Professor Michael Ostwald

Professor of Architecture, Associate Dean Research Faculty of Built Environment

DSc, PhD, BArch (Hons 1), BSc (Arch) — AIA (Architecture), PIA (Urban Design)

My work is focussed on improving the ways people use, understand and create buildings and spaces. Using mathematics and computing, I examine architecture and urban space, measuring, analysing and modelling a range of human factors to make our built environment more responsive and supportive.
Behind all my work is the belief that buildings and their surrounds aren’t just the empty places we move through every day, they have the power to inspire, energise and motivate us, shaping our emotions. Providing designers with the right tools and methods to approach these human perceptions and behaviours has led me to use mathematics, computing and neuroscience to develop new ways of understanding and improving our buildings and spaces.
I am passionate about supporting the built environment professions, and my research and teaching in this field has had international impact through senior academic and industry positions in Hong Kong, Europe, North America and Australasia. I have been awarded multiple international prizes and honours for my research.
Red Centre West Wing

Dr. Michael J. Ostwald is Professor of Architecture at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney (Australia) and Associate Dean Research at the Faculty of Built Environment. He was previously Professor and Dean of Architecture at the University of Newcastle (Australia), Professorial Research Fellow at Victoria University Wellington (New Zealand) and Professorial Fellow at the Università di Pisa (Italy). He has held academic positions in Hong Kong and North America and been a visiting Professor and Research Fellow at RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia), an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow at Newcastle and a visiting fellow at ANU (Australia), MIT (USA), HKU (China) and UCLA (USA).

Professor Ostwald’s qualifications, training and industry experience are in architecture, urban design and legal assessment. While working for architectural and urban design practices in Australia, USA, Singapore and UK he completed a range of projects in the community, health and commercial sectors. In 2003 the Premier’s Department of NSW appointed him to be an assessor of state significant development and an advisor on design quality. Since then he has served on planning and assessment committees and boards for multiple NSW councils and state government bodies.

Research Activities: 

Professor Ostwald’s research uses computational methods to analyse, optimise or better understand architectural and urban space. His research typically involves modelling or examining the complex relationships between design and human behaviour and cognition. Michael has a doctorate (PhD) in architectural history and theory and a higher doctorate (DSc) in design computing and mathematics. Under the auspices of the Byera Hadley international fellowship he completed postdoctoral research at the CCA (Montreal, Canada), the Loeb (Harvard, USA) and UCLA (Los Angeles, USA). Michael is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Nexus Network Journal: Architecture and Mathematics (Springer) and on the editorial boards of ARQ (Cambridge) and Architectural Theory Review (Taylor and Francis). He has authored more than 430 scholarly publications, including 20 books. His recent publications include the two-volume Architecture and Mathematics from Antiquity to the Future (Springer, 2015), co-edited with Kim Williams; The Fractal Dimension of Architecture (Birkhäuser, 2016), co-authored with Josephine Vaughan; and The Mathematics of the Modernist Villa (Birkhäuser 2018), co-authored with Michael J. Dawes. From 2018 Michael is Series Editor of Birkhäuser’s Mathematics and the Built Environment (a research monograph series) and Topic-Editor for Springer-Nature’s Mathematics in Art, Architecture and Design. His practice-based, non-traditional research outputs (NTROs) include over 100 published, exhibited and executed design works.


Professor Michael J. Ostwald has been a Chief Investigator on more than 50 competitive research grants totaling over $7,300,000 (Aus) in funding from the ARC, Carrick, OLT and ALTC in Australia, the Graham and Getty foundations in the USA and the EU. He has completed industry-based research worth almost $1,000,000 (Aus), including Linkage grants and contract research for the Stockland Group (Retail), BHP Billiton (Energy and Mining), Lend Lease (Retail), Civil and Civic (Affordable Housing) and the GEO Group (Infrastructure). In 2008 Michael was awarded an ARC Indigenous Discovery Project, in 2009 he was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship and in 2016 he was awarded the Australia–Korea Council international fellowship (with Dr JuHyun Lee and Prof. Ning Gu). In total he has won 14 ARC grants.


