Esther Choi : The Organization of Life


The Organization of Life: Architecture and the Life Sciences in Britain, 1921-1951

In the decades between, and following, the two World Wars, a group of modern architects, biologists, artists, and writers were faced with the dilemma of how to redesign the conditions of life in Britain. Reconstruction, and planning in particular, adopted an acute sense of urgency, as the exigencies of the economic collapse and the prospect of another war intensified the degeneration of a “civilization in crisis.” For a nation 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.

This dissertation explores the exchanges and collaborations that took place between these figures to reconstruct Britain as a scientifically-ordered world comprised of scientifically-designed subjects. Spanning thirty years, four case studies revisit schemes that championed the belief that the human body and behavior can be thoroughly shaped by a modernized environment. Examined through evolutionary themes as well as philosophies such as evolutionary humanism and theories of cultural evolution, the episodes are characterized by an unflinching belief in biology and culture as “civilizing” tools for national rehabilitation, and the power of design to construct a “second nature.”

The study begins with the history of biotechnics: an influential theory of cultural evolution devised by biologist, sociologist, and town planner Patrick Geddes, and the theorist of technology Lewis Mumford, which transformed design into a “biotechnique” for evolutionary control based on principles of artificial, rather than natural, selection. The second chapter considers how the biologist Julian Huxley and the architects Tecton viewed their geometric design for the London Zoo’s Gorilla House through the lens of environmental adaptation, and analyzes modern architecture’s effects on its resident apes trapped in domesticated and troubling circumstances of captivity. The third chapter unpacks parallel desires to design a national “common sense” by Design Research Unit members Marcus Brumwell and Herbert Read, and Innes Pearse and G.S. Williamson, the biologists behind “The Peckham Experiment”, which used architecture and design as sociobiological instruments to influence the biological and cultural heredity of human subjects. The dissertation closes with a new generation of artists and designers like Richard Hamilton of The Independent Group, who were drawn to the visionary speculation of epigenetics: C.H. Waddington’s theory of biological development, which suggested that transformation is always a relational interaction based on differentiation and unfolding.

Together, these case studies contribute to an historical ontology and epistemology of how modern architecture, art, and the life sciences worked in partnership to reorganize and recondition patterns of human activity as biopolitical schemes for social change. Although these scientific and cultural workers could never quite realize their utopian aspirations, their entanglements mark an important shift in concepts of nature and the human condition: from abstract and immovable, to constructs that could be radically engineered. Overall, they demonstrate that spatial schemes for social change based on a top-down experimental set up will always reveal the inherent biases of its designers.