Esther Choi : The Organization of Life

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Esther Choi

In the decades between the two world wars, a group of modern architects, planners, and biologists were faced with the dilemma of how to redesign 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 the architects, planners, and biologists who sought to rebuild Britain, scientific concepts offered a vision for 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 the dominance hierarchy of social, political, and economic structures, while rendering a singular vision of history, growth, and civilization that could be understood by all.

This dissertation focuses on the collaborations that took place between these architects, planners, and biologists to reconstruct Great Britain as a scientifically ordered world after the economic crash of 1929. Desperate for the nation to recoup, a number of scientists associated with the neo-Darwinian synthesis surmised that just as environmental control could be used to alter micro-evolutionary patterns amongst plant and animal life over time, so, too, could the behavioral patterns of the British citizenry be redesigned through everyday interactions with their environment. Using practices borrowed from principles of Scientific Management, scientists collaborated with modern architects to develop metrics for human needs and behavior, which, in turn, informed the design of functional objects, buildings, and cities.

Spanning twenty years, the case studies in this dissertation are examined from the vantage of biotechnics: Patrick Geddes’s late-nineteenth-century biologistic theory that the products of technological production civilize humanity by molding and choreographing human activity. Applied by architects and planners in compositions ranging from experimental furniture design to city planning, these projects fulfilled what Geddes (and later, Lewis Mumford) prophesized as the “biotechnic period” of the Anthropocene: a moment of technological development that would enable forms of eugenic optimization for humankind and set new normative standards for existence. Unlike previous Vitalist instantiations of biotechnical design, the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which merged genetics with evolutionary biology, mobilized architecture to act as both a symbol of and dispositif for biological management and engineering.

With living conditions seen as a matter of evolutionary survival, architectural projects commissioned by scientists like Julian Huxley and Solly Zuckerman became the loci for sociobiological experiments. Evolutionary biology was used to understand cooperative social behavior and applied to modern housing projects in the reconstruction of London. Likewise, the design of modern village colleges and health centers aided sociobiological experiments that sought to reform the rural citizenry by cultivating standards of taste and habits. City planning schemes, proposed by scientists and architects alike, used the rhetoric of scientism to mitigate the subjugation of individual will to standardization and organization. These concerns also filtered through architecture and planning projects for the British Empire, particularly in West African nations.

Unified by an interest in standardization, rationalization, and scientific progressivism, architects and biologists aspired to mold uniformity in an otherwise unstable world. Yet after World War I, belief in the possibilities of engineering adopted a science-fiction pitch, assigning architecture a crucial role: The built environment became a space onto which nascent fantasies of a collective identity based on evolutionary humanism could be projected. Though many larger-scale biotechnical proposals were never realized, they adopted an increasingly totalitarian tenor as the shadow of World War II loomed, unearthing Britain’s history with biologism, imperialism, eugenics, and Social Darwinism in unsettling ways.

The case studies demonstrate that architectural production participated in the scientific aim to reconstruct the British populace by reorganizing and reconditioning the patterns of human activity. But they also suggest that a new aesthetic regime emerged through the biotechnical experiments in this interwar period, one that positioned modern architecture as a symbol of a scientifically derived, humanistic worldview, while reifying the image of Britain as a civilization of sovereign power, resiliency, and progress. Although architecture could never quite realize the utopian aspirations of these scientists, its entanglement with science catalyzed an important shift in the notion of subjectivity—from innate and uncovered (Vitalmystik or élan vital) to a model that could be radically altered and engineered. Likewise, although science seemingly conferred authority and calculation to the design process, freeing the architect from the responsibility of authorial will, it also granted architects the power to anticipate and shape the future form of life itself. These examples explore the discipline’s often contentious encounters with the inescapable ethical and biopolitical considerations attached to the technologies of life as architecture struggled with its ability to nature and de-nature the subject.