If we look to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the process rooted in the principles of evolution by which variations of organisms are constantly adapted and adjusted to their surrounding environment as character traits become more or less prominent, due to contingencies upon survival and reproduction, we can discover clues about the role that design has in the practice of architecture. In the process of natural selection, organisms are “tested” against their environment, and natural genetic variation within a population causes some individuals to survive and reproduce more successfully than others. The most fit amongst the population pass on their character traits. Those character traits persist within the species and are perpetually honed and refined; hence the phrase coined by Herbert Spence, “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin used the term artificial selection to describe the process in which domesticated animals and plants with desirable characteristics were being bread, while those with less desirable characteristics were not, thus mimicking the evolutionary process found in nature to achieve the desired results.
The natural ability of a species to adapt and adjust its various “parts” to its surroundings and circumstances that is firmly rooted in a biological and evolutionary foundation can also be applied to the circumstances surrounding an architectural design problem. The perpetual act of adaptation, modification, adjustment, and refining that takes place in every realm of human existence can be considered a mimicking of the biological evolutionary process found in nature, and an act of artificial selection, or it can be considered a natural act unto itself, not artificial at all, found in the creation of everything manmade, an inevitable phenomenon that is extended to everything that human beings touch, that can be traced back to the earliest biological origins of man. Philip Steadman wrote, “The essence of Darwinian theory lies in the concept of trial and error; the trials being provided by variation, and the errors being detected by and removed by selection.”
Steadman talked about the factors, cultural and environmental, that result in variations of the form of artifacts and buildings. He attributed such variations to the genotype-phenotype distinction. A phenotype is “any observable characteristic or trait of an organism: such as its morphology, development, biochemical or physiological properties, behavior, and products of behavior (such as a bird's nest). The genotype of an organism is the inherited instructions it carries within its genetic code. Not all organisms with the same genotype look or act the same way because appearance and behavior are modified by environmental and developmental conditions. Similarly, not all organisms that look alike necessarily have the same genotype.”
The behavioral phenotype of all human beings is to seek shelter. It can be said that the genotype of all human beings carries the genetic code that instructs us to seek shelter. We seek shelter because we are cold and we are genetically predisposed to seek warmth. We seek shelter because we don’t want to be wet because we are genetically predisposed to being dry. All shelters created by human beings from the beginning of time can be said to be inspired by the same inherit variables. Norman Crowe, in his book, Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World: An Investigation into the Evolutionary Roots of Form and Order in the Built Environment, observes the changes in artifacts and buildings over time in relation to their environment and cultural influences. As Crowe points out, the form of the shelter will be contingent upon the materials available in a particular region, the environmental conditions in the region and the cultural influences that dictate daily ritual and habits, all of which will inspire countless variations of forms and styles.
In his exploration of the origin and evolution of the calendar, Crowe observes that, “Time and one’s position on the surface of the earth are revealed as intricately related qualities of existence. The length of a shadow at a given moment on a given day is different from one place to another along a north-south line on earth.” Crowe points to Vitruvius, the Roman author, architect, civil and military engineer during the 1st century BC, and his awareness of his surroundings. He refers to Vitruvius’s observation of the siting a building “to the inclination of the circle of the zodiac and the course of the sun,” meaning that a house designed in 1st century Rome would satisfy the basic inherit need for shelter, but would have characteristics specific to its place and time. Vitruvius was not only aware that the design of such buildings were predicated on those built before, he used historical precedent as a basis for his own designs. He looked to the mythical early hut as an earlier rendition of the Greek Temple. The Morgan translation of Vitruvius, 2.14-5, reads, “What could not happen in the original would have no valid reason in the copy. For in all their works they [the ‘ancients’] proceeded on definite principles of fitness and in ways derived from the truth of Nature.” Regardless of what we think about Vitruvius’ reliance on precedent to justify his architecture, we cannot deny the evolutionary roots in his work and the precedent that he himself set.
To more specifically define the role that design plays in the architectural profession, one can look to William Hubbard’s Book, Complicity and Conviction: Steps Toward an Architecture of Convention, written in 1981. Hubbard’s book was a response to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, written in 1966 that encouraged architects to break away from the simplistic and restrictive parameters of modern architecture. Venturi wrote, “I prefer “both-and,” to “either-or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.” William Hubbard argues, “we still aren't there yet, we have not yet found a way of making architecture that fulfills both the needs of the public for a style they can understand and respond to, and the needs of the architectural profession for a style it can feel has advanced the state of its art.” William Hubbard believed that the era of post modernism had brought us no closer to meeting the needs of society than modern architecture had and that in order to bring more meaning to architecture, a more definitive design approach needed to be articulated.
To aid in the establishment of a baseline theory and parameters for the design process in architecture, Hubbard looked to the use of legal precedent in judicial law that is used to develop supporting rational for judicial rulings. He sites that other art forms, such as poetry, can employ a similar practice, such as that used by literary critic and poet, Harold Bloom. Bloom identifies what he calls “misreading” in which, in order to understand a poem, one must go back and re-read other poems and draw on the meaning and substance of the older works in order to fully grasp the meaning of the work at hand. In essence, Bloom theorizes that patterns of imagery in poems represent both a response to and a defense against the influence of precursor poems. William Hubbard writes, “he (Bloom) points out that a new poem will appear worthy to us only when we can see it as having something in common with poems that we already know.”
Hubbard explains how judges cite an older decision, emphasize the point of the decision, and use it as a basis to establish a decision on a current ruling that builds upon the previous decision. The judge reconstructs the previous decision so as to address a new set of conditions. In the end, the new decision may or may not be closely related to the old decision that it was based on. It may only give the appearance of being related. The public accepts it because it is rooted in convention. A lay person may view it as groundbreaking because it is unfamiliar to them, because it is rooted in the past. A final ruling that originates in the past, that has been reconstructed to accommodate the present, and will be reconstructed yet again in the future to accommodate a future decision, is established and becomes a link in the chain of evolution. A new history is recorded, the chain grows, and over time, gradually, new conventions of thought are established. Ideally, the judicial process dictates that this effect be contingent upon the historical precedent being fair, reasonable, and just, although we know that is not always the case. Sometime the judicial process goes awry.
Hubbard sees the architect like a judge. He writes, “We appoint him the person who makes up and manipulates the conventions of form, the rules of good building. In return for that privilege, we expect a scrim of such conventions, specifically constructed with us in mind, seamless enough to thwart our own peculiarly modern skepticism.” Hubbard might say that the architect can and should look back in history to find a basis on which to build his argument for his current design. He should look at particular conventions that are rooted in the past and build upon those rather than start from scratch. This insinuates that anything created from scratch, without the benefit of precedent, will surely be inferior, because it does not stem from a previous incarnation and therefore will not be fully realized in form, texture, and content. This is why modern architecture is often lacking. It simply is not fully realized, because it is wedged in between the past and the future, with no association with either. A present day design that is linked to the past will become the next link in the chain of time for future incarnations by other architects. It’s the architect’s job to know his place in the evolution of design, to know when to reach back and grasp a link to the past and to know when to thrust forward a link into the future.