2_Survival and Replication in Architecture.

Architecture is a discipline/entity that wishes to not become extinct. In evolutionary biology there are a couple of different ways that scientists believe genes have worked to allow for the plethora of different beings that exist today, and that allow for new types to still emerge. The goal is to abstract those processes and see if they are ‘translatable’ to architecture, not only retroactively – by looking at how it maps to its past developments, but hopefully ‘projectively,’ that is, by looking at how architecture can find new ways of innovating itself.

The main process by which genes achieve change is through the process of natural selection. Natural selection is the process by which favorable heritable traits become more common in successive generations of a population of reproducing organisms, and unfavorable heritable traits become less common due to differences in how they successfully reproduce. Natural selection acts on the phenotype, or the observable characteristics of an organism, such that individuals with favorable phenotypes are more likely to survive and therefore reproduce than those with less favorable phenotypes. Because of the higher survival rate of the former phenotype, its genetic basis will increase in frequency over the following generations, as the latter’s decreases. Another way of looking at it is that natural selection is the process by which changes in the genetic makeup of an organism map to needs that the organism has in real life, and therefore, are more likely to be reproduced given its usefulness – contrary to changes that don’t influence the organism in any way, and that therefore, the organism has no interest in seeing it replicate.

One of the main ways natural selection is intensified, and one can witness innovation taking place in nature, is by the process of allopatric speciation, also known as geographic speciation (the word is derived from the ancient Greek allos, “other” and the Greek patrā, “fatherland”). It is defined as the phenomenon whereby biological populations are physically isolated by an extrinsic barrier and evolve intrinsic (genetic) reproductive isolation. The isolation facilitates adaptive changes that, through natural selection, and in response to the particular environmental conditions of the new territory, allows for the emergence of new species.

Translating this allopatric concept of achieving innovation in nature to architecture, one can see that it maps to the first point of how to create a new architecture mentioned in the introduction: change the Shape of architecture! Find a new function, a new problem for architecture and then solve it. By looking at the allopatric process that genes go through to achieve innovation, one can see that one of the ways architecture can replicate this innovation is by being presented with new “environmental conditions” that create new needs in its inhabitants (new shapes), and that therefore call for new architectural solutions. Making an analogy to the process described above: many different types of architecture can be proposed to help resolve a new condition (say we were to go to the moon, yet among all of these only the one that turned out to be the most useful for the inhabitants (i.e. makes them ‘survive’ the best) will end up being replicated. Thus this new architecture would soon take over, while all the others dwindle (as do the unsuccessful organisms with the ‘unfavorable traits’).

Besides the literal translation from the world of genetics of the concept of allopatric speciation (i.e. if we were to go to the moon) how else could one interpret this idea of an “extrinsic barrier” that provides for isolation and speciation in a search for a new architecture (given that all the allopatric speciation that could happen in our planet has already happened, since we have occupied the entire globe)? The key is to look at the past, and how architecture has already successfully done so. Paradoxically, in translating the concept to architecture, once must abstract the very physical idea of an extrinsic and physical boundary creating the isolation.

The kind of new territory that has ‘forced’ the production of new architecture is a psychic one. Throughout history architecture has greatly been an unfolding of what man’s psyche has mainly been concerned with. So one can justify its early focus on providing basic shelter, then focus on sacred spaces, and now its focus on technology starting with Le Corbusier and others by trying to understand the new ‘territories’ his mind was occupying, that is, what his mind was grappling with at those times, respectively: focus on survival, and then focus on trying to understand, explain and bring meaning to the world – first by Theocentrism and later by an Anthropocentric approach (in which is included a ‘technocentrism,’ – when science was believed to be able to solve all of man’s problems). Yet, seeing that the turn to technology failed, and man’s existential angst is today at a maximum, one needs to analyze his psyche and see where he will turn to next – what the next ‘isolation’ causing ‘barrier’ will be, and what new environmental conditions and therefore needs (Shapes ) it will bring.


Another way by which genes achieve variety and innovation in species type is through the process of mutation. Changes in the genetic makeup of organisms happen naturally, and happen in the form of changes to the nucleotide (or organic compound) sequence of the genetic material of the organism. These changes can be caused by copying errors in the genetic material during cell division, by exposure to ultraviolet light, by chemical mutagens or viruses. In other words, these changes happen randomly and completely independent of the needs for speciation of a certain organism to a new environment. The reality is that the great majority of all mutations fail! Most bring no meaningful change to the organism, and in many cases bring changes that hinder the survival of the organism. However, from time to time, through millions of years, some of these changes (a very small minority) are in fact advantageous, and through the process of natural selection become a permanent part of the genetic code of a certain organism.

