Experienced Space and the Innovative City


Experienced Space and the Innovative City

People who work with ideas and who drive the knowledge economy are those most able to relocate, and they will do so if repelled by a city with an alien geometry, towards a city with spatio-temporal attractions on the human scale.


Posted 02 September 2011, by Nikos A. Salingaros, Raise The Hammer, raisethehammer.org


We connect to our environment – as distinct from merely reacting to it – through coherent complex structures. Quality of life can be positive or negative depending on whether our bodies interact harmoniously with the temporal events caused by a city, as permitted by its geometry.

What attracts the educated and the talented to a city is measured in part by geometric criteria, not by an alien urban morphology that follows a modernist design ideology.

Experienced space and socio-geometric connectivity

The twentieth century’s scientific and technological advances enabled a whole new level of living that brought quality of life in terms of vastly improved medical care, transport, energy availability, and communications. In our time we have come to take all of this for granted.

Nevertheless, in parallel with these developments, humankind lost a timeless connection to the world that did not involve science, because this connection is not quantitative (Alexander, 2001-2005).

We tend to forget and dismiss our inherited socio-geometric patterns whenever they cannot fit into the mentality created by advancing technology. This loss of patterns has caused the loss of essential aspects of human existence, and it has profound implications for energy use (Salingaros, 2000).

Talking about connecting viscerally to a building characteristically makes people in our contemporary culture uneasy. We have lost part of our sense of attachment to a place, even if we normally don’t notice it consciously. We have grown accustomed to buildings that emphasize the look and feel of technology: buildings that are, in fact, little more than an image.

How, really, do we connect with a building, with a space, with a place? How do the parts of a building connect with each other? Connectivity can be described in mathematical terms through processes occurring in space; it depends on how we perceive that space.

For millennia, our ancestors built sacred places and buildings that connect us to something beyond everyday reality. For them, living in a pre-industrial age, it was easier to understand this connection than it is for many of us today.

We connect to our environment – as distinct from merely reacting to it – only through coherent complex structures. Coherence and symmetries of form make possible the continuation of the biophilic effect from living systems into artificial complex designs or structures.

Twentieth-century and contemporary buildings that have either minimalist or disordered forms cannot connect with the user. The result is an intentional lack of coherent complexity in the built environment (Salingaros, 2006).

A dramatic demonstration of the principles of Biophilia and human socio-geometric patterns can be seen when they are violated. Failing to respect evolved architectural and urban typologies, twentieth-century architects and urbanists went ahead and constructed block housing and high-rises with segregated functions as the solution to urban problems. These implementations were uniformly disastrous.

Firstly, architects and planners ignored evolved urban codes that had proved themselves through the centuries. Instead, they built monstrous blocks. These architects showed incredible arrogance in their approach to design, believing they could force their will on both people and urban functions and override forces that shape urban form and human use.

For example, they designated the fourth storey and roof for specific commercial activities that never took place. Socio-geometric patterns of human use preclude such spaces and locations from ever being used in the imagined manner, just as the “playgrounds” and “plazas” designed according to some abstract geometry have remained despised, feared, and unused.

Secondly, architects and planners constructed dwellings and neighborhoods devoid of any intimate contact with nature. A family isolated inside an immense block housing project is detached from nature. Their quality of life drops. Even the fundamental pattern of “2 Meter Balcony”, which could at least be used to grow plants, is stubbornly ignored by architects of apartments in high rises (Alexander et. al., 1977).

Having some trees in a vast windswept plain outside the block is totally useless. Most twentieth-century attempts at living environments have failed because they contradict all the rules for the traditional design of urban spaces and gardens in the interest of a “new style” that is image-based.

Thirdly, architects and planners created monofunctional urban segregation, which violates the most basic urban patterns that make a city grow in the first place. Cities exist in order to connect people with each other and to mix activities. Incredibly, twentieth-century urbanism took the anti-urban slogan of spatially separated uses as a starting point, and governments used it to reconstruct their cities after World War II.

These anti-urban practices were legislated into zoning laws so that it became illegal to build living urban fabric. The problem is that self-proclaimed experts were offering toxic advice on architecture and planning, and some of these people held positions of great academic and media prestige. Politicians and decision makers followed their advice simply out of respect for authority.

Connecting beyond everyday experience

I highlight here questions about connecting to place in a more complete manner. How far can we intensify our emotional connection and still explain it biologically? Emotional highs come from love, music, art, architecture, poetry, and literature. Mechanisms of response are all biological (sensory apparatus), although the most important elements are still incompletely understood.

