The Problem of Form and the Primacy of Vision

by Ryan R Ludwig


If after the third wave of technological innovation the machine is no longer a “substitute for God” or a means for the “mechanization of life,” as described by Lewis Mumford in the first chapter of his 1934 book Technics and Civilization, then “it’s worth becomes more and more measurable in terms of its own approach to the organic and the living.”1 If we are to accept Mumford’s observation of technology’s oscillating movement then there can be little doubt that in this current moment we should find ourselves on the positive slope of a new wave whose current seems to flow with a permanent feeling of transition. This sensation of change has in fact spread further than technology’s shores and may be alternatively characterized by a variety of concurrent transitional events, most readily marked by the recent economic volatility, political realignments, regional military conflicts, cultural imbalances and ecological inconsistencies to name only a few. However, perhaps the transitory global event commanding the largest sphere of influence embodied in this new wave is in fact, a major facet of technology’s domain, evidenced by the exponential incorporation of worldwide network technologies into the average global citizen’s everyday life. From communist China, to the democratic United States, and theocratic Iran these new modalities of information transmission have fostered an uncompromising desire for total connectivity and access to information regardless of location and circumstance. In order to meet this demand it has undoubtedly been the apparatus of visual communication that has heard the call and mobilized itself to action. From jihadist recruitment DVDs, to the YouTube presidential debates and the increasingly influential cell phone “journalism” the prominence of the image has become the global basis of communication. This visualization of culture was of course not instigated by the advent of web-streaming or iphones, it has been permeating into the cultural air since primitive man painted the walls of Lascaux thousands of years ago, however it has been, only in the space of the last few that wireless technologies, internet video, social networking sites, text messaging and digital recorders have come to be fully integrated into many of the activities of our daily lives. What might here be referred to as living in the spatial shift.


The emergence of these technologies into everyday life has been almost seamless and even before a complete reconciliation of a 20th century analog existence with a 21st century digital life has been fulfilled a second “hyper-digital” movement has already begun to surface. This movement is in most instances still without shape, but coagulations have started to take form and are solidifying swiftly. Fundamentally the hyper-digital reflects an even further broadening of the visual field expanding it out from the eye to immerse the whole body often inducing alternate realities and spaces of occupation. Its abilities are un-authorized in the sense that it generates structures from the bottom-up, incorporating information from many discrete bits, developing intelligent organizations of correspondence across time through localized interactions. Fundamentally the hyper-digital is a heightened application of digital’s capacity to process information as well as the utilization of its highly integrated form in order to facilitate specific modes of optimization. The expression of the hyper-digital so far has been mostly dominated by commercial and entertainment applications such as generating smart recommendations of “books you might like” on, downloading files from many simultaneous sources at once through bit torrents, generating more productive search results on Google, creating interactive assemblages of photos in photosynth and facilitating massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) that produce entirely new digital environments in which real people can interact within a virtual space. Although the hyper-digital has yet to infiltrate all aspects of our current culture it is perhaps not surprising that one instance of its coagulation with potential cultural significance has started to form in architecture, most specifically in the production of formal organizations and/or characters. For architects the hyper-digital has emerged in new techniques of parametric based modeling (in platforms such as Catia, Grasshopper, Processing, Solidworks and GenerativeComponents), scripting procedures, advanced rendering techniques, animations and altered logics of fabrication. In fact the burgeoning hyper-digital revolution has already redefined many notions of architectural formal production, disregarding modernism’s preoccupation with the spatiality of architecture, often ignoring its existence altogether to instead be dominated by the pursuit of complex patterns, mass customization, algorithmically generated forms, amorphous geometries and the computation of data as a means of formal generation. Despite its inherent parametric nature, when used to generate architectural form this exploit has continually remained at the level of tactics, not yet cultivating a culturally meaningful and socially responsive strategy of development, and often instead producing dispersed specializations of practice and singularized techniques.2 The tactical use of these technologies thus far is in no way inherently negative, but rather simply limiting, what has benefited from their facilities has not been meaningful formulation, but rather a re-emphasis on representation in the architectural project, relegating architecture’s possibilities to the plane of image production, style and branding.


If architects are to formulate a more agile and responsive architecture the implementation of hyper-digital practices must be reconsidered and a new methodology pursued. Recent models of social, material and biological development3 may already provide new methods for the architect to regenerate the life of a new architectural project in and of the emerging contemporary environment. What gives these models meaningful potential is precisely the fact that they are by definition not yet specified to any one context or specific application. Although they are real, they are as yet unformed, without shape or strict definition, what Delezuze and Guattari might refer to as “primitive and supple.”4 However it may be more precise to think of these models as a recapitulation of a former primitive state, a “neoprimitive” where the product of development is composed of an internal virtual set of possibilities, existing in the real world as correspondences rather than ideal pure states, as abstract-machines. What forms the neo-primitive are external factors specific to a given moment in time and space (its history), allowing it by its very nature, to actively produce new and more pertinent contemporary formal and experiential outcomes as stimuli shift and change.

