Architecture as an agent of evolution


Modern architecture’s attempt to revivify our built environment through a reduction to such basics as function and unadorned construction resulted in an alienating human habitat that is unsustainable in multiple ways. That is because it did not go far enough back and deep enough to reach genuinely regenerative roots. Instead, we need to adopt a Big Picture perspective to seek the profound human impulses behind the creation of the planetary transforming phenomenon of architecture. And this must lead us to questioning why evolution brought forth humanity in the first place. Pondering such questions should be at the core of an architectural education whose broad-ranging explorations would be adequate to the creation of a genuinely sustainable and humanly satisfying culture. The following essay is an initial plunge into such issues, which will be progressively elaborated in future issues of Citizen

Marshall McLuhan:  Whoever discovered water, it wasn’t the fish.

Astronomer: Intelligent life may never be found on other planets. Evidence on this one suggests its emergence is calamitous and short term.

Alan Watts:  We didn’t come into this world. We came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. We are not strangers here.

What if nature evolved us, humankind, with deliberate, conscious intent? Moreover, what if central to this evolutionary intent was that we would create architecture and agriculture and then coevolve with them? Such ideas may be unprovable and dismissed by most as preposterous, especially for implying the lingering modern taboo of teleology. But wild ideas, speculations and thought experiments yield fresh insights and inspirations, and have prompted numerous scientific breakthroughs. What is desperately needed now to guide us through challenging, confusing and uncertain times is less the empirically provable than something much more useful: an empowering and ennobling vision – particularly if rather than being fanciful it is grounded in the best understandings of contemporary science and scholarship.

To clear and unprejudiced thinkers, particularly those open to the notion that evolution has direction and might even be purposive, it is obvious humankind has lost its way and is betraying evolution’s intent.¹ This is unarguably so in our excessively destructive assaults on nature – in which contemporary architecture and agriculture play major roles – on which we depend to a degree most of us barely register. Yet it is also true of so many other aspects of our lives, including those we accept as merely the way things are. But along with grave challenges come huge opportunities. Yet current thinking and remedial proposals, even if sound and sensible, tend to be much too narrow and timid, including about architecture and architectural education. Surely something much more stirringly radical is being called for, yet not forthcoming?

This could be a pivotal moment of profound reorientation, an evolutionary bifurcation-point between the options of continuing breakdown or regenerative breakthrough. But only if – a huge ‘if’ – we collectively choose to make it so. It is entirely up to us to take responsibility for our destiny and seize the opportunities made possible by the prodigious knowledge and technical prowess bequeathed by the modern age that also precipitated this moment of multiple interlinked crises. But that requires what has been so conspicuously missing: the inspiring and motivating vision already alluded to that also endows us with a sense of purpose, even destiny; something to get us fired up – the most luscious carrot, not just another stick with which to browbeat us.

What if this vision promised to return us to what we might conjecture was our destined evolutionary role and responsibilities? Is it truly plausible that nature evolved us over aeons to trash the planet, and to the disproportionate benefit of only a minority of us and the detriment of most forms of life, all this as contrary to the values most of us would claim? What if instead, we applied our knowledge and technology wisely, aided by our creative imagination and in accord with our deepest and most noble values? We could then become conscious participants in, and guides of, evolution so it now progresses through informed choice rather than random chance. And we would do this through design, reconceived as humankind’s way of consciously participating in and furthering evolution. Isn’t this an ambition more truly worthy of humankind, one fit to inspire our collective future, as well as our architecture and its education?

Among the many challenges we face, two loom as genuinely existential threats, and like many others are unambiguous signs of a desperately overstressed and exploited planet. One is the burgeoning environmental and climate crisis that manifests in many ways beyond global heating and impacts us in myriad interlinked ways. Now a dire threat to everything we treasure, it escalated gradually and so, as in the familiar boiling frog analogy, our responses are very tardy and inadequate. The other challenge is also environmental in its causes, a product of ever deeper incursions into the natural world. But by contrast, the Covid pandemic, spread quickly, provoking, and proving conclusively possible, rapid, coordinated responses and huge investments previously deemed unthinkable.

