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The Evolution of Modern Architecture

On the Origin of Styles

 

Chapter One: From History to Evolution

 

 

1.0     The Case for an Evolutionary Theory of Architecture

 

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.

 

1.1        Personal Invention versus System

 

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 substrate) and the process of their origination from the conscious mind or from 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 become another type of organism. During its lifetime a lion cannot evolve into a tiger. Whereas species can evolve into other species). Evolution is a group phenomenon. For instance where over time natural selection would alter the bias in the genetic pool of the species thus altering 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 changing environmental circumstances, 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 individualistic analysis are then applied (inappropriately) to large scale events in the history of architecture. 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. So it is said.

 

While this is not quite what one might call ‘spontaneous generation’ 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 periodization of architectural history.

 

1.2     Individual versus Group Actions

 

In this apparent inability to deal realistically with the truely collective nature of architecture, that is with architecture as a system, one can recognize an essentially humanistic and anthropocentric resistance to such an impersonal idea. The history of architecture is in almost all cases a narrative filled with individuals, heroes, struggles, tragedies and great achievements. This is to be expected of course, in the sense that history by definition is a record of real people and real events. But the problem as defined here is that these same histories are, for humanistic and essentially ideological reasons projecting conscious actions and motivations on to very large scale events and timescales where no individual or group activities are possible. For instance, no individual or group can be said to design an architecture or provoke its transformation into another any more than they can be said to ‘design’ a human language or social system. The regularities of form which we can see in these large scale systems are the product of a multitude of individual activities interacting with one another within a defined environment. While we can safely say that individual buildings are consciously designed, we cannot say that architectures or styles are. Yet if they are not designed how do such complex system-wide regularities arise and maintain themselves over long periods of time? How can they arise at all out of so many individual projects, variable environments, change their characteristics over long periods of time, split up into variations on themselves, act as a template for innumerable different buildings and become extinct to be replaced by others? What are the mechanism for events such as these and more significantly, what is it within architecture that at certain points in time produces the convergence of numerous individual actions into a coherent theme – the style.

 

1.3         The Concept of Style: A Product of Group Activities

 

The aesthetic and organizational coherence of architectural styles makes them seem like designed entities. The continuity of form across so many buildings, the compositional rules which explicitly govern their use, the regularity of materials, proportional systems, the combination of typical elements, details and decoration all seem to point to a conscious design and, for some to the conscious will of a designer. Yet excluding individualistic interpretations of history, what we seem to have in fact is design without designers or in an historical sense ‘architecture without architects’. These stylistic systems exist and are indeed coherent in their organization and effects and yet are undesigned. This visible order appears to arise out of the chaos of a million individual architectural decisions and one would think that this strange phenomenon would have been the subject of intense interest on the part of architectural theoreticians. Well in a way it has but the mechanism used to explain it – human intervention – immediately masks the real processes and complexity which underlie such events. The fear still exists that if we were to exclude human intention and design from the creation of architectures then all we would be left with is the terror of the void. Somehow or other we must always have a ‘designer’ for cultural systems in the same way that pre-Darwinian biology required a ‘designer’ (God) for complex biological systems.

 

There is this interesting parallel between the quest for the origin of order in architecture and that of biology in the 19th century. That is about how order arises in large scale systems. For instance the debate in Darwin’s time centred on how complex biological organisms could arise without the intervention of a divine designer. Although the idea of evolution had been accepted by many natural scientists even before Darwin, the ‘cause’ of the wondrous beauty and complexity of the natural world remained that of divine intervention. This ‘argument from design’ as it was called simply stated that there was no natural process which could produce the remarkable adaptive complexity of biological species to their environment. Such systems had to be designed by ‘someone’ or ‘something’ because they were just too complex (the eye, for instance) to have been the result of accident or chance. However this argument was gradually refuted by the explanatory power of the theory of natural selection operating amongst all organisms coupled with an increasing understanding of the geological time scales available for such complex evolutionary processes to take place on a cumulative step-by-step basis. (Re. Dawkins/Paley ‘Watchmaker’ analogy).

