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“Form, Language, Complexity: Unified Architectural Theory” Instructor Guidelines

by Nikos A. Salingaros, Professor of Mathematics and Architecture

The University of Texas at San Antonio

This course introduces new results that are shaping how buildings are to be conceived from now and in the future. Contemporary topics entering the architecture profession from mathematics and the sciences include biophilia, complexity, design patterns, evidence-based architecture, eye-tracking, form languages, fractals, and neuroscience. In particular, students learn to use Visual Attention Software (VAS), which has revolutionized responsive commercial design. This course is designed to provide students with the theoretical foundation necessary to succeed in future architectural and design practice.

We will be reading 2 textbooks:

Christopher Alexander (2001) The Nature of Order, Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life, Center for Environmental Structure, Berkeley, California.


Nikos Salingaros (2013) Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity, Sustasis Press, Portland, Oregon; Sustasis Press, Rotterdam, Holland; Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal. Several chapters are posted free online on Architexturez. Also available in Arabic, Czech, German, Nepali, Spanish, and Urdu —



There is enough structure in the course for any student to follow it independently. It is suggested, however, to stick as closely as possible to the rhythm and sequence of a regular course so as not to lose the overall coherence. Beware of simply choosing one or more topics to study but ignoring the rest. The course works in a transformative way to shape a sensitive architect only when all the material comes together at the end of the course. Students who took the course at the University of Texas at San Antonio reported that their knowledge was in fact complete only at the end of the semester, when they were able to connect the different topics studied. They explained that later topics served to answer questions that had arisen from earlier ones.

Thanks to Architexturez, the course can run on auto-pilot. Begin by following the weekly introductory videolecture by Salingaros, then reading AND ABSORBING all of that week’s assignments. This material is challenging and unfamiliar. For the independent student, it is strongly suggested to try and design a building using a chosen form language, or to analyze an existing building, and to compute the various indices taught in the course. It will help to establish a discussion group of colleagues and friends to substitute for the class peer evaluation. Especially, do some VAS (visual attention) scans of the façades to determine how a user/viewer connects unconsciously to the building. At the time of writing, 3M corporation is offering 10 free scans to anybody who registers online —



In this case Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros are interested in providing the content and the technical assistance for Indian leaders to establish their own curriculum based on this curriculum model being proposed. For a paying student to take this course seriously, an institution will have to provide registration, follow the student’s progress, supervise their weekly essays and class projects, then award a grade and certificate or academic credit at the end. It is local instructors who will run the course, paid by the institution granting the certificate or degree. (Mehaffy and Salingaros are waiving any royalties.)

Instructors in India could be chosen by volunteering because of an interest in teaching this material, or be assigned by the Department Chair. They might be professors or even senior students who can keep one step ahead of the actual students. This is the only practical way because almost nobody knows the course material right now. Yet all that is needed is for the supervisor to encourage class discussion of the readings (and not to be an expert in the topics), and to make sure that the weekly essays are written and turned in. Both discussions and essays have one aim: to debate the ideas, state whether each student agrees or not with the position proposed in the texts, and offer arguments (either pro or con) to support the student’s understanding.

All the students are expected to spend about one working day every week on this course, and they will be instructed by faculty who are new to the subject and themselves learning on the fly. When the course was taught at the UTSA, there were 2-1/2 hours of class time and a minimum of 3 hours of reading time per week. Writing the weekly essays and preparing the semester projects involves additional time.

Student interaction in class is essential for a productive exchange of ideas, and an opportunity given to collectively explore questions that naturally arise after reading material that is unfamiliar to most architects. Extra time is needed to absorb what is read. Regardless of the eventual format adopted by the instructor, the course needs to respect the pedagogical incentive of interactive learning through individual discovery, and never revert to a top-down model of instruction.

The instructor might be placed in an embarrassing position in explaining to students why some architects claim positive qualities for their buildings, including the mechanisms taught in this course, whereas analysis reveals their absence. This exaggeration is a typical symptom of approaching design as image, instead of using the scientific methods taught here. Such architects copy the appearance of, say, biophilic design, rather than trying to understand how to apply the concept. Instructors should emphasize how this course teaches students the tools with which to judge for themselves the truthfulness of any architectural assertions.

At least for the initial year of this project, Mehaffy and Salingaros are offering to give several free coordinator’s conferences on Zoom, where all the instructors can check their progress and bring up problems and questions. Mehaffy and Salingaros are also offering to lecture directly to all of the students encompassing all participating institutions by presenting a guest lecture occasionally, also for free. The aim is to influence and train the next generation of Indian architects and educators in this innovative material, and that means reaching thousands of students right away.

To help instructors planning to offer this course, the detailed course description as taught by Salingaros at the University of Texas at San Antonio is included below. This material is meant as an aid to suggest possible formats, while it is up to the individual instructor to create their own practical framework for executing the course.

Aims of the course: This course anchors all of design decisions on a theoretical basis that is evidence-based. The objective is to train a young architect in adaptive design that prioritizes human health, the human scale, and a respect for nature. To do this requires re-orienting away from “design for design’s sake” towards a scientific basis that covers biophilia, complexity, design patterns, evidence-based architecture, eye-tracking, form languages, fractals, and neuroscience. Students will learn to use Visual Attention Software (VAS), which measures neurological responses through scanning an image. These topics are not yet taught in architecture schools, or they may be mentioned with an incomplete understanding.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this course. Indeed, it is expected that many of the students will come into this course with definite prejudices against the material that we will be covering, as picked up from prevailing notions of design and from their other courses. By the end of the semester, students will be expected to have read and absorbed all of Alexander’s book, and most of Salingaros’ book. All other necessary readings are available freely on the Architexturez website.

