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Review of General Psychology Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association

2007, Vol. 11, No. 4, 305–328 1089-2680/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.11.4.305

Architectural Lessons From Environmental Psychology:

The Case of Biophilic Architecture
Yannick Joye
Free University of Brussels

A review of findings from the field of environmental psychology shows that humans are
aesthetically attracted to natural contents and to particular landscape configurations.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

These features are also found to have positive effects on human functioning and can
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

reduce stress. However, opportunities for contact with these elements are reduced in
modern urban life. It is argued how this evolution can have subtle but nontrivial adverse
effects on psychological and physiological well-being. These can be countered by
integrating key features of natural contents and structural landscape features in the built
environment. Several practical proposals are discussed, ranging from literal imitations
of natural objects (such as plants) to the use of nature’s fractal geometry in an
architectural context.

Keywords: biophilia, environmental psychology, fractal architecture, biophilic archi-


Natural objects, shapes, and processes have tions in architecture are valuable for human
often acted as a source of inspiration throughout emotional and cognitive functioning. However,
the history of architecture. Perhaps the most the exact way in which this conclusion is
obvious example of this inspiration is ornament, reached differs in an important respect from the
which often contains representations that are narratives and arguments proposed in theories
closely similar to, or reminiscent of, the animal of organic and biomorphic architecture, which
and plant world. Besides such literal imitations, are often more philosophical (Lynn, 1998) or
some architects, notably Antonı́ Gaudı́, drew even pseudophilosophical (e.g., Steiner, 1999)
lessons from the structural forces governing nat- in nature. In contrast, the argument for nature-
ural structures, resulting in efficient and eco- based forms in architecture in the current study
nomically built architecture (e.g., Sweeney & is mainly based on empirical findings from di-
Sert, 1960). Today, there seems to be a renewed verse psychological subdisciplines. In particu-
interest in the relation between nature and ar- lar, the article starts with a concise review of
chitecture, especially in zoomorphic or biomor- empirical findings from the field of environ-
phic architecture (e.g., Feuerstein, 2002). More mental psychology and aesthetics. This survey
specifically, such architecture makes use of dig- reveals that humans have an emotional relation
ital design software, which allows one to easily with natural elements and shows that contact
recreate the curvy shapes and geometry that are with natural form is in a sense good for human
characteristic of natural entities (Lynn, 1999). psychological and physiological functioning. It
This article affirms the importance of natural is argued that, by architecturally mimicking nat-
form as a perennial source of inspiration for ural forms and structural organizations of natu-
architecture. In fact, the main conclusion of this ral settings, these beneficial effects can be
study is that nature-based forms and organiza- tapped in a built context.

The Psychoevolutionary Framework

Yannick Joye, Business Economics and Strategic Policy Different psychological subfields study the
(BEDR), Free University of Brussels, Belgium. human relation with nature. For example, evo-
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to Yannick Joye, Business Economics and Strategic lutionary psychologists argue for the existence
Policy, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belginm. E-mail: of cognitive modules that are specialized in
yannick.joye@telenet.be or yannick.joye@vub.ac.be conceptual and perceptual knowledge about
306 JOYE

natural entities. Such cognitive devices are risk (e.g., turbulent water, a predator), this trig-
claimed to have evolved to handle the survival- gered negatively toned affective reactions (e.g.,
related challenges and opportunities that were dislike), ultimately leading to avoidance behav-
present in the natural settings in which human ior. On the other hand, if a setting offered good
ancestors lived (e.g., finding food; Mithen, opportunities for survival and reproduction, this
1996; Pinker, 1994). Scott Atran (1995) argues would have caused liking reactions, leading to
how cross-cultural similarities in human folkbi- explorative behavior.
ologies support the existence of such a system. In agreement with Ulrich’s (1983) model,
In particular, Western and non-Western individ- empirical evidence shows that environments
uals seem to classify nature in similar ways and (e.g., urban vs. natural) are processed according
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

consistently ascribe essences to the taxonomic to their affective valence. Moreover, this pro-
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

types of folkbiologies. Atran’s view is consis- cess seems to occur very rapidly, which sup-
tent with the literature on category-specific def- ports the immediate and automatic character of
icits, in which people are reported to have de- these affective responses (Hietanen & Korpela,
ficient perceptual and conceptual knowledge 2004; Korpela Klemettilä, & Hietanen, 2002).
about the category of living things. One of the According to the psychoevolutionary frame-
interpretations of the causes of such deficits is work, survival chances further increased if these
that, under evolutionary pressures, specific neu- emotional reactions had an inherited compo-
ral areas have become specialized in informa- nent: No precious time and energy had to be
tion about living entities (e.g., Caramazza & spent learning what kinds of environments were
Shelton, 1998). either beneficial or harmful (S. Kaplan, 1987,
Perhaps the psychological field that has most 1988; Ulrich, 1983). With regard to the neural
profoundly studied the human (affective) psy- origin of these affective states, some researchers
chological relation with natural entities is envi- attribute an important role to subcortical areas,
ronmental psychology. This research area draws especially the amygdala. Because these struc-
on numerous empirical studies and is, therefore, tures are also involved in modulating stress-
less speculative than the just-mentioned modu- related hormones, it provides an explanation of
larity thesis. One of the central issues of envi- why certain types of settings have a different in-
ronmental psychology is how different types of fluence on autonomic stress responses (Parsons,
settings can trigger different affective states in 1991; see also Joye, 2007, for an in-depth discus-
individuals (e.g., liking or preference reactions). sion of this issue).
Two important proposals have been advanced
with regard to the specific process underlying Aesthetic Preference and Structural
these emotional states. In the preference matrix, Landscape Features
developed by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, the
occurrence of such states is to a large extent the What is the character of the settings or ele-
result of cognitively assessing whether certain ments that can trigger such immediate affective
informational features are present in a setting states? The literature states that, on the one
(R. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This contrasts hand, these reactions can be provoked by some
with a central tenet of Roger Ulrich’s (1983) typical structural landscape features. Although
psychoevolutionary framework. In this model, coming from a different research field, geogra-
which will form the backbone of the current pher Jay Appleton was one of the first to pro-
study, affective responses toward environmen- pose a model addressing this issue (Appleton,
tal settings are not mediated by cognition but 1975). According to Appleton’s prospect–
stem from a rapid, automatic, and unconscious refuge theory, human beings’ preference for
process by which environments are immedi- landscapes correlates with two environmental
ately liked or disliked. These fast affective re- qualities: prospect and refuge. The notion of
actions are claimed to be rooted in human evo- prospect refers to settings or landscape elements
lutionary history and are essentially adaptive: that facilitate obtaining information about the
They motivated the organism to quickly under- environment. A typical example is a hill, which
take actions that contributed to its well-being aids to visually access and inspect the surround-
and survival. For example, if early humans ing area. On the other hand, refuge points to
came across a setting containing an important settings that can provide shelter and protection.

An evident example is a cave, which can protect liked because they contributed to the survival
against predators and weather conditions. and reproduction of early humans. Flowers, for
Ulrich’s psychoevolutionary framework lists example, signaled the presence of food sources
some other visual cues that are associated with and were cues for future foraging sites. They
immediate positive affective reactions: com- also helped in differentiating between different
plexity, gross structural properties (e.g., pat- vegetation types, because plants that are not
terns), depth properties, ground surface and blooming often look quite similar (Orians &
texture, absence of threats, and deflected vista Heerwagen, 1992). Trees protected against sun
(Ulrich, 1983). The predictors in Rachel and and rain and offered early humans prospects on
Stephen Kaplan’s preference matrix overlap to the surrounding landscape and retreats from
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

a certain extent with the variables listed by predators (Appleton, 1975; Orians & Heerwa-
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