 

1.4     'Architecture without Architects'

 

Given the complex interaction between the social, cultural, geographical, technological, economic and the myriad individual intentions which together provide the frame for architectural activity at any point in time, one is faced with an equivalent question. That is, how any coherent order could arise out of this matrix of forces at all? An order in fact epitomised by the function of architectural style during all historical periods.  Here we have a phenomenon which in the midst of all the competing forces mentioned above, unifies the characteristics of the buildings produced during each historical period from the scale of their overall form to their decorative detail. The form of thousands of individual buildings built in many different places and constrained by different technological, economic and institutional demands are coordinated by a single stylistic template into a unified physical environment. Here in the phenomenon of the style we have a seemingly ‘spontaneous’ convergence of characteristics – the emergence of a clear-cut order - on a grand scale. Devoid of conscious human intention, one can only take the evolutionary view that the emergence and evolution of architectural styles is a product of the interaction of many thousands of agents taking place over long periods of time. This is an entirely different thing from saying human beings invent or design styles. While individual buildings are consciously designed artefacts the architectural styles which characterise their forms are not. They are ‘emergent phenomena’ - a product of the self-organization of the system in response to its environment.

 

These styles, which may be defined as a general similarity of form between a large number of individual buildings are a constant feature of the history of architecture. Indeed one cannot define the history of architecture without reference to them. History is periodized and thus made comprehensible on the basis of classifying stylistic differences. Equally one cannot even discuss the form of single buildings without classifying its component forms, composition and public meaning in terms of a current stylistic repertoire. The meaning of its forms and their organization in a particular building are only understandable as probable or improbable selections from a pre-existing repertoire. Styles in other words are not simply a matter of the convenient grouping a very large number of individual buildings into a single easy-to-handle but essentially arbitrary classification. The similarity between buildings which defines the concept ‘style’ exists because in effect the style provides a set of instructions or a recipe for the design of buildings. That set of instructions comes in the form of a virtual set of typical architectural forms which have been condensed out of collective experience and can be combined to suit a large number of different contexts. The forms are ‘virtual’ in the sense that they only exist as statistical regularities within architectural production as a whole and can be seen as packets of information about the most typical or probable aspects of current production.

 

To actually see the style one has to observe the similarities and differences that exist between a large number of buildings and note the repetitive use of certain forms. These are the typical elements of the style.

 

Of equal importance is the fact that these forms have a clear public meaning which has been developed over a long time. They are therefore semantically reliable. By using these elements the architect can to a large extent predict the end product of the design process, not only its physical reality but also its public meaning. Styles in this sense are not just a group of randomly-produced regularities amongst buildings, but rather that these regularities are themselves the product of information provided by the currently available style. However virtual or dispersed amongst a large number of buildings, style is an active agent in the evolution of architecture. In other words, style generates similarities amongst many buildings and thus the concept of style is entirely synonymous with that of architecture. We may regard it as the operational aspect of architecture.

 

The emergence of groups of styles within the same cultural environment and their eventual extinction is not therefore a matter of personal choice on the part of architects. It is rather the cumulative and unforeseen result of many such choices over long periods of time and as such can have no intentional or teleological aspect to it. It is at this collective scale of architectural activity that one would seek interpret architecture in evolutionary terms. To interpret it that is, in terms of the collective mechanisms and processes which produce large scale stylistic change in architecture.

 

2.0     The Limitations of History

 

The lack of a general and systematic theory of change in architecture results in the fact that in many ways architectural histories with their detailed chronologies and lineages appear almost to function by default as explanations for large scale transformation within architecture. They are taken to provide an evolutionary history of architecture which, in fact they do not. In other words, the detailed descriptions of people and events which fill historical works are taken by at least the young and the innocent to provide apparently causal explanations for stylistic change. The simple chronological series together with the tracing of lines of ‘influence’ between selected architects, their stated intentions and the seeming coherence given to the narrative by the historian seems to provide a very concrete explanation of why one style became another or why whole new styles came into existence. At its simplest, the historically naive believe that new styles come into existence because architects wished it to happen and influenced each other accordingly. It’s all very personal and motivated even when architecture is set against the background of major social and technological change. Here, the response to radical environmental change is again written out in the activities of a few far-sighted individuals who produce models of a new architecture fit for these new conditions.

