal  3 (August 2017).

Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander (2015) Cognitive Architecture, Routledge, New York. 

Biophilia and Healing Environments

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

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros (2011) “Frontiers of Design Science: Biophilia,Metropolis 29 (November). Included as Chapter 12 of Design for a Living Planet, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon (2015).

Nikos A. Salingaros (2015) Biophilia and Healing Environments, OfftheCommonBooks, Amherst, Massachusetts. Also available free online from Terrapin Bright Green LLC, New York. 

The Mathematical Basis for Life

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.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2006) A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2010) Algorithmic Sustainable Design: Twelve Lectures On Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany; reprinted 2014, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon. 

Design Patterns and Adaptive Design

Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King, and S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.

Helmut Leitner (2015) Pattern Theory, CreateSpace, Amazon.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2017) Design Patterns and Living Architecture, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon. Chapters originally published online in Metropolis, 2015–2016. 

Prior Beliefs Muddle Neuroscience Experiments

Nikos A. Salingaros (2014) “Cognitive Dissonance and Non-adaptive Architecture,” Doxa, Issue 11 (Norgunk Publishing House, Istanbul), pages 100–117.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2016) “On Cognitive Dissonance and The Architectural Canon,” Metropolis, 20 July. Chapter 9 of Design Patterns and Living Architecture, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2017) “Calling for an Architecture That Connects Us to Our Bodies,Common Edge, 22 March 2017. 

Formalism Is Not Good for People’s Health

Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros (2011) “The Architect Has No Clothes,Guernica, 19 October 2011.

Nikos A. Salingaros (2017) “What Architectural Education Does To Would-Be Architects,Common Edge, 8 June 2017.

Margaret A. Wilson (1996) “The Socialization of Architectural Preference,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 16, pages 33–44. 

Nikos A. Salingaros is an internationally known urbanist, architectural theorist, author, and professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He thanks David Brussat, Martin Horacek, Michael Mehaffy, Malcolm Millais, and Steven Semes for helpful comments and suggestions. You can hear from Salingaros at PastForward 2017, November 14–17 in Chicago, during the TrustLive: Health and the Learning Lab: This Is Your Brain on Preservation