Connection is achieved through dance, music, art, and architecture. The common properties among these creations include patterns, regularity, repetition, nesting, hierarchy, scaling, and fractal structure. They are demonstrable geometrical patterns, not mystical properties.

Going further, the highest artistic expression is related to religion. Bach, Mozart, Botticelli, Michelangelo, generations of anonymous artists and architects of Islamic art and architecture, and mystics of the world achieved such profound connection. By seeking God through beauty, human beings have attained the highest level of connection to the universe (Alexander, 2001-2005).

For millennia, human beings have sought to connect to some sacred realm through architecture. Though we have as yet no scientific explanation for such a phenomenon, we cannot deny either its existence or its importance for the quality of human life. We experience this connection – a visceral feeling – in a great religious building or a place of great natural beauty.

The Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy speaks about the sacred structure even in everyday environments (Fathy, 1973). Christopher Alexander (2001-2005) describes connecting to a larger coherence, and such a connection is in fact one of the principal factors in enhancing our quality of life. Nevertheless, we hardly even have the vocabulary to talk about it.

Without specifying any particular organized religion, spirituality grounded in physical experience can lead to connectivity. Is this connective mechanism by which we try to interact with our creator the same mechanism as Biophilia? Maybe it is, only possibly more advanced and thus a far more intense source of emotional nourishment than that obtained from strictly physical experience.

Can we transcend biological connection so as to achieve an even higher spiritual connection? As opposed to religious experience or a religious attitude, religious belief itself is abstract, being resident in the mind. But the connection associated with religious experience can occur through geometry, the physical senses, music, rhythm, color, etc.

Religious connection can be very physical, oftentimes intensely so. This physical connection gives us the materialization of sacred experience.

Dance, song, and music express temporal rhythm. Bharatnatyam, classical Indian dancing, African shamanic dance, Native American religious dance, whirling dervishes in Mevlana, Turkey, and Hassidic dances are all mystical dance forms that contain geometric qualities of periodicity and temporal scaling coherence.

Greek culture historically interlaced mystical dance with musical experience giving birth to Classical Tragedy, features that evolved into the main emotional component in the celebration of Christianity. In the West the Masses of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart show fractal temporal structure – an inverse power-law scaling.

Sacred chant in all religions connects human beings to a story, ritual, and precious cultural reference point. Holy days are marked by special song, such as the Byzantine Easter service, Passion Plays, Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur, Buddhist ceremonial chant, etc.

In architecture all over the world, the House of God displays the connective qualities we seek, often to their highest possible extent. Independent of the particular religion or style, this effect is found among all religious building types. Architects of the past instinctively built according to rules for generating scaling coherence.

All the examples I have mentioned – whether music, dance, art, or architecture – have common mathematical qualities: fractals, symmetries, rhythm, hierarchy, scaling distribution, etc. Deliberate creations by traditional humanity the world over were trying to connect to something beyond everyday experience.

Sponsored disconnection

Within this biophilic framework, some religions have been more successful than others in fighting against the despoliation of nature and the dehumanization of human beings.

The more conservative of the organized religions seem to have fared much better at saving their heritage in recent decades. Fearing the intrusion of foreign cultures and the exploitation by foreign commercial interests, they have tried to shield themselves from what are rightly perceived as consumerist and nihilistic currents in Western art and culture.

Ironically, many established religions in the West have embraced those same artistic trends in an effort to remain “up-to-date” so as not to lose members. We have concrete examples in recent churches that, far from evoking the love and image of God, instead conjure the image either of secular neutrality (warehouse/garage) or an expression of evil (slaughterhouse/crematorium).

An established Church that sponsors and builds religious art and its own temples in a style that induces anxiety will likely be judged as an accomplice to a global nihilistic movement. Buildings that generate anxiety, consciously or unconsciously, compromise the very continuity of such a Church.

Anxiety, alienation, and consumerism have little to do with love, charity, and compassion. Anxiety-inducing forms are instead associated with power, transgression, and sadism; therefore their attraction is that of a cult of power.

Negative reaction by more traditional religious authorities against contemporary church buildings in the West is not usually reported because of its politically explosive implications, but it exists, and it is damning. New churches that are praised by the western press are condemned as anti-religious by Eastern religious authorities (who apparently have not lost as much of their sacred connection) on the basis of the fashionable churches’ geometry.

A State, too, can commission prominent public buildings that through their style objectively evoke anxiety. A hostile reaction to buildings in a nihilistic style that the government has sponsored turns into hostility against the government itself.

This does not bode well for political stability in the coming decades, when citizens wake up to the fact that public money spent on anxiety-inducing buildings promoted by an ideological elite drove their country into debt.