 

Apart from some vague references to ‘zeitgeists’ which seem to pop up at various times in architectural history there is no analysis of the reality or the effect of the collective dimension of architecture. That is the communicational basis through which the system functions. No analysis in other words of the continuous exchange of forms which takes place on a day-to-day basis between large groups of individuals which might be an alternative way of looking at the same large scale events. We can assume that not all of these individuals are heroic figures intent on revolutionizing the course of history.

 

The result is that the work of the overwhelming majority of architects is rendered invisible; absorbed into the great mass of standard forms which collectively define the prevailing stylistic canon. To a large extent only work that challenges the canon is newsworthy. For architectural history, like the news media, it is only crises which are worth publicising and the activity of the heroes who resolve those crises.

 

There remains in the history of architecture and art this Romantic myth (and myth it is) of the struggle of creative individuals against the forces of the established order. What percentage, for instance of the standard architectural production of any period is ever reflected in historical studies? If the same names and faces are endlessly represented in such works, is this purely a matter of the limitations on the size or number of books produced, the reality of historical events or is it a matter of a particular and highly ideological approach to the writing of history? Ideological in the Romantic sense of a perception of history which can only ‘see’ individual struggles and achievements.

 

2.1        The Myth of the Revolutionary Event

 

While the history of architecture is dealt with in a rather personal way, the external forces within which it acts – its environment of technology, social change or economics, are dramatised as almost ‘natural’ large scale phenomena which directly provoke architects to make radical changes in architecture. The struggles of (selected) individual architects are set against the tempestuous background of these ‘natural phenomena’ and another great and highly-readable story unfolds. The need to give context to the work of the avant garde and the changing face of architecture sometimes result in the fabrication of a false causality between, for instance political, technological or sociological upheavals and what appears to be consequent changes in architecture. There is assumed to be a direct relationship between these events mediated by the work of the avant garde of the time. New architectural work is said to be a ‘revolutionary’ incarnation of these new forces. The idea of the inescapable continuity of the architectural language and its function as a constraint on the new, is rejected in favour of a convulsive view of events where history can be ‘rejected’ in order to react to current events. This is an idea given great currency in histories of the Modern Movement for instance where it is said that the linguistic connection with the past was severed by the work of the avant garde in the 1920s. A new architecture was born and the revolutionary spirit then enthused the great mass of architects into pursuing this new theme.  In this way the history of architecture is rendered as a reat and fictional epic.

 

While individual architects are certainly concerned with solving their own design problems it is doubtful if many of them are concerned with or even capable of conceiving of the fate of architecture as a whole. They simply do their job more or less competently. To suggest a general ‘revolutionary will’ for change in architecture at particular points in time is again to project individual motivations and intentions on to the group and this is a matter of ideology. It is also easier to view things this way of course – to treat the group as an individual – since it avoids the messy complications involved in dealing with the inherent diversity of forms and intentions which lie within the large numbers of individual designs produced by a community of architects. By careful selection of historical examples, inconsistencies can be ignored along with the vast amount of work produced by generations of architects. The result is what seems like the smooth linear development or unfolding of a single dominant theme or idea in history but what in fact it involves is the fabrication of a consensus and what at least purports to be a causal explanation for change in architecture. The problem as usual is the mismatch of scales of analysis, that of the individual and that of the group.