Contemporary models of social development have been investigated through a variety of different disciplines including relational aesthetics in the art, chemical communication networks of social insects in science, Ulrich Beck’s conception of “global biography” in sociology, through the study of neural interactions in neuroscience and in the bio-chemical regulation circuits of living organisms. Material models of development are concerned with physical systems of interaction, often concentrating on methods of growth and structural development5 and are almost always the result of external forces acting on collections of matter. It is however perhaps in biological models of development that we find the most complex heterogeneous interactions (incorporating methods of both the material and the social depending on their specific context) resulting in an inherent active quality towards the production of forms, organizations and regulations. While both the material and social models remain generally passive, affecting their space only indirectly, the biological is active, relational and itself causal. Taken in totality the relations of genes, organisms and environments exist in a functional dialogue in which all three elements are both causes and effects at various moments in time.6 Predominantly centered on the generation of functional form and the production of novelty the biological is perhaps the developmental model most easily relatable to a new methodology of form in architecture, yet it has been in almost all of its conceptions only the image of nature that has found its way into architectural production. Although many contemporary architectural practices have chosen to look at nature for inspiration there have been only a very few who’ve found in it an informed methodology for design.7 To better comprehend the possible incorporation of the biological developmental model it may be productive to examine it more fully, focusing our attention to three scales of interaction: the genotype, the organism and the species.


1. Resktionsnorm (the genotype) At the beginning of the 20th century the German biologist Richard Woltereck was conducting research eventually concluding that the genotype of any individual of the group was less of a deterministic force and more of an enabling agent in the process of phenogenesis.8 He documented each pure line of individuals observing that they maintained their form consistently over several generations, however when subjected to an identical environmental change, varying formal outcomes of previously stable traits became manifest.

In order to visualize this interrelationship of genotype and environment as it relates to the corresponding phenotypic variations, Woltereck plotted curves that described these formal outcomes of each individual genotype as it was influenced by a specific environmental stimulus, finally superimposing them onto a single graph. It was apparent that the influence of external forces on internal structural figuration was vital to the developmental process of each individual, leaving the possibility of additional formal outcomes as an almost direct corollary to the degree of variability in those environmental conditions.9 Adjusting any given stimuli resulted in the same genomes producing varied phenotypic effects. In a paper of 1909 Woltereck conceived the concept as Reaktionsnorm (or Norms of Reaction) to describe the totality of the relationships embodied within each individual,10 arguing that what was inherited was the Reaktionsnorm and that hereditary change consisted of a modification of that norm11 in effect describing the structure of nature’s creative potential. Woltereck’s concept was fundamentally misunderstood in the West and was regarded by the Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen as “nearly synonymous” with genotype,12 as it provided in his opinion only a semi-quantitative depiction of formal outcomes. The genotype-environment dynamical concept of the individual was rejected by Johannsen leading him to propose a strict division between genotype and phenotype, a dichotomy reinforced by the recent rediscovery of Mendel’s original experiments on heritable traits, which by this time had been roundly accepted as the basis for understanding the emerging genetic theory.

It was Richard Lewontin who in 1974 published a paper on the analysis of variance that resurrected the concept of Reaktionsnorm and challenged the accepted idea of additive causal relationships between genotype, phenotype and environment. Through an analysis of variance Lewontin demonstrated that genotypic performance at one point in time is not necessarily an accurate predictor of performance at any past or future moment. The perception of a general cause and effect relationship between genes and environment, resulting in a specific phenotype is in the end at best only an illusion or special case. Lewontin’s analysis showed that “the sensitivity of phenotype to both environment and genotype is a function of the particular range of environments and genotypes” resulting in a dynamic interactive relationship between them.13 An accurate description of this relationship is in fact expressed through the Norms of Reaction, which describe performance not at a single moment in time, but rather as multiple outcomes over a wide range of times embodying the functional potentials and not an ideal moment of selection.