Significantly too, the pandemic has emphasised interdependencies modern culture has downplayed and ignored, how everything and all of us are inextricably interlinked. If Covid persists anywhere, it threatens everywhere – a much-needed spur to global cooperation, as evidenced in the race to develop and share vaccines. It highlights other interdependencies and associated inequalities – that those on whom modern society is most dependent, the care and service workers, are poorly remunerated and precarious. Yet the largely parasitic and uncaring professions (banking, law and so on) are more secure and extravagantly remunerated. Despite the tragic fatalities and economic havoc, we might yet look back on the pandemic with some gratitude for what could prove to be its silver lining. Beyond possibly prompting belated action on habitually accepted inequities, the co-ordinated responses to it could become a stepping stone towards the action and reformations required to effectively confront the many dimensions of the daunting climate and environmental crises – and much else that is wrong.

At the very least the pandemic and lockdown, as a pause to take stock and reflect, might have initiated what may become a major reorientation. Consider those who, facilitated by technology and now familiar with working at least part-time from home, are leaving metropolitan centres for smaller towns and lifestyles less stressful on them and the planet. The future may not entail ever more of us living in ever larger conurbations, a widely predicted extrapolation from past trends. This underestimated changes afoot even prior to Covid. Factoring in quality and meaning of life, as ever more are doing, it is now an even less certain scenario. Yet the pandemic has also initiated a countertrend: town and city centre department stores and shopping centres being redeveloped as retirement homes for those who prefer the cultural and entertainment resources, the multigenerational and multicultural interactions, of urban life over a quiet rural idyll. Notions of the good life can become more diverse, suited to our differences, without overtaxing the planet.

But harnessing and creating synergies between such forces for change will not suffice. Crucial to addressing the mounting and interlinked crises that confront us, would be our candid acknowledgement that we brought these crises upon ourselves; they are entirely our fault, not natural in their causes or ‘acts of God’. And that the core problem is not ignorance or lack of knowledge, of which there is an abundance, but attitude – a product of immaturity and mindset. Like individual psyches, the collective psyche that constitutes a culture, uses similar defence mechanisms to stubbornly thwart even the most urgently necessary change: resistance, denial, procrastination and so on. This inertia is now intensified by the distractions and distortions of social media and corporate funded advertising and disinformation. Against such psychodynamics, verifiable facts and rationality are alone relatively powerless. These problems arise not only from what we have done, bad enough as that is. Maybe even more so they are the consequence of who we are, or have become, or mistakenly believe ourselves to be. Necessary and urgent change requires that we ourselves change, at core an architectural as well as psychological problem.

Psychological resistance to the point of perversity, whereby people don’t act despite even extreme negative consequences, is an important and increasingly discussed and understood syndrome. But it is beyond the scope of this essay, although it may be returned to in a future issue of Citizen. For now, let’s note that our destructive behaviour is typical of what in evolutionary terms is a young species. On entering an ecosystem, a new species multiplies rapidly, usually to the disadvantage of other species, until it encounters limits such as food shortages. At this point growth slows and it enters a more stable and symbiotic relationship with other species – its mature phase. Humankind is still in its runaway growth phase – to the detriment of all other life forms, and now our own too – which has reached its destructive climax with modernity. Despite its many great gifts, modernity will be looked back upon as a dangerously immature phase, with its: reductionist and simplistic thinking; emphasis on growth, competition and control: selfish and egotistic, hyper-individualism; irresponsible exploitation of technical prowess and finite resources; rejection of negative side effects as mere externalities; dismissal of counsels of caution and so on.

All these are inevitable correlates of the modern mindset. Beginning with the Renaissance as the medieval Age of Faith gave way to what became the Age of Reason, modernity was then consolidated by science and the Enlightenment. An extreme view of the latter was that nature, and even people, were mere resources, hence the merciless plunder of nature, exploitation of other peoples and even slavery. Modernity, underpinned by Newtonian science, has at its very core a single idea: that there is an objective reality independent of us. Before science consolidated it, this view was weird, our very survival depended on rituals of propitiation such as fertility rites and harvest festivals – ways of recognising our entanglement with and participation in a larger reality. After the emergence of quantum mechanics and notions such as quantum entanglement, the idea of an independent reality that excludes us is once again weird to those who grasp their participative, non-dualist implications.


