An Imperative of Survival

June 30, 2009

Globalisation, swollen cities, climate change – how can architecture respond to a planet on the boil?

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_“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” – H. G. Wells_

The term adaptation in the field of architecture has numerous connotations – it brings to mind ideas of Darwinian evolution, loose-fit “adaptable” buildings and the prestigious adaptive re-use project which entails the re-birthing of buildings of heritage significance. Charles Darwin espoused the theory that over millions of years the human race has evolved from other primates through processes of natural selection and survival of the fittest1. Natural selection encompasses the idea of adaptation, which has a variety of implications for biology that are also analogous to the field of architecture – both in terms of the building as isolated object and in terms of the city.

Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky defined adaptation as a “trait [that] is an aspect of the developmental pattern of the organism which enables or enhances the probability of that organism surviving and reproducing”2. This is particularly relevant to human development and the built environment. Humans live in an enormous variety of climatic and geographic conditions; from the icy village of Siorapaluk in northern Greenland, to the scorching desert sands of Dallol Ethiopia, to the stifling humidity of the jungles of Thailand and the megalopolis of Bangkok – the hottest major city on earth. Yet, save for variations in melanin levels and marginal differences in size (often due to diet), human beings show surprisingly little physiological specificity when compared to the way in which some species have evolved in relation to their climate and environment.

What separates the human race from all other life forms comes down to a few physiological traits and our psychological disposition – rational thought, codified language and free will, coupled with opposing digits. Combined, these traits have allowed humans to create tools, domesticate animals, raise crops, build structures and more importantly evolve cultures. Hence while other creatures have evolved to exist in specific environments, homo sapiens have only been able to survive the variety and intensity of climactic conditions found across the planet through their ability to adapt their physical environment in some way.

Le Corbusier noted that humans require buildings as a “means of supplementing our natural capabilities, since nature is indifferent, inhuman, and inclement; we are born naked and with insufficient armour…(buildings are) no more than an extension of our limbs3”. In these terms survival simply refers to keeping warm and dry, it says little of the idea of nurturing the family unit or developing culture.

From clothing, to simple bark shade structures to the socio-economic construct of the city – humankind is constantly adapting its environment to survive. Early examples of adapting the physical environment for cultural purposes can be seen in cave paintings. Sheltering from the extremes of the physical environment, humans, using opposing digits, picked up rocks or made ochre to decorate the walls in a form of graphic communication – a primitive cultural construct. The human need to adapt for survival has operated at both the physical and the cultural for millennia. As Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has described, “the relationship between structure and ornament, always understood as that between a body and its clothes, has been displaced onto that between body and building.

Traditional ornamentation appears to be removed from the building at the very moment when the building itself becomes a kind of ornament worn by its occupant4”. Perhaps for Wigley “wearing” a building refers to use or perhaps, at a push, dwelling5. So the modification of raw material to provide shelter without specific ornamentation still retains cultural value. Even Le Corbusier’s unadorned machines for living6 have implications for culture through our reading of them nearly 100 years after the fact.

What then when building becomes complete technology, when body, machine and space merge? The extremes of this concept are best illustrated in cinema, who can forget Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the 1979 film Alien emerging from the bowels of her ship wearing something resembling a forklift, ready to conquer her enemy? OMA’s House at Floirac/Maison á Bordeaux illustrates a condition where the fragility of the human body can be supplemented by architecture to provide a framework for more than simple survival. The house provides a means by which the wheelchair-bound parent is able fully engage in family life by moving through a central lift that is both platform and room. The void left by the lift as it passes the various levels intrinsically links the father to the entire space, as if emphasising his condition and celebrating the technology that supports it. Koolhaas’ prosthetic7 Maison á Bordeaux goes beyond illustrating man’s technical ability to adapt and manipulate the environment for simple shelter – it confirms a desire to create a social space.

At the scale of the city adaptation and ecological evolution operate in more complex ways. The city is, metaphorically, an organism – alive, growing, changing, adapting, and evolving. The manner in which its mechanisms interact is interesting. Architects, with economists, planners and urban designers are adept at proposing change through the master plan. The master plan, often based on social and economic research, proposes use patterns, open space requirements with height and floor area controls. This top down approach attempts to predict the evolution of the city while the authors sit back and wait. However, it is the unpredicted changes, the proactive bottom up evolution of the city that is of real interest. In his essay “The Adaptive City – City Heal Thyself”, Dan Hill references Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella and the former Walled City of Kowloon in Hong Kong as places that “accommodate near infinite variation, adaptation and internal growth, as if New Babylon, despite its anarchic and essentially intolerable conditions8”.

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These highly sophisticated constructs are by no means capital “A” architecture. They are the un-designed city, places where the human need for shelter creates an architectural organism far beyond the imagination of any singular author.
While less intense, a similar process of adaptation and appropriation occurs in the fringes of Sydney, Melbourne and other developed cities. As manufacturing processes have changed over time, industry has moved away from the inner city.

Warehouse spaces are inhabited and modified to become the cliché artist studio, gallery or architects office – uses reliant on cheap rent. This process occurs without the strategic vision of city planners. Through a culture of media and consumption these spaces have become objects of desire as fashionable apartments occupied by users who have little specific need for high ceilings or raw finishes. So the edgy suburbs evolve to become too expensive for artists to occupy and the search for new space begins – a process of urban morphology in response to economic and political environments.