2. Modularity (the organism) Modularity is most basically described as the genotype-phenotype map that can be decomposed into smaller independent modules, or localized integrated units of unitary ecological function and independent genetic structure. These modules may be independently altered through selection or mutation without necessarily destroying the larger overall structure. The two extreme versions of modularity would be a genome where the locus of every gene produces one specific phenotypic trait (idealized) as well as it’s opposite, a genome where every gene has an effect on every phenotypic outcome (non-idealized), total integration of genotype-phenotype interaction.14 As both ends of the modular spectrum define highly restrictive models of organismal development, all real organisms range somewhere in between the two producing modular organizations of development that are both flexible yet highly integrated to specific localized regions. In the production of more highly complex individuals modularity provides a means to locally produce specificity of character while maintaining a balance between overall adaptive possibility and stability of form. Modular development avoids becoming generatively entrenched by localizing possible maladaptive or lethal changes in the developmental sequence, the genome can then respond to selection on those traits alone independent of the rest of the phenotype, and with minimum side effects. In this way modularity enhances the ability of the genetic system to generate meaningful adaptive variants, a quality referred to as evolvability.15 What makes modular developmental systems so important in the generation of organismal form is that the system is constantly maintaining a balance between hierarchical and flexible organizational relationships, between its parts and its whole. If the modular system is too rigid requiring highly coordinated changes across many distinct loci, then the space will be so small that the selective pathway or combination of random mutational events necessary to produce positive adaptive variation couldn’t possibly arise. Yet, if the system is too flaccid then complex form is simply not possible at all as it will never be able to maintain the necessary organizational qualities. In order to combat these two extremes modular systems rely mostly on gradient fields of morphogens, most easily observed in the embryonic developmental process, to produce a specific, yet flexible framework for development, what Jesse Reiser might refer to as inexact.16 In contrast to specialized linear systems of development, modularity initiates a method favorable to the creation of complex organisimal forms capable and even primed for further evolutionary development while more effectively absorbing the potentially lethal effects of random variants.

3. Facilitated Variation (the species) It has only been in the space of the last few years that research in evolutionary biology conducted on the genotypic structures of a wide variety of living creatures has produced the data necessary for the emergence of an evolutionary theory that proposes a facilitated means for generating useful variability in a species. This theory asserts that the selection forces undertaken by an individual never influence the genotype directly, but rather only indirectly through the structure of the phenotype. An organism’s characteristics are only remotely connected to the DNA sequence through the complex processes of development, growth and metabolism (i.e. living). A change in DNA sequence is only indirectly correlated with change in the anatomy and physiology of the organism.17 In this sense the genome functions in a latent state below the surface, but continues to interact with the external environment through the physical localization of the body.

Biologists Marc Kirschner & John Gerhart have proposed that meaningful variation in an organism’s physiology, anatomy, or behavior arises predominantly from the use of conserved core processes in new combinations and at different times, places and amounts, rather than in their sudden drastic modification or by the invention of new processes all together. The conserved core processes are fundamentally cellular processes that operate on many levels of development and molecular functioning of the organism.18 Core processes are conserved precisely because they have within them the greatest ability to produce a range of possible states in response to environmental stimuli or genetic mutations, allowing them to more readily facilitate meaningful variation with only minimal direct genetic modification.19 As a method of development the concept of facilitated variation is one that does not reflect an ideal conception of form, or a movement towards a specific type of idealism, but is instead one that adopts an attitude of potentiality as a strategy for the greatest chance at localizing meaningful difference across and over time. In this strategy Kirschner and Gerhart posit that it is conservation which facilitates diversification in nature and the plausibility of evolution’s ability to explain the diversity of life. Facilitated variation implies “a biased output of phenotypic variation by an organism, even though the initial input of mutation over the entire genome is random. This bias is inevitable, because variation is based on reuse of the existing phenotype in new ways and hence starts with a given structure, a given bias.”20 It’s clear that at many scales biological developmental is a dynamic process in which genes/individuals/species interact with each other, change shape/position, and become different; each stage of the process builds upon the results of the last and development in this sense may be regarded as a cascade of related events, one leading to the next though without premeditated direction or progress. This spatialisation of form is also reliant on the concurrent temporal aspects of interaction and reflects an outcome of only one specific history.21


Evolvability maintains a specific relationship with all three of these historical biological scales resulting in one of two long term outcomes either speciation and survival (active), or specialization and extinction (static). The concept of evolvability could be further defined as the optimum balance between current survival and future success facilitated by past histories. These three scalar models of biological development all describe a strategy for producing complexity and facilitating forms that are founded on the idea of selecting relevant historical information within any genome, individual and/or species. The embedded histories of the biological maintain an ability to produce meaningful change, through the production of variations within the genome, individual and/or species as they function at different scales, and it is this potential that is at the crux of evolution’s method. Social models of development are inherently transitory existing as a product only of their present circumstances; and although material systems do maintain a record of their history, as they are shaped by forces directly, they can’t use these experiences in any active way, they are not evolvable in the sense that their past may generate change in any future circumstance. In this way the formulation of productive architectural form may be isomorphically22 related to the biological, architecture’s relationship with history is also perpetually active, able to draw on the vast potential of its past in order to respond to present events of culture, society, politics and technology in a meaningful way. As unease over issues of energy, natural resources, population, consumption, production, pollution and ecological instability reach beyond local constituents to impact global regions, architecture must not simply react to these forces, but be active towards them effecting its environment reciprocally. It can’t achieve this by differing to the visual, but must generate a new type of contextualism composed on interaction and activation, not isolation and conformity. If architecture is to move beyond its capacity, and infatuation with the visual into the field of the spatial shift and towards functional potentials able to generate multiple attitudes, spaces, effects, experiences, sensations and programs it might best be based on a concept of evolvability that by definition has a greater chance of cultivating meaningful effective outcomes. The adoption of an evolvable methodology, incorporating the intelligent application of emerging hyper-digital technologies able to speculate on the variable histories of both the past, present and future, provides one means for architecture to generate a new productive life, however there’s little doubt that the seeds of many other potential methods already exist. As the transitional wave of the day engulfs us all it’s time for architects to take on the responsibility of facilitating and developing these potential methods, leaving behind the domain of the “simply” visual. By assuming a methodology based upon a concept of evolvability our architectural responses may foster outcomes beyond specialized techniques of image production and instead cultivate a relational concept to form able to generate local specificity while maintaining an overall adaptability in the face of current issues and future change.


