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

Continued from Complexity & Order: Establishing Meaningful Translations of Nature’s Complexities in the Built Environment, Part 1

This is the forth post in an on-going series outlining each of the 14 patterns of biophilic design, a collection of biophilic strategies codified in Terrapin Bright Green’s “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design” paper.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

At the micro scale of the built environment, we can easily translate these structures to conceptual patterns or ornamentation that perhaps hint at a collective theme or connection to place. The micro scale could thus be articulated through direct transposition to textile patterns, interior finishes, window details, and facade ornamentation. However, it is not the transposition of the image of a complex structure, but the adoption of the structure itself into the overarching design concept and organization. For instance, the design of a ceramic tiled surface will be a less successful intervention if it only expresses complexity in the glazing than if the arrangement of tiles also adheres to a complex structure that perhaps hints to more information—to a deeper story.

At the meso scale we can begin to consider in what manner a fractal may inform how users interpret a collection of designs or spaces—for example, linear and spatial subdivisions (e.g. in an open place office) or three dimensional spatial organization (elevations, circulation routes)—and how those same fractal patterns support and inspire the flow of information, people, goods, services, and resources through a building or community. The meso scale could be articulated through orientation, massing, fenestration hierarchy, and space planning.

Complex structures in the built environment

Fig. 3: Complex structures in the built environment

Built to last and adapt, complex structures (not to be confused with complicated structures) exist physically, conceptually, and temporally. Design coding for interior design of open plan office spaces, for instance, integrates complexity and order into the fabric of the space and, potentially, the office culture.

Finally, at the macro scale we consider how a fractal pattern might contribute to the dynamic, the spatial and functional evolution of systems over time. The design challenge is to establish or support the evolution of a macro scale that is perceived, navigated, or operated with ease and comfort, without engendering negative health responses such as stress or discomfort. We can think of the macro scale in terms of vertical flows through a building, the urban grid flows (for streets, energy, water, etc), resource distribution networks, local ecosystems, and watersheds. Macro scale complexity and order should aim to inform, improve, or optimize the flow and relationships between people, goods, services, and resources, through a building, community or region, and over time.

We can find good examples of such design throughout the urban fabric, from street grids, to architecture to interior design. The Paris street grid, and those of other old cities, evolved organically over time. Street networks in cities with historically slower growth rates are more likely to reflect the location and shape of previously existing natural flows of movement, giving the present era street grid an organic yet complex structure despite successive transformations of urban growth.

According to architect Herman Hertzberger, Centraal Beheer’s office in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, built in 1967, was designed for adaptability to address the constantly changing needs of the company’s departments. A series of stacked, collaborative work pods around interstitial atria provided organizational complexity and order that supported wayfinding and visual connection to the three-dimensional nature of the space.

Satya Eastern Kitchen, by ODA Architecture in New York City, uses ceramic tile for a gridded interior wall finish displaying a picture that, when examined closely, reveals the restaurant menu in Chinese characters across the image.

Complexity at scale

Fig. 4: Complexity at scale

Complex structures at each scale of the built environment can be interpreted and experienced multiple ways. As with the Paris street network (left), Central Beheer in Apeldoorn Netherlands (center), and the Satya Eastern Kitchen in New York City (right), some complex structures organically or intentionally accommodate internal changes, while others adapt to the changing environment, all the while providing different perspectives and levels of information.

As designers, we have a tendency to focus on the micro scale, if for no other reason than because it is what is asked of us. We are able to introduce the meso scale with greater regularity as clients begin to recognize the health and efficiency benefits of a more cohesive space. To elevate this endeavor to contribute to a truly effective complex structure, we need the ability and foresight to design locally while understanding the role of the micro scale in the context of other scales and timeframes. Ideally, in any given place, meso scale applications link the micro and macro scales to formulate a complex yet cohesive and orderly structure, one that is not rigid, but is instead permitted to evolved over time to adapt and promote functionality and connectedness.

Read other posts in the 14 patterns of biophilic design series by Catie Ryan 

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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