Ulrich. The Kaplans’ model (R. Kaplan & gen, 1992; Summit & Sommer, 1999).
Kaplan, 1989; S. Kaplan, 1987, 1988) describes These benefits can explain why vegetative
two types of postures toward the environment. elements and settings containing vegetation still
An individual can be actively involved in an cause aesthetic or liking reactions. Different
environment: One can, for example, explore the empirical studies show that individuals consis-
setting. Alternatively, an individual can try to tently prefer natural, vegetated landscapes over
understand the environment. The Kaplans argue urban settings without vegetation. When urban
that these two attitudes are associated with four environments are mutually compared, highest
structural landscape properties, each of which preference is associated with urban settings con-
correlates with positive aesthetic evaluations taining some vegetation, especially trees, or a wa-
and positively influences landscape selections. ter feature (Smardon, 1988; Thayer & Atwood,
The structural properties that facilitate involve- 1978; Ulrich, 1986). Such phytophilia is also clear
ment in the environment are complexity and from the observation that nonnatural environ-
mystery. Stephen Kaplan defines complexity as ments (e.g., home and working interiors) often
a measure for “how much is ‘going on’ in a contain actual vegetative elements or (decorative)
particular scene, how much there is to look at” references to natural content (Eibl-Eibesfeldt,
(1988, p. 48). Mystery refers to settings whose 1989; Heerwagen & Orians, 1986). Although em-
layout suggests that more information can be pirical research on preferential reactions toward
acquired if the scene is penetrated more deeply. flowers is scarce, some studies show that these
An example of a mysterious landscape quality is elements are indeed associated with positive aes-
a deflected vista, such as a winding trail. Struc- thetic reactions (e.g., Haviland-Jones, Rosario,
tural properties that facilitate understanding the Wilson, & McGuire, 2005; Todorova, Asakawa,
environment are coherence and legibility. Co- & Aikoh, 2004).
herence refers to features that contribute to the Still, a possible critique of preferential re-
organization, understanding, and structuring of search into greenery is that when vegetated
the landscape image, such as symmetries, re- landscapes and nonvegetated (urban) architec-
peating elements, and unifying textures. Finally, tural settings are mutually compared, the latter
legibility refers to landscape qualities that help most often involve representations of quite
to predict and maintain orientation in the land- modern buildings or at least buildings that are
scape as one further explores it. Think, for ex- not very rich in form. However, it can be
ample, of a prominent rock functioning as an pointed out that nature is often characterized by
orientation point. a typical sort of geometry, or fractal geometry
(see later discussion). This type of geometry
The Aesthetic Appeal of Natural Contents often does not apply to modern buildings or
modern urban settings. A possibility that needs
In addition to the previous structural land- to be entertained is that the preference for veg-
scape features, the field of environmental psy- etated scenes is not due to the fact that it is a
chology also studies the natural contents that natural setting but, instead, that it must (to a
contribute to the aesthetic qualities of settings: certain extent) be drawn back to the underlying
namely (calm) water features and vegetative geometric features of the scene. It would, there-
elements. The explanatory framework, again, is fore, be interesting to compare natural settings
essentially evolutionary. These elements are with buildings or urban scenery that emulate a
308 JOYE

more natural geometry, such as Gothic cathe- Within the field of landscape aesthetics, the
drals. (Note that this critique does not under- savanna hypothesis is often taken for granted
mine our plea for nature-based, or biophilic, and has remained mostly undisputed. Neverthe-
architecture but instead only strengthens it.) less, we find it troubling that almost no attention
is paid to discussions in the field of paleoan-
The Savanna Hypothesis thropology. For instance, Wilson (1993) argues
how our preferences for nature, savannas in
In habitat theory, savannas are claimed to particular, are remnants of paleohominid and
be the settings in which early humans spent a early Homo evolution in this type of biome, a
substantial part of their evolutionary history, view shared by many in the field of habitat
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and these seem to display an ideal mix of the theory and landscape aesthetics. Yet there is no
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

previously discussed structural landscape fea- consensus on the claim that the savanna is the
tures and natural contents (Van den Berg, unique environment of evolutionary adapted-
2004). This type of biome can be broadly ness. In his review, Potts (1998) sketches a
described as low to intermediately complex more complex view that is supported by scien-
settings, having a relatively even and grassy tific environmental analyses. It evidences that,
ground surface dotted with scattered trees or during the evolution of early hominids, there
tree groups. Savannas contain a high degree was quite some variation in the environments
of biomass and meat, and these are relatively that were inhabited, ranging from forests to
easily accessible for terrestrial beings (as op- savannas to open-canopy woodlands. Still, it
posed to, e.g., tropical forests). Furthermore, could be countered that the truth value of the
the openness of savannas facilitates detecting savanna hypothesis does not have any bearing
predators and game and is conducive of on the finding that humans adapt to and display
movement and a nomadic lifestyle (Orians, positive affective affiliations with natural envi-
1980; Orians & Heerwagen, 1992). ronments. As Kahn (1999, p. 39) points out,
The aesthetic preference for savanna-type “The evolutionary account can hold, but the
landscapes has been the subject of a few savanna hypothesis needs to give way to a
empirical studies. Balling and Falk (1982) broader account of genetic predispositions to
found that young individuals preferred savan- inhabited landscapes.”
nas over other biomes without ever being
exposed to the former type of landscape. The Naturalness and Stress Reduction
researchers hypothesize that these findings
could well point to an innate (aesthetic) pref- Besides causing liking responses, natural el-
erence for savannas (see also: Synek & Gram- ements (e.g., vegetation and water features) are
mer, 1998; but see Coss, 2003, for contrasting also found to contribute to the restoration of
findings). Consistent with the savanna hy- human individuals. Two major interpretations
pothesis, research indicates that people tend of restorative responses have been proposed.
to prefer tree shapes characteristic of high- The first, attention restoration theory (ART),
quality savannas: These typically have a low was developed by the Kaplans (e.g., R. Kaplan
trunk, a broad canopy, and a moderate canopy & Kaplan, 1989). Essentially, ART interprets
layering (Orians & Heerwagen, 1992; Sommer restoration as the recovery of directed attention
& Summit, 1995). Inquiries into the evolution or the ability to focus. This capacity is deployed
of artists’ work (e.g., John Constable) show an during tasks that require profound concentra-
increase of conspicuous savanna features over tion, such as proofreading or studying. Natural
time (e.g., opening up views; Heerwagen & settings have been found to be ideally suited to
Orians, 1993). Furthermore, studies indicate restore or rest directed attention (e.g., Hartig,
that when artificial changes are made to plants Evans, Jamner, Davis, & Gärling, 2003; Hartig
and trees, these increasingly come to resemble Mang, & Evans, 1991).
savanna-type vegetation (Heerwagen & Orians, The second major interpretation of restora-
1993). Finally, areas that are created for recre- tion is a part of Ulrich’s psychoevolutionary
ational or aesthetic purposes (e.g., parks or golf framework. In this view, restoration applies to a
terrains) often resemble savannas (Orians, much broader context than attentional capaci-
1980). ties (e.g., Parsons, 1991; Ulrich, 1993; Ulrich et

al., 1991). More specifically, Ulrich under- The Value of Nature-Based, or Biophilic,
stands restoration as stress reduction, and stress Architecture
can occur even when directed attention is not
fatigued. Within Ulrich’s model, restorative re- Although there is solid empirical evidence
sponses are explained by the fact that early that humans hold positive affiliations with a
humans were often confronted with threatening specific set of landscapes and natural elements,
and demanding situations (e.g., a predator). As this does not preclude that some natural features
discussed, such confrontations lead to the quick or occurrences also cause more negative and
onset of negatively toned affective reactions and even aversive reactions in humans (e.g., Mineka
corresponding adaptive behavior. Ulrich (1993) & Öhman, 2002; Van den Berg & ter Heijne,
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

notes that the immediate effects of such re- 2005). Another issue is that the experimental
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

