On the Interpretation of Architecture
Applied Interpretation

Vol. 13, No. 1, May 2009


___Ryszard Sliwka
Cambridge, Ontario (CA)
  Genetic Architecture



“Beyond the cared-for garden lies insouciant wilderness; beyond the open field is the dark forest; beyond the flat floor of the desert distant mountains rise shimmering at the horizon; and beyond the halcyon harbor there is the savage sea. Thus we return to the wilderness with which we began. (Casey1993 p.185)
Edward Casey

The forces of globalization on the environment in recent decades have rapidly consigned sentiments of wilderness to an endangered species list. Nevertheless, understanding our place in the world hinges on a reassessment of out relationship to the wild in the making of our built world. Genetic Architecture, a term in currency since the mid-nineties, may indicate such a shift from shift from strictly human-centered preoccupations. It embodies a specific design sensibility inspired by the growth of organic systems and shares many similarities with evolutionary, emergent, morphogenetic and cosmogenic approaches to design, as well as bio constructivism, bio-mimetics or bio-morphism. The emergence of these strategies, particularly among a younger generation of architects such as the 3deluxe group, Hérault-Arnod and others, form the speculative basis for this essay addressing the question of Genetic Architecture in terms of perception and the integration of the wild as a cultural objective.

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Figure 1:
Seding, Captive Kudu
  In the last decades of the twentieth century, the photographer Volker Seding undertook an unusual project to visit over four hundred Zoos located across Europe and North America, and record the lives of animals in captivity. (Figure 1) With remarkable poignancy, Seding’s camera captured, the proximity and estrangement established by the architectural frame in relation to other life forms. The sustained reflection on the creation of these pictures conveys both something about our loss of engagement with wild life and the deep wounds created through our inability to feel an emotional affinity with them. Perhaps even more disturbing, is the intimation of the world that returns our gaze. The confined enclosures of Seding’s images suggest something of the prescribed carelessness towards the animal world and their environment that effectively mirrors our own situation, both internally and externally.

The generic landscape created through processes of globalization provides an increasingly precarious context for the insertion of architecture. Modern architecture’s post-war dreams of a pantheistic relationship to landscape, the possibility that buildings might adapt to the landscape through integration and continuity between interior and exterior, no longer seem credible. Architecture becomes de-territorialized in its encounter with the ‘non-place’. We are left with what Sola-Morales has referred to as the “isolated stupor of the object” where architecture merely confirms ”the absence of a felicitous relationship with territory, with nature, and with life
. (1997, 21)

Nature is irrevocably determined by the incursions of industrial society into the natural world. For many architects, the upset of the ecological balance has consequences for contemporary, postmodern culture. Jacques Herzog, for instance has even speculated “a connection between aesthetic, critical perception and the actual measurable destruction of the real (natural) world. (Stump 207). This pace of destruction and resulting loss of species has been described by other observers as a kind of war. We are then perhaps not surprised by Thomas Ruff’s photograph of one of Karl Blossfedt’s nineteenth century plant motifs incorporated as a serial pattern onto the façade of Herzog and De Meuron’s Ricola building in Mulhouse (1994) using a night vision camera of the kind used in the Gulf War. Ruff’s photograph no longer portrays nature in the form of an architectural monument. Rather, it has been suggested that the green aura of the plant motif alludes to “an uncanny source of radiation, like those toxic substances hostile to life, that Herzog sees in the waste produced by Western consumer society (Stump 207). The instruments we create to view and frame the world in turn work back and shape us, though not necessarily in ways that are beneficial to us or ways we are willing to acknowledge.

Architects such as Peter Eisenman have attributed such realities to a change in world view connected to a condition of post-humanism where our sense of values have been displaced from all traditional co-ordinates. Doubt and disenchantment now frame the architect’s existential and essentially de-natured methodology. For Eisenman, the computer facilitates a design process where the role of architecture is to further disrupt the “knowing subject” (namely ourselves). Eisenman’s emphasis on destabilizing form places architecture in an uncanny interstitial territory, located somewhere between figure and ground. Frank Gehry’s work, though sharing superficial similarities, emerges from a different sensibility, inspired by zoomorphic yearnings and skeletal images, which allude to a kinship with the organic world. These diverging approaches to the contemporary situation show how the concept of genetic architecture as with any paradigm, is subject to and sustained by mixed motivations that cannot be reduced to dependencies on any specific social trend, technology or formal system.

