A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Integrating the functional and the aesthetic
Before we can discuss what might in fact come next, we need to explain a basic concept of the creation of form through design, following the complex processes of the natural world.
Broadly speaking, we can distinguish among three approaches to design. The first generates form as a means of achieving specific goals and solving technical problems — for instance, we make round wheels to accomplish the goal of horizontal movement. We can call that the “functionalist” approach. This is nuts-and-bolts design, focused upon what works mechanically.

A second (more purely artistic) approach to design creates a surface aesthetic experience as its goal, without much concern for deeper mechanisms and problems. This is what we may term an expressive approach. This second approach need not work well at all, from a functional point of view — it is design strictly for visual show, accepted because of image.

Many of the artifacts of modern design, from computers to houses, combine these two approaches in a mechanical way — for example, design engineers create the electronics of a computer, and design stylists then create eye-catching cases that have little relation to the engineered parts inside. These outer shells, because they are specialized to have a certain look as objects, also have little direct relation to the other things outside the object being designed. The designs, which are usually mass-produced and interchangeable, do not embody any adaptation to particular structures at the larger scale outside.

This uncoupled functionalist/expressive approach can be termed “disconnected”. We simply “engineer” or “style” a form — or both, one over the other — and place the result in the environment, but without any real process to adapt the form to its specific context. Most of the designed goods in the world are made in this way today, because it is conducive to the dominant processes of standardization, replication, and mass production.

As a result, the form is freed from any deeper relation to its function, or to its adapted place in the world. It is now just a pure geometric expression, reflecting whatever happens to be the designer’s will at that moment. This is what has been accurately termed, with some scorn, as “willful” design. It carries the connotation of being contrived, arbitrary, even “fake”.

A kinder point of view proposes that a “disconnected” architecture is a form of metaphorical expression, and as such, is just like any other form of fine art. But of course, architecture is not like any other form of art, in that it has to serve as actual human habitat. Whether or not it is great art — and it is certainly not for the vast majority of designs so produced — the kind of form that results is usually very different from the vastly complex forms of nature, which are generated in a fundamentally different way.

The danger is therefore that artistic “magical thinking” will delude architects into thinking that, through their art, they have accounted for the needs of human habitat. If their art includes metaphors of sustainability, then it must be sustainable; if it includes iconic expressions of a great city, then the city in question must be great indeed; and so on. But a metaphor will rarely lead us to find the reality behind it; more often, it leads to deluded thinking.

There remains an intractable problem with the large scale in architecture — that the sum of these individual works of art is not greater than the parts. From such collections of “giant sculpture gardens”, disordered and fractured cities have grown (in stark contrast to the “organic” traditional city). Working within this paradigm, architects can only enforce a rigid and deathly visual order from above, and the result is fragmentation and dysfunction.

A third, much rarer approach to design (at least in the modern world) seeks to unite the functional and aesthetic requirements of design in a deeper way, using the adaptive problem-solving process itself (the process of “adaptive morphogenesis” as Christopher Alexander has described it) to generate integral aesthetic characteristics. In effect, this forms two sides of the same coin, and is also the way organisms achieve their great beauty and richness. In fact, what we experience as deep beauty is exactly this deep ordering — importantly in this case, extending beyond a single object into a larger environment.

It is noteworthy for us that biological forms achieve adaptive problem-solving in two intimately coupled ways: (i) they adapt to the structural problem to be solved — say, the shape of a wing for flight, and (ii) they also adapt to the need, where appropriate, for expressive communication between organisms. (We might think of the beautiful shapes of peacock feathers, or the extravagant colored patterns of toxic butterfly wings.)

At its best, human design seeks to achieve this third goal. But for several decades, it is hobbled by limiting itself to the crude technology of a previous industrial era, constraining its geometry to the simplest shapes and volumes in vogue at a particular historical moment in the early 20th Century (straight lines and right angles, empty planes, rectangles, cubes, cylinders, etc). Those forms were rationalized — incorrectly, from a modern mathematical perspective — as “purer” and more elegant, hence more “modern”, geometrical forms. This incorrect interpretation is clearly wrong, and has had catastrophic consequences.

The surprising return of ornamental patterning
What was not understood earlier — and what we now raise as a central point of this paper — is that a crucial way that human beings have achieved adaptive morphogenesis was through the use of ornamental pattern. The interlocking patterns of ornament were not superfluous decoration, but can be thought of instead as a kind of “glue” that allowed buildings and other designed objects to inter-lock and to form larger, more cohesive patterns. These patterns were both functional and expressive. (And actually, as we see with peacocks and butterflies, expression is in a real sense just another, deeper kind of function.)

Natural forms are co-generated together, interactively, as part of a mutually adapted evolutionary process known as “morphogenesis”. The result of this kind of process is that the parts at one scale form wholes at the next scale, and so on — creating larger and larger wholes that are not mere aggregations of parts. They are, as the saying goes, “greater than the sum of the parts”.

For some things in our world, “disconnected” design works reasonably well. The trouble is, such forms have no real capacity to inter-lock, and to connect into larger wholes, except in the most elementary mechanical way. (Think of Lego blocks that plug into one another, for example.) To achieve the inter-connected complexity of the natural world, we need geometries that have this necessary capacity to inter-lock and to connect, within a more evolutionary, mutually interactive system.

Good design within restrictive modernist geometries is possible, but very difficult. The examples we can point to are rare. Even among a relative few boutique showpieces, there exist scarce departures from visually dramatic but ultimately deadening form. The ideological constraint is far too excessive and burdensome, with the inevitable result that the vast majority of buildings created under this regime are unsustainable, non-resilient junk. The challenges we face do not allow patience for such a practice. We can, and we must, do better — and, we assert here, there are alternatives available.

There is a more serious reason to critique the continued use of architectural Modernism, and its “rococo” and “Neo-Modernist” variants, as suitable foundation for design in the 21st Century. That is because Modernism is not simply one style among many, but an expression of an elaborate discourse and practical methodology for the generation of environmental structure — and which makes a totalizing claim to its exclusive legitimacy. Modernism proposes itself as a universal form-generating discipline, allowing no alternatives. In turn, this methodology relies upon an equally elaborate theory of society, of technology, and of geometry.

What is surprising is how influential this way of thinking and working has become, given its provenance among a remarkably small group of speculative theorists/writers almost a century ago. All the more alarming, this methodology’s influence endures largely unquestioned, in spite of the intervening science and mathematics of nearly a century, and the mounting evidence of post-occupancy research.

So we arrive at a damning indictment, from the point of view of sustainability and resilience. Modernist pioneers’ fundamentalist geometry destroyed architecture’s capacity to form significantly cohesive wholes with one another, and thereby to create naturally efficient human habitat. Instead, we were left with a disordered collection of abstract art pieces — forced, in effect, to live in someone else’s increasingly disorganized sculpture gallery.

This was no longer architecture, in the organic, natural (and human-evolved) sense of the term; buildings had become an environmentally maladapted form of gigantic sculpture. But this practice served as a marketable art-veneer for a toxic form of industrialized urbanism around the globe. It was particularly harmful because it destroyed the resilient low-carbon urbanism that had existed, and replaced it with resource-guzzling fragmentation, disorder, and sprawl. Now this fragmented urban pathology is reaching critical proportions around the globe, and is threatening to wreck the planet.