Monday, February 18, 2008

architecture as evolution

The Evolution of Modern Architecture

By Alex Brown

Book Extract - Chapter One



The short history of architecture presented here is an attempt to understand and explain the development of the Modern Movement in architecture by using concepts and models of systematic evolutionary change drawn from researches in the fields of biology, complexity and the study of dynamic systems. Fundamentally, this approach is based on a definition of architecture as a dynamic and self-regulating complex system. In this model, stylistic change and development are explained as a cumulative result of the selective forces which arise in the normal processes of communication and exchange between architects. Change - in this instance the change from the diversity of historical styles which prevailed in the 19th century to the dominance of a single architectural style in the 20th century - is explained as the unforeseen result of the collective activity of architects. In other words, while individual architects sought to produce effective solutions for their own design problems by adapting existing forms to new purposes, there was no ‘conscious’ or collective intention on their part to produce what we now call Modern architecture whose characteristics could not possibly be imagined beforehand. It is in the interaction and exchange of experience between architects and the consequences of architecture’s need to adapt its forms to a radical change in its social and industrial environment that an explanation for such a change can be found. To put it at its simplest: Modern architecture was not ‘designed’ or intended by anyone. Nor was it the creation of a small group of avant garde designers. It emerged from a great mass of individual attempts to adapt available forms to new and unprecedented uses; attempts which were synthesized into a new set of forms by the mutual exchange of experience between architects – selecting elements from each others work and combining them in new contexts. It is this process which provides the underlying dynamic of the architectural system. This continuous exchange of experience gives architecture the uniformity of characteristics which one can see to some extent or other during any historical period.

This interpretation of the architectural history of the 19th and 20th centuries therefore centres around the processes involved in the emergence, development and transformation of those uniformities of character to which we give the name: ‘style’. As it is used here, the meaning of this concept is quite specific: that is, the ‘typical set’ of elements or forms including compositional techniques which acts as the template for the production of many individual works of architecture. This is the collective unit of architectural production. Style - which we can now define as a particular uniformity of expression amongst a large number of different buildings - is explained as an emergent phenomenon which arises through the mutual selection and combination of their diverse experiences by many different architects. Stylistic uniformity is an effect of communication between architects. In this model the diversity of characteristics which is inevitable in the mass of work produced by many different architects gradually converges towards a limited set of commonly-used forms. This continuous exchange of individual experience between a limited number of agents in a geographically or discursively confined environment ultimately leads to an increasing similarity of behaviour between them. The use of this collective concept, devoid of any intentional aspects, allows us to explore the large scale effects of many individual experiments in the architecture of the time.

These large scale changes in architecture from the 19th century to the Modern can be understood by recourse to a general theory of adaptive change similar to that currently employed in the evolutionary theory which explains change in terms of the interaction and activities of large numbers of individual agents. Other kinds of theory which attempt to explain the same phenomena usually involve some arbitrary collective intention or other such as ‘reactions’ to current events or ‘zeitgeists’ of whatever flavour. Others simply import ‘causes’ from outside architecture itself to explain the changes taking place within it, for instance, the impact of sociological, technological or ideological forces. Architecture in these cases is reduced to a passive vehicle for the direct expression of these other forces. The result is, of course the production of convulsive histories of architecture where things happen suddenly and inexplicably coming ‘form outside’ as it were. The historical continuity of architecture, its repertoire of forms, its internal dynamic and its own formative processes are simply rendered invisible or neutered by these naively cause-and-effect approaches to historical explanation. The complexity of architecture and its formal character at any given time lies in the multiple interactions between architects, between architects and the demands of the social and industrial environment and, most significantly, between these factors and the formal language provided to them by historical experience. This language of forms is the only medium of expression available to architects to represent current experience and as with any ‘language’ it changes by continuous development or adaptation rather than convulsive leaps to match the vagaries of taste or ideology. Even when architecture has to respond to radical social and industrial change as it did in the 19th century, it does not do so by the spontaneous ‘invention’ of new forms. It adapts existing forms to cope with the new demands. Over time, this continuous and recursive adaptation ultimately results in forms which are radically different to their antecedents.

Evolutionary theory, provides a way of looking at these kinds of systemic processes and as a theory has by now moved well beyond its origins as an explanation for biological phenomena to become a general theory of adaptive change in dynamic systems which involve the interaction of many agents and their relationship to their environment. Given the number of architects practicing at any given time and given the massive industrial and social changes which were taking place in the 19th century which would have direct effects on architecture of the time, a theory which can deal with large scale transformations is clearly valuable. It is not enough for a history of architecture to simply offer lists of detailed facts, biographies or individual buildings with the implication that these of themselves provide an adequate explanation for the changes that took place. Of themselves the ‘facts’ do not explain anything. Taken on their own they suggest a convulsive theory of history full of discontinuities and surprises. intentional motives to the formation of these large scale movements In order to re-establish the continuity and coherence of the historical process and its cumulative effects and therefore give adequate explanation for the changes that took place, it is necessary to inform and organize the ‘facts’ with relevant concepts which integrate them into a coherent pattern and are in scale with the environmental forces impacting architecture at the time. Applied to architecture, the concepts of evolutionary theory and of dynamic systems allow one to explain both the constancy of stylistic characteristics which define the periodic history of architecture and, at the same time the inevitable change in those characteristics as one style shades into another.

