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14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Complexity & Order

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Pattern 10: Complexity & Order

Complexity, as one of the more abstract biophilic concepts, has gained quite a bit of traction as a welcomed design challenge. We talk about the objective of the Complexity & Order pattern (#10) as a means for creating a visually nourishing environment, based on an understanding of the symmetries, fractal geometries and spatial hierarchies that occur in nature. How that physically manifests as a meaningful design or spatial condition is the real challenge.

In Biophilia and Healthy Environments (Salingaros, 2015), the author explains how “a fractal contains well-defined subdivisions of structure in an ordered hierarchy of scales,” also noting that, with fractals, “complex structure show(s) at any magnification.” While fractals can exist at any scale – from textile patterns and façade design to a city street grid or regional transportation network – successful applications of Complexity & Order are perceived as being information-rich and engaging, having achieved an intriguing balance between boring and overwhelming. This brings us back to considering how well complex structures are embedded into a design, and how integral fractal geometries and patterns are to the fabric, function, or flow of the space.

An important takeaway for designers is the concept of nested, self-similar fractal designs expressed as a third iteration of a base design, commonly explained through illustrations of a cross stitch pattern or the Koch Snowflake Curve (see figure 1: Iterative fractal geometries). Despite evidence that this higher level of complexity is likely to engender a sense of order and intrigue, as well as reduce stress in the user experience, this iterative design concept is lost in much of modern architecture, which tends to limit complexity to the second iteration. In these cases, simplified or superficial applications of complexity can consequently result in an arguably dull and inadequately nurturing form that fails to stimulate the mind or engender physiological stress reduction.

Iterative fractal geometries

Fig. 1: Iterative fractal geometries

The third iteration of a fractal, as shown in the 1/27 Koch Snowflake Curve, is more likely to engender a positive health response than less complex designs (1/3 or 1/9).

In Design for a Living Planet (Mehaffy and Salingaros, 2015, ch8), the authors stress the importance of a designer being able to distinguish between metaphorical and physical manifestations of complexity. Analogies and metaphors may seem clever and creative but tend to be quickly dated, missing the opportunity for establishing an enduring health impact. Complexity should ultimately improve how information is communicated, or how a system or space functions; for example, with strategies for the penetration and diffusion of daylight, with workstation orientation and organization, or with the flow of goods and services.

Classic frameworks for incorporating complexity and order in the built environment include multidimensional design coding (e.g., kit-of-parts modular systems), self-similar floor/street plans that enable intuitive orientation and wayfinding, and conceptual geometries that relate one spatial zone, plane, or scale to another.

One way of conceptualizing fractals is by assessing opportunities for micro, meso, and macro scales of complex structures. Examples of complex structures from nature are abundant – our own nervous, pulmonary and circulatory systems, as well as leaf capillaries; plant seed and leaf arrangements, tree branches and root systems; and the many tributaries that form a river delta. At each of these scales, the complex structure is responsible for transporting nutrients and resources vital to the functionality and of the larger organism. Should the structure be compromised, stressing and failure of the system ensue (e.g., by way of heart attack, premature species failure, or flooding, respectively). We see this in the built environment too; when a space is poorly designed, occupant stress, danger, or underutilization can result.

Complex fractals in nature

Fig. 2: Complex fractals in nature

Examples of complex structures can be found throughout nature and at countless scales. Lung capillaries, tree branches, and watershed tributaries have a surprisingly familiar fractal pattern that also surfaces in organically evolved urban grids and other flow structures.

Continue reading Complexity & Order: Establishing Meaningful Translations of Nature’s Complexities in the Built Environment, Part 2 

Additional Reading

Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros. Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science, and the Human Future, 2015. Portland, Oregon: Sustasis Press.

Nikos A. Salingaros. “Biophilia & Healthy Environments: Healthy Principles For Designing the Built World”, 2015. New York: Terrapin Bright Green.

Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane. Design in Nature: How the constructal law governs evolution in biology, physics, technology, and social organizations, Chapter 8, 2012. New York: Anchor Books.

Yannick Joye (2007). Architectural Lessons From Environmental Psychology: The Case of Biophilic Architecture. Review of General Psychology, 11 (4), 305-328.

C.M. Hägerhäll, T. Laike, R. P. Taylor, M. Küller, R. Küller, & T. P. Martin (2008). Investigations of Human EEG Response to Viewing Fractal Patterns. Perception, 37, 1488-1494.

R.P. Taylor (2006). Reduction of Physiological Stress Using Fractal Art and Architecture. Leonardo, 39 (3), 245-251.



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