This process of achieving change in genes can be seen to take effect in architecture by the second point, mentioned in the introduction, of how to create a new architecture; that is, by not trying to change the shape, but by randomly changing the form of the architecture; since every form is connected to a shape; and therefore a new form necessitates a new shape (function). The problem with this approach is that although the form might indeed have a function associated with it, it most probably will not be something that we could recognize or utilize.

Peter Eisenman, in the article “Misreading Eisenman” presents a very powerful definition of architecture – architecture as a series of dislocations. He points out that, as Jeffrey Kipnis had said, “no caveman ever set out to find a two bedroom flat,” or in other words, that architecture is defined as a series of successive small changes in the built form, that as they get constructed, get appropriated and become institutionalized; then other changes happen, and this new space gets appropriated for a new function which then becomes institutionalized again, and so on. Architecture being this continuous process of dislocation and never settling in: that whenever one were to try and build an institution like a school for example, and not introduce anything new, namely, working strictly within it to reinforce it, true architecture would not exist since this space would not be appropriated for new functions, and if one were to keep doing this, architecture’s development would come to a halt.

Based on this reading Eisenman proposes an architecture that always tries to engage in this process of dislocation. However, he does it in a way which I would call akin to mutation, and to be more precise: random/dumb change in form in hopes of finding something that ‘hits the wall and sticks,’ – that is, that gets appropriated and then becomes institutionalized. Through most of his later works in ‘indexicality’, ‘hiper-indexicality’, as well as the most current work which he describes as trying to be completely ‘unmotivated’ (which he achieves by introducing agents like “scramblers” and “viruses” to change the architecture in completely unpredictable ways) one can see that his process is very similar to that of mutation (or of the second point – randomly changing the form of a shape). Genes, however, do not have the benefit of possessing an intellect, therefore going through the laborious process of mutation is forgivable. Architecture, on the other hand, is practiced by human beings, and never in its past has it really gone through the mutation process. Human beings usually think about the problems they face and try to solve them in an intelligent way, not through completely random acts! And additionally, human beings also try and learn from their errors, something that mutation completely denies. For architects to engage in the process of mutation is not only lazy, since not much thought needs to be involved in trying to invent a new architecture, but is also very wasteful (almost like playing the lottery and hoping to win), since mutation has an extremely low success rate, and can actually hinder progress many times. Thus one sees that changing the form of a shape is a way to achieve change, yet it isn’t the most desirable.


A Third process that living organisms use to achieve change that can also be mapped to architecture is ornamentation. A key difference between ornamentation and the processes mentioned above (that can already start to qualify it) is the fact that ornamentation, as seen in animals, has nothing to do with survival. In many cases Ornamentation hinders the survival of the animal. One good example is the peacock, its tail feathers being so big that it actually makes the peacock slower and more vulnerable to predators. Thus one cannot explain ornament by survival. Ornament’s key role is in the second main purpose of any living being – Replication! Ornamentation usually takes place when the playing field is level in terms of survival – all organisms of a given species having the same survival chances. Who would then be the ones that get to replicate and have their genes passed on to future generations? If not by showcasing one’s higher chances of survival, how could one differentiate one’s self from the rest of the pack? One way living organisms have achieved this is through ornamentation.

There are two kinds of ornamentation, and they lead to intrasexual selection and intersexual selection respectively. The first, intrasexual selection, is when males compete and fight amongst themselves to gain access to the females. The type of ornament developed here is in the form of weapons (horns, antlers, etc). The second, intersexual selection, also called “mate-choice,” or female choice, is one where the struggle is likewise between the males, but the struggle is to try and excite or charm the females, which no longer remain passive, but select the more agreeable partners. This latter case is the one that more directly applies to architecture, given that clients (the female) have the power of which architect to choose in today’s society. I will here focus on the second type proposed, although trying to develop a way in which architecture could become a field where intrasexual selection would take place is another way of achieving a new architecture afforded by the ornament analogy, or the third point mentioned in the introduction of how to create a new architecture – by changing the Figure, that is, the outside/surface of the form.

Notwithstanding the type, intra- or intersexual, one can already notice that in this approach both the Shape (inner being, function) and the Form (its physical manifestation) of the architecture remains essentially the same, and what changes is indeed superficial (figure). Under this category one can fit most of today’s architecture, which can be described as value-added architecture – one tries to do what the client asked for, and then sprays on the latest style. In fact, most of the contemporary formalist work is intended to perform under this category. A majority of these architects do not have the intellectual ambition of Eisenman (flawed as it may be). Their work tends to be judged on how good it looks – if it is beautiful or not. What digital technology has allowed for is extreme control over the production of forms. Today a first year student can have a project, and correct drawings that represent it (e.g. sections, plans, perspectives), that it would in the past take a ‘master’ decades of work to produce. As a result, today’s forms are completely empty of any meaning. They exist only as a testament to their “beauty”, that is, one can only judge them with respect to that. Unknowingly, however, they work under the scope of the mutation paradigm, and hopefully some good will happen that way, to compensate for all the harm, and waste that it mostly produces.