 

2.2        Description is not Explanation

 

For essentially humanistic ideological reasons, individual histories substitute for a collective theory of architectural evolution. Description substitutes for explanation. The gap between one chapter of a history and another being seen to define some convulsive point of change in architecture. However, the evolution of architecture cannot be understood by a careful chronological description of the products of evolution any more than the fossil record by itself can explain biological evolution. The stylistic continuities and discontinuities which mark out the history of architecture do not offer an explanation for architecture. Quite the opposite, they are the questions which must be answered. The formation and coherence of styles over long periods of time, their eventual replacement by other very different styles and the differential success of some rather than others is a question which must be the subject of an explanatory theory sufficiently general to handle the numerous variations of form, timescale and distribution of styles which have arisen throughout history. A theory which must also be systematic in its explanation in the sense that the mechanisms involved in the production of these variations should be limited in number, constant in their operation and apply equally to all architectural forms. Needless to say such a theory must have a high degree of explanatory power in the sense that when applied to particular historical periods it provides a coherent and economic explanation for observed facts.

 

3.0     The Limitations of Theory of architecture.

 

If history of architecture by its very nature is limited in its capacity to explore the formation and transformation of large scale phenomena in architecture or to theorize about synchronic processes which are constant across all architectural periods, then  one might imagine that Theory of Architecture as a particular discipline might provide the necessary explanatory framework since it operates at the meta-historical level. It should provide the exact arena for the development or at least discussion of a coherent and comprehensive theory of large scale transformation in architecture. A theory which explores that collective level of architectural activity from which styles emerge and the dimension in which they can be said to exist. That is the synchronic dimension of organization. While theory does analyse architecture at the collective level, it is usually constrained by concrete historical facts upon which it comments. It too in a sense is locked into particular histories. Barring some trans-historical analyses carried out using structuralist or semiotic techniques, theory in general operates as a therapeutic discipline by identifying the sources or causes of the various crises which affect architecture throughout its history but these are inevitably tied to the particular time and place of each ‘crisis’. This is not really surprising, since in all disciplines theory arises from practice. These perennial crises usually involve some kind of mismatch between the current state of architecture – the language itself - and that of the society in which it functions. Even the most general types of architectural theory such as aesthetics or architecture understood as concretized sociology or technology deal with the operation of architecture in society. From this point of view one can say that Theory of Architecture essentially deals with the relation (or lack of) between the architectural form of buildings or its practice – the historical facts - and the nature of the social institutions (the environment) which they are supposed to represent. This assumes of course that architecture exists to represent or express something. If it does not (and there are views put forward that it doesn’t), then we are in the realms of fine art.

 

Within this general therapeutic or in some cases prescriptive principle, Theory in its different manifestations can be seen to carry out a comparative role where it identifies the difference between what architects actually do and what they think they are doing or what they should be doing. It identifies the difference between performance and achievement. If the task of architecture is the correct, accurate or authentic representation of its environment (social institutions), then theory as criticism assesses how well that task has been achieved in particular individual or group works. Theory identifies problems which occur when architecture fails to represent its environment successfully. These are semantic problems which usually stem from practice, ideology or from the historically-derived nature of the architectural language available to particular architects at particular times. (see below). That is, problems of meaning where the identity of the institution (its character, purpose, organization, physical context or relationship to other institutions) cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the architecture which represents it in built form. This is not to suggest some simple-minded function-form literalism in the shaping of buildings since architectural form is derived from its own linguistic history and experiences. In other words, its character does not arise magically at each instantiation in a building but is the product of a process of selection and adaption of forms from an available and consensus driven repertoire to match or express a given context. It is the arbitrariness of such selections or adaptations in particular buildings which leads to the semantic problems which Theory seeks to identify.

 

3.1        Theory as Therapy

 

Theory as criticism analyses the causes of such problems in particular cases and in some cases offers solutions. When we say that Theory is used to analyse architecture, we mean something quite specific. That is, how successfully the architectural language performs in the representation of particular social institutions. Here if one cares to note it is another explicit analogy with evolution in the biological sciences where species attempt to adapt to their environment by changing their behaviour or over generations changing their physiognomy. They seek to adapt their bodily form to the forces which prevail in their environment. Over generations the body of the organism becomes a map of its environment – a diagram of forces. Any mismatch between that map and the current state of the environment results in the extinction of the species.

