Rendering by Nikos Salingaros

How life is influenced by physical boundaries: Campus design, part 9

The boundary of a physical space counts for a major part of our spatial experience. Several distinct typologies for spaces contribute to a campus environment that is actively used.

Author’s note: This is the ninth in a series of ten essays that present innovative techniques for designing and repairing a corporate or university campus. These tools combine New Urbanist principles with Alexandrian design methods. Some of us know how to generate coherent spaces. The method translates mathematical concepts underlying spatial structure into working guidelines. Yet most designers and planners don’t understand how space is structured through both its internal connections, and a complex surrounding boundary. Architects commissioned by a university to impose an abstract visual style in a “master plan” simply ignore design techniques available from traditional examples. Design arrogance and the irresistible lure of fashion condemn those new campuses to become perpetual inhuman environments.

Science applied to architecture and urbanism uncovers many design typologies that degrade spaces. By “degradation,” I mean that the user experience is not what was originally expected or promised, because the geometry of the spaces makes use difficult or unpleasant in the long term. This negative effect is the opposite of what a good designer and architect ought to aim for: Namely, that the built spaces should accommodate and promote the entire range of human activities that were stated on the design brief.

My claim is surprising to many, because every designer claims that his/her creation makes a positive contribution to the built environment. Therefore, the problem is certainly not one of intent, but rather of misunderstanding the nature of space itself, and of the parameters that need to be satisfied in order to produce an adaptive, usable space. Hopefully, I can point to some neglected phenomena that will help designers generate better spaces in the future.

The problems are traced to the properties of different types of borders, whose properties are either misunderstood, or deliberately suppressed in the interest of expressing a visual “style.” Yet results responsible for adaptive solutions are documented in existing built fabric, available for all who wish to learn from those examples. New scientific insights combined with older techniques for building a more adaptive human environment can create a new type of nourishing human space.

Modernism and its contemporary successors represent largely self-referential design methods. Those buildings stand alone to grab our attention. Most signature buildings today concentrate attention from the surroundings onto themselves, leaving no coherent geometry in the surroundings External space is consequently left over, and modernist urban space is not bounded. In it, we feel threatened and exposed. When open exterior space fails our instinctive perception, it is never used. Leftover space is junk.

Urban space relies upon using the surrounding buildings as an enclosure to define the space. Open space is usable in the psychological sense only when it has a built border with special characteristics (Salingaros & Pagliardini, 2016). This situation where buildings become perimeters is topologically the opposite of a free-standing “look-at-me” building that uses open space as its own perimeter. That doesn’t work for human use: it switches the roles of user and building. The basis of our understanding of open space was negated when the topology was reversed. Modernism erased evolved human patterns guaranteeing the use of urban space. Needless to say, modernist urban space mostly lies unused when compared to traditional public spaces.

Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (Alexander et al., 1977) discovered and documented spatial configurations that optimize the users’ experience. These design patterns provide a repository of timeless solutions on how human beings use space, thus offering a crucial and invaluable aid to design. I review here five more design patterns, with my own descriptors, which generate distinct yet essential types of welcoming spaces on a campus.

Pattern 69: PUBLIC OUTDOOR ROOM. “A partially enclosed public space with roof and columns but no walls, containing places to sit, focuses pedestrian activity.”

Pattern 101: BUILDING THOROUGHFARE. “Connect pedestrian paths of two exterior sides by going through the middle of a large building. This interior space must be interesting and large enough to linger in.”

Pattern 119: ARCADES. “Reinforce major pedestrian paths along the sides of a building by creating arcades to shelter them.”

Pattern 124: ACTIVITY POCKETS. “The success of urban space depends on what can occur along its boundaries. A space will be lively only if there are pockets of activity all around its inner edges.”

Pattern 160: BUILDING EDGE. “Design the ground perimeter of a building’s exterior with a special complexity that invites walking, leaning, and sitting.”

The above patterns define complex borders, connections, and edges. A boundary’s complex geometry invites activities in real time, leading to the use of the adjoining urban space. Arcades are misunderstood as simply providing shelter against the weather, whereas their major function is psychological. The life of an urban space depends upon the ease of activities occurring along its inner edges: again, the dynamic complexity of the border determines the use of the interior.