Given that this treatment of architectural history is somewhat unusual at least in terms of its evolutionary approach, the arrangement and formatting of the chapters is designed to ensure the clearest possible explanation of the theoretical concepts and their application to the historical events. To this end this first chapter provides definitions of key concepts and lays out the theoretical approach taken. Further chapters apply these concepts to the state of 19th and 20th century architecture. Where possible arguments and explanations are laid out in point form. While this may limit the ‘literary quality’ or smoothness of the text, it does serve to ensure that the ideas presented here are expressed as clearly as possible and thus more easily available for consideration.

The aim in this short history of Modern architecture is to provide a coherent alternative to the individualistic and subjective explanations offered by current architectural history and theory in favour of a theory which can explain large scale systematic transformations in architecture; the shift, in other words from one stylistic phenomenon to another. It seeks to offer an alternative explanation for the shape of Modern architecture.


The definitions offered below are shortened versions of those to be found in the main body of the text. They are provided at this point to establish a basic vocabulary of concepts and allow easier access to the ideas presented in the text.

a) Architecture

A recognizable similarity of form between a large number of buildings irrespective of their function. How else would we recognize the existence of architecture other than by noting such regularities of form? Architecture is the information which characterizes the forms of buildings which are themselves material objects. This definition also resolves the confusion which sometimes occurs between the respective definitions of ‘architecture’ and ‘buildings’. The information which architecture embodies is the learned product of the mutual exchange of experience of many architects over long periods of time; experience about which forms can best be used for what purposes.

b) Style

The particular set of characteristic forms which produces a similarity between buildings based on the use of a typical set of forms which architects select and combine into new buildings. Style – a similarity of forms - is the collective result of the exchange of experience between many architects within a particular geographical, discursive or historical arena. The most obvious Western example is that of Classicism and its developments since the Renaissance where a limited number of forms – the Orders – plus a preferred set of compositional patterns provided a ready-made repertoire of forms from which architects could select for the design of many different kinds of buildings. The same preferred set principle applies to all architectures, Chinese, Islamic, and so, each with its own set of canonical forms. Styles change over time as architects adapt the basic set of forms to represent new circumstances, thus producing a gradual ‘stylistic shift’ in the character of the typical forms used. As with the concept ‘species’, style can be seen as a snapshot of evolving characteristics. A style is not a separate entity. It is immanent in the form of many buildings which use the same architectural elements. In this sense, style is a statistical concept. In all historical periods there will be several different and equally valid styles in existence each of which may be identified with some particular environmental or cultural niche such (geographical, political, religious, industrial). However, in certain periods, a dominant style emerges which determines the character of many different building types.

c) Meta-style

The dominant style of a particular historical period derived from a synthesis of the characteristics of a previous set of styles. Sometimes referred to as a ‘classical’ architecture. While previous styles may have been closely associated with particular cultural niches (religious, political or industrial buildings), the meta-style offers a set of forms which can be universally applied across a wide range of building types. It poses as the one answer for all architectural problems. The various elements of the original paradigms are selected and exchanged in terms of their fundamental similarities and differences. The ‘almost similar’ becomes the ‘similar’ in an essentially economic selective process where the most representative and TYPICAL routines which underlie circumstantial differences become the single behavioural set which one can call the Meta-style. Note that it is the contextual or circumstantial aspects of the original forms that are eliminated or repressed during the processes of exchange in favour of a single comprehensive model which can be applied across a wide range of contexts within the same architectural system. If we want to 'see' a style or meta-style, we must look at the uniformity of characteristics which increasingly link many different individual works. In Western architecture, both Classicism and Modernism have provided such a universal formula.

d) Typological Process

The normal processes of communication and exchange between architects which results in the production of typical sets of stylistic forms. The process involves mutual selection and combination of forms by architects within a defined geographical or discursive environment. The continuous exchange between architects leads to a convergence of characteristics in the forms they use where minor differences between the same solutions are filtered out with the development of a standard or canonical solution. The end product of this kind of convergence is the Type, or in architectural terms – the Style.

e) Environment

Architecture is one cultural system among the many which make up a given society. Its general environment is, therefore the cumulative effect of all the other cultural systems (institutions) which architecture represents in built form within a given society. More specific environments are those which require the design of individual buildings and include the building program, location, finance, available technology, law and so on. It is this complex of environmental factors to which the architect responds by adapting available architectural forms to suit these specific environmental requirements.

f) Evolution

Continuous adaptive change by a system in response to conditions imposed by its environment. In order to deal with changes in the environment, and to maintain its organizational integrity, the system draws upon the repertoire of behaviours which it has learned from experience. It selects and combines these possibilities to match the current state of its environment. If it is successful in adapting its forms to these demands, the system will pass these learned routines to the next generation of agents who make up the system. (See ‘Natural Selection’ below) In biological terms, it is genetic material which is passed to future generations. In architectural terms, it is a repertoire of forms. Systems change in order to stay in the same stable relationship to their environments. Change, in this sense is not an intention, it is, paradoxically a result of trying to stay the same. Failure to successfully match its behaviour to the environment may happen because the system for historical reasons simply does not have a suitable range of behavioural routines available to it to. This is possible if the system’s environment changes radically and quickly. In other words, there is no combination of acts within its repertoire which can solve the problem. The result is extinction which in architectural terms means that a particular set of forms is no longer used to produce future buildings.

g) Species

A community of organisms defined by a reproductive boundary within which genetic information is exchanged leading to a similarity of physical characteristics within the community. Species evolve into other species by continuous adaptation over long periods of time or, through geographic isolation of one of the species populations which then adapts to a different ecosystem. Like the concept ‘style’, the term ‘species’ defines a class of individual entities which have similar characteristics. It is not a ‘thing in itself’ but a category. Translated into architectural terms, the ‘reproductive boundary’ which identifies the limits of the species refers to the processes of communication and exchange between architects which produce a convergence of characteristics in buildings. Without such communication, architecture as defined above would not exist, only an aggregate of different individual buildings.