A nationally award winning and commended teacher (CAUT 1996/7, TIETE 1997), in 2016 the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded Professor Michael Ostwald the Neville Quarry Medallion. This is the highest honour an academic can receive from the architectural profession. It was awarded for exceptional international leadership in architectural research and education. He been awarded five international prizes or commendations for research and multiple best paper awards. Michael has also been awarded three national citations for design research since 1995, and as part of teams he has been short-listed for prizes or highly commended on four occasions.

Supervision Area: 

Professor Michael J. Ostwald has supervised 27+ research higher degree completions and four post-doctoral fellowships. The PhDs and the post-doctoral projects have been in the fields of architectural design, architectural history and theory, computational design and computer science. These projects have employed a range of methods including: space syntax and isovists; shape grammars and generative design; fractal analysis; survey and observational analysis; critical theory and design.

Michael is interested in supervising PhD students who are: (i) seeking to improve our understanding of historic or famous buildings and spaces using computational and/or empirical means; (ii) develop new knowledge about human cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses to space and form. Some specific PhD research areas he is interested in developing are listed below.

Possible PhD Topics of Areas

Human Perceptions of Architectural Complexity

In architectural history, theory and design, a wide range of claims have been made about human responses to formal and spatial complexity. For example, one popular theory maintains that humans are drawn to examine complex scenes more closely, while another argues that humans find complex forms uncomfortable or unsettling. Despite such claims, there is relatively little empirical and computational evidence supporting any of these theories. This research topic combines a survey of perceptual or attitudinal responses to architecture with computational analysis of space.

Prospect-refuge theory, a computational approach

One of the most well-known explanations for human psychological responses to environments is offered by ‘prospect-refuge theory’. This theory seeks to explain why certain combinations of spaces (rooms) and forms (walls) feel particularly safe and others do not. Using computational methods this research area seeks to: (i) test famous architectural cases which allegedly conform to prospect-refuge conditions; (ii) test historic building styles to use as benchmarks for research in this area and; (ii) develop a computational test for the prospect-refuge properties of architecture. Some famous architects whose works have been linked to prospect-refuge theory include Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Glenn Murcutt.

Spatial Cognition for Aging and Dementia Design

Since the 1950s researchers have published results pertaining to human spatial understanding, but the vast majority have considered this topic entirely from a ‘normative’ or ‘standard’ perspective. Yet, some of the most important problems in the developed world are associated with designing for aging and dementia, two conditions which are known to have an impact on spatial cognition. Understanding, modelling and predicting non-standard cognitive responses to space and form is a relatively undeveloped field of research, and then adapting this new knowledge to design is even less developed. This research has several components which are worthy of a PhD including spatial assessment for cognitive impairment and alternative models of wayfinding and spatial competence.

Fractal Analysis of Architecture and Design

Fractal dimension analysis is a method for calculating the average complexity of an object, form or set of data. 2D fractal analysis has been used to study many aspects of architectural and urban form since the early 1990s. A wide range of applications of this method are possible to testing the development or interpretation of historic and contemporary building forms. This research approach is ideal for a person with an interest in both the theoretical (historical, philosophical or critical) and mathematical interpretation of architecture.

In addition, 3D fractal analysis has only rarely been undertaken in any field, and its application in architecture is largely unknown. A research project to develop this method requires a person with programming and modelling expertise to work with the early stages of developing, testing and validating a 3D version of fractal analysis for measuring the complexity of the built environment.


A mathematical analysis of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language.

Dementia design assessment: analyzing the quality of aged-care planning.

Counterculture architecture: A phenomenological reading of altered states.

Braun Identity: a semiological analysis of the social and cultural imperative in Braun’s product design and its advertising.