outcomes are sometimes difficult to integrate

sponses are beneficial for the individual. Yet
into a coherent, overarching conceptual frame-
such reactions also have a certain cost in that
work. For example, what is the relation between
they lead to physiological and psychological abstract structural landscape features and the
stress (e.g., high blood pressure, feeling de- preference for water elements? Other issues are
pressed). When the threat has vanished, the that differences in nature appreciation are often
individual is in need of restoration from the left in the dark in these discussions (but see Van
stress that has been caused. The benefits of such den Berg, 2004), and it is still a matter of debate
restorative responses are “a shift toward a more in which sense the genetic component of these
positively toned emotional state, mitigation of (positive) affiliations should be understood
deleterious effects of physiological mobiliza- (Cummins & Cummins, 1999). Still, whatever
tion (reduced blood pressure, lower levels of the outcome of these matters, the general pic-
circulating stress hormones), and the recharging ture emerging from the previous concise review
of energy expended in the physiological arousal is that humans have a (partly) hardwired emo-
and behavior” (Ulrich, 1993, p. 99). These re- tional affiliation with certain classes of natural
storative responses typically occurred in natural objects. Some researchers have argued about
unthreatening (savanna-like) settings. Such the affective relation with natural elements and
open, low-risk environments often contained a landscapes in terms of biophilia (e.g., Kellert &
(calm) water feature and sometimes had a small Wilson, 1993; Wilson, 1984). Although the the-
fire. Restoration was also facilitated by the avail- oretical merits of this term have been ques-
ability of resources, which reduced stress related tioned (Joye, 2007), in the remainder of this
to the uncertainty of finding food (Ulrich, 1993). report the notions biophilic and biophilia will
The stress-reducing effect of nature is still nevertheless be used as synthetic concepts.
effective today because those individuals who The occurrence of biophilic responding
could respond restoratively to stressful situa- stands in sharp contrast with the observation
tions survived better. In an often-cited article in that there is increasingly less contact with na-
ture in Western technologically oriented societ-
Science, Ulrich (1984) discusses a study of hos-
ies. Wolff, Medin, and Pankratz (1999) found
pital patients who had undergone gall bladder
that such an evolution has nontrivial effects on
surgery and had rooms with views of either a
cultural expressions of nature. In particular,
small tree group or of a brown brick wall. As they made a historical study of word use in
opposed to patients with the brick wall view, dictionaries and found that, from the 20th cen-
patients with the tree view had shorter hospital tury onward, the use of (folk)biological terms
stays, received fewer negative comments from devolved, and their application lost precision. In
the nurses, required less moderate and strong contrast, several nonbiological terms evolved
analgesics, and had slightly fewer postoperative during this period (e.g., books, clothes, furni-
complications. (For further research into the ture). Apart from being associated with an im-
relation between stress reduction and nature, poverishing conceptual framework for natural
see, e.g., Custers, 2006; Hartig et al., 2003; objects, it is also plausible that reduced contact
Parsons, Tassinary, Ulrich, Hebl, & Grossman- with nature can be accompanied by a reduced
Alexander, 1998; Ulrich, 1981; Ulrich et al., knowledge of the rich variety of forms charac-
1991). teristic of natural entities. A probable artistic or
310 JOYE

creative consequence is that the formal curric- them to other domains or contexts can prove
ulum of artists and architects becomes nar- problematic and harmful. Today, we can wit-
rower. The reason is that natural form can be ness how thinking about nature and natural re-
considered as a creative or compositional gram- sources in terms of things that can be manipu-
mar, which can be used for creating artwork, or, lated has devastating effects. The upshot is that
as Stephen Kellert put it, “The aesthetics of this shifts the balance even further toward func-
nature can function as a kind of monumental tional thinking, because nature is replaced by
design model” (Kellert, 1997, p. 36). The loss of entities that predominantly require functional
this monumental design model has its architec- analyses. Probably, this process can be coun-
tural counterpart in modern urban settings, tered by extensive contact with the natural
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which are increasingly governed by euclidean world, and developing a rich conceptual frame-
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geometry and stripped of ornament, patterning, work about it (e.g., by nature education). This
detailing, and color (Salingaros, 2004). Archi- could help people realize that functional think-
tectural references to nature can help put an end ing is not always desirable with regard to na-
to this uniformity. By encouraging architects to ture. While being more speculative, it can be
integrate natural forms and patterns in their hypothesized that integrating naturalistic ele-
work, they are motivated to study nature’s ments in architecture can counteract the increas-
shapes and compositional rules, and this can ing dominance of functional semantic networks
enrich their creative curriculum. and the associated epistemological attitude. Ad-
Besides having creative consequences, re- mittedly, people will not consider biophilic ar-
duced contact with natural form could also sub- chitecture or design as actual nature. However,
tly influence the way in which people think such architecture shares some essential formal
about the world. Inquiries into semantic mem- features with living things, and research indi-
ory indicate that processing conceptual infor- cates that perceptual features are important for
mation about living things mainly relies on per- recognizing living things. Biophilic design
ceptual information (e.g., the concept “zebra” could lead to more attentiveness to an object’s
activates perceptual information, such as perceptual qualities, thereby leading attention
“stripes”), whereas processing nonliving things away from its possible functions and the asso-
or artifacts depends on functional information ciated functionalist postures. Furthermore, be-
(e.g., the concept “knife” activates functional cause of the (hardwired) emotional affiliation
information, such as “cutting”; e.g., Crutch & with certain natural elements, nature-based ar-
Warrington, 2003; Farah & McClelland, 1991). chitecture can awaken fascination for natural
These findings could have important implica- forms. Such an attitude could be ecologically
tions. The presence of nonnatural things, and relevant, because it is found that proenvironmental
especially artifacts (e.g., cell phones, comput- behavior is positively influenced by emotional
ers, chairs, pots, printers), is ever increasing in states toward nature (Kals, Schumacher, &
the human living environment at the expense of Montada, 1999).
natural structures or entities. A probable conse- Without a doubt, people can get used to less
quence is that neural areas related to an object’s formal diversity in the built environment. How-
functionality and hence functional analyses ever, such a situation is not desirable because an
(i.e., how an object should be used or manipu- increasing dominance of uniform (modernist)
lated) are becoming increasingly more domi- environments will probably have a number of
nant in our thinking about the constituents of the psychological and physiological costs. Recall
modern living environment. As we become how, under evolutionary pressures, natural
more acquainted with such thinking, it is not forms and environments became associated
implausible that it will be deployed in other with a broad range of emotions, ranging from
domains as well (e.g., to generate explanations). fear to excitement. In the human ancestral
This could especially occur when knowledge world, such associations promoted fitness be-
about phenomena in a certain domain, such as cause they motivated the organism to undertake
the natural world, becomes increasingly more adaptive reactions (e.g., flight). Today, there
scarce or more underdeveloped. seems to be a discrepancy between the habitats
Although functional postures are important humans have evolved in and modern urban set-
and necessary in certain fields, transferring tings. For example, it was already noted that the

former was characterized by, among others, a terventions are denoted as nature-based, or bio-
mix of complexity and order (S. Kaplan, 1987, philic, architecture.
1988; Ulrich, 1983). Yet current architectural
settings do not appeal to this ordered complex- Integrating Structural Landscape Features
ity. Modernist architecture mainly consists of in Architecture
simple volumetric forms and thus deprives the
senses in their constant search for meaningful How can the structural landscape features,
information. On the other hand, postmodern and discussed earlier, be meaningfully applied to the
deconstructive architecture deliberately destroy built environment? This is a more difficult issue
architectural coherence, either by jumbling than applying well-defined natural contents to
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together disparate stylistic and formal elements architecture, because the former features are of
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

or by placing the destruction of coherence a more abstract nature. Furthermore, only very
and structure at the heart of the tradition few researchers have addressed this issue and
(Salingaros, 2004). Furthermore, modern build- proposed clear guidelines on how to success-
ing is often dictated by efficiency and economic fully integrate these qualities in architectural
motives, barely leaving room for symbolic and settings.
stylistic references to natural contents (e.g., or- First, turn to the type of setting that contains
nament; Pinker, 2002; Salingaros, 2004). In an ideal mix of these structural landscape fea-
short, much of the modern built environment tures, namely the savanna. An evident strategy
fundamentally lacks (references to) the contents to imitate savannas is to integrate photographs
and structural organization that are characteris- or projections of savannas in (interior) spaces.
tic of a good habitat. Exposure to such environ- Another, more architectural method consists of
ments could rapidly and automatically trigger mimicking key structural features of savannas.
negatively toned feelings and the associated Possible strategies include creating wide and
open spaces; making variations in the architec-
stress-related endocrinal reactions (Ulrich,
tural topography; integrating clusters of real or
1983). Although such responses could go by
symbolic trees (e.g., columns); and integrating a
largely unnoticed because of human habituation
water feature (e.g., a fountain) or even a small
to this type of environment, the long-term oc-
fire. Note how certain retail settings, such as
currence of such stress reactions could have shopping malls, often contain these elements.
important health effects (Parsons, 1991). Because a major goal of the retail sector is
Increasing urbanization undoubtedly has a attracting people, it should be no surprise that
number of positive consequences. For example, organizational features of preferred settings are
in modern cities, people come to live closer (intuitively) deployed in such commercial con-
together, which could promote social interac- texts (Heerwagen, 2003).
tion and the pleasure and enjoyment associated Because of their openness, savannas provided
with this (Van den Berg, Hartig, & Staats, good prospects on the surrounding area. Fur-
2007). Furthermore, there is nothing inherently thermore, trees typical of savannas (acacias)
wrong or undesirable about modern building have low trunks and could, therefore, be
styles, and there is no reason to doubt the gen- climbed to see across the landscape and to es-
uineness of positive reactions to such buildings. cape predators. On the other hand, the broad
What, according to the current argument, could canopies provided good protection against sun
become problematic is the (growing) domi- and rain. Grant Hildebrand (1999) uses Apple-
nance of such nonnatural building styles at the ton’s (1975) notions of prospect and refuge as
expense of settings with natural form languages explanatory principles for the aesthetic appeal
(albeit natural or artificial ones). The core argu- of certain buildings. Although Hildebrand does
ment of the current study is that, by including not provide exact guidelines, his analyses show
elements of ancestral habitats in the built envi- which spatial organizations influence the pros-
ronment, one can counter potential deleterious pect and refuge dimensions of buildings. With
effects, which stem from this dominance, result- regard to Frank Lloyd Wright’s house in Talie-
ing in more positive affects and more relaxed sin, Wisconsin, Hildebrand notes the following:
physiological and psychological states. In the “Deep overhanging eaves, alcoves and recesses,
remainder of this article, such architectural in- the withdrawal of the house in the dense foliage,
312 JOYE

