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School of Architecture and Design

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University

GPO Box 2476V, Melbourne, VIC 3000, Australia


Abstract This paper offers a close reading of one architectural text engaged in “knowledge transfer”: the use of evolutionary biology discourse as an explanatory account and authority claim supporting Greg Lynn’s Embryological House Project (2000). This essay addresses the twin conference themes of knowledge transfer and the potential threat posed to the specificity of architectural techniques. By offering a detailed reading, this paper argues that information transfer is not an innocuous activity, but involves the critical transformation of source material. This paper argues that technology transfer should acknowledge the workings of an ever-present technology, the “technology of architecture”. This term designates the set of techniques governing the reworking of material from domains exterior to architecture, into material pliable for architecture. In this paper architecture’s evolutionary theory borrowings, provides an exemplary instance of information transfer marked by displacement, not straightforward transmission.

1 Paper Once again architecture, in search of its lost object, is contaminated by this model fever.

Christopher Alexander is already a precursor, and models can now be seen everywhere.

They become the architectural avant-garde, bringing a kind of scientific guarantee given the tool of mathematics (which through science in its own domain become techniques when applied elsewhere – a phenomenon little understood by those who believe in a sort of osmosis whereby architecture, through the application of mathematical models, can itself become a science.) Diana I. Agrest, “The Misfortunes of Theory” (1974) Knowledge has become an economic phenomenon. As one economist, Dominique Foray argues, since the 1970s, new economic formations have emerged: knowledge-based economies, defined by the proportion of “knowledge-intensive jobs”. (Foray, ix). Foray observes that, “science and technology tend to be central to the new sectors tending to give momentum to the upward growth of the economy”, and that these realignments “are reflected in an everincreasing proliferation of jobs in the production, processing, and transfer of knowledge and information.” (Foray, ix-x) Over the last fifteen years, architecture’s engagement with the disciplines of science and technology parallels this broader historical transformation of postindustrial societies. The economic calibration of knowledge, its “economic characteristics”, and status as a “good” and the financial valuation of knowledge transfer and reproduction, are not addressed by this paper. However, I wanted to mark the origins of the term “knowledge transfer” in the discipline of economics, because this paper is concerned with one architectural case of “knowledge transfer” and the complexities attending this move, where the economic term “transfer’ becomes somewhat inadequate to the task of describing the reformation of scientific claims within the discipline of architecture. This paper investigates one architectural transformation of evolutionary theory and argues that the reformulation and rewriting of material extraneous to architecture involves another technology, the “technology of architecture”.

Greg Lynn’s Embryological House Project (2000), is one of a number of widely circulated contemporary projects that mark architecture’s intersection with the specialised discourses of biology (AD 26-35). The text accompanying the publication of this project forms a central document for this paper. The presence of two specialist disciplines, biology and architecture, and the intriguing question of their intersection is staged in an impressive seamless movement in the opening paragraphs. After a series of digital renderings of his design, with intriguing captions such as embyo and egg, captions seeming to signpost the place of biology in this project, Lynn’s text opens with architectural claims about new, contemporary modes of

production and aesthetics:

The Embryologic Houses can be described as a strategy for the invention of domestic space that engages contemporary issues of brand identity and variation, customisation and continuity, flexible manufacturing and assembly and, most importantly, an unapologetic investment in the contemporary beauty and voluptuous aesthetics of undulating surfaces rendered vividly in iridescent and opalescent colours. (Lynn, AD, 31) This detour from biology via traditional architectural concerns marks the interface of two discourses, and the project of reworking one via the other. The point of intersection begins to be clarified in the next sentence “The Embryologic Houses employ a rigorous system of geometrical limits that liberate models of endless variations.” (Lynn, AD, 31) Addressing brand identity and variation allows “recognition and novelty” and “design innovation and experimentation.” (Lynn, AD, 31) All of the implications of this form of production, which Mario Carpo terms “non-standard seriality”, “mass producing a series in which all items are different” will not really concern us here, but of interest is the deployment of economic terms from late capitalist modes of production to form the links between discourses. (Carpo 99) The final part of Lynn’s first paragraph provides the next linkage in the chain. The chain has so far moved from economies of production/consumption, to an aesthetic claim, to design techniques, back to avant-garde aesthetic terms (innovation and experimentation) and finally a larger picture

emerges in this last sentence:

In addition to both design innovation and experimentation, many of the variations in the Embryologic houses come from an adaptation to contingencies of lifestyle, site, climate, construction methods, materials, spatial effects, functional needs and special aesthetic affects. (Lynn, AD, 31) The word “adaptation” is possibly drawn from biological discourse and this connection seems more substantiated by the next paragraph which begins, “There is no ideal or original Embryologic house. Everyone is perfect in its mutations.” Moreover the “formal perfection derives from “a combination of the unique, intricate variations of each instance and the continuous similarity of its relatives.” And then after indicating that the variation occurs in the relationship between the generic envelope and a fixed collection of elements, Lynn delivers his final sentence of the second paragraph and makes a larger historical claim, “This marks a shift from a modernist, mechanical technique to a more vital, evolving, biological model of embryological design and construction.” (Lynn, AD, 31) Here borrowings from the discourse of biology are marshalled to produce a new internal history of architecture. This is one of the strategic effects of citing biological discourse. It shapes a certain mode of contemporary architecture as a more naturalistic mode of production. The place of a new economic formation,“mass customisation”, is eclipsed by the realignment of the new “biological” mode within a longer architectural history premised on a binary formulation: of older mechanistic versus new biological paradigms.

