Throughout the millennia, architects, mathematicians, and psychologists have all been fascinated by the various patterns that appear in nature. From the Fibonacci sequence to fractals, patterns have proven to be an important part of the natural world. What is especially interesting is the fact that humans resonate so strongly with these patterns. My aim in this article is to explore the connections between human beings and natural patterns as well as explore what that connection means for architects and designers.
A Closer Look at Patterns in Nature
From Phys.org: Patterns like fractals are found all throughout nature
It’s impossible to step outdoors without taking notice of some sort of pattern. From the self-similar patterns of trees and their branches to the spirals of a sunflower, patterns are everywhere. As humans, we instantly recognize these patterns even if we’re not actively looking for them. Scientist and author Philip Ball noted that “we know it when we see it,” adding that some patterns (like zebra stripes) don’t perfectly repeat. A pattern, then, is instinctual on some level. It connects with some innate aspect of the human brain.
Recently, scientists have found that patterns are especially helpful in facilitating stress reduction in humans. Fractals are some of the most impactful structures that occur in nature, and they have numerous healing effects. Researchers at the University of Oregon discovered that viewing fractals can result in stress reduction of up to 60 percent. Another study concluded that “humans display a consistent aesthetic preference across fractal images, regardless of whether these images are generated by nature’s processes, by mathematics, or by the human hand.” While fractals are especially potent, there are countless patterns that are universally appealing and contribute to stress reduction.
Other well-known patterns like the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio are rooted in mathematics and thus have direct applications to architecture. Curved lines are another inherently natural pattern. Rarely do straight lines exist in nature, and this observation has led to the Golden Angle of 137.5 degrees as opposed to the stark 90-degree angles often seen in the built environment.
The Biophilic Benefits of Patterns
From Interface: Biomorphic patterns provide many wellness benefits
There is a deep, foundational connection between natural patterns and biophilia. A pattern like a fractal fosters a connection to nature and meets many biophilic needs. Such patterns are called biomorphic patterns. According to Terrapin Bright Green, biomorphic patterns “are symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured or numerical arrangements that persist in nature.”
Biomorphic patterns are particularly effective from a biophilic perspective. Since patterns are deeply embedded into nature, their presence is instantly identifiable to the human eye. Furthermore, studies have shown that superior pattern processing is a fundamental part of the human brain. That’s why patterns are so powerful; we’re evolutionarily inclined to recognize them, and this instant identification is conducive to the stress-relieving properties of patterns.
From Architecture & Design: Biomorphic patterns are often eye-catching and almost always discernible, bringing their stress reduction capabilities to the forefront
Patterns also convey a sense of order. In an increasingly complex world, order is integral to optimize and maintain human wellness. Order doesn’t even have to be immediately noticeable. Humans often recognize order on a subconscious level. As Ball put it, “there’s an abundance of detail in nature that we can’t see. Even in what seems unstructured, there’s pattern.”
Terrapin Bright Green’s report also states that patterns can promote cognitive and psychological improvement. In a way, a single pattern has the ability to connect humans with nature. When patterns are combined with other biophilic elements, they provide a holistic experience of biophilia.
Biomorphic Patterns in Architecture & Design
From Interior Design: Using patterns in architecture is beneficial to occupant well-being
Biomorphic patterns have endless applications in Architecture & Design. Throughout human history, patterns have been essential to the built environment, but today’s A&Ds are finding new and exciting ways to incorporate patterns. This is especially prevalent in biophilic design. More architects and designers are deliberately reflecting natural patterns in building design using a variety of methods. This falls under the category of biomimicry, or the act of emulating nature in design.
Given that Architecture & Design continues to emphasize comfort and occupant wellness, it’s easy to see why biomorphic patterns are in such wide use. These patterns are appealing to the eye and restful for the brain. They also help to maintain a sense of balance and harmony in the built environment, which increases the enjoyment that people feel while working or interacting in a space. These patterns are manifested in many ways, from honeycomb-shaped seating areas to curved atriums.
From Autodesk: The curvatures of this room resemble the flowing lines and patterns that occur in nature
It’s common to see fractals in architecture, and you’ll often notice these patterns as part of an installation. Some innovative design firms are taking pattern integration to the next level by crafting entire rooms based on fractals. Fibonacci sequences are also sometimes used to determine the shape of a building or, less frequently, a room. Finally, many natural patterns are used more casually in various parts of design. For example, a lounge with curved walls may not represent anything specific in nature, but the curves still compose a pattern. As long as occupants can recognize a pattern, consciously or subconsciously, it will enhance the biophilia of a space.
From the Shard: This office space, designed by Perkins+Will, incorporates fractal geometry into its design
Pattern usage can even be applied to the specific building materials employed for a project. Reclaimed wood and greenery are two excellent materials to use when aiming for a more biophilic environment. Reclaimed wood is particularly apropos for this since each piece of wood bears its own unique aesthetic conveying fluidity and pattern. The grain and patina of naturally weathered or distressed reclaimed wood, often with knots and other highlights, can be especially pleasing. Reclaimed wood with noticeable patterns excels at facilitating interaction and boosting mood. Greenery and plant life adds not only splashes of color but also additional biophilic benefits including increased productivity.
From TerraMai: The abundance of vivid patterns in reclaimed wood provides biophilic and aesthetic benefits
Finally, there’s biomorphic geometry. Geometry is full of pattern opportunity and can also be found everywhere in the natural world. Biomorphic geometry in design is the use of natural shapes and formations in the built environment. Fractals fall into this category, but there are countless shapes to draw inspiration from, including honeycomb, clover, and leaf shapes.
Again, the shapes used need not directly replicate something in nature. They can also indirectly suggest a natural connection. For example, the paneling at Gravitate (pictured above) was centered around a chevron pattern, complementing the decor and design of the room. While chevron or herringbone looks aren’t instantly evocative of a specific natural phenomenon, it implies a naturalness due to scaled self-similar pattern and the character of the wood.
Ultimately, including patterns in building design can help reduce stress in occupants and increase the aesthetic appeal of the space. Patterns help create spaces that are enjoyable to work and interact in. Best of all, a focus on natural patterns is already shaping the next generation of A&D by fostering built environments that make humans happier and healthier.