Figure 1. Patterns can be obtained by some simple mathematical transformations (Salinga-

ros, 2003): (A) randomness; (B) translational symmetries; (C) reflectional symmetries; (D)
rotational symmetries that are nested. (Copyright © Yannick Joye.)
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

and the cave-like masses of stone anchoring the tion. Yet organic architects often use a geomet-
house to the hill all convey that this is a haven ric module (e.g., a triangle) as main composi-
within which one can withdraw secure. Exten- tional element (Mead, 1991). In this way, dif-
sive bands of window and the balcony reaching ferent parts of the building are given a similar
out over the falling landscape, moreover, indi- form, which results in an overall coherence
cate that the advantages of generous prospect (Eaton, 1998).
are likely to be available within” (p. 28). It is It could be noted that merely repeating sim-
clear that feelings of prospect and refuge can be ilar elements does not guarantee an ordered
evoked by specific architectural interventions. complexity. On the contrary: It can even lead to
Strategies for evoking concealment are reduc- random structures, as in deconstructivism. A
ing lighting conditions, lowering ceilings, and possible solution is to organize these (similar)
making small windowless spaces enclosed by elements through patterns. These are often the
thick walls. The prospect dimension depends on result of only a few simple mathematical oper-
opposite characteristics: larger space dimen- ations, such as reflectional, rotational, transla-
sions, raised ceilings, thin transparent walls, tional, and glide symmetries. More complex
wide views on surrounding spaces, building on patterns are obtained when these symmetries are
an elevated site, increased lighting conditions, repeated or when they are nested (Salingaros,
balconies, and so on. 2003; Figure 1A–D). Traditionally, patterns
Prospect and refuge can be linked to the take in a prominent place within the organic
predictors complexity and coherence, central to tradition. Historically, they can also be found in,
the Kaplans’ preference matrix (e.g., R. Kaplan for example, tiling, ornaments, mosaics, stained
& Kaplan, 1989). Only a setting that contains glass windows, and (oriental) carpets.
enough prominent landscape features (e.g., Another structural feature that positively cor-
trees, rocks) can provide opportunities for ref- relates with landscape selection is mystery.
uge. On the other hand, if a setting contains too Some claim that this property can be conveyed
many elements, this makes it difficult to have a by specific design elements: “When appearing
clear view over the landscape. Although com- around corners, attached to walls, and hung
plexity and coherence have primarily been ap- from ceilings, interesting objects, architectural
plied to landscapes, there is empirical evidence details or motifs, graphics, video displays and
that a balanced presence of both properties con- artifacts can create a little mystery and surprise
tributes to the aesthetic qualities of built settings in the workplace” (Hase & Heerwagen, 2000, p.
(e.g., Herzog, Kaplan, & Kaplan, 1982). How- 30). However, the most straightforward way to
ever, how can a complex set of architectural apply mystery to an architectural setting is by
elements be ordered? Again, take a look at the deflected vista. This can be realized by letting
architectural tradition associated with Frank the architectural trail (e.g., corridor) bend away,
Lloyd Wright, namely organic architecture. In which can lead to curiosity of what might lie
essence, organic architecture is not restricted by beyond the bend, thereby encouraging explor-
stylistic conventions but is characterized by an ative behavior. Another mode of mystery is
inherent form freedom. Although not necessary, called “enticement.” Essentially, this notion re-
this often translates in buildings that are quite fers to the situation in which a person is in the
irregular and complex both in plan and eleva- dark, from where it can see a partially visible

and enlightened area or setting. Such enlight- vegetal patterns, in traditional ornament. Ad-
ened regions draw attention and trigger explor- mittedly, it could be possible that such imita-
ative behavior. Although mysterious settings tions will not be very successful, because the
can be aesthetically appealing, too much irreg- associated emotional states could quickly be
ularity or surprise can have the result that the followed and suppressed by higher order or
layout of the building becomes confusing and cultural beliefs. For example, the architectural
nontransparent, ultimately leading to orientation community could consider such imitations as
and way-finding problems. Legibility can be kitsch. Nevertheless, it should be noted that
enhanced by integrating signalizations and dis- there is often a discrepancy between what is
tinctive markings, by offering views on the out- found appealing by experts and laypersons. The
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side, and by making the building shape more primary goal of this study is not to argue for
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regular (Evans & McCoy, 1998). what is supposedly fashionable or to defend

high art but to indicate what could be psycho-
Imitating Natural Contents in Architecture logically appealing for the broad public.
An alternative to literal imitations is to create
How could natural contents be integrated into architectural designs based on schematic imita-
the built environment? Evidently, this can be tions of natural elements. These would no
done by providing views on the outside envi- longer be exact copies but artistic interpreta-
ronment, by integrating vegetation in built set- tions that still contain some global visual simi-
tings, by hanging nature pictures on the wall, by larities with regard to the original natural object.
nature-oriented screensavers, and so on. These One of the central claims of the current study is
interventions are what Stephen Kellert (2005) that such constructions will be accompanied by
called indirect experiences of nature, and they affective states that are similar to those evoked
come quite close to the design interventions by real natural contents. Orians and Heerwagen
from the field of evidence-based design (Ulrich (1992, p. 572) expressed it as follows: “An
& Zimring, 2004; Van den Berg & Van Winsum- evolutionary-ecological approach to aesthetics
Westra, 2006). It is in this sense that the modern suggests that the incorporation of trees and tree
built environment sometimes imports some of the forms, actual or symbolic, into the built envi-
icons of habitability that are typical of ancestral ronment should have a strong positive impact
habitats. The result is that even architecture that is on people. . .We predict that the presence of
characterized by nonnatural forms can be consis- these ‘symbolic trees’ is associated with posi-
tent with the current argument. For example, some tive response to built environments.”
modernist architecture (e.g., Mies’s Farnsworth Although the occurrence of biophilic re-
House) is characterized by large expanses of glass, sponses to symbolic representations of nature
by which the building opens up to the surrounding could be prima facie plausible, it is problematic
natural landscape, potentially causing biophilic re- that it is often taken for granted in the literature
sponses in the inhabitants. on biophilic architecture. Although research
Implanting a building in a natural landscape that has directly tested this prediction is lacking,
does not necessarily tell us something about the some indirect arguments can be presented that
architectural form and whether it in some sense support the conclusion. First, it is evident that
displays key features of our ancestral habitats. domain-specific mechanisms in the brain will
Because we factually inhabit contexts in which be activated by the objects in which they are
buildings are often more dominant than nature, specialized. For example, a face detection
it also becomes relevant to come to biophilic mechanism will be activated by its proper input:
interventions that pertain to the architectural actual human faces. Yet it seems that such do-
form. But how should such interventions be main-specific mechanisms do not care about
conceived? A first strategy is to architecturally whether the objects it analyzes are in any sense
imitate preferred natural entities, such as vege- real or symbolic. More specifically, these neural
tative elements. Such imitations can take on areas also tend to become activated by elements
different levels of abstraction. A first option is that share some central geometric features with
to literally copy these elements in architectural the proper input of the domain-specific systems.
design. As already noted, there is an age-old This is one reason why a symbolic representa-
tradition to copy nature, especially floral and tion of a face, such as, for example, a smiley
314 JOYE