h) Self-Organization

The characteristics and organization of a system are a function of the interlocking activities of its agents in their struggle to adapt to their environments – other systems. The key activity being the communication and exchange of information between them. As already discussed, there is no need to invent extraneous causes to explain the workings of the system or its evolving characteristics. These are simply products or effects of what the system normally does. Nor is there any need to privilege particular groups or individuals within the system as motivating forces. All this does is try to give the system as a whole a personal consciousness or intention and thus a simple and spurious reason for doing what it already does. While individuals are intentional, systems are not.

i) Representation

In architectural terms this refers to process of adapting architectural forms to match the form of some referent institution or other. This is the basic process of design where a building can be seen as a map of the dynamics of a particular organization. (To quote the biologist D’Arcy Thomson: Form is a diagram of the forces acting on it). The building is taken to represent the organization in a particular place at a particular time. The building ‘stands for’ the organization in a particular context and its character is derived from adapting (selecting, modifying and combining) existing forms to new purposes In both architecture and biology a given set of elements (of form, behaviour or genetic information) are combined to match the organizational state of an environment. In one case the result is buildings, in the other the result is organisms. In both cases one can think of this as a transcription process or in a more literary sense the making of a metaphor. The organization of one system (an environment) is written out or translated into the form of another (the system). When a system adapts, it characterizes or represents its environment in the form of its own behaviour. The form of a system is a map of its environment. Again in a linguistic analogy: the building is a statement in a particular language about a referent organization.

j) System

A group of agents in close and continuous communication with one another, mutually exchanging information derived from their individual attempts to represent (adapt to) particular aspects of their environment. (Note the similarity with the concept definition of species). This is the dynamic of the system. While individual agents may be replaced, the system remains intact defined as it is both by the medium of expression used and the network of communication between its agents. It is worth noting here that the concept ‘system’ cannot be adequately understood by a reductive approach which seeks to understand the system by isolating and analysing the work of individual agents. It is the dynamic of exchange which defines the character of the system and its products.

k) Adaptation

When a system adapts, it characterizes or represents its environment in the form of its own behaviour, (the medium of expression particular to that system. In the case of architecture the medium of expression is built form). By definition, the concept suggests that new forms are a result of the combination and recombination of existing forms to describe and represent new experiences. In other words, architects do not invent new forms for each specific design problem. Architectural forms are adaptations or modifications of previously-produced forms. This ensures the continuity of the system and the continued intelligibility of its products.

l) Natural Selection

The mechanism by which the particular characteristics of organisms in an ecosystem are tested against the prevailing environmental conditions and some are eliminated. It has been suggested that the term ‘cumulative selection’ is a more useful description of the process since it describes the continuous and recursive nature of the process. The success or failure of the individual organisms of a species to cope with the conditions of their environment determines their relative reproductive success and the successful traits of those organisms in adapting to their environment are passed to future generations. In the case of architecture, selection occurs through mutual exchange of forms between architects where some combinations of forms are found to be useful in the design of different kinds of buildings. It is these which are taken up and incorporated into the architectural canons – the style – of the period and applied in a wide range of projects. ‘Success’ in biological terms is about adaptive flexibility: the capacity to adequately represent a changing environment in the shape of its own behaviour. The same criteria applies to architectural works. The success or failure of a particular building is a matter of how well it represents its local environment with the set of elements at its disposal; elements which have been quite pragmatically selected from other works and modified to suit local conditions. Each building acts as an imitative source for other works of architecture and it is the semiotic flexibility of the forms used in each which determine the extent to which a particular combination of forms is repeated and exchanged in the selection and combination process carried out between many architects. Semiotic flexibility in this sense is about how easily a form can be adapted for use in other circumstances. Continuous communication and exchange of forms between architects through the medium of their buildings filters a set of conventional forms – a canon - which can be applied generally.

m) Network Principle

Architecture functions as a network of communication and exchange. Individual architects do not create architecture any more than individuals create their own language. They create statements (buildings) in a language which emerges out of the shared experience of many architects, past and present. This continuous sharing of experience involves the selection of real and observable architectural elements drawn from each other’s work and their recombination as new and unique buildings. The currency of this network of exchange is architectural form. That is, the forms that architects observe in the buildings produced by others. It is the connectivity of the system – the degree of connection between its agents - which ensures that the mass of experience produced by architects is transformed into a useful set of uniform characteristics – a style. The size of the network – the number of architects who share information – defines the spread and influence of the style. The means of communication in this network, as against its content is a matter of technology. This can mean the availability of books, magazines, travel, television and so on, but it also involves the uniformity of training received by architects in schools of architecture. Given the global reach of modern media, this means that geographical context no longer defines the size of the network and therefore makes possible the emergence of dominant styles on a global scale, albeit with regional variations.


Its possible to imagine a situation where every building was different to every other building or a situation where every building was the same as every other building, but these are certainly works of the imagination because the most visible feature of the history of architecture is the emergence and dissolution of distinct styles; uniform sets of characteristics shared by a large number of different buildings. Indeed architectural history is often written out (somewhat simplistically and convulsively) in terms of a series of such styles, one succeeding the other over long periods of time. Periods in histories of architecture are defined in terms of the prevailing uniformities of style (Gothic, Renaissance, Neo-Classical, and so on). Even the work of particular architects could not be fully understood without reference to the general state of the architectural language of the time and the attempts by individuals to formulate their work in terms of, or as revisions to current conventions of form in architecture. Thus, the concept of style (a set of shared characteristics) and particularly its emergence out of a great mass of individual buildings provides the explanatory context for a comprehensive study of architectural history.

