Morphogenetic Metaphors in Architecture – The Quixotic Contributions of Conrad Waddington

For historians and theorists interested in the intersection of biology and architecture, the work of the British developmental embryologist Conrad Waddington is the physical equivalent of a black hole; important, yet allusive – better known through its affects, than from direct observation.  His name appears, here and there, now and then, mentioned, for example in Mark Wigley’s now iconic Network Fever, without much of an explanation as to why it appears at all.  It’s inclusion retains an aura of mystery, mired in a sort of off-handed acknowledgement of his implied importance to mid-century architectural discourse; but rarely explored in any depth.

This may be because, in may respects, Waddington was the quintessential outsider; a biologist moving in artistic and architectural circles, whose contributions even to his own discipline were as radical as they were contested.  Like Buckminster Fuller’s long-time collaborator, John McHale, he was less a first-chair, and more a second fiddle; unlike McHale, he never donned the artist’s or designer’s disguise, but rather analyzed both through the unique lens of his chosen profession.  But, the analogy drawn between the two goes much deeper than nationality, or their ancillary role in the lives of well-recognized figures (Waddington also new Fuller through his work with Ekistics); as a sociologist, McHale’s education, like Waddington’s, was only indirectly associated with the discourses of art and architecture, fields in which he is better known than in his own discipline.

McHale was also a transient member of the loosely organized group of artists, architects and intellectuals that comprised the Independent Group (IG), which included Peter and Allison Smithson, Reynar Banham, Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, and which was responsible for a series of influential lectures and exhibitions at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London in the 1950s.  It was in the catalog, Aspects of Form, to one of the first and most popular exhibitions organized by the IG (the Growth and Form exhibition of 1951) that Waddington made his earliest contributions to artistic/architectural discourse, a short article titled, “The Character of Biological Form.”  In this article, Waddington argued that, as opposed to the systems of modularity and standardization promoted by early modernists, biological form followed principles of rhythmic variation and modulation, conditioned by the environmental factors that informed biological development and evolution – a view that has been widely adopted in contemporary parametric design circles, and appears in the works of Michael Meredith, Greg Lynn and Reiser + Umemoto.

Growth and Form itself represents an intellectual nexus, with the major figures of New Brutalism, British Pop Art and mid-century techno-utopianism, brushing arms with Gestalt psychologists (Rudolph Arnheim), cyberneticists (Grey Walter), art historians (E.H. Gombrich), physicists (S.P.F. Humphrey-Owens) and biologists (Waddington, and his long-time collaborator Joseph Needham).  However, to argue that Waddington’s contribution to Aspects of Form in some way defined the ultimate arc of the artistic movements fermenting in the petri dish of the ICA would be a bit of a stretch; there is little in the work of Hamilton, McHale, Paolozzi, Banham and the Smithsons that would justify such an assertion.  Rather one can see it as a work of shared affinities, based on an orchestrated attempt to rethink the dominant modernist paradigm from numerous angles.

This confluence of influences, and Waddington’s almost innocuous presence amidst more prominent figures, seems a trend in his sojourn through the worlds of art and architecture. Furthermore, like Waddington himself, many of the figures with whom he generally associated were also somewhat peripheral – he was a lifelong friend of the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, but Bateson’s contributions to cybernetics do no carry the technological heft of figures like Gordon Pask, well known in architectural and technological circles.  This was, in part because Bateson’s interpretation of cybernetics was filtered through the disciplinary lenses of psychology and sociology.  Similarly, Waddington was a close associate of Julius Huxley (the somewhat less-famous brother of Aldous Huxley), who was a strong proponent of modernist architecture in his role as Secretary to the London Zoological society, and who was at least tangentially responsible for the commissions of Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool and Cedric Price’s Snowdon Aviary at the London Zoo.

Yet a position on the periphery can provide a productive position, from which it is possible to follow the circumscribed discourse of the center while maintaining a critical distance.  In fact, it seems that figures like Bateson and Waddington embraced the unique vistas provided to them from their perch upon the periphery, looking into the center, while resisting the centrifugal pull of popular thinking.  Waddington embodies this detached engagement in both his biological and architectural work and theories; two aspects of his intellectual production that it would be difficult to disentangle.  For example, working in the pre-DNA dawn of modern genetics, his most influential biological theories represented a concerted effort to resist the more widely held notions of genetic reductivism, and he spliced these theories seamlessly into his interpretation of the role and importance of art and architecture.