Herzog & de Meuron is one of the few practices of notice in this field. Their work has been described as “minimalism and ornament,” and contrary to Eisenman, they work heavily to ‘institutionalize the institution’ (i.e. the building works very well to accomplish its function – keep its shape) and then they cover it in a gorgeous shell, change the figure (projects like the signal box, exemplify this). And indeed this strategy has worked. They have managed to distinguish themselves from the pack, and are now “replicating” more than probably any other ‘elite’ firm in the world. Yet, it is helpful to notice, that highly ornamental periods (today, but also ‘late’ phases of previous periods, like the Baroque and the Rococo) come about when there is stagnation, and a leveling out of any significant characteristics that could bring advantage to any one architecture. One can also see that in terms of hierarchy “survival” clearly leads in terms setting radical evolutionary changes, while replication lead changes have a secondary role.

However, besides the obvious critic of this type of architecture being “superficial” and all the associations that one would have of that, the work does strike at the heart of something that has a lot of merit in its own right – Beauty! Even evolutionary biology cannot explain why females choose certain characteristics in males over others, given that they bring no evolutionary advantage. Here one could argue that beauty strikes at something, maybe the only thing, that is indeed universal among living organisms, and that because of the lack of an “explanation” make it compelling and indeed worthwhile. Usually works of architecture that last throughout time, are works that people are attracted to and love, and that therefore they take care of, renovate and maintain. A stadium like the bird’s nest would probably survive 1000 years, while a more intellectual work of Eisenman probably would not.


Having gone through the most obviously radical forms of change in the worlds of organisms and architecture, attention will now change to the most commons ways it happens, and its potentials for being radical. As first mentioned, the main driver of evolutionary change is the process of natural selection. Evolution, however, is usually a very slow process, given that changes are usually very few, and small. One could look at the evolution of columns for example: from Doric, to Ionic, then Corinthian, Composite, Pilasters, Piloti, and, for example, Oscar Neymeyer’s columns in Palacio da Alvorada in Brazilia. However, the potential for it being radical comes from the comment made earlier about mutation. For centuries humans have engaged in artificial mutations, a process by which animals with traits considered desirable by human breeders are systematically favored for reproduction. This signals to the foresight that humans possess but that genes do not, and the reason genes therefore act blindly.

Since Humans, on the other hand, can foresee the needs that it has and what kind of changes would most likely have impact on them, it can engage in Hypermutations – jumps in the evolutionary chain. This is also the fourth point mentioned in the introduction of how to create a new architecture: Change the form of a shape, but keep the shape (i.e. its function)! The form we have now of a certain shape has evolved over thousands of years, and it all started as just one interpretation of how to solve a certain shape. Subsequently, by the process of evolution, that first small step evolved to what we have today. From this one can see that the first few steps in change, were no different in size than the ones still happening today, but because they were the first to happen in the chain their impact are many thousand-fold more important than the ones happening today; since these latter ones have built up from the previous ones, and now account for meaningless details like “should the color of the left pinky finger nail be red or orange?”, while the first ones were more like “should this organism have two or 3 legs?”

As opposed to the idea of ‘deconstruction’ that will be discussed next (on the fifth point), what the fourth point suggests is the idea of Reconstruction. If one were to imagine a line showing the evolutionary chain of a certain shape, normal evolution would take it from where it is and keep developing it. The Promise, however, is Reconstruction: going back in the evolutionary chain, and instead of taking that first step that led to were we are today, take a sidestep in an attempt to solve the same shape, and see where that new direction would lead us. Le Corbusier with the introduction of the free plan, for example, can be seen to exemplify this – not working from the tradition that existed and going forward, but reconstructing the idea of how internal circulation could take place, structure utilized, etc. Thus, the idea of Reconstruction afforded by the fourth point – change the form of a shape, but keep the shape, can have great power!


Lastly, the fifth point in trying to create a new architecture, is to not worry with changing the shape, the form or the figure of the architecture (keep them!), instead assemble them into a Pattern! This process most closely resembles the phenomenon of genetic drift in the neutral theory of molecular evolution. It is described as changes in the genes that have no meaningful impact on the survival of the organism (neither positive nor negative), and that therefore can get carried over, specially in places with a small population, and can then become a permanent part of the genetic makeup of the organism. A great part of the architecture of the post war period until the mid 90s, and even more contemporary practices of firms like OMA fall under this category.