The past few decades have seen a building spree of inhuman structures (museums, art galleries, schools, hospitals, libraries, government buildings, monuments, etc.) and environments in an ill-conceived desire to conform to a “contemporary” architectural fashion.

We have already witnessed foreign reaction to inhuman buildings in the rich Western countries but we misinterpreted it as hostility towards the West’s economic wealth rather than a legitimate critique of the architecture proper. Nevertheless, similar buildings and urban regions built in developing countries by those same “star” architects who build showcase buildings in the West arouse the same hostile sentiments among the local population.

I believe that a correct interpretation of the negative reaction ordinary people experience around contemporary buildings in the fashionable style is based upon its rejection of Biophilia, but the soundness of this negative reaction is conveniently negated by a powerful architectural establishment that promotes such buildings all over the world.

The accusations of nihilism from both within and without Western society are deflected onto “foreigners”, while critics of Western fashionable architecture are deemed not sufficiently “contemporary”.

Spatio-temporal rhythms in the city that attracts talent

A living city works well because it encourages actions, interactions, and movements, all of which depend upon certain scales in space and time. Spatial scales are defined by physical structures from the size of a 3mm ornament on a park bench or public lamppost up to the size of a city’s region that can be identified as more-or-less coherent within itself.

Biophilia requires the existence of the entire range of scales corresponding to the human body (1mm to 2m) extending into the range of scales of pedestrian movement (2m to 1km). With various forms of transport, our spatial experience expands to scales of the entire city and beyond.

Quality of life depends proportionally on how we can experience all scales in a non-threatening manner, with a priority placed upon the smaller scales corresponding to the human body.

Twentieth-century urbanists disdained the human scales, turning against them because smaller scales are a defining feature in traditional urbanism. The complex spatial rhythms of traditional environments are therefore missing by design from city regions constructed during the past century.

Even when a new environment is labeled as being a “quality” environment, that label most often refers to how closely the built structure (building, cluster of buildings, urban plaza, public sculpture, etc.) follows a minimalist sculptural ideal that eschews complex spatial rhythms.

In the built environment of the past several decades we find scales irrelevant to the range of human scales, except in those crucial exceptions (restaurants, shopping malls) where retail overrides design ideology.

An even more neglected aspect of urban life concerns its temporal rhythms (Drewe, 2005). Everyday life is defined as a complex coherent system of actions and movements on many different time scales. Some time phenomena are spatially independent, but many depend critically upon the urban geometry. Again, the shorter periods affect us most, as they have an immediate correlation with our own bodily rhythms.

We are dependent upon events that occur over times of 1 sec to 24 hours. Quality of life can be positive or negative depending on whether our bodies interact harmoniously with the temporal events caused by a city and permitted by its geometry. The temporal dimension of urbanism is a poorly-explored topic.

Time is defined either in abstract intervals, or much more physically in terms of body movement. Motion could be a response to a physical need, yet any movement is constrained by the physical space – furniture, room, corridor, urban space – we occupy at that moment (Schrader, 2005).

The geometry and material quality of the physical environment impacts on our possible movement; we perceive spatial constraints from non-biophilic structures, which limit us from freely designing our own rhythms.

Our daily routine involves a range of movements and any pattern in our daily activity defines a temporal rhythm. Periodic events could occur throughout the day, or as once-a-day longer-term rhythms. Some movements in daily routine are necessary, whereas we choose to perform others for our physical enjoyment. We try to establish such rhythms out of a natural need for temporal order.

A city wishing to attract new talent has to offer, among many other things, an urban morphology that accommodates both Biophilia and daily life on the human range of temporal scales. This is the “dance of life” (Hall, 1984), and like classical dance forms from all cultures, urban movement has its rhythm, complex fractal structure, and continuity (Whyte, 1988).

People may not immediately perceive the effects of this dance upon their bodies, but our organism accumulates either the positive or negative effects of our daily routine, and will start giving us signals. Positive signals translate into wellbeing and being able to cope with unavoidable stress, whereas negative signals wear us out so that we become decreasingly able to handle normal stress in our daily environment.

Our health suffers because a weakened body is prone to both external infection and to internal imbalances.

For example, a commuting trip of over 30 min generates stress, regardless of the means of transport. Research has discovered that people are willing to commute for up to one hour daily (round-trip), whether it is through walking, private car, public transport, bus, subway, or commuter train (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999).

When this time is exceeded, however, quality of life diminishes. Therefore, the massive trade-off of enjoying a suburban front/back yard with lawn in exchange for two hours or more of round-trip commuting is actually not cost-effective as far as Biophilia is concerned.

