“Building with biophilia”

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Cathedral of the Nativity of Saint Mary, in Milan. (dreamstime.com)

Philosopher/mountaineer Damien François interviewed mathematician/ theorist Nikos Salingaros for The Clarion Review. Salingaros’s thinking has inspired much of the writing in this blog. His work has, among many other things, identified some of the neurobiological factors that predispose humans to prefer traditional buildings that convey information that primitive man once required to survive. Today that need for information manifests itself as a preference, in our normally safer urban environments, for buildings that are figuratively decorative rather than abstract.

François titles his interview “Building with biophilia.” Biophilia, a concept that originated with the biologist Edward O. Wilson, describes man’s intuitive connections with nature.

In architecture, biophilia involves building from the ground up rather than from the top down. Architecture that exhibits biophilia evolves over long periods of time as builders and designers seek to advance best practices in placemaking by trial and error, passing their knowledge through successive generations. Precedent, or what the modernists derisively refer to as “copying the past,” is vital. The conventional theory, on the other hand, involves the avoidance of precedent in the creation of architecture that allegedly seeks to differentiate itself from all past and current design strategies – a theory that has failed human needs throughout the world, according to Salingaros.

Here is a passage:

DF: Nietzsche wrote: “To be alive means to be in danger.” I, for one, do prefer the danger of, say, Mount Everest, where I feel very alive, to bad architecture, where I feel just the opposite. If I understand you correctly, the very structure of everything natural “feeds” the human mind, through the visual and tactile senses, with a soothing and nourishing experience. It is not just about the sublime, it is not just aesthetics, it is deeper and less intellectual than that.

NS: I’m not a big fan of Nietzsche, but you have half the story correct. Yes, you are in danger on a mountaintop, but you are also in a fantastically healing environment that invigorates you and creates deep positive memories. Contrast this to the oppressive industrial-modernist environment: you could be in danger from physical aggression, or from a passing truck, but at the same time you are in a psychologically deadening environment. There is no longer any nourishing background in our cities against which to balance life’s daily ups and downs. No moral support from the built structures, only depression and nihilism.

Please read the entire interview.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to “Building with biophilia”

  1. David,
    It’s a long time since I’ve read it, but I recall Alain de Botton’s “The Architecture of Happiness” exploring interesting and perhaps similar themes around why some buildings and streetscapes make us feel good, and why others have the opposite impact.
    If you haven’t read it, I’d also recommend “The Art Instinct” by Denis Dutton, which explores ideas that sound very much like the “biophilia” mentioned here.


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