The basic premise of the evolutionary argument is that this uniformity of characteristics between a large number of buildings – a style - is an absolutely inevitable product of the interaction of architects and their exchange of information in the form of architectural elements. In studying these large scale events one must not lose sight of the fact that they are the result of a myriad individual acts of selection and combination of forms based on the pragmatic needs of architects to find forms that can be adapted to suit particular purposes defined by their environment. This is the dynamic of the whole system and it is out of this apparent chaos of individual concerns that the great movements of architecture emerge. One must also recognize that the existence of a style or its relative influence on the architecture of a given period is a quantifiable matter of the number of buildings which use elements drawn from the repertoire of that style. A ‘dominant’ architectural style, for instance is simply one whose characteristics are used by more buildings than any other. Applying evolutionary concepts to the study of architecture precludes the use of aesthetic, ideological or other qualitative categories to explain the relative success of different styles. The predominance or success of a particular style is not, at this collective level, a matter of aesthetics. At the level of the system as a whole – the collective level - there is ‘no one’ to make such judgments. The relative success of a style (a statistical issue) when compared with others is a result, not a choice.


The continuous production of definite stylistic sets throughout the history of architecture (and their extinction and replacement by others) points to the creation of uniformity amongst groups of buildings as the fundamental process in architecture. It reflects the integration of the experience of many architects into a usable template for future actions. These typical sets of forms which are filtered out of collective experience can also be regarded as the product of learning, namely which combinations of forms work and which don’t work in any given situation. This applies not only to the emergence of ‘universal’ styles such as Classicism and Modernism whose formal repertoire so completely dominated architectural production, but also to all the other less ubiquitous styles such as Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and the host of other ‘Neo’ styles which existed for a time in the 19th century. They were all the result of a convergence of many architectural works around a distinctive set of formal characteristics, the formation of a unique stylistic identity and the production of a visible similarity between many buildings. Yet, the study of architectural history cannot simply be a description or record of a series of monolithic styles and their characteristics. It must also reflect the considerable variety of periods where no overall uniformity exists and crucially, the transitional periods between the dissolution of one dominant style and the emergence of another. There are many periods which are more-or-less uniform or which have no clear-cut identity or which vary in lifespan. With the disintegration of the great classical styles it almost seems as if the tendency towards uniformity goes into reverse and there is a seeming move from order to chaos. While production of uniform sets of characteristics may be the systemic process which underlies architecture, its realization throughout the architecture of any period is a matter of degree. There will always be several different styles co-existing within a society at the same time. One can say that the drive towards uniformity of characteristics is a tendency never fully realized. The degree to which it is realized in the form of great classical styles or a number of less influential styles can be explained as a result of the same formative processes constrained in some way by architecture’s environment. From this one can suggest that while the ‘rules’ which govern the formation of styles are simple (selection and combination and the communication and exchange of forms), the end results ‘on the ground’ can be very complex - as the history of architecture shows.


With the proviso, already mentioned, namely that the architecture of any society can never be completely uniform and that there will always be a number of styles of varying degrees of influence in existence at the same time, we can now outline the different possible states of uniformity which can be found in the history of architecture:

a) Stylistically the character of architecture during different periods is sometimes extremely diverse while at others it is almost completely unified around a particular style.

The difference between different periods does not necessarily mean that the architectural processes involved are therefore different. For example, while Modernism may have been the predominant style for most of the 20th century, acting as the single template for many if not most buildings, the diversity of styles which identify the Postmodern era does not presuppose the invention of a whole new set of architectural processes. Architects continued to do what they had always done in terms of selection and combination of forms, but while the processes remained the same, the results were different. Recognizing the continuity of these architectural processes throughout history precludes the application of convulsive and arbitrary theories to explain the observable differences that arise over time. So too in evolutionary terms, the process of adaptation allows the formation of new forms by recombining existing material. Combined and re-combined to suit many different contexts, differences are the inevitable result. There is no need to invent spontaneous events to explain the emergence of differences in history.

b) The emergence of global similarities of form - the great classical styles which can dominate architecture for long periods of time.

In a sense the emergence of such styles is an improbable event, given that they are product of innumerable individual design decisions. The same can be said of the emergence of technological, political, social or artistic movements or paradigms which are also the product of the interaction of many individuals. However, they do happen and they happen often because, as has been described previously, there is a selective or filtering process built into any continuous exchange between a large number of individuals in close and continuous communication with each other. In the exchange between such groups, the almost similar becomes the similar with circumstantial differences of form being eliminated from the typical set which eventually arises. Only the most essential or typical elements are defined as part of the stylistic set and given the status of templates or standards for future actions. From this point of view, Gothic, Classicism and the Modern were not ‘invented’ by any individual or group, but are simply the products of cumulative selection from amongst a great mass of architectural work.

c) The co-existence of a dominant style with a group of styles of more limited application (usually focused on some institutional niche or other)

Theoretically at least, the great classical styles provide a set of forms, a vocabulary and grammar which can be applied across a wide range of different design problems. This is their inherent value, their adaptive flexibility which allows that at least some combination of the typical set will provide a coherent solution to any given design problem. That anyway is the theory. In practice however, no single design template can ever provide the solution to all problems. The model can never be as complex as the reality it represents (otherwise it would be the reality). The map is not the territory. This leaves room for other styles which have either developed around a very specific environment or have become closely associated with a particular kind of institution. These can be termed ‘vernacular’ These styles are ‘precisely engineered’ to suit particular environmental niches. The continued use of Gothic as an acceptable way of creating religious buildings or the development of specifically industrial forms of architecture exemplify the diversity of the architectural ‘ecosystem’ at any given time. Equally, the rise of a universal style does not automatically lead to the extinction of other styles but rather limits their application. They remain as historical leftovers from previous environments eventually withering away.

d) The disintegration of classical architectures into several different and equally-valid styles.

