"The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best - and therefore never scrutinize or question".
- Stephen Jay Gould

Our clients have often expressed amazement at the stylistic variety of our work.  We're often asked, "Why have you not pursued a signature style?"

This spectrum of style that is apparent in our projects is indeed broad, and this is intentional. We are style agnostics; we believe that there is no "preferred style".  Each project, each design endeavor deserves its own unique development, and the solution should not be pre-determined by a stylistic prejudice.  One way to achieve this goal is to open our minds to inspiration from many sources.

Knowledge Integration

When designers begin to work, they often simply dive right into the parameters internal to the design problem itself, the "facts of the case".  This is perfectly natural.  Where better to try to get a handle on the task than the particulars of the design problem itself?  For an architect, this means carefully studying the site conditions, the client's pragmatic desires, the climate, and the locale.  These are all crucially important considerations.

Yet, over the years we have come to realize that sometimes the most illuminating inspiration can come from arenas external to the design problem itself.  "Knowledge integration" means, in part, looking to other corners of science, culture, and human experience to find fruitful metaphors that may shine light on the problem at hand.  It's our highest charge as designers to keep our minds inquisitive and open.  From that place we can filter through the rich landscape of our culture, to see if we can extract a few shiny stones from the pile that may help us see a bit more clearly.

It's our highest charge as designers to keep our minds inquisitive and open.  From that place we can filter through the rich landscape of our culture, to see if we can extract a few shiny stones from the pile that may help us see a bit more clearly.

The Genealogy of Style

The history of architectural style is a rich and intricate one, which has evolved over millennia, and is similar in many ways to natural history. One fruitful way to look at the evolution of architectural style through history is to compare it to biological evolution.  We have found this metaphor to be helpful in forming a conceptual basis for our broad design spectrum.


The link between cultural phenomena developing over time, and biological evolution is the concept of memes. Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer.  He is a professorial fellow at Oxford University.  Dawkins coined the word "meme" as a neologism in his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Dawkins based the word on a shortening of the Greek "mimeme", which means "something imitated", making it sound similar to the word "gene."

You may have heard the term before.  In common use, the word meme describes an idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the culture in a manner similar to the way living organisms propagate in the natural world. 

Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesized that people could view many cultural entities as replicators, generally reproducing through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient (though not perfect) copiers of information and behavior. Memes do not always get copied perfectly, and might indeed become refined, combined or otherwise modified by other ideas, resulting in new memes. These memes may themselves prove more (or less) efficient replicators than their predecessors, thus providing a framework for a hypothesis of cultural evolution, analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes.

Figure 1.  A biological system evolving through time.Figure 1. A biological system evolving through time.Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection, in a manner similar to Darwinian biological evolution, through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, influencing an individual entity's reproductive success. Thus one can expect that some memes will propagate less successfully and become extinct, while others will survive, spread, and mutate.

Dawkins observed that cultures evolve in much the same way that populations of organisms evolve. Various ideas pass from one generation to the next; such ideas may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. This process can affect which of those ideas will survive for passing on to future generations. An example from Dawkins: a certain culture may have unique designs and methods of tool-making that another culture may not have; therefore, the culture with the more effective methods may prosper more than the other culture. This leads to a higher proportion of the overall population adopting the more effective methods as time passes. Each tool-design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene, in that some populations have it and others do not, and the meme's function directly affects the presence of the design in future generations.

Examples of memes in culture include:

  • Common sense and folk wisdom, as spread from generation to generation
  • Technology and technological artifacts.
  • Traditions, including religions, fashion, stories, music and dance and children's culture.
  • Colloquial slang and phrases.  One only has to scan the popular press for references to "bling" or something being "fly" or "rad", to see how memes-of-slang propagates virally.

Architectural Styles as Memes

Styles of architecture fit the definition of memes, and function in culture in the way that Dawkins is describing.  Architectural styles propagate from one practitioner to another, and pass from generation to generation.  Buildings exemplifying those styles are either adopted and valued by societies, or found to be unsatisfying and rejected by them.  This process determines which of these styles survive as an accepted vernacular to be passed on to future generations. 

As utilized and manifested by designers in local populations, design styles are modified over time through the lens of personal taste, individual idiosyncratic design approaches, and regional flavors.  This "mutation" can be seen as directly analogous to the biological mutation that is the engine of the Darwinian evolutionary model:  "Decent with modification".

Biological Evolution as a Model

Figure 2. Various species of dwellings.Figure 2. Various species of dwellings.If we accept as reasonable the view that architectural styles are memes, and thus propagate virally in culture in the manner we have just reviewed, then where does this idea lead us?  Let's take a look at biological evolution directly, to see if we can gain some insight into the manner in which architectural style as cultural phenomenon evolves.

Stephen Jay Gould was a professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard University, and curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.  He wrote many popular books on the natural world and natural history, and wrote many fine essays on the deep nature of the natural world.  I am grateful to Professor Gould for the following insights into the nature of biological evolution.

The Genealogy of the Horse

Ask any paleontologist to name the most familiar of all evolutionary series, and you will most surely receive as an answer:  Horses.   The line of decent from small, many-toed protohorse Eohippus, to the big, single-toed modern Equus, must be the most pervasive of all evolutionary icons.

Figure 3. Endpoints of the horse lineage.Figure 3. Endpoints of the horse lineage.The story of the genealogy of the horse one of the first evolutionary series established by scientists - a major reason for its fame.  You may have seen a chart such as this in your high school or college survey of biology class - it is one of the most celebrated in the history of paleontology (figure 4).  The basic science establishing this series dates to the mid 1800s, and this chart itself was prepared in 1876.  