1 Mumford 1934, 5-7 back

2 The use of the word specialization refers to the highly focused work that many offices are developing independent of a larger autonomous architectural project. Specialization inevitably encourages the typecasting of offices to specific areas of expertise or even style. back

3 The idea of development is here used general strategy for the production meaningful organizations of elements in to explicit formalizations, systems, structures, logics or correspondences. back

4 Deleuze, Guattari 1987, 210 back

5 For additional information on material developmental models see: DeLanda 1992, 128-167; DeLanda 1997; Deleuze, Guattari 1987 back

6 Haraway 1976, 100-101 back

7 Recent practices who have sought to incorporate the logics of the biological into their work, beyond the mere image might include, FOA, Reiser + Umemoto, Aranda/Lasch and MOS to name a few. back

8 Sarkar 1999, 238 back

9 Sarkar 1999, 235 back

10 Woltereck 1909, 135 back

11 Sarkar 1999, 236 back

12 Sarkar 2006, 80 back

13 Lewontin 1974, 400-411 back

14 Altenberg 2005, 99-128 back

15 Altenberg 2005, 99-128back

16 See Reiser 1998, 48-53 back

17 Gerhart, Kirschner 2005 back

18 Gerhart, Kirschner 2005 38-70. These processes have developed and been preserved for many millions of years and are organized under four distinct phases: 1. Novel chemical reactions typified by the incorporation of DNA as a stable repository for the sequence information of proteins (Prokaryotic), 2. Cell organization and regulation defined by the development of a nucleus, organelles, cytoskeleton and the ability to reproduce sexually (Eukaryotic), 3. Multicellularity generating innovations in cell communication, cell contact, and differentiation, and 4. Body (modular) Plans which provided a global organization comprising certain aspects of anatomy and compartments relating to signaling and selector proteins expressed from selector genes. back

19 Gerhart, Kirschner 2005, 34-35 back

20 Gerhart, Kirschner 2005, 246 back

21 Wolpert 1993, 57-8 back

22 For a further explanation of the isomorphic see DeLanda 1997, 499-514 back


Altenberg, Lee. 2005. “Modularity in Evolution: Some Low-Level Questions.” In Modularity: Understandingt the Development and Evolution of Natural Complex Systems, edited by Werner Callebaut and Diego Rasskin-Gutman, 99-128. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

DeLanda, Manuel. 1997. “Immanence and Transcendence in the Genesis of Form.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 96: 499-514.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Gerhart, John C. and Marc Kirschner. 2005. Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma. New Haven: Yale University Press

Haraway, Donna. 1976. Crystals, Fabrics and Fields: Metaphors that shape Embryos. Berkely, CA: North Atlantic Books

Lewontin, Richard C. 1974. “The Analysis of Variance and the Analysis of Causes.” American Journal of Human Genetics 26: 400-411.

Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Neumann-Held, Eva and Rehmann-Sutter, Christoph editors. 2006. Genes in Development: Re-reading the Molecular Paradigm. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Reiser, Jesse. 1998. “Solid-State Architecture.” In Reiser + Umemoto: Recent Projects, 48- 53. Great Britain: Academy Editions

Sarkar, Sahota. 1999. “From the Reaktionsnorm to the Adaptive Norm: The Norm of Reaction, 1909-1960.” Biology and Philosophy 14: 235-252.

Wolpert. Richard. 1993. The Triumph of the Embryo. New York: Dover Publications

Woltereck, Richard. 1909. “Weitere experimentelle Untersuchungen über Artveranderung, speziell uber das Wesen quantitativer Artunterschiede bei Daphnien.” Verhandlungen der deutschen zoologischen Gesellschaft 19: 110-173.