In fact, Waddington’s most important contributions to biological discourse came out of a series of experiments that he conducted with Needham in the 1930s, and which resulted in the reassertion of a largely discounted Lamarckian model of directed evolution.  In the traditional Darwinian model, evolution is defined as a probabilistic crap-shoot, in which random genetic mutations occur, and persist based on their performative attributes.  Fitness (and thus survival) is premised upon the efficiency of a mutation in terms of its relationship to “ecological” (a term first used by Ernst Haeckel in 1877) factors, including plant, animal and geographical associations.  In the earlier, Lamarckian, model of evolution, acquired characteristics could be transmitted inter-generationally, providing a temporal developmental arrow to evolution, in which each succeeding generation exhibited an advantage over its predecessor.

Waddington’s research revealed that evolution could follow both Darwinian and Lamarckian principles simultaneously, and he developed an evolutionary model in which acquired characteristics could be transmitted across generations, while being constrained by processes of Darwinian selection.  He called his model the “epigenetic landscape,” and developed a unique lexicon to describe his experimental findings.  In this model, Waddington argued that genetic inheritance represented the “canalization” of specific characteristics; however, sustained environmental stress could result in the development of new “creods” or “alternative pathways,” which, over time could themselves become canalized, resulting in the genetic transmission of acquired traits.  This entire process was governed by processes of homeorhesis (a term that he borrowed from the medical profession, and which describes the inherent propensity of biological organisms to change over time).  Later in life, Waddington would reassert the homeorhetic nature of biological life, as a corrective to the first order cybernetic insistence on the importance of homeostasis, even while he integrated the cybernetic theory of circular causality into both his biological and architectural theories.

If biological life evinced epigenetic attributes, revealed in the capacity to pass along acquired characteristics developed in direct response to environmental stimuli in a recursive feedback loop of mutual affects, then Waddington argued that humanity exhibited an even more extreme Lamarckian evolutionary trajectory.  This was because, unlike other living organisms, humanity externalizes a large part of its inheritance through historical documents, culture, social organization and technology, with the built environment representing one of the most pronounced systems of the intergenerational exchange of information and values.  Waddington thus argued that the greatest danger facing humanity was the either inadvertent or concerted canalization of negative cultural attributes (for example, nationalism, racism, classism and other forms of unverifiable prejudices).

For Waddington, the human milieu was thus the concatenation of the prevailing social, cultural, economic and technological forces of a given time; and like what he called “gene-action systems” it represented an equal tendency towards canalization and transformation.  The implied conflict in this model originated between the more progressive (homeorhetic) tendencies evinced in the emergence of new social, cultural, technological, economic, and thus architectural and urbanistic models, and the canalized inertia of tradition, with its entrenched resistance to change, and its vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  Architecture, for Waddington, was one of the most pronounced and popular battlegrounds on which this dynamic was staged, affecting the behavior of its inhabitants on both a physical and symbolic level.  Architecture – for Waddington – was thus the codification of social and cultural mores, economic systems and technological potential.  As such, it could be used as either an evolutionary, or an inertia, engine, evoking new social and cultural patterns, or calcifying traditional values through the design and construction of monuments dedicated precisely to the perpetuation of these values, arguments that mirror those expressed in Pask’s “The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics,” (1969) and in Lewis Mumford’s “The Death of the Monument” (1936).

In an article titled “The Modular Principle and Biological Form,” that Waddington contributed to Gyorgy Kepes’s Vision + Value series in 1965, Waddington provides a subtle critique of the physical constraints that architecture places on its users, by focusing on its relationship to the human body.  Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, modernist architects had appropriated the movement studies of “scientific” management articulated in the work of Frederick Taylor, and illustrated in the movement investigations of the photographers Jules Etienne Marey and Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century.  This resulted in a concerted attempt to rationalize architectural spaces, by basing their design on “standard” human dimensions, and the volumes carved out by human movements in the accomplishment of various tasks, something articulated in the spatial dynamics of the Frankfurt Kitchen designed at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, and equally present in the detailed diagrams of human dimensions that begin Peter and Ernst Neufert’s 1936 Architects’ Data, now in its fourth edition, and other books of architectural standards from the time.  The most famous version of this trend is probably Le Corbusier’s Modulor, which Waddington directly addresses in his article.