Styles rise, but they also fall. One can safely say that there is nothing inherent in the style itself which brings about its extinction. There is no reason why its forms should not continue to provide formulae for the design of many buildings unless, of course those buildings must reflect a whole new set of spatial and technical conditions which cannot be dealt with by any combination of the prevailing style. Then, the style is thrown into crisis, but the result is not the swift and magical acquisition of a whole new set of more relevant forms. Architects can only work with what they already have; they can only adapt existing forms to the new conditions. Forced to adapt to new circumstances, there will be a period of trial and error where existing forms are distorted to match new kinds of problems producing increasingly radical and non-canonical adaptations of what they already have. The integrity of the dominant style will be gradually dissolved since its compositional formulae no longer provide workable answers to new kinds of problems. Pragmatism, the demand to accurately represent the form of a given institution in architectural terms forces change and change, in this case can only be the slide from uniformity to diversity of combination. There is nowhere else to go. The end result of this is the multiplication of non-canonical versions of the style as its forms are pragmatically distorted to match new compositional requirements.

e) The disintegration of classical architectures into variations on a theme

There is, however, a parallel process to the disintegration of the dominant style described above which arises out of the internal dynamics of architecture itself. In this case, over long periods of time in very stable environmental conditions, the language of architecture becomes increasingly stereotyped. The key factor here is continuity of the environmental conditions in which a particular style exists. The tendency towards uniformity described earlier is reinforced over long periods of ultra-stability to the point where even the typical set of forms already established – the classical set itself – is subject selection and combination and overly precise analysis in a search for its most typical or essential aspects. The result is a rigid stereotyping of the typical set of a style and an elimination of its flexibility. In a sense the environment, by its very stability has ‘tricked’ the system into establishing a precisely-engineered formula no matter what the local circumstances. Evolution, the gradual transformation of one style into another to meet new conditions is here replaced with its negative - involution, the establishment of a rigid and abstract set of forms which cannot possibly respond to any set of environmental changes. The result is the collapse of the integrity of the style into a set of variations on itself which rely on decoration to distinguish one from another and to distinguish one building from another. Given the continued stability of its environment, there is no reason why this play of variations on variations should not continue indefinitely.


If we include amongst this diversity of states the sometimes considerable variation in the lifespan of styles with some lasting only a decade while others last a millennium we have what appears to be almost a random element in the history of architecture. In one sense of course, this is true since the variations which occur in architecture are in many cases the result of changes taking place outside architecture itself in its environment - other systems such as technology, economics and social organization to which architecture must respond. Seen from within architecture such changes are random ,unpredictable and the product of chance events which is of course exactly what they are since the developments which take place in these different systems are not coordinated. A society is not a unified machine but a constellation of different systems interacting with each other and each with its own developmental timescale. Chance events which by their nature cannot be foreseen, such as the Industrial Revolution will ripple through a whole society provoking adaptive change in all other systems. The state of architecture at any time – its degree of uniformity or diversity - is, therefore a response to several conditions:

a) Its general environment in terms of events taking place in other parts of society

b) Its local environment in terms of the kinds of building projects it is required to represent

c) The particular character of the architectural language at the time which is historically determined


d) The selection-combination processes and the mutual exchange of information between architects.

The first three conditions change over time, while the latter is a constant since it is the formative process which translates the others into built form at particular times and places.


The only factor which can explain the variations in the state of architecture throughout its history is the effect of some general constraint on the `behaviour' of architecture as a whole which would reinforce or reduce its tendency towards producing uniformity of characteristics. In other words, if the basic tendency of architecture is to produce stylistic sets, then what is it that theoretically prevents the whole of architecture from becoming single uniform style over time? What are the limitations or constraints on architecture’s behaviour – its integrative tendency - that produces diversity?

1. The System of Patronage

Global limitations such as these can only arise outside the architectural system itself, in the state of its environment. The specific mechanism by which these external relations are mapped on to architecture is the system of patronage in existence at the time which reflects the number and relative power of the institutions within a society. This can be precisely defined as the institutions or individuals who have the economic power to commission buildings. The motivating force and the very existence of architecture depends entirely on the production of buildings; buildings which in their number and type reflect the social and economic relationships of the time and consequently represent the varying degrees of economic power of different institutions in a society. This is not at all an abstract relationship since this economic power is reflected in the large concentrations of capital required to build buildings. The system of patronage is therefore the crucial point of contact between architecture and its social and economic environment; the specific relationship where the architect is required to translate the dynamics of social institutions in built form.

2. Social and Economic Conditions

The variation in the number and importance of styles throughout history is an effect of changing relationships within the economic system transmitted through to architecture by a corresponding change in the number and commissioning power of the patrons. Like any other dynamic system, the socioeconomic organization of a society changes from time to time and three different possible states of organization and therefore of patronage can be suggested:

a) The Integrated State

The total wealth of a society may be centred on a small number of large institutions. These few institutions which dominate the economic and social life of a society. These institutions may be monarchic, theocratic, centralized government or corporate power.

b) The Plural State

The total wealth of a society may be dispersed amongst a large number of smaller institutions. In this, the various institutions within a society are autonomous and have random or variable relations with one another. Examples of this kind of society would be Mercantile capitalism and the rise of a middle class.

c) The Transitional State

The socioeconomic system moves unpredictably between these two poles of organization – Integrated and Plural - with a consequent change in the number and relative power of the patrons who will commission buildings. In other words, there is a mixture of large and relatively smaller institutions coexisting in the society. This is the normal state of things.