An inviting courtyard space works because it provides several psychologically attractive features. It should have complex visual interest along its border, surfaces that can be used (they do not repel a person, nor are they ambiguous), and smaller sheltering spaces along the perimeter of the larger space. Pedestrians will use the protected space, yet have immediate access to the connecting paths and entrances. Working the same way, a line of bollards protects pedestrians, both physically and psychologically, from vehicles moving next to them.

Beginning with early modernism, a major design objective has been to eliminate borders from the built environment: window and door frames; transitional spaces; and the distinction between inside and outside. Many practitioners explicitly state this as their goal. Their justification, however, is a confused appeal to aesthetics.

All the solutions for creating intermediate spaces and protective semi-permeable borders are thrown out by designers who focus exclusively on “design purity”. Unfortunately, that stylistic approach gets rid of important geometrical elements of an accommodating environment. Without those elements, the built urban environment becomes both deadening and dangerous because specific protective barriers are no longer erected. Bollards, colonnades, and arcades are deemed to be “geometrically impure”.

Modernist ideology is not enough to explain the remarkable insularity of architectural culture. The tenacity of an exclusive and inward-looking philosophy is due to vast money interests that profit from modernist industrial building techniques. The global material industries of steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete found it highly profitable to promote early modernist projects, and have never seen any reason to change that formula for maximizing profit. For this reason, extractive industry goes hand-in-hand with architectural ideology based on glass and steel buildings, which in turn are cheaper to design according to minimalist modernism. Architectural stars are hand-picked by global construction companies, because they best represent their financial interests.

From “Borders in Architecture and Urban Design”, invited talk at the conference Architecture and Cities in Transition, Tampere Design and Architecture Week, Tampere, Finland, September 2016 (unpublished).

Three laws of human-scale urbanism

Here is the basic problem: What appears to work and connect on paper in an abstract, formalistic manner does not necessarily work and connect on the ground. This is the first law of human-scale urbanism. Moreover, there is no way to predict whether some plan drawn on paper will be successful or not without testing it at least in part at full scale. Informal settlements actually work because they are computed at full scale on the ground. On the other hand, non-interactive algorithms used to build urban fabric turn out to be irrelevant to human actions and needs. Whether some elements of this design strategy are going to be successful, or not, cannot be predicted in advance.

The second law of human-scale urbanism is that adapted computed solutions are not transferable. General, common constraints do apply in helping to compute each result, but the computation has to be done in every case under very specific local conditions, otherwise the result can never be adaptive. Even quite similar situations, if independently computed, will evolve to show substantial individual differences and modifications. The results as built on the ground are going to be different every time. These elementary lessons have been ignored by generations of post World-War II urbanists.

The third law of human-scale urbanism is that genuinely adaptive computation is based on complex urban algorithms, not algorithms for generating visual graphic effects. Urban morphology is meant to contain and promote human activities and should not be confused with visual sculptural art. Random designs disguised as “contemporary forms” are in fact arbitrary, because they are not adapted to any priorities of actual people on the ground. The way in which the final buildings, roads, paths, and open spaces are actually experienced is usually a surprise to users, after everything is built and it is too late to make any adjustments. The surprise could in fact be unpleasant, to the point of condemning the award-winning project as dysfunctional.

From “Urbanism as Computation”, keynote speech at the Complexity Theories of Cities Conference, Delft, Holland, September 2009 (Salingaros, 2012)


Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.

Nikos Salingaros (2012) “Urbanism as Computation”, in Juval Portugali, H. Meyer, E. Stolk & E. Tan, Editors (2012) Complexity Theories of Cities Have Come of Age, Springer, Berlin, 245-268.

Nikos Salingaros & Pietro Pagliardini (2016) “Geometry and life of urban space”, in: Back to the Sense of the City, 11th Virtual City & Territory International Monograph Book, Centre of Land Policy and Valuations (Centre de Política de Sòl i Valoracions), Barcelona, Spain (2016) pages 13-31.

Links to the 10-part Salingaros campus design series:

  1. Welcoming open spaces
  2. Alexander’s Oregon patterns
  3. Avoiding planned isolation
  4. ‘Walkabout’ design with human sensors
  5. Budgeting for a fractal city
  6. The university campus as a microcosm of tradition
  7. Why we hug the edge of open spaces
  8. Space is experienced positively only when it is coherent
  9. How life is influenced by physical boundaries
  10. Car-pedestrian interactions and the parking ribbon
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.