We need a deeply inspiring and ennobling sense of purpose and gratitude for how and where we live, a sense of being at home on the planet and fulfilled in recognising and realising what it is be fully human

Despite postmodernity holding sway in much of academia and the arts, it does nothing to overcome exclusionary dualistic thought. Although historically important for its critique of modernity, so loosening its grip, it can be clearly understood as merely the repressed flipside of modernity, exchanging the latter’s objective reality for an ungrounded and arbitrarily constructed reality, or realities. So, the modern mindset tends to remain dominant, especially in shaping our physical environment. Emphasising objectivity led to a world of disconnected objects and severing our emotional and empathic links with the world – in short, to the fragmentation and alienation that characterises modernity. Hence modern architecture’s free-standing buildings of abstract form that, by relating to neither each other nor to us, cannot create satisfactory urban fabric and sense of place. This intensifies one of modernity’s most debilitating consequences, that it exiles us cognitively, experientially and emotionally by depriving us of a sense of belonging to and so responsibility for the world – a core driver of modernity’s unsustainability.

Because we are now struggling with modernity’s threatening downsides and legacy, some see it as a disastrous mistake. But from a Big Picture perspective, modernity is an evolutionary necessary phase for humankind’s development, bringing huge gifts, even if many of these have been distorted or betrayed. These range from ideals of equality and emancipation to creating prodigious wealth, knowledge and technological power. Even the emphasis on objectivity provoked a glorious counter-reaction in subjectivity as manifested in modern art, literature and depth psychology.

Any short essay must oversimplify and leave unexplored significant, contradictory issues such as how modernity promised emancipation, individuation and self-empowerment – latent in various drives to self-improvement – yet these were stymied by countervailing trends (cultural defence mechanisms) of submissive conformity expected of those on a ‘career path’. Today, the big problem with modernity, faced as we are with the dire crises it has provoked, is that we have clung to it far too long, despite all the warning signs and pressures for change. We have not moved on and embraced the very different mindset (sometimes referred to as transmodern to distinguish it from modern and postmodern), with its associated values and modes of thought. This has been emerging for more than half a century – and over the last two decades has been crystallising into a coherent paradigm in some places outside academia. Rather than helping this process, dominant institutions have largely played an inhibitory role. For example: overly polarised and incapacitating politics belatedly recognises rather than initiates positive change; and, academia fragmented into specialist silos, is reluctant to recognise dogmas preventing its embrace of emergent modes of integrative thinking. Hence the latter remains riven by the power plays of competing intellectual fiefdoms whose safe small worlds are threatened by opening up to collaboration and the powerfully pertinent new modes of synoptic thinking academia fervently resists.

If modernity equates with reckless adolescence, it is also the terminal climax of a trend driven by humankind’s destructive delusion of being separate from and not totally dependent on everything else evolution brought forth. How do we now, very belatedly, progress to the responsible maturity of transmodernity and beyond, reverentially grateful for the supportive interdependencies it celebrates? At its simplest, this would obviously entail inverting or reversing much of modernity, and reconnecting and healing the various forms of fragmentation it wrought – physically, socially, psychologically. This would go beyond seeking harmonious coexistence with what we have separated ourselves from to also help both it and us continue our further evolution. Being stuck in this adolescent phase is what for some forms of psychotherapy is an identity level issue. Moving forward entails embracing a more empowering and ennobling narrative, a more responsive and responsible mature identity by viewing our current situation and WHO WE TRULY ARE OR COULD BE from a Big Picture perspective – such as postmodern dogma still considers taboo.

This Big Picture perspective, an all-encompassing holistic view, draws together all fields of knowledge, objective and subjective, within a vast temporal and spatial frame. In relation to environmental and architectural issues, the perspectives of the two great integrative biological disciplines of ecology and evolution are crucial, but with their relational and dynamic modes of thinking expanded beyond the biological to include such areas as the socio-cultural. For our purposes, Big Picture thinking requires a time frame that extends back to where we started this essay, prior even to humankind’s origins, and posing a question that opens a powerfully revealing perspective. That question: why did nature evolve humankind? And particularly, why did it do so if it could have anticipated that our combination of physical vulnerability and intelligent capability would lead to seeking security in the planetary transforming modes of architecture and agriculture. These would progressively and with increasing insensitivity transform the face of the planet, and also fuel a self-congratulatory hubris that would reach a destructive extreme with modernity?

