Mixing Politics with (dis)Pleasure: Patrick Geddes, Architecture, Evolution and the New Right

The American right’s current infatuation with the writings of Ayn Rand raises, once again, the Medusa’s head of Malthusian “social Darwinism.”  Rand’s writings themselves are an odd conflation of Emersonian self-determination and social-Darwinist “principles” (if they can be considered such), that negate the inherent populism of American transcendentalism, and tellingly avoid the shaky sociological appropriation of Darwinian evolution evinced in Malthus’s work.  The latter not only bears traces of a nascent eugenic philosophy of inherent racial and class-based superiority (similar to the Nazi interpretation of eugenics), but also pervert’s both Darwin’s findings and the traditional interpretation of free-market capitalism, as expressed in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  To compound her intellectual intransigence, Rand also provided one of the more malignant models of the architect-as-misunderstood genius that the world has yet endured; a prototype unfortunately appropriated by many architects whose works and ideas neither reflect nor embody either good architecture or genius – more often than not resulting in an almost comedic transposition of self-important mediocrity.

Ultimately, what Rand’s writings reveal are the fevered thoughts of a moderately talented romantic writer, filtered through the confused and derivative pseudo-philosophies of her time; a pale reflection of the complicated and challenging worlds of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov or Nabokov, if one restricts the field to only the most recognizable Russian authors.  However, what is perhaps most ironic about The Fountainhead in particular, is how it reveals both Rand’s cultural and sociological ineptitude, and her limited understanding of modernist architecture.  For all of their well-documented flaws, the modernists were essentially idealists (something that, in itself, has been roundly criticized in the “post-critical” era).  The Bauhaus, for example, whose design “principles” are the primary model for the architectural production of Rand’s Rourke was, itself a radical institution.  As such, it was one of the first schools of architecture and design to admit women, and its focus on mass-producible products, evinced in the numerous designs for steel-tube chairs and tables that the school produced (and which have become the foundation for much of contemporary furniture design) were intended, not for the rich, but for the middle-class, or bourgeoisie, still a relatively new and radical class of individuals, emerging out of 19th century economic, industrial opportunity.

In many respects, it could be argued that the ultimate goal of the Bauhaus was, thus, to produce and distribute good design to the masses, something best articulated by the American mid-century modernists Charles and Ray Eames in their motto, “More of the Most for the Least.”  In this economic paradigm, the people who manufactured Bauhaus (or Eames/Herman Miller) products would be capable of purchasing these products, and through owning them, would be able to enjoy a higher standard of living, a model promoted earlier in the century by the Scottish/American industrialist and banker Andrew Carnegie.  Rational in its own right, this system of production, distribution and profit is more often than not associated with what is today known as paternalistic capitalism, a model which seeks to ensure the economic well-being of workers for its own financial interests, something that seems to be lacking from contemporary discourse.  Yet, if the Bauhaus is a poor paradigm for Rand’s egoistic economics of the architectural “fittest,” then there is an even more important contradiction to the Malthusian social Darwinism that Rand promoted; one that originates in the discourses of biology and urbanism at the turn of the century, and which is conveniently embodied in the work of a single individual, Carnegie’s fellow-Scotsman Patrick Geddes.

Geddes, like his close associate Ernst Haeckel (best known for his artistic renderings of Radiolarians, his theory of biological recurrence and coining the term “ecology”), was a firm Darwinist; a student of “Darwin’s bulldog,” the evolutionary biologist T. H. Huxley, (grandfather of both Sir Julian and Aldous Huxley), Geddes dismissed Malthus’s interpretation of “fitness,” arguing that the term represented, neither strength, nor ability, but rather the capacity of an organism to “fit” within an established network of ecological associations (something later described by Charles Elton as an animal’s “ecological niche”).  As a consequence, Geddes viewed “fitness” more in terms of a species’ capacity to coordinate and cooperate with other species, than in terms of its ability to overcome, competitively, other species, upon which it was, more often than not, reliant.  Geddes applied this collaborative evolutionary model directly to his social, economic and urban philosophy, arguing that the survival of cities and civilizations was premised upon their capacity to evolve with relationship to the shifting ecological, economic and social conditions in which they were mired, and upon which they were contingent.  This is, perhaps, most clearly expressed in his now iconic Cities in Evolution (1915).

In Cities in Evolution, Geddes follows Haeckel’s theory of biological recurrence, arguing that urban environments represent the pinnacle of human evolutionary potential (they are the physical, or phylogenic, representations of inherited, or genetic, human potential).  As in his famous Valley Section, Geddes contended that the extreme division of labor exhibited by urban environments represents the potential for new forms of biological (and technological) emergence, requisite for the continued health and survival of cities, as such.  However, Geddes’s cities in evolution do not follow a straight developmental arrow, rather, like biological organisms, they are subject to periods of decline, extinction (in extreme cases) and renewal; each cycle premised upon a society’s capacity to adapt to emergent social and technological paradigms.