Figure 4. The Genealogy of the Horse, O.C. Marsh, T.H. Huxley, from Gould.Figure 4. The Genealogy of the Horse, O.C. Marsh, T.H. Huxley, from Gould.This diagram shows two of the three major trends in this classic tale:  One, a reduction over time in the number of toes, from four on the front feet and three behind in Eohippus at the bottom, through a series of progressive intermediates, to a single toe with two side splints as the vestiges of former toes, in Equus, the modern horse, at the top.  Two, a steady increase in the height of molar teeth. The author of this diagram chose to draw all of the specimens the same size, and therefore didn't show the third and most obvious trend of marked increase in size and bulk from the initial Eohippus, often described as "fox terrier sized", to the massive Equus of today.

Here's a later version of the chart, dating from the early part of the twentieth century, which shows all three trends.  It first appeared in a pamphlet by the American Museum of Natural History, still for sale in the museum shop into the 1950s, and widely reproduced (figure 5).

In a legitimate though limited sense, these trends are true.  The first horses were small, and did have four toes in front and three behind.  The standard story for why horses evolved in this way points to a switch in habitat from browsing in forested areas to grazing on open plains.  In a strict "connect the dots" sense, we make a correct statement about genealogy when we connect the point for Eohippus, the first horse, with the point for Seabiscuit, our modern Equus.

Figure 5. The Evolution of the Horse, W.D. Matthews, from Gould.Figure 5. The Evolution of the Horse, W.D. Matthews, from Gould.The Fallacy of the Ladder of Progress

This characterization of the sequence as a linear progression seems obvious, yet is so very limited, and so misleading.  This diagram exemplifies a model that might be termed "The Ladder of Progress".  Like all models, it is an abstract "map" that may or may not correspond to reality. Such maps often betray the prejudices of the mapmakers.

When you consider the full variation of biological lineages, in fact evolution doesn't really look like this.  The lineage of Eohippus to Equus represents only one pathway leading through a very elaborate bush of evolution that has waxed and waned in a remarkably complex pattern over many millions of years.  This particular pathway cannot be reasonably interpreted as a summary of the bush of horse evolution, or as an epitome of the story, or even as a demonstration of a central tendency or "trend".

Figure 6. Phylogeny of the Equidae, B. McFadden, from Gould.Figure 6. Phylogeny of the Equidae, B. McFadden, from Gould.In this chart from 1988 (figure 6), we see a diagram that more correctly depicts current scientific understanding of the complex branching evolution of horses.  This is not a "ladder of progress" but a "copiously-branching bush".  The evolutionary bush of horses includes many terminal ends, and tracing each endpoint back to the first horse follows a labyrinth of branching events.  No route back to the beginning is straight, and none of  the numerous paths has any special claim to centrality. 

The branching system is so complex that the author of this chart felt it was necessary to enlarge a portion of the diagram in order to capture all the individual lineages (figure 7).

Figure 7. Chart detail, B. McFadden, from Gould.Figure 7. Chart detail, B. McFadden, from Gould.

One of the reasons our textbooks have seized upon the "Ladder of Progress" as a narrow sample of this totality is simply because Equus is the only living genus of horses, and thus the only modern animal that can serve as an endpoint of a series.  But this model ignores the full, vibrant variation of the entire system, and thus gives us a distorted view of the way biological evolution plays out in all of its richness.  The lesson here is that we should track the history of any complex system holistically, by changes in the variation of all of components, and beware of falsely epitomizing a complex and nuanced history as a single path moving along a linear pathway.

Figure 8. The Ascent of ManFigure 8. The Ascent of Man

Not incidentally, there is another prominent mammalian lineage that has a long and extensive history of depiction as a "Ladder of Progress" - yet also exists today as the single surviving species of a formerly more copious bush.  You don't have to look further than the bathroom mirror to see this example (figure 8).

Architecture, "The Ladder" and "The Bush"

So, how does the model of biological evolution inform us when it comes time to consider the evolution of architectural style through time? A conclusion to consider is this:  if architectural styles function as memes, as neo-biological entities which propagate and evolve through the culture over time, in a manner resembling Darwinian evolution, then a useful model for that evolution is probably more like the "copiously-branching bush" that it is "The Ladder of Progress".

Figure 9. Evolutionary "bushes", from Gould.Figure 9. Evolutionary "bushes", from Gould.Architectural approaches have arisen and evolved in all parts of the globe in hundreds of diverse cultures.  Styles have evolved in response to human needs, regional pragmatics, and societal values and aspirations.  

It serves us well as designers to consider the full variation of the system of evolution of style, and not be tempted to buy into the notion that that evolution represents a "ladder of progress", or an inherent trend toward a stylistic approach with intrinsic superiority, or a potential for extended survival.  The lesson of biology argues for a messy vitality at the heart of the evolution of design, and if we're receptive to this lesson, I believe we can rightly allow ourselves to be nudged toward an inclusive diversity of stylistic approach.

The proponents of doctrinaire Modernism have much invested in the "ladder of progress".  One of the underlying messages of the Modernist movements in art and architecture is that there has been an inexorable, steady march forward, over centuries of human culture, over many successive architectural periods, through a series of interesting but flawed intermediates, inevitably culminating in a superior approach of our current time.  The lesson of biology strongly suggests otherwise: that a more informative way to look at the history of complex neo-biological systems is to consider the full variation of the system.  That variation is best represented by a complexly-branching bush of diversity, evolving through time, rather than individual pathways chosen with prejudice - the fallacious ladder.  The singular journey from the architecture of antiquity to contemporary modernist design is simply one path.  There are many others.

This insight has led us to the notion of that there are no "correct" or "preferred" styles, no "morality of style" or "ladder of progress" connecting the dots between allegedly inferior languages of the past and allegedly superior languages of today.  This reservation of belief in the righteousness or inferiority of particular styles is what we like to call Style Agnosticism.

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