Having access to a pedestrian environment (not necessarily strictly pedestrian; the traditional city with wide sidewalks lined with stores does very well) offers the possibility of excursions on foot that can be of any duration. A complex connected pedestrian geometry allows periodic actions of, say, 15 min (e.g. a trip to a coffee shop or park), which are unfeasible in a car city.

Such trips do not need to be planned, just enjoyed if the visual stimulation and other factors are positive, and the duration of trips that are necessary for a specific function can be adjusted according to the occasion.

This flexibility in time is not possible when driving to a destination, and the situation is only slightly better for public transport. In the Metropolitan transport of some central cities, a passenger can profit from the commerce located in and around the stations, but bus stops tend to be located in dreary places, with stations exposed or in hostile environments.

“Innovation” requires an environment that encourages a state of physical and emotional wellbeing (Ward and Holtham, 2000). The new dematerialized economy relies more and more on the material structure of the immediate surroundings.

Persons who are not dependent upon the physical city for their work still rely upon the physical city for their wellbeing, demanding an environment that permits spatio-temporal rhythms. They judge where to locate using spatio-temporal and biophilic criteria.

People who work with ideas and who drive the knowledge economy are those most able to relocate, and they will do so if repelled by a city with an alien geometry, towards a city with spatio-temporal attractions on the human scale. Many knowledge workers nowadays occasionally base themselves in coffee shops with a wireless high-speed internet connection.

It is the wish of almost every city to position itself as a magnet for talent, for then it can attract knowledge industries such as Information and Communication Technologies, finance, advanced technology, arts industries, etc. to create a hub for the “Knowledge Society” (Tinagli, 2005).

It is well known that a concentration of talent and educated workforce pushes a city’s economy up to international standards, with corresponding feedback that benefits the entire city.

Ever since the West’s manufacturing base shifted to the developing world, industrial production became much less attractive. Even in the developing world that has now captured industrial production, however, key cities compete to attract knowledge-based industries.

What attracts the educated and the talented to a city? It is quality of life, measured in part by the criteria I have outlined here, not by an alien urban morphology that follows a modernist design ideology. Citizens wish, above all, to enjoy a stimulating and pleasant everyday life, in which normal tasks can be accomplished without too much stress. Their professional activities reside on top of this basis of wellbeing.

Examples abound of intelligent professionals leaving a “magnet” city because everyday life has become too stressful or expensive. Much of this has to do with spatio-temporal scales: in the first case when working and living environments do not offer the biophilic range of scales; and in the second case when daily life is skewed towards uncomfortable time periods, as for example a long commute to work, getting children to school, food shopping, accomplishing regular out-of-house chores, etc.

I realize that the above thesis only presents a small part of a broader scenario, and, given human nature and human interactions, we may live in an earthly paradise and still be stressed from local crime, a corrupt government, or hostile colleagues at work. I do not deny any of that. What I wish to bring to attention is the component that comes directly from architecture and urbanism.

Acknowledgment: This is a second extract from an article originally published in the Athens Dialogues E-Journal, Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, October 2010; and reprinted by The Permaculture Research Institute, October 2010.


Alexander, Christopher 2001-2005. The Nature of Order, Books 1-4, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.

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

Drewe, Paul 2005. “Time in Urban Planning and Design in the ICT Age”, in Shifting Sense – Looking Back to the Future in Spatial Planning, edited by Edward Hulsbergen, Ina Klaasen and Iwan Kriens, Techne Press, Amsterdam, pages 197-211.

Fathy, Hassan 1973. Architecture for the Poor, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Hall, Edward T. 1984. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time, Anchor Books, Garden City, New York.

Newman, Peter and Jeffrey Kenworthy 1999. Sustainability and Cities, Island Press, Washington D.C.

Salingaros, Nikos A. 2000. “The Structure of Pattern Languages”, Architectural Research Quarterly, volume 4, pages 149-161. Reprinted as Chapter 8 of: Salingaros, N. A. 2005. Principles of Urban Structure, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland.

Salingaros, Nikos A. 2006. A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany.

Schrader, Constance A. 2005. A Sense of Dance, 2nd Edition, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Illinois.

Tinagli, Irene 2005. Understanding Knowledge Societies, United Nations publication ST/ESA/PAD/SER.E/66, New York, New York.

Ward, Victoria and Clive Holtham 2000. The Role of Private and Public Spaces in Knowledge Management, http://spark.spanner.org/documents/PublicSpacesin_KM.pdf.

Whyte, William H. 1988. City: Rediscovering the Center, Doubleday, New York.


Related Posts: Arts and Architecture


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