Since the development of Computer Assisted Design in the 1960’s however, a younger generation of designers has embraced simulation programmes and virtual design in a way that allows them to twist, warp and fold matrices and vectors on the computer screen, or alternatively impinge on form through the processing of vast amounts of research data, as if it was second nature. And for some, the techniques associated with contemporary experimental architectures in this post digital realm, draw increasingly on the cross-pollination of ideas between biological science and computer science.

Genetic architecture implies some commonality with the ideas of evolutionary design put forward by John Frazer (Frazer1995). Frazer’s rationale for an evolutionary architecture is derived from the imitation of iterative processes of evolution, where computation tools generate architectural form, using genetic algorithms. The objective of Fraser’s model is to investigate “fundamental form-generating processes in architecture, paralleling a wider scientific search for a theory of morphogenesis in the natural world” (1995,9) Through the application and acceleration and reiteration of some generative rules, Fraser is able to model a design process analogous to Darwinian evolution.

While this approach determines some criteria with respect to form however, it provides little with respect to questions of selection, response to social conditions or adaptation to specific environments. More recent speculations of the Emergence and Design Group (Michael Hensel, Michael Weinstock, and Achim Menges) go perhaps even further in proposing an architecture that emulates evolutionary processes to the point of becoming a living organism in its own right. The literal consequences of the current biological paradigm lead them to enquire into “the potential benefits of applying life criteria to architecture.” (2006,6) Indeed the authors are very interested in analogies between architecture and life at the molecular level such as “the chemical reactions that occur across the flexible membranes of cell walls, as well as their associated material infrastructures.” What emerges is an argument to align architecture with natural processes and away from the romantically charged gestures of the architect as ‘auteur’.

The issue of selection in the use of design programmes based on genetic algorithms is perhaps more problematic in some of the more extreme assertions. Chris Abel (2006) has pointed out that, “If such programs, which are supposedly modeled on Darwinian theories of evolution, are to be effective, then the criteria of selection and related factors involved have to approximate in some meaningful way to real-life processes, which in this case means cultural rather than natural selection.” Abel’s speculations are drawn from conclusions made by Richard Dawkins, in his landmark publication ‘The Selfish Gene’. Dawkins concluded that Darwin’s theory of evolution was too rich to be confined to natural selection alone, and should be broadened to include human culture. In Dawkins’ view, ”fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, all evolve in historical time in a way that looks like highly speeded up genetic evolution, but has really nothing to do with genetic evolution” 1976:89)

Dawkins went well beyond metaphorical allusions to identify distinct or particulate units of culture, which he called memes (derived from the Greek root for mimic) that replicate themselves in similar ways to genes. In an extensive discussion of these issues, Abel questions whether evolutionary models of design based on genetic algorithms “are simply abstract versions of real-world processes, as their protagonists claim them to be, or are the differences between cultural and genetic evolution so great as to suggest that such models are fundamentally misconceived (2006)” in the suggestion that they can reflect the more ambiguous processes that shape the evolution of cultures. If we are to understand genetic architecture more in terms of memetic architecture we see the design as a process that accommodates the complexities and diverse methods of cultural transmission. If we are to understand genetic architecture more in terms of memetic architecture we see the design as a process that accommodates the complexities and diverse methods of cultural transmission. But one of the difficulties is understanding what memes as cultural replicators, actually consist of.

Dawkins has suggested that memes can be “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. (1976:89)

Genetic architecture therefore is better understood in terms of co-creation between designer and software rather than facilitation by machine. The dream of a ‘purely’ objective response generated by algorithmic programmes may be impossible. Moreover, intelligent decisions at the process level can eliminate the need for complex algorithms. The use of Parametric modeling for instance, (as used by Gehry’s practice and other offices) already achieves much of the benefits of genetic algorithms but has the ability to be modified or evaluated at any time, permitting external human and environmental inputs of virtually any kind at any stage of the development process and adjusting design parameters along the way. So perhaps when we are talking about genetic architecture, in reality we are discussing ‘memetic architecture.’

If analogies with Darwinian evolutionary processes are problematic, what other aspects of nature that might be identified with the concept of ‘Genetic Architecture’. Is it possible that one overall cultural objective is to retrieve something of the sensual immersion and unpredictability of the wild?  Mindful of the way in which architecture tends to conventionalize everyday experience, there may be an aspect of genetic architecture that addresses the vexing question of nature and the integration of the wild as a cultural objective.

