Thursday, September 21, 2006

Evolution of Architecture

This article is taken from the draft of my book of the same title - currently in production - on the same subject

It is a truism to say that architectures evolve over time. The term ‘evolve’ is however usually used quite loosely to mean that architecture changes over time and that it is possible to trace the sources of these changes to work produced by a previous generation of architects. It has also been noticed that there is some vague analogy between the concept of styles and that of species in biological systems. Both are seen as unique groups of characteristics which are distributed throughout a particular ecological or cultural environment and both of which in simple terms originate or become extinct at certain historical points in time. In other words they have a definite lifespan after which they cease to exist or ‘become something else’ by being transformed into another species or style. In both cases we have the idea of a lineage and even the concept of continual transformation. This is coupled with an understanding that change occurs in both these systems as a product of adaptation to their respective environments. In biology this environment would be the effect, for instance of climate, food supply or the activities of other species. In architecture, environment is seen as a function of demographic, institutional, technological or economic change. Another similarity is that of distribution of these species-styles within particular environments. A number of these may co-exist at the same time while at other times a single species-style dominates the environment. One may also notice that at certain times even the function of ‘competition’ creeps into the architectural vocabulary where diverse styles are seen to compete with each other for cultural dominance during particular periods.

So far so good. One might think that analogies like these and others might have suggested to architectural theorists the possibility of developing a comprehensive ‘theory of evolution’ for architecture. A theory which would deal with large scale transformation in architecture over long periods of time and the collective mechanisms involved in such changes. However this has not happened possibly because architects and historians while they are aware of these long term effects have, for one reason or another been unable to pinpoint an impartial and systematic mechanism by which such transformations could take place. In the biological sciences of course, the mechanism for change in the characteristics of species is the thoroughly worked out theory of natural selection.

Perhaps for this reason the idea of evolution in architecture seldom gets beyond the identification of highly personal lineages or lines of ‘influence’ and is further reduced in its usefulness by a tendency to ascribe personal choices and motivations on the part of architects for the evolution of styles. In other words particular styles are seen to be the constructs of individuals or a highly motivated group – the avant garde. It is for this reason that the concept of evolution in architecture is even less likely to involve any discussion or search for a systematic process of change or an impartial mechanism by which different styles emerge or are transformed into others. Change, even at the large scale of styles and periods is still regarded almost as a matter of personal invention. When it does happen it usually depicted as revolutionary or catastrophic event (‘crises’ in architectural terms) provoked or resolved by the work of concerned architects or groups unlike the algorithmic or step-by-step processes identified in biological evolution. Some cultural theorists hold that this difference of theoretical method between cultural systems such as architecture and biological systems is based on what they would regard as a real difference in the nature of the systems themselves. One is the product of human intelligence, the other the product of natural forces. A difference in other words, based on the materials with which they are ‘constructed’: the conscious mind or the unconscious processes of nature. This, so the theory goes, must inevitably mean that there is also fundamental differences in the processes of change which take place within each system. It would seem that if one thing is different, namely the origin of the system in nature or in culture, then everything else must be different. This somewhat literalist position fails to notice that there are in fact numerous similarities between these different fields. They both involve the continuous interaction of groups of agents, organisms or components and from this the formation of organized complexity where individual characteristics or actions are constrained by collectively-defined limits to individual behaviour. Limits which arise out of the endless communication and exchange of information within defined groups in their attempt to adapt to their respective environments. This book will attempt to show that both natural and cultural systems can be regarded as adaptive or dynamic systems coupled to their environments and thus subject to the same evolutionary processes.

In many ways, the perceived differences between natural and cultural systems is also a matter of the scale of analysis used to study each system. In the study of biological evolution the scale of analysis is that of large scale systems such as species or indeed whole environments and the collectively-defined mechanisms which produce change at that scale. (Its worth noting here that individual organisms do not evolve, they develop according to a genetic program already laid down in the specific combination of parental genes with which they are endowed. In other words, an organism cannot evolve into another type of organism; a lion cannot evolve into a tiger no matter what the ebvironment. Species can, however evolve into other species). Evolution is fundamentally a group phenomenon where, over time the interaction of individual organisms alters the bias in the genetic pool of the species thus changing the range of characteristics that its organisms can display.

In architectural theory however, even in the study of stylistic periods which can last for centuries, the unit of analysis used is usually that of the individual or the motivated group acting at particular points in time. While due recognition may be given to the general characteristics of a period or changing social or technological environments, the driving force behind the consequent changes in architecture remains that of the motivated group or in some cases the deeply personal experiments of individual architects. The results of this kind of small scale analysis are then applied (inappropriately) to large scale events in the history of architecture: the changing characteristics of styles In this scenario single architects or avant-garde groups are said to produce a series of works which become the immediate sources or origin of a whole new style. Like individual buildings, change, from this point of view is consciously ‘constructed’ by human action. So it is said. While this is not quite what one might call the ‘spontaneous generation’ of styles since these innovative architects are also said to be responding to fundamental changes in their social or technological environment, it gets pretty close to it.

Above all, theories of transformation in architecture are anthropocentric theories about individuals passing the ‘cultural torch’ to other individuals. There is no real sense in which theorists or historians in architecture treat its development as a vast collective enterprise where, like the biological sciences, no individuals can be identified and the processes arise out of the interaction of countless numbers of such individuals. Architecture simply does not have the theoretical tools to handle or explain the collective dimension of its own history; the dimension of organization and cumulative selection which produces large scale stylistic change. Without that truly collective approach to the subject it is impossible to establish any impartial and system-wide mechanism which would produce the large scale evolutionary changes which are identified in the visible periodization of architectural history.


jdr said...

It is refreshing to stumble upon an individual coherently expressing ideas that I have been blindly pondering... architecture as an extended phenotype that transcended along with general human awareness beyond "blind" genetic emergence, architecture as a possible horizon for the understanding of "becoming-human". Have you dealt with the current "vogue" of architecture which is attempting to realize a computational theory of "evolutionary" architecture often framed by the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze instead of the "Deconstructivists" like Derrida, (see, most notably his notions of "becoming"?

Thank you for your blog.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I haven't read Deleuze's work. I have approached architecture from an evolutionary standpoint. That is, by translating evolutionary theory and its concepts into architectural (cultural) terms that provide what I would regard as a workable model of change and stability in the architectural system over time. This 'system' is a network of interacting agents (architects) exchanging, selecting and combining information across the whole architectural landscape which is in a state of continual evolutionary change with temporary clusters of stability which in architectural terms would be called styles and in biological terms would be called species. In my model these stabilities 'emerge' from the interaction of exchanged forms locked into a particular social, economic, technological environment. In that sense their existence is quite random. In my attempts at translation of terms I have been quite strict (I think/hope) about matching like with like between evolutionary and architectural concepts. This kind of thinking is perhaps made clearer by referring to my articles 'architecture as Evolution' parts 1 to 6 further down the sidebar. (Or,

Thanks again jdr