Building Tomorrow’s Heritage: Lessons from Psychology and Health Sciences

By Special Contributor posted 04-25-2019 15:27


By Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

This is the second post in a series about recent lessons from the sciences for historic preservation and compatible new development. The authors—a physicist and mathematician, and an urban researcher and philosopher—explore emerging scientific findings about historic structures and discuss lessons for generating more sustainable and resilient human environments.

In our previous post, we noted that human heritage represents a kind of evolutionary “DNA” of design ideas that create healthy and durable environments. We have misunderstood or ignored these ideas in recent decades due to a peculiar, almost century-old theory of visual modernity that is now scientifically obsolete. Recent research shows that this environmental DNA has deep roots in human evolution. Human beings, it turns out, have an innate preference for ancient biological forms and conditions, including vegetation, animal forms, and characteristics of natural environments—a preference that has come to be called “biophilia.”

“Biophilic” characteristics refers not only to vegetation, water, and animals but also to buildings like the British Museum (shown here) with fractal structure that includes all scales—from the overall size, to the inter-column spacing and doors, to the columns, to the steps and column flutings. These characteristics have been shown to have the capacity to improve health outcomes. | Credit: Michael W. Mehaffy

The Biophilia Effect

In 1984 environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich made a notable discovery: that merely having a view of vegetation and greenery from a hospital window resulted in measurably improved outcomes from surgery relative to a view of a building wall. We can infer that living with natural structures is restorative—they lower stress levels; improve health; and encourage people to linger, walk, and even interact more with others. This so-called “biophilia effect” seems to have to do with the way the brain is wired, probably due to thousands of years of evolutionary history. In any case, buildings throughout most of human history have incorporated biophilic properties, including patterns of symmetry and grouping that are characteristic of animals and plants. Sometimes they are literal biological forms—patterns of vegetation like the acanthus leaves of Greek column capitals—or depictions of animals and people, as in Egyptian motifs and sculptures. 

In recent decades we have also begun to appreciate the geometric patterns underlying many natural and biophilic structures, including fractal structures. A familiar example is the fern, which has a simple leaf pattern that repeats at many different scales and rotates into different angles. Historic structures have displayed these same fractal patterns many times over, which we—and other researchers—posit contributes to their intrinsic and visceral appeal. 

In addition to being innately more pleasing, biophilic structures also tend to be more durable over time, which is obviously essential in answering challenges of sustainability and resilience. The evidence suggests that the most resilient aesthetic characteristics are those that bear the marks of time well. That is, instead of reflecting the degradation of their environment, they appear more beautiful with aging. For example, it is easy to marvel at the beauty of very old, even run-down buildings in a city like Rome, where the growth of patina only adds aesthetic richness. By contrast, the deliberately shiny and smooth aesthetic qualities are perishable by definition, and their best day is likely their first; after that it’s typically a long, unhappy degeneration into a depressing kind of ugliness.


 A modern building that is just a few years old (left) wears the marks of time poorly. Rome’s beloved Piazza di Spagna (right) shows great wear, discoloration, and other evidence centuries of aging with remarkable aesthetic resilience and durability. In fact, such places often become even more beautiful with time. | Credit: Michael W. Mehaffy

The Properties of Natural Morphology

Biophilic qualities that trigger an immediate visceral response include structures grouped in ways that people perceive as orderly and pleasing. Architect Christopher Alexander, in collaboration with other colleagues (including the authors of this post), identified the processes that generate “legible” patterns in the human environment, such as boundaries, alternating repetition, strong centers, and levels of scale. Alexander cataloged 15 of these geometric properties, which he called properties of natural “morphology”—a biological term meaning the form and structure of an organism considered as a whole. He then showed that these properties are copiously present in both natural structures and human structures up until the “modern” era. It seems that these characteristics help us feel at home in our environments, enabling us to make cognitive sense of our world—and to perceive it as beautiful—with very important implications for our health and well-being. In the short term, they foster a sense of “belonging to a place” and hence a state of reduced stress; in the long term, they correlate with improvements in overall health, which are now being measured in medical research.


Architect Christopher Alexander cataloged 15 properties that he found to be the most important characteristics of natural morphology. | Credit: Chart provided by: Michael W. Mehaffy

This kind of beauty is different from the beauty of the many modern buildings that have an abstract intellectual appeal. Their beauty is more esoteric, requiring “insider” knowledge of references and allusions and a willingness to join the architect on an excursion into avant-garde art. While that may be a fine experience for a gallery, it is questionable as a formula for creating beneficial human environments. Our bodies input and process environmental information automatically, and the jarring shapes and dissonant rhythms of abstract art and modern architecture can actually be damaging, as they do not meet our basic emotional needs. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, this confusion between art and life is very bad for cities—and probably bad for art as well. 

Research has also found a remarkable divergence between what most architects and most users consider a “good” building—a phenomenon we call architectural myopia.” Do architects not have an obligation to satisfy not only themselves and their connoisseurs and patrons but also users? In a democracy, who gets to say what kinds of buildings will shape our everyday experiences? Architects who outfit profitable buildings with attention-grabbing, artistic “packaging” while sniffing at the philistine tastes of ordinary people ignore what historic buildings teach us: that the best architecture pleases its users. And it is architects’ professional responsibility and duty to care for users’ interests and well-being. 

“Modern” buildings frequently also do not work together to create coherent larger wholes. When each building is shouting, in effect, “Look at me, I’m a modern art object!” rather than responding geometrically to its neighbors, the overall result is discordant. The sensitive user perceives this sophisticated, socio-geometric interaction—or lack thereof—viscerally. Even architects recognize this stubborn problem—“starchitect” Rem Koolhaas once said, “The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say that any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value.” 

Alexander has described this fundamental problem of modern environments as a question of wholeness. This is not some mystical feel-good idea, but an active topic in the sciences—for example, quantum mechanics—as well as an ancient subject of study in philosophy, where it is known as “mereology” or “part-whole relations.” For Alexander, the key to achieving wholeness is applying a unified process of form-generation that is anchored to the natural structures of a place and its people.


Christopher Alexander’s 15 properties can be seen in abundance in many natural and traditional structures, but much more rarely in “modern” structures. | Credit: Michael W. Mehaffy

Alexander is part of a generation of scientists and design theorists writing a new chapter in the ancient story of mereology. They are describing the form-generating processes that retain and extend wholeness, thereby producing the many desirable characteristics of natural systems—durability, resilience, sustainability, and beauty. They are finding many remarkable parallels with the characteristics of heritage structures and discovering applicable lessons for today’s designers. 

This approach is not at odds with art—far from it. For millennia, art was a vital aspect of habitat, illuminating and enriching natural and human structures, but never allowed to supplant them. Art has assumed an entirely new role in the “modern” era, serving as product packaging without the wholeness or other life-giving characteristics of heritage structures. The sciences can help us understand the complexity of our traditional built heritage and learn to once again create restorative environments.  

Michael W. Mehaffy is an urban researcher and philosopher with a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology; he teaches and/or performs research at seven universities in six countries. Nikos A. Salingaros is an internationally known urbanist, architectural theorist, author, and professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The authors shared the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award, and Salingaros won the 2019 Stockholm Cultural Award for Architecture.