In their new book Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science and the Human Future (Sustasis Press, 2015), design theorist Michael Mehaffy and mathematician Nikos Salingaros try to radically change the way people think about design. Both have worked for years with the Austrian architect and theorist Christopher Alexander, and are building on his elemental Pattern Language concept (in which design consists of a vocabulary, syntax, and grammar) to present a new, systems-based approach to sustainable architecture. ARCHITECT spoke with Salingaros about what this proposed sustainable approach will look like and what architects will have to do to design it.
ARCHITECT: This book argues that there needs to be a new approach to sustainable architecture and design. What’s wrong with the sustainable design we have today?
Nikos Salingaros: Many people are trying genuinely to design sustainable systems for the planet: buildings, cities, and processes. Some of those are going in the right direction; others are hampered by flaws in the usual approaches to design. So we are digging deep into the actual foundations of design in order to expose those flaws so that designers who really want to design sustainable mechanisms are better able to do so; many of those well-meaning designers nowadays come up with something that is not sustainable at all.
ARCHITECT: And what are some of those flaws?
NS: For example, consumerism. You have to go back to the very beginning and design a totally different system that is not consuming excessively and wasting energy. Michael and I don’t try to be polemic but we give examples of buildings and city systems that are designed to consume. And then people now say, "Well, we’re making them sustainable by putting these little things on them." OK, maybe that fixes things by 1 percent, but it’s self delusion. As long as you use particular techniques that arose when human beings in the early industrial age were drunk on consuming energy, you cannot just fix those buildings by sticking something on top. We give the example of the sustainable buildings that are built as glass skyscrapers. That’s totally ridiculous: Glass skyscrapers were designed within the framework of vast energy consumption. And yes, you can spend a lot of intelligence trying to fix glass skyscrapers, but you’re not going to do it because you’re trying to fix something that’s basically unfixable. You could add a few percentage points that make it better, but it is the whole approach to the design that has to change.
ARCHITECT: What would the architecture you’re talking about look like? How would it be different from what architectural design is today?
NS: The architecture that is going to be sustainable is more messy, and it has much more detail, and it’s harder to control—in fact you cannot control it. And it looks very traditional. When you say that to the architects of today, they pull out their hair because they have been taught since day one of architecture school to just react negatively against exactly what we’re saying, against messiness in design, against complexity in design, against evolved freedom in design, allowing the design to develop bottom up from the users.
ARCHITECT: You’re a mathematician. How does the mathematical interpretation of complexity apply to architecture and design?
NS: There are various types of complexity. Some architects build things that look complex, but it’s a non-adaptive complexity—it’s a complexity that somebody drew on a computer screen. It makes for an interesting art object. The complexity that leads to sustainability is something that arises from a computational mechanism. You basically compute a design through a sequence of adaptive steps, checking after each step to see if it’s evolving in the right direction, adapting to the situation, users, and functions.
This is the opposite from deciding on a form and the design details at the beginning. By taking care of the energy flow and applying the adaptive mechanism to human life, that’s when the design becomes complex. You the architect don’t sit there on the computer screen and make it complex just to make it look interesting, because that does not help anybody, and it does not produce a sustainable design. And of course I have lectured and published on this, but very few architects have taken the time to read my articles about how to allow the system itself and the adaptive needs of the system to generate the complexity. When we allow this to happen, and it doesn’t happen by itself, we see what has to be done and then we do it step by step, and we build up that complexity. The end result is a highly complex system. But it’s a complex system that’s adaptive. Every piece of the complexity is there for a reason.
But I cannot get this point across to many architects who can’t handle anything that looks complex and can’t handle anything that they themselves don’t totally control. There’s an element of arrogance here with architects. They want to control every piece of the form rather than allow processes to generate parts of the form. That risks losing control and they’re control freaks.
ARCHITECT: What advice do you give architects to wrap their heads around this stuff, and how can they enable these sorts of processes to guide their designs?
NS: Look at nature and sustainable systems in nature like a forest ecosystem, a lake sustainable system. They’re very complex. So the lesson is that if you want a sustainable building, it has to be very complex. You can’t insist on crystalline purity. Complexity can be handled if you design it one step at a time. If you try to do it all together, it’s beyond the human brain capacity. And that’s where Christopher Alexander’s work comes in. He has developed approaches to complexity where you build it one step at a time. ... At the end you find that it’s incredibly complex and you would not have been able to design it from the beginning like that. It just happened after so many steps.
ARCHITECT: What are some examples of steps in this process?
NS: Understanding human psychology and movement. People will go where they feel comfortable, psychologically and physiologically. People will not use a space or path just because an architect designed it, even though the space or path may look appealing to an architect in a formal way on the computer screen. The physiology of human beings makes them either use a space or avoid a space, and the same thing applies to the circulation within a building, and the light inside the building, the entrances, and connection of the building.
ARCHITECT: So what do you think architects need to be doing now to create sustainable designs?
NS: Architects need to be learning not from the way things look but from the way nature works. Unfortunately architects are not trained to do that. They have spent all their training in architecture school looking at images and being taught to design form following images. I’m afraid all that has to go into the wastebasket if architects want to design in the future. Because that approach doesn't lead to anything. It leads to an image-based architecture that has to be propped up by tremendous energy waste. That’s a choice that our society has made. You can’t blame the architect.