 

The same kind of critical thinking when applied to the global level of architecture - to the whole of architectural production looks at the stylistic choices currently available to architecture – the semiotic freedom available within the language - and asks whether it is capable of adequately representing its current environment. Remember that these two dimensions of the architectural language and the environment which it is called to express are quite different and separate. For instance, does the current state of architecture and the choices it makes available match the complexity of that environment? Does it allow architects the necessary diversity of vocabulary to respond to human psychological, physical, social and symbolic needs. If it does not, why not and what are historical sources of this inability to adapt to the environment within which it exists? Crises are not continual events, they occur at what would seem to be fairly random points in the history of a style. A long time may pass before there is any sense that there are fundamental problems in the use of its forms. Usually there is a growing awareness amongst architects that the repertoire of forms made available by the style is no longer capable of doing what it is supposed to do, namely allow them to freely represent the form of current social institutions. This is an essentially theoretical question since it deals with an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the language and its capacity to express its time and place. While theory may attempt to suggest solutions to these problems, this is an essentially optimistic kind of analysis since it again, for humanistic reasons presupposes that architects are in direct charge of their collective destiny. A change of formal emphasis, a revival, more sensitivity to context, to society, to humanity, to ecological sustainability, are all prescriptions offered for solving such problems. Prescriptions which when taken up by the avant garde will, it is optimistically assumed, in due course bring about the renewal of architecture.

 

The fact that there might not be any solutions is seldom mentioned. To do so would leave architecture open to the impersonal and incalculable forces of history. It would also negate the supposed dynamic role of the avant garde as engines of change who can alter the fate of architecture at will.

 

Reality however in the form of a historically-derived language – the only one available to architects and the fact that the state of architecture at any time is a collective and incalculable interaction between many architects suggests otherwise.  Architects do not ‘design’ styles nor can they consciously renew architecture These events emerge over long periods of historical time through the work of many architects.

 

Thus individual architects cannot invent styles on their own which ‘work better’ and which can resolve current crises. In order to be understood, they must use the currently available styles.

 

These are the only language available to them even if they don’t work too well. Architects may choose to use one style or another but what they cannot do is not to use styles at all. The reality of such situations is that architects modify and adapt the forms of such styles to deal with new problems. Still, they are trapped in history - they have to use the existing styles and formulae. If they don’t use the available architectural languages, their buildings will be regarded as meaningless and literally unintelligible. Theory of architecture as usually pursued analyses this global condition, its sources and identifies the nature of architectural problems and may in some cases offer inevitably utopian solutions to the semantic or stylistic problems within architecture as a whole (new stylistic approaches, images, sources of inspiration or new directions). That is, ways in which architects can break out of this historical trap – and reinstitute the flexibility of the architectural language to freely express the nature and organization of its society. In this comparative role – the relation between architecture and its environment - theory may therefore also look at the responsiveness of architecture to urbanism, or evolving social trends, ecological issues, regional identities, political power, technology, art, science and numerous other adjacent social institutions which it is called upon to concretize in built form.

 

3.2         The Synchronic Dimension of Architecture

 

While covering a wide range of analyses of the relation between the language and its social environment, architectural theory like architecture itself remains locked into history. Yet the same kinds of essentially semantic crises, periodic transformations, revolutions and extinctions tend to repeat themselves throughout architectural history. For instance, the rigidity and loss of semiotic freedom of the dominant architectural language at certain points in time or its tendency towards over-flexibility and loss of identity in a multitude of styles; the emergence of new styles and the extinction of others. This would suggest that the motivating factors behind these events do not lie within the particular events of history as such but rather in the organizational processes by which architecture functions and in the complex and evolving relationships between it and the numerous other social institutions with which it must function and which form its environment. In other words these are systemic issues which can only operate at the collective level of activity and thus involve the organization, structure and function of architecture and the selective and combinatory mechanisms by which it continually adapts its forms to particular societies. History is evolution operating in particular places and times. A theory of the evolution of architecture would seek to deal with the cumulative effects of continuous adaptation of form, the locking-in of particular stylistic characteristics, the emergence and extinction of styles and the nature of the formative mechanisms which produce these events. It is this synchronic dimension of architecture which has largely been ignored in current architectural theory.  

