The Evolutionary Masterpiece: The Design Space

The Evolutionary Masterpiece: The Design Space

The hypothesis here is that true masterpieces are not the design of a mastermind but the capacity of a work to articulate the set of constraints acting at a given time and in a given environment. The intelligence of such work does not rely on an “individual” design, but on an evolutionary process in which the masterpiece is a synthesis of such constraints, that turns them into a new species which can continue to evolve.

I would like to refer to Daniel Dennett’s notion of Design Space,(1) as a concept that supports an architectural intelligence —and sensibility— that, rather than aiming at creating “unique” perspectives of reality, focuses on the refinement of a design that progressively optimizes its performance in a given environment. Dennett’s Design Space is a geographically differentiated and historically evolving set of environmental constraints to which a given design has to respond to adapt. For Dennett, this notion is equally applicable in natural species or human-made artifacts. Natural selection is the path that guides the evolution of the Design Space over time.

The Design Space is the opposite of the masterful individual style, and its embodiments in the extravagant and the unique: it delimits the traits of optimum performance for a given design problem in a given environment. If we look at nature, we can see that in a cold climate larger body mass specimens are likely to survive better than smaller species. So larger body mass becomes one of the components of the Design Space in that environment. In the human-made realm, we can see that the availability of elevators combined with high land prices made high-rise buildings prevail as a species in Manhattan in the 1950’s…

Anyone who has been involved in design practices would easily recognize that at a certain time, in a certain environment, there are certain solutions which perform optimally and are adopted by most designers: for example, the suburban shopping malls of the 1990s in the USA follow very precise rules of location of anchors, distances between nodes, frontage size and depth of the retail units, width of the mall… Same was true of 1990’s curtain walls in office buildings, where the distance between mullions related to the sizes of the private offices, and there was a standard façade to core depth which provided more flexibility and an optimal use of daylight… An architect could try to entirely defy such rules, but it is unlikely to succeed. It is as if a car designer decided that placing the steering wheel in the axis of the vehicle would provide better driving conditions. It may be true but it would crash against global traffic systems, which rely on the asymmetrical location of the steering wheel. Who invented the asymmetrical location of the steering wheel? We do not know, and yet, every one of our movements and perceptions inside vehicles world-wide are affected by this unattributed system.

Architectural masterpieces often capture the Design Space of a certain era, and turn it into an aesthetic experience. Of course, there are also masterful hypertelic(2) designs where the object becomes so specific to a unique condition that eschews any chance to evolve. The more hypertelic is a design, the more it depends entirely on the intelligent design of the mastermind. Particularly today, the most relevant masterpieces are not the disruptive ones, but the ones which can synthesize new constraints into an entity capable to evolve by itself, without the constant attention of the mastermind.

In the field of architecture we have just survived a period where the extravagance of the neoliberal Cambrian explosion(3) has produced an extraordinary amount of masterpieces outside any discernible Design Space. Covid-19, global warming and environmental degradation will now create an environment where forming the Design Space of the built environment will be the crucial task for architects. We have made mutation the rule in the Cambrian explosion. Now, some of the specimens will die in this new rarefied environment. We are at the beginning of a new cycle and we need to focus on identifying its Design Space, rather than looking for variations or exceptions. Constraints are now more interesting than freedoms. After an era of infinite tolerance, we must become intolerant again, we need to produce new building intolerances.

If the Design Space of the near future should be aimed at avoiding global warming, diminishing heat island effects, reducing embodied energy…, shouldn’t we immediately practice a ban on large cantilevers and tortured, unstable shapes that require massive amounts of structure, all-glass, sealed facades, concrete en masse, low compactness impervious pavements, barren platforms… The Design Space is about building intolerances, and architects may be good at it because we generally dislike tolerances.

But, as in natural evolution, the Design Space needs to evolve in order to keep adjusting. And that can only happen through mutations. If the Design Space becomes too constraining, it would prevent any form of evolution, and destroy diversity, and we know what happens when an ecosystem loses diversity. An evolutionary masterpiece would be the one capable to crystallize the Design Space while maintaining its evolutive potential.

Let’s look at some examples: the CCTV building from OMA is as far as it can be from the Design Space of the contemporary high-rise office building in China. It splits the office mass into two tilted cores, it has a low compactness, and it creates an enormous cantilever which raises the tonnage of steel/m2 to more than double of a standard office building of that size. A sealed, all-glass façade throughout is unhelpful in terms of energy consumption.

It is a hypertelic design grounded on the demand for representation of the Chinese regime broadcasting machine. CCTV has little evolutive potential and will become a childless masterpiece. On the other side, Boeri Studio’s Vertical Forest is an example of an evolutionary masterpiece that captures the Design Space: a prototype that combines high density residential with vegetation in the envelope, that can be deployed nearly everywhere: hot or cold, democratic or authoritarian. Everybody should be making Vertical Forests now to absorb carbon and water and oxygenate the air. Small variations of the Vertical Forest prototype will produce an evolution of its Design Space.

1. Daniel Dennett Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (London: Penguin Books, 1996) pp 124-135.

2. Hypertelia is the term used by Simondon to describe technical objects which have become excessively specialized and therefore limited in their evolutionary potential. Gilbert Simondon On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (Toronto: University of Western Ontario, 1980) p.51.

3. I would like to credit Jeffrey Kipnis for his insightful analogy of the extravagant architectural experimentation that characterized the period between the late 1980s and the global financial crisis in 2007, and the extraordinary development of animal phyla (in both complexity and disparity of species) at the beginning of the Cambrian period, due to environmental factors. He has spoken about this in public but has not published this idea yet, despite the fact that he had already formulated it in 2013.

Alejandro Zaera-Polo graduated from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid with Honors in 1988 and obtained an MARCH2 degree from Harvard GSD with Distinction in 1991. He worked at OMA in Rotterdam prior to establishing FOA in 1993 and AZPML in 2011. Alejandro Zaera-Polo was the Dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University and the Dean of the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. He was the inaugural Norman R. Foster Visiting Professor at Yale School of Architecture and Professor of Architecture at the School of Architecture in Princeton University. He has published extensively in El Croquis, Quaderns, A+U, Arch+, Volume, Log and many other international magazines. The work of Alejandro Zaera-Polo has been widely published, exhibited and awarded.