face ( ) or the front of a car, can be perceived of ethology, such stimuli are labeled “supernor-
as having facelike features (Pinker, 1997; Sper- mal stimuli” (Tinbergen & Perdeck, 1950).
ber & Hirschfeld, 2004) and can lead to the Ramachandran and Hirstein (1999) argue how
onset of similar emotions as real eyes or faces this phenomenon is one of the central laws that
(e.g., Aiken, 1998a). Similarly, it is probable artists (unconsciously) deploy in art. They clarify
that the neural mechanisms specialized in pro- this principle by referring to a phenomenon ob-
cessing natural elements will also be activated served in the field of animal discrimination,
by stimuli that share essential geometric fea- namely the peak shift effect. A rat that is taught to
tures with natural elements, such as symbolic or discriminate between a square and a rectangle and
imitative representations of nature in architec- is rewarded for discriminating the rectangle will
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ture. Because of the importance of quickly dis- respond more frequently to the rectangle. How-
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playing adaptive behavior to natural stimuli ever, when the original rectangle is elongated, the
(e.g., exploration, escape, fighting), it is proba- rat will respond even stronger to this new rectan-
ble that at the early stages of processing some gle than to the rectangle that it was taught to
affective processing or priming will already discriminate. According to Ramachandran and
take place, before any conscious recognition of Hirstein (1999), artwork often taps a similar ef-
the imitated natural elements occurs (Ulrich, fect: “What the artist tries to do (either con-
1983). sciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture
Further reasons why architectural imitations the essence of something but also to amplify it in
of nature could trigger biophilic responses are order to more powerfully activate the same neural
more empirical in nature. First, it can be pointed mechanisms that would be activated by the orig-
out that research on environmental preferences inal object” (p. 17). According to Ramachandran
often uses simulations of nature (e.g., photos, and Hirstein, such amplifications can occur along
posters, videos, and even paintings). The results different dimensions of the artistic work: for ex-
that are obtained with these stimuli are close to ample, form, color, and movement (see also
the responses associated with real nature, which Aiken, 1998b). It is clear that, in the present dis-
suggests that realness does not play a decisive cussion, main interest goes to amplification of the
role. (Yet it should be noted that in such con- architectural form, which can cause a peak shift
texts nature is mostly depicted very realistically, effect with regard to real natural forms.
and when only realistic representations of na- Maybe the most well-known examples of ar-
ture can be used in architecture, this restricts the chitecture in which schematic interpretations of
range of possible architectural interventions al- natural forms are present have been created by
most exclusively to ornamentation). Second, Antonı́ Gaudı́. For example, the interior col-
symbolic representations of nature have been umns of the Sagrada Familia are quite similar to
used throughout the history of art for aesthetic treelike and flowering structures (Figure 2A–B).
enhancements, which suggests that these can Indeed, one can clearly differentiate a stem,
trigger biophilic responses. Third, research in- which bifurcates into further branches and sub-
dicates that preferences for natural settings can branches. The canopy of these treelike struc-
be statistically predicted by underlying geomet- tures consists of flowering forms, which further
ric characteristics, which lends plausibility to strengthens the impression of symbolic vegeta-
the claim that geometric abstractions from na- tion. A more modern architect whose work also
ture can cause the associated affective effects contains schematic interpretations of natural ob-
(Hägerhäll, Purcell, & Taylor, 2004; see also jects is Santiago Calatrava. Like in Gaudı́’s
Fractals and Biophilic Reactions: A Critical work, structural forces are an important deter-
Evaluation section). minant of the shape of Calatrava’s architecture.
There is a further important reason why sym- Yet he also seems to be directly inspired by the
bolic or schematic interpretations of naturalness shapes of nature. According to Von Moos, “His
can lead to aesthetic reactions. This conclusion architecture relates to the morphologies of plant
is based on the finding that formal abstractions and animal life— on land, in the depth of the
or simplifications of certain conspicuous traits sea, or in imagination” (Tischhauser & Von
of (survival-relevant) stimuli lead to similar, Moos, 1998, p. 338). Particularly relevant for
or even stronger, emotional responses as the the present discussion is that several building
original (natural) stimulus. Within the field elements resemble vegetative structures. For in-
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Figure 2. The interior of Gaudı́’s Sagrada Familia contains schematic interpretations of

natural contents. Left: columns as treelike structures. Right: flowerlike canopies. (From
Guillaume Paumier. Used with permission).

stance, both Calatrava’s Orient Station (Lisbon) speculate that the high restorativeness of natural
and his BCE Place (Toronto) could be interpreted scenes could be due to their fractal characteris-
as “‘forests’ of structural ‘trees’” (Tzonis, 1999, p. tics, whereas built environments are low in re-
82; Figure 3). storativeness because of their underlying eu-
clidean geometry.
Applying Nature’s Fractal Geometry to Fractal geometry has been described and ex-
Architecture plored since the 1970s (Mandelbrot, 1977). The
term fractal is derived from the Latin word
What is a fractal? Are there any good rea- fractus, meaning broken or fractured. One of the
sons to go beyond the imitation of natural con- defining features of a fractal is that this rough-
tents? Is there something about the outlook of ness recurs on different scales of magnitude
nature that can be abstracted away and applied (Figure 4). When zooming in on a fractal, at
to architecture while still giving rise to biophilic each magnification a structure appears that is
reactions? We hinted at this already and specu- more or less similar to the global form of the
lated that the underlying (fractal) geometry of fractal, a property labeled “self-similarity.” An-
natural scenes is perhaps a contributing factor to other feature that plays an important role within
aesthetic and stress-reducing responses. Some the field of fractal geometry is the concept of
scholars adhere to similar ideas. Katcher and dimension. In euclidean geometry, lines have a
Wilkins (1993) note that it would be valuable to dimension of one, whereas geometric objects,
“search for general characteristics of the pat- such as squares and triangles, have a dimension
terns in nature that produce relaxation. Explor- of two, and volumes in space are three dimen-
ing the ability of computer-generated fractal sional. In contrast, the dimension of a fractal, or
structures to entrain subjects’ attention and in- the fractal dimension, is not an integer value.
duce calm could be a promising approach, as For fractals in the plane, the fractal dimension
well, since waves, flames, and clouds can be lies between the first and the second dimension,
duplicated by fractals. Fractal structures could which gives a value between 1 and 2
also relate the physiological and cognitive ef- (e.g., 1.46). For fractals in space, the fractal
fects of both natural phenomena such as waves dimension lies between 2 and 3 (Voss, 1988).
and cultural artifacts like music” (pp. 177–178). Essentially, these noninteger values are due to
Similarly, Purcell, Peron, and Berto (2001) the fact that fractal patterns have a very wrin-
316 JOYE
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Figure 3. The “forest of trees” in Calatrava’s Orient Station. (From Inge Kanakaris-Wirtl;
www.structurae.de. Used with permission.)

kled character and, therefore, occupy more iewicz & Lindenmayer, 1990). Perhaps the
space than a simple line (first dimension) but do most well-known fractal model of vegetative
not fill the entire plane (second dimension). In elements is the Barnsley Fern (Peitgen, Jürgens,
essence, the fractal dimension should be inter- & Saupe, 1992), which was discovered by
preted as a measure of the degree in which Michael Barnsley. A third way in which fractals
(similar) detail recurs on different scales of and nature can be related is more psychological
magnitude. Hence, the concept could be under- in nature. Apparently, fractal patterns evoke
stood as a measure of complexity. associations of naturalness in human subjects
Fractals, naturalness, and liking responses. (Geake, 1992). Closely related is the finding
Is there any evidence for the claim that fractal that contact with fractals improves the ability to
characteristics could as well be associated with perceptually differentiate between highly simi-
biophilic responses to typical natural contents, lar natural patterns (Geake, 1992).
such as vegetation? In other words, why could Not only are fractals perceptually related to
fractal geometry be an important beneficial in- naturalness, but their aesthetic value is also ob-
gredient of natural scenes? First, there is a pro- vious to many. These rich and sometimes col-
found link between the shape of many natural orful images often provoke awe and fascination
structures and fractals. In essence, the former in viewers. It should, therefore, be no wonder
are fractal-like in that they often display the that some artists (e.g., Jackson Pollock) have
self-similarity that is so typical of fractals. Ev- (unconsciously) deployed fractal principles in
ident examples are trees, mountains, lightning, their work to reach an aesthetic effect (Mureika,
clouds, coastlines, and so on. A second link 2005; Taylor, 2002). Still, these connections
between fractals and nature is the observation between aesthetics and fractals are only anec-
that natural elements can be elegantly mimicked dotal and intuitive. In search for a stronger
with fractal geometry. For example, plants and foundation for fractal aesthetics, reference can
trees can be straightforwardly generated by be made to preliminary empirical research by
fractal procedures, such as L-systems (Prusink- Richard Taylor (1998). Taylor mentions that
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Figure 4. A typical fractal pattern. This is a detail of the Mandelbrot set.