Cecil Balmond’s reflections on structural design and collaboration with architects might serve to clarify some characteristics of this approach. In his notes on the ‘Informal,’ Balmond speaks of the comforting conventions of the “Formal” in design and how both in execution and predictability can make us so easily bored: “The creative idea jumping out of nowhere is scary,” and “order becomes a safe fortress (2003).” But Balmond adds that this is missing the point and that the real nature of reality is chance: “… the informal steps in easily, a sudden twist or turn, a branching, and the unexpected happens – the edge of chance has shown its face. (2003, )”

Balmond’s observations dovetail with a broader reading of ecology by the poet, Gary Snyder derived from the Greek oikos, or “household”. Conceived originally in terms of biological interrelationships and the flow of energy through organisms and inorganic matter, Snyder emphasizes the dynamics of relationship in wild natural process, maintaining that; “The wild is self creating, self maintaining, self propagating, self reliant, and self–actualizing, and it has no “self.” Our minds, imaginations, language can be called wild. Even our bodies, with their circulation, respiration and digestion are wild. In this sense ”wild” is a word for the intrinsic, non-theistic, forever-changing natural order (2007,47). The wilderness of the human body unfolds a creative potential where there are no presiding authorities but the chaos of nature itself and if we elaborate Balmond’s position, this becomes the fresh starting point in search of new relationships where the “edge of chance has shown its face.”

Human culture has been traditionally considered a practice that separates us from nature and yet this concept of the wild could be one of the dynamics that govern human creativity. If this might be so, how can the reconciliation of these dynamic processes serve as the conceptual basis for approaching construction? The exhilarated fascination with the speed and cross-pollination of computational processes with biological models can distract us from the slow movement of evolutionary process in nature. Our bodies remain in many ways, the product of the Savannah grasslands where it is thought we evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. As a species, we may be displaced from our evolutionary milieu, but it continues to define us, nevertheless.

In this context, projects that attempt a sensual immersion in the wild, have a broad geographical provenance. The work of 3de-luxe group for instance, is based in Germany, Hernault Arnod’s in France. Lars Spuybroek projects are the Netherlands and an installation project by Philip Beesley is based in Canada.
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Figure 2:
3deluxe, Cocoon Club Interior

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Figure 3:
3deluxe, Cocoon Club Interior

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Figure 4:
3deluxe, Leonardo Cube Exterior

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Figure 5:
3deluxe, Leonardo Cube Interior

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Figure 6:
Rossignol Headquarters

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Figure 7:
Paladru, entry

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Figure 8:
Paladru, escalier

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Figure 9:
Beesley, Hylozoic Soil

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Figure 10:
Seding, Captive Leopard
  In experiments with extended textile fields of the 3deluxe group, (Figure 2) the form of the structures appear to respond to forces of organic growth. As genuinely tangible segments of a digital and organic realm, they suggest both the increasing convergence of biology and technology and an elimination of the classic division between the building elements ceiling, wall, and floor. (Figure 3) Moreover, they also imagine an architecture informed by different scales of perception that observes life through a magnified lens and imagines a symbiotic interface between the organic and the digital. (Figure 4) In the subsequent production of neuron-like, ramified shapes developed for the Cocoon Club or the Leonardo Glass Cube, nature serves as the inspirational model at the molecular level; the built projects preserving an uncanny virtuality of the digital realm within which they were conceived. (Figure 5)

In the work of Hérault and Arnod, the curved contours of wind-shaped snowdrifts serve as the metaphorical inspiration for the alpine headquarters of the Rossignol, noted for their manufacture of ski equipment. Here an emphasis on the corporeal nature of architecture extends to a reciprocal relationship to the larger body of nature. (Figure 6)

In their project for the musée de Paladru, (located on wetlands that formed the sites of medieval and Neolithic settlements,) the project emerges like some mysterious stick insect adapted to its habitat. In Isabel Hérault’s words; “L’architecture-corps est génétique: l’action de former fait vivre la matière. Elle suppose un langage appropriée qui transforme.“ (Figures 7 and 8)

These projects suggest that Genetic architecture is not simply shaped by issues of new form and technology but by other considerations. The uncanny configurations of space generated by these approaches allude to the importance to the human body in its spatio-temporality, sexuality, mobility and expressiveness. If we follow the memetic trajectory, there appears to be some evolutionary trait in us that wants to aestheticise the interactions between ourselves and the world.