To date humankind’s ability to modify the environment to create spaces for shelter, culture and economics has not been matched with the intelligence to predict the implications of such actions – the planet is stressed. With current predictions on population growth and the pending exhaustion of fossil fuels, this ability to adapt the environment will be tested even further – a new sensitivity is required in the process. The simplest solution to the environmental crisis is to cease all consumption (including human reproduction). However a vibrant contemporary culture cannot exist without economics, and economics cannot exist without consumption. So where does architecture turn to evolve as a meaningful discipline? While the answers may seem nebulous there are clues that lie in the idea of adaptation itself.

First is the literal adaptation of existing building stock to become more spatially and environmentally efficient. Beyond prestigious projects involving important heritage buildings, such as Tate Modern (London – Herzog de Meuron), the Reichstag (Berlin – Foster and Partners) and Sydney’s Carriageworks Theatre (TZG), lays the possibility of reinventing less glamorous existing building stock. The endless sea of suburbia and the vast array of inauspicious office buildings await intelligent intervention. To some degree we can learn from Kowloon’s former Walled City, where high architecture gave way to the imperative for shelter – although improvements in sanitation and environmental performance would be warranted. These challenges are part of human evolutionary process insofar as energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced to guarantee future generations have a planet to inhabit so that the species survives.

Second, and more importantly, is the adaptation of knowledge from other disciplines. Architecture has often borrowed and influenced other disciplines – engineering, the arts, literature and philosophy. Similarly “nature” is often cited as a great inspiration for architecture. Too often nature becomes a superficial metaphor; a crocodile hotel in Kakadu, a palm frond in Dubai, a skeletal rail station in Zurich. In more recent times architects have been studying the evolutionary traits of plants and animals at a deeper level to develop a greater appreciation of natural systems, thereby producing more sustainable outcomes – biomimicry. For example Mick Pearce’s naturally ventilated Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe (1996) is based on the workings of a termite nest. The design does not mimic the aesthetics of the nest but rather uses a similar system of operable louvres and chimneys to purge heat from the building by night. An even more sophisticated exploration of nature and biology is being investigated by a generation of architects using digital modelling. Practices such as the Ocean collective, Arup, LAVA and Tom Wiscombe, to name just a few, are studying the means by which cellular evolution might be super-scaled to architecture and urban design for structural efficiencies and operational performance. On the surface Wiscombe’s Dragonfly installation at SCI-Arc Gallery (2007) appears to be a visual reproduction of a dragonfly wing at large scale.

However, it is generated from a complex digital analysis of the evolutionary processes of the dragonfly itself (aerodynamics, lightness, composite performance, the smooth accumulation of organic material, and the active flow of dragonfly blood) and applies project specific parameters (gravity and seismic loads, specific support locations and quality of those supports, flat material increments, and buckling failure) the result “lead to an unpredictable hybrid morphology9”. This research and others like it are helping develop new business organisational systems, structural typologies and building skins that will create operational efficiencies and minimise energy consumption. That one of the world’s largest architectural practices, HOK has teamed with a leading consultancy in the field, Biomimicry Guild (US), suggests this type of research is by no means an area of investigation limited to the digital avant-garde – it has become an imperative for economic as well as planetary survival.

We have recently reached a scenario where more people live in urban areas than ever before. As we attempt to deal with climate change, urban growth and a new energy crisis, architecture too must confront the challenges of this new era if humanity and the planet are to survive. Yet survival for the human species extends far beyond shelter from the elements – it embraces economics, politics and culture. In solving the problems of our cities, which have essentially become “inhuman, increasingly manifestations of the over-extended artificial metabolism rather than the citizen10” architecture must not only evolve efficient building types as a prosthetic extension of the body but continue to contribute to the evolution of cultural space. In the terms of HG Wells, architects too form part of nature – they must adapt or perish.

_John de Manincor is a practising architect, part-time educator and the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia. He is a senior research assistant at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and has run design studios at the UNSW and UTS. John is a principal of DE MANINCOR RUSSELL ARCHITECTURE WORKSHOP, www.DRAW.net.au, a practice tactically located at the nexus between professional services, research and education._

1. Darwin, Charles (1859), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.), London: John Murray
2. Dobzhansky T. 1956. ‘Genetics of natural populations XXV. Evolution 10’, 82–92.
3. Le Corbusier, The Decorative Art of Today, trans. James I. Dunnett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987).
4. Wigley, Mark. ‘Prosthetic Theory: The Disciplining of Architecture’. Assemblage, No. 15 (Aug., 1991), pp. 6-29. The MIT Press.
5. Here I refer to Heidegger’s notion of “dwelling” in the essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ in Heidegger, Martin Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964) London: Routledge, 1993.
6. Le Corbusier. Vers Une Architecture (Towards a New Architecture). 1923. London: Architectural Press; New York: Dover, 1987.
7. Chapman Michael James, Ostwald Michael, ’Prosthesis, technology and trauma in the machinist fetishes of Oma’s Villa at Bordeaux’, Techniques and Technologies: Transfer and Transformation: IVth International Conference of the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia 2007, Sydney (2007) [E1].
8. Hill, Dan http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2008/09/the-adaptive-ci.html accessed 22 May 2009.
9. http://www.emergentarchitecture.com/projects.php?id=13 accessed 22 May 2009.
10.Hill, Dan http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2008/09/the-adaptive-ci.html accessed 22 May 2009.

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