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A Looking Glass for the Development of Buildings

I.W.'s picture

Isabelle Winer


EvoLit- Dalke


A Looking Glass for the Development of Buildings


One of the most fascinating and influential aspects of the story of evolution is the manner in which it can be applied outside of the context of biological evolution.  By considering a topic in the light of the mechanisms and principles of biological evolution one is able to gain a fresh perspective on ancient ideas and structures. One example of this is the light shed by applying the story of evolution to the change in the shelter of man over time.  Overall the shelter used by human beings is influenced solely by the needs and desires of the people living in it, therefore it is ultimately the selective pressure that determines the evolution of the shelters they inhabit.  Despite not being a biological entity, the change over time in the structure of man’s shelters can be well explained by the principles established by Darwin and those who followed him in their construction of the story of evolution.  The structures best adapted to serving the needs of a group of people will be the one’s that continue to be used and thus much of their basic blueprints will be passed on to the next generation of shelters built. 

            Through the ages there always exists variation between different shelters, from the days of living in caves to the seemingly identical McMansions that litter modern suburbia. There will always be some “flaw” in the structure, an unplanned accident of fate whether it be the manner in which light plays throughout a house or how it stands up to hurricane force winds. Through these accidental or intentional differences each structure has differential success in fulfilling the needs of human beings.  For example in Northern Rhodesia in Africa the most common form of housing amongst the native tribes was traditionally a round hut. But through a slight modification in the method of round hut building, which is, “in no sense a new design”, they are able to build square huts.  Traditionally there was little advantage for the square huts so the round huts were considerably more common, but with the introduction of European furniture the square huts became more advantageous as they utilized more of the space.  As a result, the number of square huts in the community rose.[1]  As the needs of the humans changed the buildings they built were also forced to adapt.  The adaptation, like genetic mutations, existed prior to the shift in rare case, but it was only with the shift that it began to proliferate successfully.   This example displays that the evolution of housing abides by the two main principles of biological evolution: Random Variation and Natural Selection.

            Beyond abiding by simply the fundamental patterns of biological evolution, the development of housing also adheres to the subtler patterns and processes.  Speciation for example also occurs in housing.  Once of the earliest example of this was the need for community spaces.  As the houses became more and more subdivided within themselves, forming the precursors to rooms, it became difficult to contain a large group of people in a person’s home. In the 8700 BC settlement of Jerf al-Ahmar, archeologists discovered a large circular shelter with no subdivisions and a bench running all along the wall.  Due to its structure, “there can be little doubt that these buildings were of importance in community meetings and ceremony.”[2]  As the need for public spaces arose,  the structures of buildings adapted to serve the new purposes, whether it be meeting places, temples, or food storage. As these new buildings became more and more specialized to their specific purposes, they branch so far away from each other that they are considered entirely different classifications of buildings.  This occurs just like when two populations of a species are separated and evolve separately until they can no longer interbred.   Also as the progression of the structure of buildings progresses it also becomes much more difficult for them to change in dramatic manners, just like how modern animals have less potential for major evolution because they are so limited by the amount of genetics coding.   As the people of the world have generally settled with a rectangular shape for their houses, it becomes increasingly difficult for humans to move away from the 90-degree angles that define our architecture.  Our furniture is all intended for the rectangular structures and therefore to have a house in another shape creates great difficulties in attempts to furnish it.  A prime example of this is the Morse College residence hall at Yale University, which is built entirely without right angles.   As a result the rooms are oddly shaped and difficult to live in, because the human species has become so accustomed to the right angles.   Adapting back is much more difficult as so much has developed from the previous adaptations.

            The story of evolution is one of the few scientific theories that can be so aptly applied to so many occurrences outside the scope of science.  The claims and assumptions it is based on are not grounded in complex scientific ideas, but instead are broad generalizations based on the theories of an economist. As a result it is exceedingly accessible and almost as easily applicable to seemingly all aspects of life, but it is this far-reaching scope, which makes me so hesitant to use evolution as a looking glass for the world around me.  Far too easily it can shift from simply a looking glass to a constant lense, for as Darwin himself said, “I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.” Therefore while the story evolution can so gracefully explain the change in shelter structures over time, it is important to remember the limitations of the story.  For a story such as evolution allow the observer access to a new manner of viewing life, but it is far to easy to get stuck looking through only that lense.

[1] Richards, Audrey I. "Huts and Hut-Building Among the Bemba: Part I." Man. Vol. 50. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1950. 87-90. 19 Mar. 2007


[2] Akkermans, Peter M. M. G., and Glenn M. Schwartz. The Archaeology of Syria: From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies (ca. 16,000-300 BC). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pg 55. 


Don Lawrence's picture


To separate the wants and needs of different cultures defines the capablities and situational factors that influenced their structures. When the need were simple to survive or create mere shelter doesn't even begin to approach architectural evolution. It is only when a culture can afford the "luxury" of contemplative thought where wants are even addressed.

anis's picture

i want to ask you about glass

i want to ask you about glass of is really that the nature of the glass to be used as eco-friendly glass materials building?it is it will reduces the use of concrete in construction? and whether a glass to replace sand in concrete manufacturing process?
i hope you will give my answer..=)

Anne Dalke's picture

developing buildings


What interests me here is your attempt to apply the story of evolution to an explicitly human-directed activity: the development of buildings. I think it’s an intriguing question, how applicable the concept of evolution is to architecture.

My first question of course is why you chose this dimension to explore. What’s your interest in that area of study and interpretation?

My second one—the big one—is what different human intention makes on the process. What happens when you take an unguided random process, which over the course of many-many-MANY years creates complex systems of life, and apply it to an area that is quite deliberately designed by humans? Does the application work? Take? Prove useful? Or does it not?

I’d be interested in seeing you work such questions a little harder than you do here. You speak of the inevitability of there being “some ‘flaw’ in the structure, an unplanned accident of fate”—very biologically-evolutionarily sounding. But there are multiple other branches in the decision tree that is human architecture. Insufficient funds might often prevent the application of better design. (Don’t we know, for instance, that trailers aren’t safe places in hurricanes? Why then do so many people in hurricane-prone areas live in trailers?)

You end by saying that it’s “important to remember the limitations of the story.” I found myself wanting an explanation of those limits from the very beginning. You conclude by saying that it’s “far too easy to get stuck looking through only that lens”—but you have set those limits yourself.

For instance: you claim that the evolution of housing “abides by the two main principles of biological evolution: Random Variation and Nature Selection.” Not human? deliberate? selection? How is architectural evolution random? I’m needing you to explain more fully how these concepts work with human decision-making.

I appreciate (and find useful) your description of the evolution of buildings into “entirely different classifications,” and the parallel you draw to speciation. But once you go on to say that this is “just like when two populations…can no longer interbreed”—I think the analogy breaks down. You also give buildings agency—“it becomes difficult for them to change.” I’m not sure that works, either, since (again, again) the changers are the human designers of these buildings.

A couple of smaller questions: I’m curious why round huts were ever built: what advantages did they provide?

And you speak of the change in human needs—do you mean for European furniture? Is that a need or a want? What’s the difference?

Finally, I was puzzled by your final observation that the story of evolution is “not grounded in complex scientific ideas, but instead are broad generalizations based on the theories of an economist.” Explain/fill in??

Much to think and talk (and write? I hope) further about—