more than 90% of a group of 120 students most, as opposed to patterns with dimension
preferred fractal patterns over nonfractals. Yet it values between 1.1 and 1.2 and between 1.6
should also be noted that Arthur Stamps (2002) and 1.9. Abraham et al.’s (2003) study revealed
has tested this conclusion more rigorously and a nonmonotonous relation between aesthetic
did not find that fractal patterns were aestheti- preference and fractal dimension. Patterns with
cally preferred over nonfractals. Nevertheless, it the highest and lowest fractal dimension were
should be pointed out that Stamps used fractal least preferred, whereas those with a midrange
contours, and the self-similarity was not readily fractal dimension were liked most. More spe-
perceivable in the representations. cifically, attractors with a fractal dimension
Other research into fractal aesthetics has ranging from 1.4 to 1.6 (mean fractal dimension
mainly focused on the relation between fractal
of 1.54) received the highest preference ratings.
dimension and aesthetic preference. One of the
Although these results need further replica-
first empirical studies of this relation has been
carried out by Aks and Sprott (1996). The ex- tion and are to be treated with caution, there is
periment revealed that 24 study participants a tendency to prefer patterns with an interme-
preferred fractal patterns with a fractal dimen- diate fractal dimension, ranging from about 1.3
sion of between 1.17 and 1.38. The average to 1.5. Note that there are some further hints for
fractal dimension of the most preferred attrac- the special status of this range of values. For,
tors was 1.26 ⫾ 0.06. Spehar, Clifford, Newell, example Rogowitz and Voss (1990) found that
and Taylor (2003) used three different catego- recognizing and finding new shapes in fractal
ries of fractal patterns (mathematical fractals, patterns is best for those patterns with a fractal
natural fractals, and fragments of Pollock paint- dimension ranging from 1.2 to 1.4. Geake and
ings) and found that patterns with a fractal di- Landini (1997) found that the variance in study
mension of between 1.3 and 1.5 were preferred participants’ judgments of the complexity of
318 JOYE

fractal patterns exploded when pictures had di- by the unrealistic painting of the savanna land-
mension values greater than 1.3. scape. The change in conductance between
Fractals and stress reduction. If fractals work and rest periods was 3% lower for the
can be meaningfully related to aesthetic reac- forest photograph and 44% lower for the sa-
tions, then is there any way in which these vanna representation than for the control pic-
patterns can be linked to the capacity of natural ture. This means that these pictures dampened
contents to reduce stress (e.g., Ulrich et al., (physiological) stress associated with the tasks.
1991)? To answer this, it must first be noted that Because the researchers did not expect this
there are reasons to assume that restorativeness outcome, they decided to determine the fractal
is the underlying factor for aesthetic reactions dimension of each of the pictures. Only the
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toward natural settings. Van den Berg, Koole, forest and savanna pictures had fractal charac-
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and van der Wulp (2003) have experimentally teristics. It was found that the pattern that was
confirmed this hypothesis by performing most effective in stress reduction, the savanna
[m]ediational analyses. . .[which reveal] that af- picture, had a fractal dimension that fell within
fective restoration accounted for a substantial the range of dimension values that was earlier
proportion of, the preference for the natural found to correlate with highest aesthetic prefer-
over the built environments (p. 135).. How can ence (Spehar et al., 2003). Because this picture
this finding be related to the field of fractal is only a rough and simplified representation of
aesthetics? A plausible answer is that if fractal a savanna, the authors speculate that the depic-
characteristics underlie aesthetic responses to tion of natural contents alone cannot be a suf-
natural settings to a certain extent, and if these ficient condition for a restorative effect. If this
responses are maximal for an intermediate frac- were the case, then highest restorativeness
tal dimension, then it could well be that this should be expected to come from the more
range of values will also have the highest re- realistic and naturally looking forest setting.
storative potential. Instead, it seems that, besides depicting natural
Wise and Taylor (2002; see also Taylor et al., elements, the scene should also have a specific
2005) have carried out a preliminary study to fractal dimension in order to maximize stress
test the relation between fractal geometry and reduction. Specifically, from this experiment, it
stress reduction. They reexamined a study per- can be tentatively concluded that its dimension
formed by Wise and Rosenberg (1986) involv- value should fall within the range of 1.3 to 1.5.
ing 24 individuals who were continuously ex- Despite these remarkable results, some ques-
posed to four different patterns: a photograph of tions still remain. First, of course, is the prelim-
a forest setting, a simplified representation (i.e., inary character of these experimental outcomes,
painting) of a savanna landscape, a picture with which necessitates replication. Second, the lit-
squares, and a white plane, which functioned as erature on habitat theory (e.g., Orians, 1980)
a control picture. While being exposed to the claims that humans are innately predisposed to
images, participants had to undergo three stress- prefer savannas because it is the biome in which
ful mental tasks: an arithmetic task, solving they thrived for a substantial part of evolution-
logical problems, and creative thinking. Be- ary history. Consequently, it could be argued
tween every task there was a 1-min recovery that it is quite natural that the savanna picture
period. Physiological stress was determined by leads to the highest restorative responses. Thus,
skin conductance, because research indicates it remains unclear whether it is the fractal di-
that increased conductance correlates with mension that underlies these responses or the
higher levels of stress. specific contents depicted in this image. Perhaps
It was found that the degree of physiological the same experiment should be replicated with
stress was dependent on the type of pattern that fractal patterns, devoid of meaningful represen-
was presented to the participants. Because nat- tative contents. Again, however, note that
uralness is found to be a predictor of aesthetic Hägerhäll et al. (2004) found that preferences
and restorative responses, one would expect that for settings could be predicted by the fractal
the picture of the forest setting was most effec- dimension. This adds support to Taylor’s claim
tive in reducing stress (indeed, it looked the that it is the fractal component that underlies the
most like real nature). Contrary to this expecta- restorative responses, not only the depicted con-
tion, this effect was most effectively produced tents. Yet it could also be pointed out that

features such as bodies of water are highly ior, and to provide opportunities for refuge. It is
preferred contents (Ulrich, 1983) that cannot be quite probable that the presence of these prop-
straightforwardly analyzed in terms of fractal erties facilitated restoration, hence the restor-
geometry. Perhaps something similar applies to ative responses associated with patterns of an
the savanna painting. For example, the typical intermediate fractal dimension (Taylor et al.,
shape of savanna trees (low trunk, broad 2005). For example, resting from stressful or
canopy) could be a highly preferred icon in demanding events seems more likely to occur in
landscapes. Perhaps it is a basic “preferendum” settings that offer retreats but that also contain
(Ulrich, 1983), which is irreducible to fractal enough openness, which reduces the probability
characteristics. It can also be argued that the that one will be attacked by a predator by sur-
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stress-reducing character of fractals is already prise (Ulrich, 1993). If specialized neural mech-
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established. The reason is that certain fractals anisms exist that assess the quality of a habitat,
are sometimes very difficult to distinguish from then it is not too difficult to suppose that these
real natural elements (e.g., the Barnsley Fern). It compute the fractal dimension in order to have
is, therefore, very probable that such naturalistic a rapid cue of habitability.
fractals will lead to biophilic responses. A lot of It should be noted that sometimes the aes-
natural entities are fractal, and the main differ- thetic appeal of fractal-like patterns is also ex-
ence with mathematical fractals is that their plained by the fact that the nervous system is
self-similarity does not extend to infinity. governed by fractal-like processes. In particu-
The affective value of fractals. The affec- lar, Anderson and Mandell (1996, p. 114) argue
tive value of fractal patterns can be explained by that human evolution in a fractal world has
the finding that naturalness is a predictor of required “the incorporation of fractal structures
biophilic responses and by the fact that fractal as well as fractal processes, and these in turn
geometry eminently captures this quality. would be integrated into sensory systems, rec-
Sometimes it is even claimed that the aesthetic ognition, memory, and adaptive behaviors.”
effect of fractals is due to the fact that such More specifically, the authors describe how hu-
patterns lead to a peak shift effect (Ramachan- man functioning is characterized by a fractal
dran & Hirstein, 1999), because they imply an noise signal—1/f noise—from the microscopic
exaggeration of the dimension of recursiveness, level of neural functioning to the macroscopic
which is a characteristic quality of natural form level of human behavior. For the present dis-
(Joye, 2007; Mureika, 2005). However, what cussion, the presence of this type of noise in the
could be the explanation for the preference for human mind and brain seems especially rele-
fractal patterns with low to intermediate dimen- vant: “In neurobiology in general, and neuro-
sion values and for their restorative potential? physiology in particular, 1/f patterns in time are
Because Cutting and Garvin (1987) have dis- profound in their recurrent appearance across
covered a correlation between the fractal dimen- many levels of organization in the nervous sys-
sion and complexity of fractal patterns, a pos- tem, from the underlying cellular dynamics of
sible answer is that the fractal dimension offers ion channels and intermittent firing patterns of
a quick cue of the complexity of a scene. Com- neurons to developmental phenomena occurring
plexity is a predictor of habitat quality (S. during the organization of breathing to global
Kaplan, 1987, 1988), and the preference for a dynamics in the nervous system such as subcor-
low to intermediate fractal dimension could be tical, transcortical and scalp EEG defining be-
rooted in the fact that habitats of a low to havioral states of consciousness” (Anderson &
intermediate complexity (e.g., savannas) of- Mandell, 1996, p. 77). Some authors propose
fered the best chances for survival (Wise & that, because of its fractal nature, the brain is
Taylor, 2002). Indeed, in such settings, infor- optimized to process the statistical characteris-
mation can be quite easily grasped and pro- tics of natural scenes, which are also found to be
cessed, as opposed to more complex environ- governed by 1/f spectra (e.g., Knill, Field, &
ments (e.g., tropical forests). This reduces the Kersten, 1990). For instance, Gilden, Schmuck-
possibility that crucial information (e.g., preda- ler, and Clayton (1993) found that discriminat-
tors) will be missed or ignored. On the other ing fractal contours was best for those sharing
hand, the complexity is high enough to keep one (statistical) properties with natural scenes. Con-
interested, to awake further explorative behav- sistent with this is the finding that neurons in the
320 JOYE