Waddington argues that not only are the mathematical principles behind Le Corbusier’s modular system entirely divorced from those behind any biological system, but that even the attempt to derive a standard, stable set of dimensions for the human body is inherently flawed.  This is because, on the one hand, humans are not standardized – their proportional relationships and overall dimensions change from person to person – establishing a mean body type thus becomes the equivalent of creating an architectural system of normalization that immediately excludes that part of the population whose proportions diverge from the theoretical mean.  On the other hand, this is because the proportional relationships within the human body change over each person’s lifetime.  Again, Waddington advances his theories of rhythmic variation and modulation, as necessary biological correctives to the industrialized models of standardization, which at once represent a social, cultural, technological and economic mean artificially transposed upon a biological reality.

Late in life, and under the influence of Constantinos Doxiadis’s global Ekistics projects, Waddington provided a positive vision of the kind of architecture for which he had advocated for much of his life.  He did this in an article included in a collection of essays edited by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt and titled, Human Identity in the Urban Environment (the cover of which was illustrated by Ralph Steadham, perhaps best known for his illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  Titled “On Human Environment,” and accompanied by articles by Eugine Odum, The Smithsons, Team X, the Metabolists, Christopher Alexander and John McHale, Waddington argues that in order to anticipate the inevitable, unexpected stress of new productive paradigms, new economic models, new social configurations and cultural inclinations, architecture itself would have to be “buffered,” capable of adapting and changing in such a way as to compliment transformation over time.  He argues for a combination of John von Neumann’s game theory, as a predicative means of graphing potential changes in the environment, and what would today be called  “situated technologies,” capable of realizing real-time, in situ responses to emergent conditions.  Part cybernetic, part parametric, Waddington’s “buffered” architecture also bears affinities with Mumford’s anti-monumentality, in which light, decentralized and malleable infrastructures and structures, are designed to respond to gross technological, economic, social and cultural shifts, both physically and symbolically; with the physical and symbolic constitution of the system deriving from the populous, rather than being imposed from above.  In Mumford’s terminology, Waddington’s “buffered” architecture is “ephemeral,” impermanent, and thus capable of coincident emergence.

Thus, while Waddington’s early insistence on rhythmic variation and modulation anticipate the contemporary discourse of parametric design, like Antoine Picon, he would inevitably find the products of parametric design wanting, insofar as they represent the arbitrary calcification of an instance in the evolution of a digital model.  Furthermore, while much of the contemporary parametric community cites systems of morphogenesis and biological recurrence, Waddington’s work, as it did during his lifetime, provides a powerful corrective to the empty biological gestures of today’s architectural theorists and designers; gestures, more often than not, justified by the impenetrable metaphorical translations of biological principles into misguided architectural artifacts that rarely embody any of the principles that they claim to.  This is not to critique contemporary architects for not being biologists, but rather, to instigate a better understanding of the “precedents” that they choose.  For, as Waddington himself was quick to note, biological form is always in transience, it is always only an instance in the ongoing recursion of formal development, understood as a process defined in terms of the intricate associations that alternately define the development of new forms, and which are themselves, defined in terms of the formal emergence.

To embrace biological models implies embracing the inevitable obsolescence of architectural forms, as static monuments; it is to acknowledge an architectural paradigm premised upon the indeterminacy of fluctuating forms, which at once affect the associations into which they are placed, and are recursively affected by the very transformations that they have induced.  It is to rely less on the adaptability of technology and people to buildings, and design in ways that are mutually adaptive, in the interest of the unexpected, in the potential emergence of radically new ways of living premised upon that of radically new means of doing so.  Finally, it is to accept the inevitable cycles of living and dying that define, not just the Sisyphean futility of the human condition, but also that of our societies and cities, in the expectance that something more might come, even, if only, through heroic effort.

This entry was posted in architecture, Art, biology, Buckminster Fuller, cybernetics, ecology, infrastructure, parametric design, technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Morphogenetic Metaphors in Architecture – The Quixotic Contributions of Conrad Waddington

  1. Pingback: Una historia de la epigenética

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