Because of this, Geddes roundly criticized the artificial sustenance of the industrial model, which he considered overly reliant on what he called a “Paleotechnic” paradigm of intensive energy extraction, extreme wealth inequality, and abusive environmental practices.  To overcome the inertia of the Paleotechnic paradigm, (which for Geddes implied the inevitable collapse or extinction of Western cities, if not civilization), Geddes argued for the importance of adopting a Neotechnic paradigm that was less energy intensive (wind and hydro-electric power sourcing), less economically divided (more socially and civically responsible), and more ecologically responsive (more respective of local resources and more sensitive to the regional requirements of suburbs, towns and villages).  Geddes also argued that cities themselves represented ecologies that needed to be more hygienic, less dense and more integrated into regional ecological and economic systems; that needed to be more organic, and more organically responsive and respectful.  In many ways, it is convenient to correlate Geddes’s predictions with the decline of many Western cities in the mid-century, and the continuing state of urban decline in the American rustbelt, including cities like Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis and Detroit, as opposed to the more dynamic model of cities like New York and Los Angeles, which seem to have overcome their midcentury inertia through an economic transition away from industrialization and towards technology, marketing, cultural production and banking (even if only at the expense of regional ecologies and Geddes’s insistence on economic stabilization).

Geddes’s interpretation of Darwinian “fitness,” especially as he applied it to the development of cities and civilizations, also radically colored his understanding of eugenics, which diverges significantly from that expressed in either the works of Malthus, or as it is inherent in Rand’s social “philosophy.”  For Geddes, surveying the broad history of human evolution, eugenics explains the physical differences between human races, each uniquely adapted to the geographical and ecological isolation of specific regions.  However, in Geddes’s work, the biological differentiation of races has little to do with the political or economic ascendency of a given culture, which is in perpetual flux, and is based on a civilization’s technological, and thus economic and civic development.  Egypt, China, Rome, the Ottoman Empire, Europe and America, and all of their great cities, were equally subject to the continuous cycles of ascendency and decline that have exhibited themselves throughout history, and which, in Geddes’s work, were based on the capacity of each civilization to develop technological and social means uniquely adapted to their overall contexts.  In what some might consider a prophetic turn, Geddes even predicted that, as long as Western Europe and America artificially maintained the very systems of energy dependency, social inequality and environmental indifference that they evinced at the turn of the twentieth century, Asia (specifically China), might assume the dominate position in the near future.

This is a far cry from the cultural egotism of Randian economic theology, much less her insistence on the inherent superiority of the moneyed class.  It is also much closer to the ethos of radical early twentieth century modernism than Rand’s straw men, whether they be Howard Rourke, or Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, whose phenomenal sense of self importance entirely abnegates their economic dependency on the systems of consumption upon which their affluence is premised and ultimately relies.  Neither Rourke nor Galt are particularly innovative figures, at least as they are viewed through the myopic miasma of Rand’s rhetoric (in which they appear more pathological than Promethean), nor are they necessarily interesting characters; at least no more interesting than Anne Rice’s vampires, or the typical dreck of popular romantic literature, whose iconic covers inevitably include a flaccid female embraced by an overly muscled Fabio.  In fact, neither exhibit the innovative thinking and comprehensive understanding evinced by either the models upon which Rand premised her one-dimensional fabrications, or that of the “genius” of Geddes, and his vision for pulling human civilization out of the 19th century and into the 20th.

By this account, we are, as a civilization, at least a century behind the visions of early modernity; mired, perhaps as a consequence of the economic self-preservation of the moneyed class, in a technological and social paradigm that has too long endured, and is in desperate need of revision.  Geddes himself warned against the undue influence of economically invested and socially conservative interests almost a century ago.  Tragically, the current American political environment is, perhaps, too much dominated by such figures, like the Koch brothers, whose entire financial and political raison d’etre is to maintain a system of social status quo that enables them above all others, that enriches them at the expense of everyone else, who must subsist at the teat of public need, and live in both social serfdom and economic penury, only to serve the financial hegemony of the fortunate few, who are willing to sacrifice innovation at the alter of power, and perpetuate the disenfranchisement of the preponderate part of civilization for the benefit of only themselves.

This is, ultimately, the heritage of Rand, and it is a heritage that Geddes, like his self-proclaimed disciple Lewis Mumford, believed would run Western civilization into a new dark age of economic, social and civic decline; a new Rome, whose own sense of self-importance ended in flame, and died amid the embers of former greatness, only to be remembered in its ruins, and Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Yet, what the works of Geddes and Mumford, of the Bauhaus and the Eames’s reminds us is that architecture and design is as much of an artistic endeavor as it is an exegesis into technological and social development; it provides a means for moving beyond the facile acceptance of things as they are, and implies inventing things as they might be.  If we are to return to the American transcendentalist tradition of rugged individualism so misunderstood by Rand and contemporary conservatives, then we must also accept the social imperative behind this ideal; that life can be invented anew, and should be shared widely; that we are not slaves to the arbitrary delineations of wealth, politics or social mores, but need to discover the meaning of “value” for ourselves; that, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, it is still possible to contribute a verse to the ongoing drama of human development, and to discover a New Atlantis beyond the self-fulfilling dictates of those in whose advantage a slumbering world still labors.

This entry was posted in architecture, Bauhaus, biology, Eames, ecology, Evolution, industrial design, modernism, organicism, Patrick Geddes, Urbanism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mixing Politics with (dis)Pleasure: Patrick Geddes, Architecture, Evolution and the New Right

  1. In architectural history, Charles and Ray Eames contribution is remarkable and their modern iconic lounge chair designs are my favorite. Excellent information shared in this posting.

    Team Furnicons
    Charles DAR

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