After all, natural evolution together with a tilted planetary axis bringing changing seasons had already created a truly marvellous planet of intricately interwoven interdependencies, awesome variety, and beauty. Why take such a huge risk and threaten all this by evolving humankind? Particularly, what could compensate for what would become humankind’s fixation with modernity? Answering this, with the knowledge and tools generated by modernity, might furnish the motivating vision to move beyond our current impasse. Baldly stated: the most potently empowering answer to why humankind was evolved is to appreciate and further advance evolution; or, to expand upon this, to appreciate the stupendous achievements of biological evolution and become the agent to take evolution to levels beyond the biological. To consciously register, articulate and pursue these visions should be the defining project of humankind, at the core of all education, most particularly that concerned with creativity and the environment. It is also crucial to conceptualising a genuinely regenerative and sustainable planetary civilisation.

Some level of consciousness and intelligence is found in much of nature. But it seems only in humankind have these developed far enough to fully register the complex dynamics behind the intricate marvels and beauty evolution has created. Premodern cultures intuited this, hence their reverence for and gratitude to nature, their rituals and ceremonies intensifying and commemorating these. These cultures celebrated and creatively elaborated nature’s specific local endowments and characteristics, having accepted and appreciated them as gifts. Thus, experimenting with and combining local foods evolved into cuisine. And weaving fibres evolved into cloth, clothing and eventually costume. Even the most exotic customs and artefacts originated as creative responses to and elaborations of local conditions and resources. Consider how aptly and sensitively vernacular architectures use local materials to respond to local climate and other conditions. Yet modern thinking tends to consider culture and nature as opposed, a source of misunderstanding and woes.

From a Big Picture evolutionary perspective, it seems obvious in retrospect that we were evolved to create a rich ecology of local cultures, each expanding upon and deepening the particulars of place through customs, artefacts and so on, and weaving new kinds of interconnections. With global homogenisation, we have forgotten how even agriculture and architecture further diversified the planet. Some simple examples: Britain bred and grows 2,500 kinds of apple (there are 7,000 worldwide); and Peru grows 4,000 kinds of potatoes, bred from 180 wild types. Rather than being opposed to nature, culture grows out of it to extend and accelerate evolution, supercharging it and taking it to new levels, particularly in adding a cognitive-creative-imaginative dimension of appreciation and amplification. This additional evolutionary layer is what Teilhard de Chardin called the ‘noosphere’, which transcends and envelops the biosphere; it is not necessary to subscribe to his Christian mysticism to grasp the ennobling sense of purpose and belonging that comes from viewing culture as adding a whole new dimension to evolution, that of appreciative and reflective self-consciousness.

Thus, our cultural role and true evolutionary purpose is not to exploit but to elaborate and enhance, to make yet more diverse and beautiful, more symbiotically and intricately interwoven at levels also transcending the physical. Culture, this agent and extension of evolution, enmeshes us in and engages us with nature, the planet and their dynamic processes with its webs of narratives, myths and stories of origins that give depth and meaning to our customs and ethics. It gives us a powerfully pervasive sense of being at home with and participating in everything, from our immediate community to the distant cosmos, so connecting us to the past we emerged from and the places we live in and shape. For tens of millennia, almost all human history, this mindset shaped our ways of living and the forms of our settlements as we lived in reverent gratitude for and with the bounty and regenerative cycles which was for humankind Mother Earth.

Hence the cuisines, costumes and cultures already cited that elaborated and celebrated the local particularities of nature; and the many forms of vernacular building shaped from available materials to moderate climatic conditions. Multiplying what was usually a simple typology, such structures combined harmoniously with each other and the landscape they nestled into. Though simple in form, they are often symbolically rich in the relationships they weave across huge dimensions of space and time. Thus, while the placing of huts simply expresses the social structure of the village, the east-facing entrances welcoming the rising sun recognise its life-giving role and our cosmic dependencies. And inside the genders occupy their own side of the hut and the realms of ancestors and future progeny are demarcated in vertical layers.

With time, the buildings and the settlements they aggregated into – villages, towns and eventually cities – became larger, more complex in form and function and diverse in responses to climate and customs, materials and craft skills. Yet the results were still sensitively responsive enhancements of place and what had already been built. Even with increasing formal elaboration and diversity, the results are harmonious. Contemporary scholarship now reveals entire landscapes and their complex ecologies – combining extraordinary productivity, in diversity and quantity of nutritional yield, with striking beauty – were shaped and carefully tended through ecologically sensitive human intervention. These include the once legendarily productive San Francisco Bay – teeming with fish, wild fowl and molluscs – and the surrounding oak savannah with its huge herds of deer and bison, that resulted from human intervention and maintenance through controlled fires, thinning and harvesting. And vast tracts of Amazon jungle that once supported large, settled populations and cities, before being devastated by European-borne diseases, had thrived because of the very fertile terra preta, human-created black soil. The key lesson for the future is that human intervention need not degrade nature. Instead, as a benevolent evolutionary agent, it can hugely enrich it beyond even what it achieved alone as was proved here and there over millennia.

