Architecture in the Darwinian Arena 1

One need only step into any meadow or marsh to recognize the capacity of nature to produce an incredible diversity of productive form(s). Although much of our understanding of the living world has changed…

An Isomorphic Correspondence

ND: Ryan thanks for joining us at Animal Architecture. So, just to begin, we’re here to discuss to what degree Life and living processes can be ascribed to the built world. Issues like morphology, genetics, evolution — these are definitely topics that Animal Architecture engages but your interests and particularly this idea of architecture occurring inside the “Darwinian Area” bring them to a new and much more biologically specific point. How far can we take a kind of living analogy in Architecture? Is it even fair to call it an analogy?

RL: Thanks Ned.  I’m very excited about becoming part of the Animal Architecture team and believe our discussion will prove quite provocative to those, architects or otherwise, ruminating on the built and living worlds alike.  For me the thrust of this conversation stems from a desire to move beyond the recent stylistic / image based engagement of architectural and biological form(s), to instead suggest a more active and productive relationship between them.

One need only step into any meadow or marsh to recognize the capacity of nature to produce an incredible diversity of productive form(s).  Although much of our understanding of the living world has changed since the first publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), broadly speaking its main tenants have been resoundingly accepted (at least in the scientific community) and with the synthesis of the genetic revolution initiated by Gregor Mendel, an understanding of biological development has never been more advanced than it is today, though still far from complete.

Evolutionary development of form should be regarded as a process over and through time, one that depends as much upon (genetic) predispositions as it does contextual and historical circumstances.  The genesis of biological form is, to borrow a phrase from thermodynamics by way of the writer and theorist Sanford Kwinter, a “far from equilibrium” state of affairs, it is dynamic, fluctuating and perhaps most importantly adaptive.  This is the scene of the “Darwinian Arena” and the space which architecture may find its most productive potential within the current contemporary moment, a potential to generate a new type of contextualism composed on interaction and activation, not isolation and conformity.

To answer your questions I believe it may be useful in some cases to discuss biological and architectural form making through analogy and through their similarities. But, taken to its logical conclusion this line of inquiry is ultimately limiting, addressing what are really only surface similarities.  The deeper, more fruitful discussion will be initiated not from a kind of living analogy of architecture, but rather through a more acute understanding of these living processes of form making (morphology, genetics, evolution, etc.) as potentially isomorphic correspondences with architecture, reflecting the deployment of the same literal strategies, or what Manuel DeLanda has called “immanent resources,” toward the development of sophisticated form / organization.  Architecture Inside the Darwinian Arena provides the scene, the landscape for the potential implementation of these isomorphic processes into a new, or at the very least, a more relevant architectural project.

ND: Ryan, totally agreed and I’m really excited by this term that you’re using –  “isomorphic.” Can you explain what an “isomorphic correspondence” is and what it means in terms of bridging these two worlds – biological processes and Architecture? Secondly, can you speak towards these “immanent resources” a little bit more? Are we to understand these as the kind of genes of architecture?

RL: The use of the term “isomorphic” comes primarily from the philosophical historian and thinker Manuel DeLanda in a text he authored titled “Immanence and Transcendence in the Genesis of Form” (1997).  Its use here implies not that the biological and the architectural are unrelated or connected by simple metaphor, analogy, or image, but rather that they may both be guided, infused, directed, influenced by a “deep, objective isomorphism…… accounted for, in turn, by the physical processes common to the formation of actual [formal arrangements], the structure-generating processes which make all the different applications of those terms quite literal.”  In other words the underlying structure-generating processes related to the development of complex productive form in nature (ie. variation, adaptation, natural selection, speciation, modularity, evolvability, etc.) might literally be employed in the development of complex productive architectural form.  Through an isomorphic correspondence these two worlds may be regarded as points along the same constructive continuum, different applications of the same developmental processes.

DeLanda provides an example in his text that may be helpful to clarify this isomorphic potential:

“… when we say that “a hurricane is a steam engine,” we are not simply making a linguistic analogy; rather, we are saying that a hurricane embodies the same blueprint used by engineers in building steam engines, hence that it contains a reservoir of heat, that it operates via thermal differences, and that it circulates energy and matter through a (so-called) Carnot cycle.” (pg.501)

I think it’s important to emphasize here that these processes are “deep,” performing below the surface, internal, or as DeLanda describes through Deluzes’s work on Spinoza “the resources involved in the genesis of form are immanent to matter itself.”  The implication for the production of meaningful form(s) in both nature and architecture alike is that their generation may in fact not result from an imposed hierarchy or apriori “type,” but are rather the result of inborn relationships of parts within a specific context – ie. they utilize the same immanent resource.

I suppose one could consider these resources as the “genes” of an architectural project, as they do provide direction and in many cases structuration, but perhaps in the end this is really only an analogist perspective.  What I might suggest instead is the reappropriation of a once widely used architectural term, the diagram, as a more apt reflection of the role immanent resources play within the context of the isomorphic correspondence.

to be continued…
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