The appearance of words normally exterior to the discipline of architecture - adaptation, mutation, relatives (and of course embryology) - all of which are biological terms raises the intriguing issue of the strategic effect of these citations in an architectural discourse. The first three terms in particular are closely associated with evolutionary theory. The next part of my essay involves a close analysis of the disciplinary outlines of evolutionary theory in order to investigate the status and meaning of the scientific discipline’s particular terms when they are displaced into architecture.

Evolutionary theory seeks to account for a particular kind of biological change: variation, the ways in which variations in organisms give rise to new species, the ways in which those variations are transmitted over generations, the mechanisms of heredity, how these variations are “selected”, that is survive, the belief that some of these variations may be beneficial, and that there is a correlation between variation, adaptability and survival, demonstrating that adaptation ensures greater survival. (Jablonka and Lamb) The field is vast, specialised and complex, and most importantly, full of disagreement, hesitations, qualifications and uncertainty.

These contests mark the place of evolutionary theory as a social discipline, comprised of competing or different accounts. Some of these disagreements can be recounted by exploring the complexity of terms such as mutability and variation, two of Lynn’s key terms.

Evolution is in one sense a biological version of history. It seeks to account for change.

Transformation, difference and the persistence of certain transformations, their triumph, is viewed, and noted. Evolution relies on a model of temporality, like history, to understand and judge its material. It operates with a notion of inheritance, the traits transmitted from generation to generation. These qualities and their persistence can only be known retrospectively. Only by looking back can scientists decide which traits and behaviours have been transmitted and selected over time. There are many debates as to whether this is a slow process that is gradual (very, very gradual) or whether there can be rapid genomic restructuring. (Jablonka and Lamb 70-71) (And it is not clear to me what rapid might be in terms of evolutionary time). Moreover what constitutes the targets of selection – genes or individuals, groups or species - has been debated, most adamantly by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. (Jablonka and Lamb 38) Moreover, it is possible that the evolutionary process may be entirely random and any historical model premised on causality and determinism might fail due to the operations of contingency. In other words, individual agents (at the level of individuals, groups or species) may play no part in the persistence and reproduction of survivable traits.

Variation is complex and entails several possible mechanisms. Heritable variation occurs through genetic mutation and also sexual reproduction. Mutation, with which Greg Lynn is concerned, refers to changes in DNA sequences. However the reasons for these changes are variable, caused by internal imperfections in the copying process, or by other internal activities, or by external causes. However, mutation is not considered to be a primary factor in variation.

Mutation rates are deemed to be low, because lineages with good heredity needed faithful transmission dependant upon accurate copies of genes.

The second form of variation, one that Lynn does not address, although it is considered to be the primary cause of difference, is sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction produces enormous variation and is the most obvious source of genetic variation. Offspring are never equally mixed and equally weighted clones of their parental material. The importance of sexual reproduction as the most obvious source of variation was skewed early in the last century when a number of theorists, such as Hugo de Vries and William Bateson had argued that evolution occurred in big leaps. For de Vries “the driving force in evolution was mutation, a process that suddenly and without cause irreversibly changed the germ plasm ( a part of the chromosomal material set aside for eggs, etc, whatever gives rise to the next generation). Mutation “produced a new type of organism in a single step.” (Jablonka and Lamb 23) This thesis remains highly controversial. Mutations are new genetic variants but in evolutionary terms, their importance is always measured within a longer time span. Will the mutation survive into the next generation and will it be selected?

I have spent some time outlining some of the major disagreements in evolutionary theory in order to establish the ways in which major terms and theories remain under contest in this expert discipline. These quite different investigations of key terms introduce a number of levels of complexity in the problem of accounting for cause and effect in evolutionary change. Terms that I had assumed were stable, become much more complex due to the range of possible explanations. These disagreements are not noted in Lynn’s discourse, and through this omission, key terms destabilised in evolutionary theory become much more stable and certain when deployed in an architectural setting. Later in the paper I will address the issues generated by this transformation; the problem of how we should read such specialised technical terms when they are radically disjoined from their former expert domain.

In part I have given such a long account of the outline of the discipline of evolutionary theory because I am interested in marking the radical incommensurability of parts of evolutionary discourse with architectural modes of production. I note this disjunction in order to later address the problem of how we should read the architectural use of evolutionary theory when architecture cannot fulfil some of the key criteria of evolutionary discourse. Two dissonant architectural areas stand out for attention because of their strident deviation from the originary scientific discourse. One is the limited definition of evolutionary variation in architecture and how variation operates (Lynn’s focus on mutation not sexual reproduction), and the other domain entails the difficulty of imagining how the evolutionary selection mechanism would operate in architecture.

Since computer software simulation programs do not have the biological capability to breed and reproduce, it is understandable that Lynn would focus on mutation rather than sexual reproduction. Mutation however, creates new variations in genes, within one reproductive cycle.

It offers a shorter time span. Mutation engages directly with the problem of iteration as a copying process, since mutation is a differential process in copying material. However, as I noted above, in current evolutionary theory, mutation rates in lineages that survive are deemed to be low. So whilst mutation occurs it is disjoined from evolutionary success.

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