Time is a significant factor here. Without some degree of continuity, none of these states would have any particular effect on architecture. For instance, it obviously takes a considerable amount of time for architecture – a great mass of individual activity - to converge around the particular set of characteristics which define a style. It has already been pointed out that time – in the sense of continuity of conditions - can have its own definite effects on architecture by locking it into a stereotyped state. It is also worth noting that the interaction of a particular state of technology with a particular state of architecture, for instance the 19th century introduction of frame structures of steel or reinforced concrete into the building process at a particular time is a matter of timing and therefore of chance. It could have happened sooner or later than it did given the different developmental timescales involved in each system. Either way, the time factor is the crucial element in the establishment of a particular architectural and stylistic state.


Architectural activity, acting within one or another of these socioeconomic states - of integration or plurality - will produce different degrees of uniformity of style in the repertoire. Through the medium of the system of patronage which prevails at the time, architecture will reflect the organization of the socioeconomic system in its own way, through alteration in the number and relative influence of the styles within it. In other words, architecture becomes a metaphor of the system of patronage and ultimately the prevailing social and economic state of the society since the number and type of buildings that are built are a direct reflection of socio-economic conditions transmitted through the number and relative influence of patrons. However, the ‘direct’ impact of the system of patronage does not define the content of architecture such as the architectural characteristics of buildings or styles. It only defines the degree of stylistic choice that becomes available to architects as an inevitable result of a centralized or plural system of patronage. What therefore passes between the system of patronage and the system of architecture is information about the organization of things which is translated into architecture as the degree of uniformity of style which it is allowed to display. Thus, while the tendency to produce uniformity amongst buildings is a product of architectural processes and the interaction of architects, the degree to which it will extend throughout a society is a function of the system of patronage – architecture’s environment. This is the real constraint on the emergence or otherwise of dominant styles throughout architectural history.

From the above one can summarize the effects of the system of patronage and its constraints on architecture on architecture as follows:

a) In an Integrated system of patronage, a few powerful institutions will each commission a large number of buildings similar in character and requirements thereby reinforcing architecture’s tendency to produce uniformity of style.

b) In a Plural system of patronage a large number of less powerful institutions will each commission a number of buildings similar in character and requirements. This diversity of patronage will limit architecture’s tendency to produce uniformity of style

In the first case, architecture is locked into a narrow range of stylistic options, while in the second it is ‘forced’ into producing a wider range of options. The environment does not of courses determined the stylistic character of those options, but simply their number: few or many. Or to put it another way, in an Integrated system of patronage, architecture cannot be diverse, it must become more uniform in character. In the Plural system, architecture cannot produce a uniformity in the shape of a predominant classical style but is limited to the production of a number of different but equally-valid styles. However, the very fact that architecture, as a metaphor of its environment is constrained to producing a narrow or wide range of stylistic possibilities does indirectly have an effect on the formal character of styles. Again, it is important to recognize the need for continuity in either of these states in order to have any effect on architecture at all.


Architectural activity – the mutual selection and combination of forms between many architects - is invariant no matter what the current state of the system of patronage. Architects are still required to accurately represent social institutions in built form; accuracy in this sense also means the capacity to distinguish the similarities and differences between buildings and thus imbue them with a distinct meaning. The environment’s inescapable demand for uniformity or diversity of approach will have a considerable impact on architect’s ability to produce such distinctions. In a system which demands uniformity is it possible for architects to accurately represent radically new building types if they are constrained by strict canonical rules which are a function of uniformity of expression? And, what happens if they cannot? Equally, in an environment which is inherently diverse, is it possible for architects to address the similarities between buildings or even establish (through mutual selection) the standards and canons of practice which define the economics of design. In extreme terms, these questions are indicative of the endless search for both ‘order’ and ‘freedom’ of expression in design terms. The problem is that at least half the answers to these questions lie outside architecture itself in its environment. All that architects can do is to manipulate the language of architecture in such a way that the problems of uniformity or diversity of expression at least appear to be solved even if this is done through decorative or fictive means as we shall see in the following discussion.


In order to produce an evolutionary model of architectural history one must integrate the various factors discussed above. The intention is to get to the point where one can define how these various factors ultimately affect the formal characteristics of buildings. In other words, to shift the scale of analysis from the system to the individual work of architecture, and moving from evolution as such to the historical processes which brought about the emergence of the various kinds of styles to be found in the history of architecture. History in this sense is evolution taking place at a particular time and place.

One can start with the principle already stated that the normal processes of communication and exchange between architects acting within different environments will produce different end results, either allowing the emergence of a greater degree of uniformity ( allowing a classical style to emerge which predominates throughout architecture) or ensuring a continued diversity of stylistic approaches. Based on this principle one can permutate the relations between architecture and its variable environments. The two initial components for this model would be as follows:

a) The constant factor - the collective activity of selection and recombination of architectural form taking place through the normal processes of communication and exchange of experience between a large number of architects.

b) The variable factor - two possible socioeconomic states, whether Integrated or Plural and their equivalent systems of patronage.

