“Form, Language, Complexity: Unified Architectural Theory” Course Description

by Nikos A. Salingaros, Professor of Mathematics and Architecture

The University of Texas at San Antonio

Using new results from mathematics and the sciences, learn how to shape buildings to create healing environments that improve the users' lives.




About this course

Architecture shapes the human environment according to beliefs, commercial and environmental forces, ideology, and needs. This innovative course introduces new results that prioritize human biology and wellbeing that will determine how buildings are to be conceived from now and in the future. Contemporary topics entering the architecture profession include biophilia, complexity, design patterns, evidence-based architecture, eye-tracking, form languages, fractals, and neuroscience. In particular, you will learn to use Visual Attention Software (VAS), which has revolutionized responsive commercial design.

The course is designed to provide you with the theoretical foundation necessary to succeed in future architectural and design practice. It will liberate your architectural imagination and creativity, by breaking out of narrow and sterile modernist vocabulary. By engaging with biology, your designs will be more adaptive, ethical, and honest. And you will learn to support, and not destroy, human culture's deepest values as embedded in its traditional heritage. You will be freed from the industrial-modernist model that has dominated construction and design for one century, and is leading the world towards ecological disaster.


At a glance

Language: English, Subject: Architecture, Level: Introductory to Advanced, Prerequisites: None

What you will learn

  • How to design for human sensibility and scale

  • Biological foundations of how people react to their physical environment

  • Basic principles and new tools for evaluating the adaptivity of a design

  • Pertinent content that grounds design methods directly to human health

  • Biophilia, complexity, design patterns, evidence-based architecture, eye-tracking, form languages, fractals, and neuroscience applied to architecture

  • How to perform eye-tracking simulations using 3M's Visual Attention Software to evaluate your design

  • Techniques for creating innovative form languages that break out of current aesthetic and ideological restrictions

  • An understanding of how the visual environment affects a child's developing intelligence

  • Strategies for defending your innovative designs against criticism and prejudice



  • Week 1: The structure of a scientific theory. Requirements for a mode of thought to be a theory for architecture. Discourses and modes of thought that are not theories.

  • Week 2: Form language as the basis for a theory of architecture. Requirements for a form language to generate an adaptive architecture. Relationship between form language and pattern language.

  • Week 3: Vocabulary of forms and tectonics, and their combinatorial properties. Richness of a form language, and measures of its complexity. Different examples of Form Languages. Classical, historical, regional, etc. Industrial-era form languages. Form languages of famous architects.

  • Week 4: Comparison among different form languages. Degree of complexity as a measure of their adaptivity. Regionalism as adaptation to locality. Regional versus global: a practical dimension for classifying form languages. Philosophical justifications for form languages.

  • Week 5: Adaptivity of a form language to human life. Human physiology and psychology. A direct and useful test: Alexander’s “Mirror of the Self”. Evidence-based design.

  • Week 6: Biophilia: our evolved kinship to the structure of biological forms. The nourishment human beings experience from natural forms. Hospital design and healing environments.

  • Week 7: First class project: evaluate a building based on the adaptation of its form language.

  • Week 8: Geometrical basis for natural forms. Alexander’s 15 Fundamental Properties of coherent structure.

  • Week 9: Alexander’s property “Levels of Scale” summarizes the fundamental mathematical structure of matter, known as a fractal. In forms, a fractal has structure on many different ordered scales and is the opposite of minimalism.

  • Week 10: Complexity theory applied to architecture predicts the results of eye-tracking experiments that show how people look at a building: which parts attract attention, and which are avoidant. Our body has evolved to respond to the mathematical aspects of wholeness.

  • Week 11: Second class project: evaluate a building according to Alexander’s 15 properties and the Biophilic Index.

  • Week 12: How the brain’s development is influenced by the immediate environment. A child’s intelligence grows according to environmental cues, and adult intelligence is stimulated from constant information processing.

  • Week 13: The art and practice of building structures and cities can be interpreted as an extension of our human biology. Design organization and coherence then is a problem of biology, not of abstract invention.

  • Week 14: Conclusion. Overview and summary of a new approach to the built environment, as presented in Alexander’s The Nature of Order.


Ways to take this course

If you take this course through an academic institution for credit or a certificate, you will follow its specific conditions. Here we describe the alternative Free Audit Track, which includes the Video Lectures and Course Readings.


Estimated time is 14 weeks

The self-paced Free Audit Track course is without instructor, graded essays and projects, or discussion forums. The material is presented asynchronously all at once. A student is expected to spend 5-8 hours per week mastering the material.