 

What is required of course is a theory which above all describes the constant processes and the mechanisms by which these ‘fossils’ or these previous architectures could possibly come into being, their diversity of form and the means by which they are transformed over time into new architectures. Why for instance one particular architecture arises rather than any other; why one style lasts a very long time rather than another which becomes extinct in decades; why in some periods there are several different styles in existence while in another there is a single dominant style; the mechanisms by which a style may radically transform itself over its lifespan, times of rapid architectural change versus long periods of stasis; the nature of change in architecture, whether through the effects of cumulative algorithmic steps or by random variation. In the latter case this would be the result of individual architects pursuing their own stylistic agendas.

 

4.0     The Idea of Evolution

 

In biology, evolution describes a process of cumulative change in the group characteristics and distribution of organisms within a defined environment over a given length of time. At its simplest, it describes how cumulative adaptive change taking place within species leads to the emergence of new species.

 

4.1     Evolution as General Theory

 

However, the idea of evolution is not particular to the biological sciences or to any other field for that matter, even though since Darwin its most advanced development has taken place there. The reason is that evolutionary theory has become a much more broad-based set of disciplines that deal essentially with the mechanisms that produce change or, more precisely, transformation in the characteristics of dynamic or adaptive systems in general. In other words we are no longer simply talking about biological species but, rather about organizations or systems which can be said to adapt to their environments. That obviously includes all social and biological systems. It is the cumulative effects of this dynamic system-environment relationship which have become the object of study and simulation within the general field of evolutionary theory. These are effects which over long periods of time alter the characteristics of the systems involved and in an evolutionary process transform them into new kinds of systems.

 

As a primary definition of adaptive systems therefore one can say that they are organized groups of agents or organisms which modify their behaviour to match conditions prevalent in their environment. Secondly, the group itself, its organization and general characteristics is based on a continuous exchange of information between its members culled from their individual experiences in dealing with local environmental conditions. In biological systems, this involves the exchange of genetic material whereas in cultural systems the exchange is behavioural or one of mimesis. One can view this latter process as a kind of ‘internal adaptation’ or self-organization of the system which selectively defines the repertoire of behavioural routines which individual members have available to them. It is these which they combine and re-combine to suit the conditions which prevail in their environments. Cultural systems, of which architecture is but one can be defined in the same dynamic and adaptive terms. That is as a group of agents in close and continuous communication with one another, mutually exchanging information derived from their individual attempts to represent particular aspects of their environment. Here, the term, ‘representation’ is used as the cultural equivalent of the more generic term ‘adaptation’. In both cases a given set of elements (of form, behaviour or even genetic information) are combined to match the organizational state of an environment. 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 a behaviour derived from is past. In a very real sense, architecture as system represents its environment - some social institution or other – by mapping the form of the institution into a set of available architectural elements derived from past experience. It is these elements which define the very existence of an architecture in the sense that they provide the similarity between different buildings which allow us to recognize that some coherent pattern or similarity of built form exists between a large number of buildings. Architecture by this definition is a similarity between buildings. A similarity derived from the use of a common set of architectural elements which are in a real sense the language of architecture, its mode of expression and behaviour. The fact that this process of representation is cumulative with each adaptation being derived from the state of the previous set of elements means that over time there is a gradual change in the overall state of the system. In some conditions this involves the emergence of whole new behavioural repertoires or architectural styles or the dissolution or extinction of others.