V1 area of the brain show a preference for 1/f fractals that is the underlying cause of these
signals (Yu, Romero, & Lee, 2005). responses. Notwithstanding that this is perhaps
Some authors hypothesize that the proposed the most obvious explanation, it could be
fractal nature of the human mind/brain can il- equally hypothesized that fractals are quite
luminate the creation of fractal artwork. Essen- complex patterns that give us the necessary
tially, such art should be understood as an ex- degree of arousal that our visual apparatus de-
teriorization of the fractal aspects of brain func- sires. Such an explanation does not rule out the
tioning (Goldberger, 1996). However, what fact that fractals look natural, but it makes no
does such an account have to say about the recourse to naturalness to explain our emotional
aesthetic value of fractals? Different authors relation with such patterns.
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have described the perception of such fractal- It is clear that further research is needed on
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

like patterns in terms of a resonance between the topic of fractal aesthetics and the possible
the fractal character of basic perceptual pro- relations to biophilia. In this regard, it is inter-
cesses and the characteristics of the perceived esting to note that some empirical research be-
pattern, or as Goldberger (1996) put it, “The gins to unravel these issues. For example,
artwork externalizes and maps the internal Hägerhäll et al. (2004) have performed a more
brain-work. . .Conversely, the interaction of the systematic inquiry into the relation between
viewer with the artform may be taken as an act aesthetic preference and fractals. In the first
of self-recognition” (p. 102). Yet it is difficult to stage of the study, 119 participants indicated
see how a resonance between the perceiver and which silhouette outlines of 80 nature scenes
the perceived can explain the aesthetic experi- they preferred most. In a next stage, the fractal
ence that is often associated with these images. dimension of all these silhouettes was calcu-
What can an objective description in terms of lated. It is worthwhile to note that the photos of
noise signals tell us about subjective aesthetic settings with water features and hills were left
experiences? Another critical point is that the out of the total pool of pictures. The reason is
explanation of biophilic responses toward frac- that these elements have a strong influence on
tals in terms of noise signals emitted by the the visual inspection and aesthetic judgment of
nervous system must be situated on a different landscapes (e.g., Ulrich, 1981), which could
level than the evolutionary account presented distract participants from concentrating on the
here. The former explanation refers to the work- silhouette outlines. For the remaining 52 pic-
ings of the nervous system, but it does not tures, analyses showed a modest but significant
explain why it is characterized by 1/f noise in correlation between mean preference and the
the first place. Although it is true that some fractal dimension of the silhouettes. Although
researchers believe it is the result of evolution in further research is needed, this finding lends
a natural world with similar fractal properties support to the claim that fractal characteristics
(Anderson & Mandell, 1996), it remains unclear play a significant role in our biophilic responses
how a connection with our evolutionary frame- toward vegetated/natural landscapes.
work should be conceived precisely. In fact, 1/f Fractal architecture. The previous discus-
noise occurs on all levels of human functioning, sion tentatively suggests that the beneficial ef-
from human gait dynamics to neural function- fects associated with certain natural objects
ing, whereas in our account it is proposed that (positive affect, liking reactions, stress-
the affiliation with natural form has its correlate reduction) could be tapped with fractal charac-
in more discrete brain mechanisms. teristics but without the presence of actual rep-
Fractals and biophilic reactions: a critical resentations or imitations of nature. Indeed,
evaluation. The previous review shows that fractal structures seem to capture some essential
there is convincing evidence that fractals cap- features of naturalness, such as the recurrence
ture some of the core geometric qualities of of (similar) detail on subsequent scales of mag-
natural structures. Furthermore, there is also nitude. However, the architecture of many mod-
some support, both intuitively and empirically, ern environments is becoming predominantly
that biophilic responses are associated with euclidean. This trend is orthogonal to our (hy-
some typical fractal qualities (i.e., their degree pothesized) predilection for fractal structure,
of recursiveness). Still, this does not necessarily which could have subtle but definite psycholog-
entail that it is the naturalness associated with ical and physiological costs. This problematic

situation can be countered (to a certain extent) the systematic description of fractal geometry.
by architectural work that implements some es- For example, Leonard Eaton (1998) argues how
sential fractal characteristics. Our preference for Frank Lloyd Wright (unconsciously) emulated a
a specific fractal dimension further indicates fractal-like geometry in his Palmer House. Nev-
that the aesthetic effects of such buildings can ertheless, it should be noted that the fractality of
be maximized for intermediate levels of com- this building is predominantly situated in
plexity. Perhaps this reflects our preference for ground plan, and this approach has been criti-
intermediately complex environments, such as cized by Joye (2007). Perhaps more convincing
savannas. examples of three-dimensional fractal architec-
If true, the previous findings underscore the ture can be found in Gothic architecture (Figure
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value of integrating fractal characteristics in 5). In this regard, Goldberger (1996, p. 101)
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

architectural design. In essence, fractal architec- notes that “fractals capture several key features
ture can be realized by repeating similar details of Gothic architecture: its porous ‘holeyness’ or
on multiple hierarchical scales of an architec- carved-out appearance, its wrinkled crenelated
tural design. Despite the growing attention for surfaces, and its overall self-similarity. . .From
fractal aesthetics, which can be witnessed today, a distance, the sharp spires are the dominant
we am not aware of actual instances of fractal feature. Closer proximity reveals that these
architecture explicitly rooted in the current the- spires are not smooth, but have spiny out-
oretical framework. This, however, does not growths. Yet closer inspection reveals even
preclude that, historically, instances of fractal more pointed detail superimposed on these or-
architecture have been constructed, albeit for other naments. The repetition of different shapes
theoretical or ideological reasons. According to (arches, windows, spires) on different scales
Michael Ostwald (2001), the first examples of yields a combination of complexity and order.”
architecture, referring to fractal theory, began to In agreement with the Gothic, the shape of
appear shortly after Benoit Mandelbrot’s seminal certain Hindu temples also has conspicuous
book Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension. fractal characteristics (Figure 6). The makeup of
Although there has been a rise in fractal architec- these buildings cannot be viewed separately
ture from 1978 to 1988, this trend did not persist from the Hindu worldview. In particular, Hindu
during the 1990s. Yet, in recent years there is a cosmology is in a sense holographic in that all
renewed interest in integrating the complexity sci- parts of the cosmological whole are the whole
ences and fractals in architecture. To a certain itself and contain all the information about the
extent, this is due to the publication of Carl whole. Some schools of Hindu thought advance
Bovill’s Fractals in Architecture and Design the (related) view that the macrocosm is encap-
(1996), in which fractal geometry is advanced sulated in the microcosm: “The entire cosmos
as a useful design instrument. With his books can be visualized to be contained in a micro-
The New Paradigm in Architecture (2002) and cosmic capsule, with the help of the concept of
The Architecture of the Jumping Universe subtle elements called ‘tanmatras.’ The whole
(1995), architectural theorist Charles Jencks has cosmic principle replicates itself again and
undoubtedly an important share in bringing the again in ever smaller scales. The human being is
issue of fractal architecture to the attention of said to contain within itself the entire cosmos”
the architectural community. Nevertheless, (Trivedi, 1989, pp. 245–246). Both these cos-
some have argued that Jencks gives a skewed mological conceptions can be straightforwardly
account of fractal architecture because he essen- related to fractal self-similarity, where the
tially misrepresents what a fractal actually is global formal structure recurs, on ever finer
(Joye, 2006; Salingaros, 2004). This has led subscales, in the microstructure.
some to conclude that his use of the notion A potential problem for the argument pre-
fractal in architecture mainly serves rhetorical sented here is that not much architecture dis-
purposes (Joye, 2007). plays the very profound fractality of Hindu or
Fractals have been implemented in architec- Gothic architecture, which could cast doubts on
ture in many ways, albeit consciously or intu- the hypothesized universal preference for frac-
itively (for a review, see Joye, 2007). Probably tal-like patterns. However, some claim that, his-
the most striking examples of fractal architec- torically, architecture has always had an impor-
ture have been intuitively constructed, before tant fractal component (Salingaros, 2006), in
322 JOYE
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Figure 5. Gothic architecture often has an important fractal component because it contains
a wealth of architectural elements on increasing smaller scales of magnitude. (Copyright ©
Yannick Joye.)

