Esther Choi : The Organization of Life

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The Organization of Life: Architecture and the Life Sciences in Great Britain, 1929-1950 

In the decades between the two world wars, a group of modern architects, designers, and scientists were faced with the dilemma of how to redesign the conditions of life in Great Britain. Reconstruction, and planning in particular, adopted an acute sense of urgency in the 1930s, as the exigencies of the economic collapse and the prospect of another war intensified the degeneration of a “civilization in crisis.” For a nation whose popular and political literature painted itself as a social organization in a state of fracture, remedying human depravity through the creation of a harmonious world order could not be decoupled from responding to the crisis of human nature itself.

As politicians came to see the recovery (and redesign) of both humans and their built environment as central concerns, the standardization of civil society and its activities required the coordination of a diverse range of expertise. With the rise in policy institutes in the early twentieth century, the think tank became an exemplary format for interdisciplinary, collective envisioning in times of catastrophe. This bureaucratic turn toward centralized policymaking encouraged scientific and architectural communities to participate in joint conversation despite their disciplinary differences.

Although architecture could pragmatically address the reconstruction of cities, its perceived value began to change with the growing advancement of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory during this period. Evolutionary theory offered a vision of national regeneration that held allegiance to the epistemic virtues of truth and scientific objectivity. Translating biological order to all scales of life—from bodies and buildings to cities and nations—presented a rational template for social, political, and economic structures, while rendering a singular vision of history and growth that was accessible to all. By extension, the “blank slate” theory of evolutionary adaptation, which placed tremendous authority on the environment to shape bodies and behavior, drew awareness to architecture’s conditioning power. The barbarization of humanity became a design problem unto itself, that no longer asked, who are we, and how did we get here, but rather, who do we want to become?

This dissertation explores the exchanges that took place between these modern architects, designers, and scientists to reconstruct Great Britain as a scientifically ordered world after the economic crash of 1929. Spanning twenty years, five case studies organized according to evolutionary themes—natural selection, organization, adaptation, heredity, and mutation—revisit schemes that championed the belief that the human mind and behavior are thoroughly shaped by the environment. Characterized by an unflinching belief in the role of culture as an index of human progress and a “civilizing” tool for national rehabilitation, many of these projects became advocates for state-sponsored social, cultural, and educational schemes, as well as centralized oversight of the design industry.

With living conditions seen as a matter of evolutionary survival, the biotechnical theories of the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner, Patrick Geddes, and the American historian and theorist of technology, Lewis Mumford, argued for instrumentalizing technological expression towards social aims.  On practical terms, these ideas translated into the use of biological principles to inform the calculation of minimum standards in projects like the Isokon Building by Wells Coates, an experiment in communal housing which sought to create a modern curated lifestyle using standardized methods. Likewise, for the biologist Julian Huxley and zoologist Solly Zuckerman, the Gorilla House in the London Zoo designed by Tecton was a living experiment that explored how the civilised circumstances of modern architecture could affect the life of primates. Design Research Unit members Marcus Brumwell and Herbert Read sought to collaborate with the scientists Innes Pearse and George Scott Williamson, who ran a sociobiological experiment that used environmental controls to monitor and retrain the social, cultural, and physical habits of British citizenry. Even young designers like the Independent Group were drawn to the visionary speculation of C.H. Waddington’s theory of epigenetics, which attested to the gene-altering power of the environment on phenotypic inheritance.

Together these case studies contribute to an historical ontology of how modern architecture and the life sciences worked in partnership to reorganize and recondition the patterns of human activity in the hopes of influencing social policy. Although these architects and scientists could never quite realize their utopian aspirations, their entanglements mark an important shift in the notion of human nature, from abstract and immovable to a construct that could be radically engineered. Overall, they demonstrate that remodeling the values of society—and, by extension, scripting what is natural and normative—is an endeavor that always reveals the preferences of its backers.