From the interaction of these two factors over time one can suggest three possible historical states for architecture. These states will affect the degree of diversity or uniformity of style within architecture at any given time and ultimately through the semiotic freedom made available to architects, the kind of formal characteristics which will be exhibited within each period. Along these lines one can suggest the results of various possible interactions in the following way:

1. Normal Architectural Processes in a Plural System of Patronage will Produce an Pragmatic State in architecture.

This involves a state of continuous undifferentiated change. The character of architecture in a Pragmatic state may be suggested as follows:

a) The continuous production of different behaviours, styles and sets of forms. Given the institutional diversity of the Plural environment the number and relationships between institutions keeps changing.

b) The only thing that can be achieved in the exchange between architects is the creation of temporarily stable groups of forms produced by local circumstances. The lifespan of these styles will inevitably be limited.

c) Several equally valid styles co-existing during the same period. This is consistent with the diversity of the socioeconomic system at that time. Architects in this situation have a choice of styles which they can use to represent different social institutions.

d) There are in a sense more stylistic answers than there are questions and always several different ways of doing the same thing - of representing the same experience.

e) Since the same institution can legitimately be represented by different and equally valid styles, the prevailing trait of the Pragmatic state is ambiguity.

f) There is a continual crisis of meaning since it is impossible to establish and maintain a coherent and generally accepted set of typical forms for similar situations.

g) The key semiotic aspect of the Pragmatic state is that it cannot represent the similarities between different experiences.

In this situation architects use different sets of typical elements to represent the same kinds of institutions. A 19th century example would be where architects would design banks or office buildings or whatever using Classical or Gothic-inspired architectural elements. Or, in the late 20th century where architects might use hi tech forms or historicist forms to represent exactly the same institution. In other words, very different ways of saying the same thing. At one level there is nothing wrong with this: different ways of saying the same thing. However, when these statements are made in completely different architectural languages, there is a problem: the problem of ambiguity and of the chaos which results when there is a lack of coherence or consistence of expression. The underlying assumption here, of course is that there is an ideal situation where a single set of typical elements is articulated to represent any given context while always retaining its unique identity. Here, similarity and difference become merely variations on a constant theme. This concern is consistent with the general idea about language where individual expression is only validated or made intelligible by its references to commonly- accepted conventions.

Architects in the 19th century sought to overcome the problems of ambiguity caused by the existence of different styles by the use of two techniques:

a) Design by Association, where the choice of style to be used in a particular project was justified by reference to some historical or cultural association between the institution to be represented and the particular style used. The obvious example is the use of the Gothic style in the design of churches.

b) Decoration could alleviate but not overcome the increasing difference between different buildings. Standard motifs shared by many buildings and drawn from known historical and allegorical sources could to a limited extent semantically unify groups of buildings although it could not bridge the gap between the characteristics of very different styles.

2. Normal Architectural Processes in an Integrated System of Patronage will Produce a Developmental State in Architecture.

This allows the formation of a single stylistic paradigm by integrating the characteristics different styles into a single set – a meta style. This is only possible if the system of patronage has itself become more integrated. An example of this might be the integration of mercantile capitalist enterprises into corporate capitalist entities as happened for instance during the latter part of the 19th century.

The same collective processes acting in an INTEGRATED environment will produce an increasing convergence in the characteristics of different styles within architecture This may be called the Developmental or Paradigmatic state where the interchange and combination of elements underlying different styles results in the formation of a simple, global routine or predominant style. In systemic terms there is a shift from the evolution of new forms of behaviour to the development and elaboration of a single behavioural program. The characteristics of architecture in the Developmental state can be outlined a s follows:

a) Concentration of patronage derived from more integrated relations between different parts of the socioeconomic system allows increased connectivity between architects.

b) The normal collective processes of communication and exchange between architects NOW results in the synthesis of the elements and geometries which underlie different styles into a single limited set of forms. Initially at least these forms retain their simple geometric characteristics.

c) The first stage of this synthesis may be recognized as a period of eclecticism where the forms drawn from different styles are combined while still retaining their own stylistic identities.

d) Further exchanges in the context of a stable environment reduces these identities to their most fundamental or typical characteristics and these are essentially geometric, spatial or organizational in nature. For instance, Modern architecture as a synthesis of the orthogonal grid of Classicism and the so-called ‘free plan’ of Neo-Gothic or vernacular.

e) The Developmental state produces a set of forms which can be seen as a single economic answer to a number of different representational problems.

f) The ambiguities of architecture in the Pragmatic state are resolved since there is now a single but flexible instrument of expression which can be adapted to suit different contexts and yet maintain its stylistic identity. It is able to represent both the similarities and the differences between different institutions with various combinations of its generic typical set. There is no further need to invent new solutions for different problems which can all be handled by some combination or other of the same typical set.

g) Buildings are now seen to be variations on a single theme, combined as they are from a recognizable set of forms.

h) This meta-style forms the basis of a ‘classical’ architecture and comes to be closely associated with a particular historical and social era.

The Developmental synthesis exemplifies the recombination of existing elements in order to create the new. The unprecedented nature of the new forms of Early Modern Architecture should not blind us to the fact that they are still – albeit extensive and radical recombinations of historical material. It is at this historical point that one can identify the emergence of a new architecture.

3. Normal Architectural Activity in a Continuous Integrated System of Patronage will Produce an Involutionary State in Architecture.

It is at this point that time, in the sense of continuity plays a decisive part in shaping the characterists of architecture and ultimately results in the fragmentation of the developmental synthesis and its classical Architecture.