The architecture of this period had come after the International Style had taken hold of the architectural world and, at the same time, seen its dreams of political and social transformation crushed. Its social ambitions had been completely perverted by the way it ended up working: as one of the most powerful instruments of capitalist consumer culture to demarcate class, and economic inequality. Being unable to up heave capitalism, or effect any meaningful change in it (given capitalism’s power to appropriate anything that opposed it) architecture turned to a phase of ‘criticality’ – where it would at least show its discontent and refusal to submit to the forces of the market. As Tafuri would describe it – a period of “architecture dans le boudoir.” There was no way out of capitalism so the solution was to work within it, using its language to at least try and sabotage it from the inside – the 5th point, Pattern architecture!

It was a return to language as proof of a still dissenting spirit, given the hopelessness of achieving any real change. They achieved this through a structuralist approach that worked in the following way: first level signs have a signifier and a signified, and no ideology behind it, just pure communication – e.g. the sign banana, being represented by its signified (what it means to us) and its signifier (the actual form and taste that make it unique and different from papaya for example). Then a second level of signs emerges: where this first level signs revert back to signifier status and have with it a new signified to form a second level sign – capitalist ideology. That would be where we currently find ourselves in – a state where everything has been appropriated by capitalism to a point where it seems like no matter what one does, one could not escape it, for one is using its signs. The way out then, following this structuralist analysis, is to form a yet higher level of sign: where one uses capitalist ideology (the second level of signification) as the basis, signifier, for yet a new signified in a third layer sign. From a superficial point one could view it as completely caving in to consumer culture, since one would be using capitalist signs so bluntly; yet, upon closer inspection one can see how they use it to actually break away and critic it. It works effectively because it does it from within and consumer culture can’t detect it and therefore can’t counter it, since apparently it is working to make it stronger.

An example of this is the Parc the la Villete competition entry of Rem Koolhas. The idea of the project is to translate his ideas of congestion present in the Manhattan skyscraper to the park. He proposes amazing programmatic diversity in narrow horizontal bands, so that the interaction between them can be maximized and public congestion, which was his big discovery in the skyscraper, taken to its maximum potential – translating the vertical diagram of the skyscraper to a horizontal configuration. The critical element missing in this translation are the floor plates! It might seem that he omitted the floor plates in an effort to create hyper density, as he calls it, but in fact that was the “critical” act in the project. The division between floors in the skyscraper is what creates desirable congestion, since with it multiple ontologies can coexist. The sharing of the elevator core connecting but not exposing the completely different forms of program within. Thus one can have, as Rem describes, people eating oysters naked with boxing gloves on one floor, somebody playing golf on the next, and so on. Would someone engage in naked boxing knowing that other fully clothed people were passing by and taking a look? The removal of the floor plate turns everybody into characters, and when you are a character you portray the role you are supposed to portray. Thus his initial goal of congestion is completely subverted, since privacy is a key element for most architectural programs to work. Thus we can see how his architecture tries to subvert capitalism from within, since because of its hyper density, that is, removal of boundaries between all the different programs, the institution breaks down and doesn’t work.


  1. ??
    what do you think?

  2. Hi, this is brilliant, I like your analysis of post-modern architecture.

    Are you arguing that Koolhaas’s project is a deliberate subversion of capitalist ideology? I’m not sure if I buy it…(is all unsuccessful architecture, therefore, subversions of capitalism) but it’s a helpful example.

  3. So would Eisenman and Tschumi, the intellectual avant-garde be the 4th level of signs: the attempt to create new signs, new values through deliberate deconstruction of old values?

  4. Hey, thanks for the compliment!
    Yeah, i am arguing that the projects that follow along the lines of the La villete one (ie, that are about Hyper density and the super congestion brought about by cross programming, etc) are indeed trying to subvert capitalist ideology.
    I guess you could say that any project that is unsuccessful, and is therefore not allowing the institution that it was supposed to be work well, is thus subversive. But purely by chance. While I think these projects of Rem, which are coming from architecture’s ‘critical’ period, are intentionally subversive, and therefore noteworthy.

    As far as your comment about Eisenman/Tschumi, I dont know if you can package them in the same bunch, although both are, no doubt, at least in the 80s, part of the avant garde as you point out. I dont know enough about Tschumi’s work to comment on it. But I know Eisenman is trying simply to achieve an independent, and completely unmotivated architecture, which in his mind would be pure architecture, completely unmitigated by consumer culture. (think of abstract expressionist painting that was trying to get away from representation, because as long as it did that it wouldnt be true to itself. and thus, how it became interested in ever more abstract, completely 2d type of work, that was true to the painting’s flat nature, and thus was about its own reality – not something else it was trying to represent). So Eisenman wasn’t trying to create any “new” signs, or values. there was no ideology behind it. just pure, true architecture…
    Did that make sense?

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