Part of the attraction might lie in a mode of perception, described by the psychologist J.J. Gibson as ‘topological’ (Gibson 1976; Casey 1993) an observation that resonates with the concerns raised by Balmond earlier. This way of experiencing space differs from the more familiar Cartesian schema, and may relate to a more kinesthetic sense of engagement in the world. Once we are comfortably ‘habituated’ in a Cartesian environment, we tend to close out the larger world of nature. If we return to Gehry’s experimentations with zoomorphic images however, as with the work of Hérault-Arnod, we witness a complex dialectic between formal Cartesian geometries and topographies of chance that assert a collusion with wilderness; the constant perceptual shifts in the architecture, displace any notion of a habitual centering schema. In a similar sense Lars Spuybroek has utilized the term ‘topological vagueness’ to describe the movement-architecture relationship. The Nox studio project for a water Pavilion for instance, acquires an undulating formal character through the assembly of variable porticos, much in the manner that Antonio Gaudi over a century ago. Through this application, architecture acquires a language of movement, i.e. ’splitting’, ‘merging’, bending’, twisting,’ which enable architecture to move “without the actual moving of the building.” (227) For Spuybroek, the questions of posture, perception and activity are architectural relationships designated as ’motor geometry’; the “abstract movement in building, with its transformative geometry, that relates directly to the real movement of the body.” (97)

In a final example, something of the palpable responsiveness of wilderness may be found in the augmented surfaces of Philip Beesley’s ‘Hylozoic Soil’ (2007); “an interactive geotextile mesh that senses human occupants and responds with air movement, produced by peristaltic waves of motion within distributed fields of lightweight pores.” (Figure 9) Parametric design and digital fabrication have produced and installation where “machine intelligence is embedded within networks of microcontrollers that coordinate arrays of proximity sensors and kinetic ‘actuators’.” To this, “arrays of capacitance-sensing whiskers and shape-memory alloy actuators are used to create a diffuse peristaltic pumping that pulls air and organic matter through the occupied space.” (2007) The work communicates something of the intimacy of life at the molecular scale where the distinction between the artificial and the real become blurred. Beesley’s installation together with the previous examples, can be interpreted as a retrieval of what Edward Casey has spoken of the wild place’s sensuous surface, “its inherent palpability.” As the most effective means for coming to understand a place’s distinctive character and its perceptual depth  “palpitation and vision and kinesthesia often combine synaesthetically, to be joined, perhaps by audition and olfaction, in a way that we can sense sounds as emanating from certain surfaces, and odors clinging to them. (1993, 210)


The ‘Captive’ images of Volker Seding’s Zoo series suggested something of our proximal yet estranged relationship to the wild that mirrors the condition of contemporary architecture. They also lead us to ask what happens to human behavior when such epistemologies are internalized and to what degree they sustain the well being of our culture? (Figure 10)

Rationalism and technology promised to protect us from the darker unpredictable side of nature, with its capricious visitations of droughts, floods, heat waves, various plagues and infestations. Our attempts to “put nature to the rack and extract her secrets”, as Francis Bacon advocated in the seventeenth century, have created catastrophic environmental consequences. Nature is not necessarily hospitable to human presence, but neither do we survive adequately closed off from the natural world. “Our challenge” as Casey suggests, “is how to experience both extremities while remaining somewhere in the middle, between altogether wild places and overly domesticated built places.”(1993, 225)

If we recognize this challenge, the measure of genetic architecture remains less in the language of biomimetics and the idea of form finding derived from natural processes, but the degree that it embraces the notion of bio-philia. In this respect it extends the discussion beyond whether a building should wiggle or remain straight and address consequences that are less visible but nevertheless pervasive. Volker Seding’s images remind us that what we do to other spheres and systems of life, we probably do to ourselves. Organic or inorganic, we are all part of this larger assemblage, and the concept of bio-philia implies the intrinsic value of natural systems as pat of our larger oikos or household. In this way we might fully implement what Casey has in mind – to live between ”altogether wild places and overly domesticated built places.” The bringing together of the visual field of bio-mimetics to address concerns such as this it might communicate with the public realm in a way politics seldom achieve.

Perhaps the final points are best left to a biologist and a zoologist. Through a shared genetic code and basic features of cell structure, we share a distant kinship with all other organisms. Edward O. Wilson reminds us that: “We are by species history and genetic tendency, encoded for recognition of the aliveness of the world and emotional bonding with it.” (Wilson1993) A genetic architecture would make the retrieval of this experience, in the built environment, its most central motivation, which (to paraphrase JZ Young,) might like all the arts; “ have the most central of biological functions – of insisting that life be worthwhile, which after all, is the final guarantor of its continuance.” (1971, 360)

At this point it is not clear whether genetic architecture indicates a return to romanticism or truly implies the passing of a mechanistic and human centered view of life. Perhaps given the rapid commodification of space through the intensified processes of globalization, it is also destined to become another endangered species that fails to compete in the Neo Darwinian arena of contemporary architecture.  Our motives are invariably knotted and twisted in this matter, but in out more altruistic moments as a species there remains hope that we will continue to untangle them.




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