that many buildings display architectural detail supported for divergent building styles (e.g.,
on different scales of magnitude, without hav- Bovill, 1996; Burkle-Elizondo & Valdéz-
ing a more exact sense of self-similarity. In- Cepeda, 2006; Capo, 2004; Crompton, 2002).
deed, a consideration of some of the high points Still, when observing modern urban settings,
of Western architecture, ranging from, for ex- it is also a matter of fact that not all architecture
ample, the Gothic to Baroque and Organic Ar- of all times contains references to natural form,
chitecture, quickly reveals a remarkable ten- which suggests that tastes are not exclusively
dency for a cascade of detail, going from the dictated by biological predispositions. How can
largest building structure to the smallest deco- this be reconciled with the hypothesis that we
rative element. This view is also empirically are in a sense genetically predisposed to affiliate
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This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

Figure 6. Three-dimensional generation of the central spire of a Hindu temple. One

architectural element is repeated on subsequent scales, which results in a complex aesthetic
object. (Copyright © Yannick Joye.)

with natural forms and to express this affiliation coherently fusing biological and cultural tastes
artistically? An answer is that inborn mecha- into a successful architectural expression.
nisms do not imply genetic determinism but
instead are in a sense open in that they can Discussion
interact with cultural or experiential parameters.
Although in this study we mainly focused In this article, different research disciplines
on immediate affective responses to nature, were drawn together, ranging from environmen-
Ulrich’s (1983) psychoevolutionary model also tal psychology to architecture. This speculative
leaves room for more cultural modes of aes- and interdisciplinary study can, therefore, be
thetic appreciation, which interact (in a complex understood as a contribution to the integration
way) with immediate affective responses. Con- of (subfields of) the scientific and cultural
sistent with this is that discussions on innateness worlds. The argument began with a survey of
are sometimes framed in terms of biologically findings from the field of environmental psy-
prepared learning rules, where experiential, chology, which revealed that humans are affec-
and hence cultural, influences are attributed a tively related to specific natural elements and
significant role (Cummins & Cummins, 1999; settings, being the result of human evolution in
Ulrich, 1993). a natural environment. Today, however, modern
Although it is plausible that changes can oc- habitats contain increasingly less actual nature
cur in artistic taste, 1 this does not in any sense or artistic references to natural form or to the
invalidate the argument that the outlook of cer- structural organization of preferred natural set-
tain habitats is more attuned to a set of specific tings. Although such a trend undoubtedly has
hardwired affiliations, which were discussed
here. Again, it is unproblematic that people hold
specific tastes by which they also become sur- However, a question that immediately springs to mind
is, who holds these tastes? Is it the general public or is it the
rounded by nonnatural architectural forms. artists themselves? If the artists, then it nevertheless remains
Problems could arise when the artistic expres- an open question whether these changes in taste are also
sions of these (more culturally colored) tastes appreciated by the broad public, which is the audience for
gain dominance, with the result that chances for whom biophilic architecture is intended. In this regard, it
experiencing natural forms, and the associated can be noted that there is often a discrepancy between the
aesthetic tastes of laypersons and those of experts (e.g.,
biophilic responses, are significantly reduced. artists). For example, in a playful experiment, Russian art-
Of course, prevailing cultural tastes could clash ists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid found that people
with basic-level biological tastes, which could from different cultures preferred kitschy landscape paint-
indicate that there is a complex interplay be- ings over nonrepresentational abstract art (see: www.di-
acenter.org/km/). Although it is premature to deduce defi-
tween the two modes of appreciation. Probably, nite conclusions from these observations, it nevertheless
architects are sensitive to what is culturally shows a more complex view than the adagio that tastes are
fashionable and are thus in a good position for essentially variable.
324 JOYE

artistic and epistemological consequences, the to providing a detailed account of this research
more profound implication is that it can nega- topic, this study hopes to awaken further inter-
tively influence psychological and physiologi- est in biophilic design. This is necessary be-
cal functioning. According to the argument of cause the arguments presented here remain
the current study, biophilic architecture can help quite tentative. For example, on a theoretical
in overcoming the discrepancy between ances- level, it would be insightful to come to a finer
tral and current habitats. More specifically, the grained account of how fractal forms are pro-
architectural imitation of natural elements and cessed by the brain. Another more practical
habitats that promoted fitness (e.g., vegetative issue is the question of how to create successful
structures) can lead to the autonomous and biophilic architecture. It could be true that many
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

quick onset of positive affective reactions, architects have an intuitive feel for the impor-
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

which can lead to positively toned feelings and tance of nature as a source of inspiration. How-
stress reduction. It was argued how such imita- ever, looking at the modern built environment,
tions can be realized according to different lev- it is also a fact that this intuition is not often put
els of abstraction, ranging from literal imita- into practice. This report, therefore, tried to
tions to the application of more abstract geo- provide some practical guidelines. It should be
metric features of natural objects (e.g., fractal noted, however, that it only has scratched the
geometry) and structural features of ancestral surface. In a sense, only a few grammatical
habitats. Applying fractal geometry to architec- rules were presented, and it is up to creative
ture could be a particularly successful creative minds to work out a formal language with these
strategy, because it is not directly restricted by elemental rules. Such a project can only succeed
stylistic conventions and thus does not exclude by a transdisciplinary approach, in which both
the expression of cultural or local tastes. architects and psychologists take knowledge of
Nature-based architecture implies that the this new field of research.
building enters into a dialogue with a specific
set of human inborn affiliations. However, ad-
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Acknowledgment of Ad Hoc Reviewers

The Editor and Editorial Review Board take this opportunity to thank the following
persons who reviewed submissions for volume 11, 2007.
Owen Anderson Bruce Ellis Robert Lynd-Stevenson
John Archer Richard Fleming David Miall
Paul Bain Melanie Green Susan Mineka
Austin Baldwin Gary Hardcastle Jeanne Marecek
William Becker Christine Harris Irene Pepperberg
Mathew Belmonte William Hirst Steven Platek
Camilla Benbow George Holden J. T. Ptacek
Geoff Bird Harry Hunt Devaki Rau
Simon Boag Yuhong Jiang Justin Rentfrow
George Bonanno Peter Judge Matt Rossano
Becky Burch Patrik Juslin Gad Saad
Natalie Ciarocco Kalman Kaplan Catherine Salmon
Lee Cronk John Kihlstrom John Sloboda
Paul Davidson Alan Kazdin Aaron Sloman
Valerian Derlega Debra Lieberman David Livingston Smith
Yvonne Delevoye Scott Lilienfeld Susan Sprecher
Kathryn Dindia Darrin McMahon Graham Staines
Carol Dolan Jeanne Marecek Gary Steiner
Michael Dougher David Milne Douglas Sturm
Valentina D’Urso Stephen Morillo Dan Wegner
Carol Dweck Warren Morrill Michael Wertheimer
Aleksander Ellis Shane Lopez Sarah White