This surely is our evolutionary purpose, which, even at this eleventh hour, we should seek to recover. To do this entails moving beyond the triumphs and destructions of modernity to the next encompassing epoch, not least by recognising the true purpose of culture and the many profound enhancements of life it brings, as well as that those cultures themselves evolve. Modernity, under the influence of science, hugely underestimated the value of culture and the role it played in deepening our connections with the world and the life-sustaining sense of belonging these brought. For objectivist science, culture is subjective mumbo-jumbo, at best mere local colour and flavouring to spice things up. Worse still, for reductionist and rationalist modernity, even the greatest cultures are entwined with a religious or spiritual view of the world – mere sentiment and superstition.

To vividly evoke the loss and alienation from undervaluing culture, consider how differently we relate to an abstractly Functionalist, modern building in contrast to an articulate premodern one. An extreme conception of modern architecture is as standing outside time and physical context, as a tool or functional gadget, to be used not lovingly engaged with, and valueless when no longer used. Its status is subservient to the user (a word of contrasting resonances to, say, inhabitant or dweller), of mere use or resale value. How differently we relate to a historic building, a cultural artefact, part of the human realm and of some equivalence in standing to humankind. It mediates between us and the larger worlds of history and culture. Often too, through decorum and meanings conveyed, such as classical evocations and detail linking us back to antiquity, it gives clues as to how to respond. Such architecture is treasured long after its original use has gone.

Culture is complex and difficult to discuss because we lack precisely distinguishing terms. We might be referring to small and rooted local cultures, such as tribal ones, or encompassing global epochs such as modernity or postmodernity. Moreover, it could also be argued we are reaching a new level of reflexive awareness. In retrospect, modernity and even postmodernity – which was predicted by shrewd commentators in the mid-20th century (and, of course, all prior cultures) – can be seen as precipitated by an interaction between changing circumstances and evolving human traits in ways we were scarcely aware of. Now, research suggests a new encompassing culture (transmodernity) is emerging almost spontaneously to succeed modernity and postmodernity. But we might also have crossed a major threshold and now know enough to consciously facilitate its emergence and contribute by participating in elaborating aspects of it – another inspiring speculation.

If so, ensuring a vibrant and viable future for the planet and all its many communities of beings, human and non-human, might be a chance for responsible and creative people to contribute to a great collective task. This would be to consciously participate in the emergence of the next encompassing planetary paradigm, an ecology of mutually respectful and enhancing local cultures. Modern scholarship provides the inspiration of the glorious achievements of diverse cultures from history and around the globe, and insights to help anticipate and realise the next cultural epoch. Paradoxically perhaps, our contemporary inspiring and integrative narratives of mythic resonance underpinning it, equivalent to those undermined by modernity and dismissed by postmodernity, now come from science: the grandest narratives and spiritual visions of present and future are those drawing on ecology, evolution and cosmology. Further psycho-spiritual profundities come from such human-sciences as anthropology and various schools of depth psychology. All this is the humus from which may emerge great art and architecture.

To approach sustainability, we need a culture that is much more sustaining in every way than modernity and postmodernity, one that curbs the restless dissatisfactions and profound sense of disconnection that we try and distract from and compensate for with ravenous consumption. We need a deeply inspiring and ennobling sense of purpose and gratitude for how and where we live, a sense of being at home on the planet and fulfilled in recognising and realising what it is be fully human in line with current understandings – as a creative and conscious agent participating in the unfolding of all forms of evolution. As the setting for our lives and a prime agent in synthesising all we have learnt, architecture and other forms of environmental design must be central to this new enveloping culture and how it helps us fulfil our unfolding human potential. This is what evolution expects of us as the agenda for architecture and architectural education in the cultural era that is emerging to replace reductionist modernity and relativist postmodernity.


[1] Unless, of course, it was always evolution’s intent that humankind messed up so thoroughly, it must eventually be forced to acquire the deep, integrated knowledge, and so humility, to act with wisdom and foresight.

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