Senior professors familiar with Alexander’s earlier books A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building might be tempted to include them among the teaching materials. Yet those books are better used for an entirely separate course. Students taking the present course discovered the practicality of the pattern language format and the immense utility of information contained in design patterns, and started to use both A Pattern Language and the New Pattern Language for their design work by the end of the semester. Rather than following from those classic books, the present course leads into them by introducing Alexandrian methods to a generation of students who normally might never encounter them.

Attitude: A course that explores the theoretical foundation of places and buildings occupies an important place in the curriculum, as no other courses deal with the subject. The format of the class is likely somewhat new, consisting of lecture, design and analysis projects, and discussion. Therefore it is important that each student participate as fully as possible in both shaping this course and in making it a success. Input regarding the content, complexity, and structure of discussion and learning is not only desired, it is essential. The topic is not an easy one to talk about in such a way that its full complexity is revealed. It is a difficult and comprehensive subject that engages the whole of architectural production from theory to content, ideas to materials. An added burden on the student is that the discipline itself is barely emerging, with ongoing contradictions and polemics among the experts. The categories of subjects in our readings are meant to bring clarity and some form of categorization to this issue, but they do not exhaust the subject. Therefore, it will be necessary for students to use their critical and analytical powers to a greater degree than is normal for undergraduates.

Course Structure & Responsibilities: This class is meant to be something of a hybrid between lecture, seminar, and studio. For the seminar aspect it will focus on reading and discussion. For the studio aspect there will be two projects that allow you to apply the concepts and approaches discussed with regard to the theoretical basis of architecture. These will be presented to and discussed by the class. Both are intended to broaden your understanding of the design process by combining thinking with doing, theory with practice. Therefore, it is important that you faithfully read the assignments in order that our discussions are fruitful. Similarly, in the pursuance of your individual projects, it will be necessary for you to use your critical and analytical powers to a greater degree than is normal for undergraduates. The course’s success relies heavily upon your own individual reading, research activity, and attitude about what you wish to know.

Weekly reports on reading assignments: Complete all readings in a thorough manner appropriate for comprehension. I will expect every student to summarize and analyze each week’s knowledge content obtained from assigned readings and in-class discussion of the readings in a report of 1-2 pages of text maximum. Figures and illustrations may help, and those can be additional pages of unlimited number. Please turn in your reports at the beginning of each week (on the material covered in the previous week). Many reports will have to summarize several different reading assignments, so synthesize and be brief.

Guidelines for the weekly reports: You must convince me that you have thoroughly read the material. Please do not discuss material from another week’s reading, unless that is directly relevant here.

• Avoid quoting the author of the readings. Simply saying something does not validate it! Instead, you should explain whether you think it’s true based on the evidence presented.
• What is the author’s argument?
• Upon what evidence is the author relying to validate the idea presented?
• Does the author’s conception relate to the essential qualities of the architectural discipline?
• What are the criteria for judgment and criticism, and do you agree with them?

All essays are due at the beginning of the first class each week (with only one or two exceptions due to the calendar). I will read the reports and assign a grade of 1-4 based upon the student’s depth of understanding (and also presentation and neatness). An automatic reduction of points will be made for lateness: for example if a report is handed in the following class period, it can only receive 3/4 (C), whereas two class periods later it will receive 2/4 maximum points (D). Even in the case of extreme delay, all reports MUST be turned in.

In-class discussion:You are required to attend class and are expected to participate in the discussions. Rational disagreement based on evidence is strongly encouraged. I will be noting who is actively involved in constructive dialogue. If everybody does not engage spontaneously, I will call names alphabetically so that every student has an opportunity to say something during each week. This interaction will count for a percentage of your grade (12%).

Projects: There will be two projects throughout the semester, lasting approximately three weeks each that cover and expand on issues raised in class. These projects will together count for 40% of your grade.

In the first project (which students should start to think about at the beginning of the course), each student will choose a specific form language, either in an existing building, or for designing their own building. Duplication is allowed among different students, but then those will compete in their analyses. Students will document their form language, and will use it to analyze or design a building of their choice. Both form language and a rough rendering of the building will be presented in class. This is a small design exercise focused on utilizing the concepts discussed in class.

There is no restriction whatsoever in choice of particular building or form language, and past students chose from among deconstructivist, historical, modernist, postmodernist, regional, and traditional styles. Some invented a novel form language. Prior experience suggests that, simply from the way the course is structured, by the end of the semester students will have discovered for themselves the advantages of Alexandrian qualities in architecture. But this stepwise path to insight should not be forced, nor the validity of design concepts imposed on them in any way.

The second project will be an analysis project. After the main body of theoretical material has been digested, we can judge a building according to its regional adaptability, and its degree of natural qualities as measured by the Biophilic Index, degree of Life, and by Alexander’s 15 Fundamental Properties. Students will use the free Visual Attention Software scans to analyze their project. Each student’s form language (either from the first project, or a different one) will be classified in a general classification, and the class will collectively prepare a chart that locates each student’s form language on it. This result will be discussed in class.

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