 

4.2     Evolution: From Biology to Culture

 

Evolution involves the continuous reorganization of group behaviour and this applies as much to social systems as it does to natural ecosystems. Thus there is nothing inherently ‘biological’ in current evolutionary theory which could with considerable justification be regarded as a general theory of systematic change applied in one particular instance to the study of biological systems. To a large extent this is because the classic ‘Theory of Evolution’ formulated by Darwin has itself evolved into a more general set of applications called ‘evolutionary theory’. It has, in the first instance shifted towards a more molecular level of analysis within biology itself– the genetic level, where it is the selection and combination of particular gene frequencies which determines the final configuration of the organism. In the second instance it has become gradually linked with other sciences such as, ecological systems, cybernetics and general systems theory arising out of the engineering field, and with the new sciences of complex adaptive systems, chaos, and artificial life arising out of the computer sciences. The clear analogies between evolution and learning processes have also linked it with certain branches of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, computation and the study of problem-solving techniques. In other words, evolutionary theory has become a common platform for the study and simulation of the mechanisms that drive change in all adaptive systems. We can take a simple, though significant example of the equivalence of ideas from these various scientific  fields. For instance, the evolutionary concept of natural selection could be said to equate with the idea of negative feedback in cybernetics where the environment eliminates certain inappropriate behavioural options put forward by a system in its search for equilibrium. Those that do not fit current environmental conditions are eliminated thus narrowing the range of options from a large number of possibles to a smaller number of probables which are then tested and further filtered. Here we have a general selection process which can describe the guidance of a missile towards a moving target, an organism’s search for a stable relationship with its environment, a standard trial-and-error learning process, the establishment of a new technology or a new architectural style.

 

4.3         Architecture as Adaptive System

 

Similarly, for instance, the concept of positive feedback (amplification or reinforcement of certain characteristics) can be seen in biological and economic systems in terms of the locking-in of particular characteristics of species, modes of economic exchange or types of social behaviour. By disallowing other ‘inappropriate’ trial-and-error options, natural selection allows a more suitable particular combination of characteristics the opportunity for their further development. Once established, these become the standard formulae through which different systems deal with their environments. For instance in biology this new  ‘standard formulae’ would be written out in genetics and called a species; in architecture it would be a new style; in economics it might be the emergence of a new economic structure such as feudalism or capitalism; in social behaviour it might be the rise of a caste or class structure. In all of these cases the environment is selecting and reinforcing some aspects of the on-going behaviour of the system at the expense of others. The result is the convergence of behaviour within the system around a more limited set of options. The successful or ‘fittest’ options do not have some inherent value that allows their survival. This is purely a matter of the chance encounter of a particular set of genetic or behavioural characteristics with a particular set of environmental conditions. A variation in either of these would produce a different group of successful options a different architectural style or a different set of species characteristics.

 

Such equivalences of process, taken together with the view that adaptive systems are essentially self-organizing through the trial-and-error activities of their agents, suggest that evolutionary theory can be seen as a generic approach to the study of change. Thus its concepts can be applied to a wide range of systems such as the study of economic patterns, the rise of new technologies, the development of social institutions or even civilizations, the emergence of new biological species or the establishment of new economic markets. There are many other examples but the net result is that evolutionary theory has become truly interdisciplinary.

 

The development of evolutionary theory from its origins in biology to its current state as means of studying the behaviour of all adaptive systems makes it one of our most powerful tools in the search for the laws which underlie the processes of change in the material and social worlds. It has to be said however that these developments have so far all taken place within the sciences and the mathematically-inclined field of economics. In other words the models are available but the application of the theory to social systems or cultural systems such as architecture has yet to be tested. Yet the key concepts of biological evolution and of evolutionary theory, in particular those of reproduction, heredity, variety, the mechanism of natural selection, the role of the environment and so on are all potentially translatable into equivalent processes in the terminology of social or cultural systems including architecture. If, for example we were to substitute the term, ‘behaviour’ or ‘artefact’ for that of ‘organisms’ in the definition of evolution offered at the beginning of this section, the theory would remain logically coherent and could in theory apply equally well to the emergence and transformation of cultural systems and their products.  In its role as a general theory of transformation it would therefore provide a systematic explanation for the changes that take place within dynamic systems in both the natural and cultural worlds.

 

END

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