The continuity of the Integrated state leads to ultra-stable environmental conditions where the same systemic processes produce entirely different and apparently contradictory end results, namely the fragmentation of the Meta-style itself – the classical architecture. During an Involutionary period the quite natural tendency of architecture to produce uniformity (driven by communication and exchange between its agents) is reinforced by the further integration of its socio-economic environment. In cybernetic terms this is the equivalent of positive feedback which reinforces the tendency towards uniformity. While in the Developmental period this process simply meant that the ‘almost similar became the similar’, in the Involutionary period of a system ‘the similar’ becomes ‘the identical’. In the Involutionary state systemic processes trapped within a highly-integrated and seemingly 'immortal' socio-economic environment subject the Meta-style itself and its uniformity to selective re-combination. The architectural characteristics of the Involutionary state can be outlined as follows:

a) There is an increasing disarticulation of architectural form. The classical set is fragmented into a number of variations on its own theme. While the selection-combination mechanism inevitably articulates architectural form around its most probable elements, in the Involutionary phase this results in the disarticulation of the classical set.

b) There is a tendency to integrate what is already integrated, to clarify what is already clarified and to further articulate the most probable elements of the classical (Developmental) paradigm. The result is to stereotype the elements of the classical set by identifying and fixing their most probable and precise characteristics. In effect the set is bureaucratized and made inflexible.

c) Only the most probable characteristics of forms can be legitimately selected so that buildings become increasingly similar to one another to the point where they can be termed identical. Architecture is therefore unable to represent the differences between different contexts. It can only speak of what is similar. This results in an inevitable crisis of meaning. In this ‘post-classical’ state there is a drastic reduction in the semiotic freedom of the architectural language. The function of architecture requires it to represent the full complexity of relations in the environment - it no longer has adequate means of doing so. It has been rendered rigid and inarticulate. It now has very limited semiotic freedom to express what it must express.

d) During this period architectural canons, compositional rules, standards and practices are precisely formulated by finally eliminating contextual or circumstantial characteristics. All are fixed and categorized and in social and institutional terms given the authority of law.

e) Decoration becomes the predominant visual feature of the Involutionary architecture. It is used as a remedial device to resolve current semantic problems by introducing an apparent diversity of form to the primary (but inflexible) elements of the typical set. Given the rigidity of Involutionary forms they cannot represent differences of context. Therefore decoration in the Involutionary phase must be fluid and diverse to give a fictitious diversity of character to possibly identical buildings. Decoration acts as fictitious context.

f) So too during this period, proportional systems are introduced as a remedial device to ensure the visual coherence of increasingly disarticulated forms. The stereotyping of architectural form means that the character of the elements used in a building must be precisely defined. They will not be adapted to suit their particular location in a building or their relationship to the building’s context. The building in this case becomes an assemblage of self-referencing parts.


One can summarise this whole process by noting that in architectural history:

a) The later forms of a style are more articulate, rhetorical and exaggerated than those of the earlier phases. (The circle becomes the ellipse in Baroque terms and in Modern architecture a new formalism of texture and shape replaces classical restraint. Even so-called ‘Functionalism’ requires the exaggerated emphasis of particular forms at the expense of others for spurious ideological reasons. The syntactic results are the same).

b) Details are emphasised at the expense of wholes as the character of particular elements are ever more precisely defined to the point where the whole becomes an assemblage of parts. (In communicational terms the flexibility and complexity of the original elements is split or punctuated into several discrete and precise elements).

c) There is a tendency towards decomposition of the whole building into distinct volumes or assemblies as each part of the building becomes a self-referencing identity. This is the so-called ‘functionalist’ stage.

d) There is a greater use of decoration and proportional systems as a means of maintaining the unity and the meaning of the forms used in a building.

e) There is a tendency towards irony, parody, play, illusion and self-reference in ‘post-classical’ architecture. At one level these may be seen as ‘language games’ made possible when the system is freed from any dependence on context. It is the architectural language itself which becomes the subject of experiment and further coordination rather than its relation to the reality outside the system itself.

While architects will continue to select forms from the available repertoire for their individual works, they will find that the degree of semiotic freedom they have to do so changes over time. The too-flexible repertoire of the Pragmatic period eliminates the regularities of form which define what is probable or what is general. The rigidity of form during an Involutionary period cannot represent anything in particular. Apart from the Developmental period described above, in the other two phases architects are forced to add determinative clues to their buildings to indicate the precise meaning of the forms used. Thus decoration - a secondary formal language derived from the past is now used to maintain the necessary ‘quota’ of meaning required by architectural form. In practical terms, decoration in the Pragmatic period provides a fictitious unity of form while in the Involutionary period it provides a fictitious diversity of form.


In the extreme conditions of the Involutionary state it can no longer refer to particular times and particular places. For this reason in its final stages, the Meta-style begins to display pathological symptoms. In communicational terms, this pathological state is equivalent to schizophrenia where diverse behavioural fragments are ‘assembled’ to meet complex social situations. The inevitable differences of form which must occur in the system over time in order to cope with complex realities are now dealt with by the production of a secondary language of decorative `fictitious' differences.

Subject to intense selective pressure the Meta-style disintegrates into variations on variations of itself giving rise to an allegorical or ‘scholastic’ phase where a superficial plurality of behaviours is emphasised by decoration In concrete terms, overwhelmed by the decorative elements required to maintain its semantic credibility, the single dominant style seems to fragment into a series of different but related sub-styles as in Postmodern architecture.

In seeking to represent all possible contexts with a single precise formula, architecture in the Involutionary state succeeds in representing none of them in particular. The systemic drive for syntactic clarity ends in a state of total ambiguity. Architecture as Meta-style collapses under a welter of decorative and contextual forms in the attempt to confirm the authenticity of its routines. In psychological terms, this can be seen as a ‘return of the repressed’ where the circumstantial diversity of behaviour originally selected out of the repertoire during the emergence of the Meta-style is now the dominant feature of the Involutionary period. It should be remembered that the periodic changes in architecture outlined above are in no way a matter of choice for architects but of purely systemic processes.


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