ARCHITECTURE AS A DYNAMIC SYSTEM
By Alex Brown
The paper proposes a theory and model of systematic evolutionary change in architecture based on a definition of architecture as a dynamic and self-regulating complex system. 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 architecture’s many practitioners. The paper offers a radical interpretation of architectural history centred around the emergence, development and transformation of the key unit of architectural reproduction: the Style. That is, the ‘typical set’ of elements or paradigm which acts as the template for the production of many individual works of architecture. Style is explained as an emergent phenomenon arising out of collective selection-combination of diverse experiences.
Architecture; style; articulation; decoration; systems; architectural systems; Meta-style; communication and exchange; cumulative selection – combination of forms; paradigms; representation; modelling; evolution; development; involution; plurality; organisation; emergence; semantics; syntax; context; ambiguity; the marginal; probability.
1. Initial Definitions
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 information which characterizes the forms of buildings which are material objects.
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.
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.
The normal processes of communication and exchange between architects which results in the collective 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 cumulative effect of all the other cultural systems which architecture represents in built form within a given society.
2. Architectural systems: Networks of Communication and Exchange
Communication and exchange between architects takes place through a process of mutual selection and combination of the forms available in many individual works. This continuous sharing of experience involves the selection of real and observable elements drawn from other peoples work and combined in new contexts. These elements are the means of communication within the system. This network of exchanges taking place within a defined environment leads to an increasing similarity of form within the architectural system based on the most typical or essential aspects of the exchanged elements. This similarity is the basis of the stylistic paradigms which emerge as representative models of collective experience and which act as constraints on future selections.
3. The Emergence of a Meta-style in Architecture
The emergence of a dominant style within architecture may be defined as: a single stylistic set projected out of a number of previous styles through continuous communication and exchange between architects. That is, it is the emergence of a new level of organisation in the system – the meta-style. We may suggest the following:
a) While each of the original styles represents the cumulative experience of many individual acts of selection and combination of form by architects in particular localities, the meta-style represents the cumulative experience and essential characteristics of the several such styles. In effect it becomes the ‘classical’ style for a whole society.
b) While the number of individual works by produced by architects within a society may stay the same or increase, they become increasingly similar to one another in the sense that their components are now selected from a single and very specific stylistic set of forms.
c) The original differences between the styles which merge into a meta-style are usually based on the geographical dispersion of groups of architects who work within the system. There is in effect a communicational barrier between these groups which leads to a ‘variety of different ways of doing the same thing'. That is, different forms for solving the same problems.
However, increased communication (connectivity) between these diverse groups by means of new technologies, trade, cultural exchange, voluntary integration or imperial acquisition establish the basis for the integration of architecture around a single style. 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.
4. The Evolution of Architecture
In order to examine the concept of evolution in this sense we may note that the state of architecture varies considerably throughout history. For example:
a) Stylistically the character of architecture is sometimes extremely diverse with many different styles while at others it is almost completely unified around a particular style.
b) The emergence of global similarities of form - the great classical styles which can dominate architecture for long periods of time.
c) The disintegration of classical architectures into several equally-valid styles.
d) The sometimes considerable variation in the lifespan of styles with some lasting only a decade while others last a millenium.
e) 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).
f) 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).
g) 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. In Modern architecture this can be seen in the so-called ‘functionalist’ phase.
h) There is in some periods 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.
i) In the later stages of a style 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.
5. The System of Patronage
The only factor which can explain these historical variables is the effect of some constraint on the `behaviour' of architecture as a whole which would reinforce or reduce its normal tendency towards producing uniformity of characteristics. Such global limitations 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. These are the social and economic relationships of the time realized in built form and represent the varying degrees of economic power of different institutions. A power which is realized in the large concentrations of capital required to build buildings.
6. Integration and Plurality of Patronage
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 state of a society changes from time to time. For example:
a) The total wealth of a society may be centred on a small number of large institutions. This can be referred to as an Integrated state. In this the various institutions which make up a society are in some sense coordinated with one another and appear to act as one single system.
b) The total wealth of a society may be dispersed amongst a large number of small institutions. This can be referred to as a Plural state. In this the various institutions within a society are autonomous and have random or variable relations with one another.
c) The socioeconomic system moves unpredictably between these two poles of organization with consequent change in the number and relative power of the patrons who will commission buildings.
7. Effects of the system of Patronage
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. That is, the same process acting within different environments will produce different end results. The mechanism for this is as follows: In an INTEGRATED system of patronage, a few powerful institutions will each commission a large number of buildings similar in character and requirements. In a PLURAL system of patronage a large number of less powerful institutions will each commission a few buildings similar in character and requirements. One system of patronage will tend to concentrate a large number of similar buildings within a few styles, thereby increasing the relative significance of these styles in the repertoire. (In purely numerical terms, other styles will be marginalized). The other will disperse a large number of buildings throughout many styles.
From the above one can summarize the effects of the system of patronage on architecture as follows:
a) Integrated systems of patronage reinforce the tendency of architectural activity to produce uniformity of style.
b) Plural systems of patronage retard the tendency of the architectural activity to produce uniformity of style
c) Architectural activity – collective selection and combination of forms - is invariant no matter what the current state of the system of patronage.
In order to produce an evolutionary model of architectural history and architecture as system 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 algorithm of selection and recombination of architectural form taking place through normal 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:
9. Normal Architectural Processes in a Plural System of Patronage will Produce an Pragmatic State in architecture. That is Continuous Undifferentiated Change. (Ref. 19th Century)
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. 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 be limited.
b) 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. 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.
c) Since the same institution can legitimately be represented by different and equally valid styles, the prevailing trait of the Pragmatic state is ambiguity. 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. The key semiotic aspect of the Pragmatic state is that it cannot represent the similarities between different experiences.
10. Normal Architectural Processes in an Integrated System of Patronage will Produce a Developmental State in Architecture. That is, the Formation of a Single Stylistic Paradigm or Meta-style out of the Last set of Diverse Styles. (Ref. Early Modern)
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. 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.
b) 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. 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. The Developmental state produces a set of forms which can be seen as a single economic answer to a number of different representational problems.
c) 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. Buildings are now seen to be variations on a single theme, combined as they are from a recognizable set of forms. This meta-style is eventually recognized as a ‘classical’ architecture and comes to be closely associated with a particular historical and social era.
11. Normal Architectural Activity in a Continuous Integrated System of Patronage will Produce an Involutionary State in Architecture. That is, Over Time it will Result in the Fragmentation of the Developmental Synthesis and its Classical Architecture. (Ref. Late 20th century, Postmodernism)
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. 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. 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.
b) Only the most probable characteristics of forms can be legitimately selected. Buildings become increasingly similar to one another to the point where they can be termed identical. Architecture is 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
c) 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.
d) 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.
e) 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.
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.
12. The Collapse of the Meta-style
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 derived from the normal processes of communication between architects over very long periods of time.