Throughout the course of my work with Animal Architecture, within architectural practice and while studying architectural history my mind has consistently wandered back to two words: “ontology” and “ontogeny.” These words and ideas almost always arrive in my mind as a pair, though they are not necessarily inherently linked. More-over they have a particular sway for a certain type of designer and I must admit, for myself carry a undeniable amount of intrigue. Of course it’s not simply the words themselves but how they relate to form, the generation of form and eventually to an architectural practice. Recently I have been drawn back to consider them more and more frequently. Which is odd since, to my mind, both words in their application to architectural practice mark a particular point in time.
Maybe 10-15 years ago, within a certain cadre of architectural theorists and practitioners (mainly based on the North American east coast or Europe) there was more occasion to discuss the genesis of form and its ontology. Form in these conversations, in print, in person, or otherwise was discussed as a kind of inevitability – as if the architect/designer were merely encouraging a nascent and inherent form to emerge out of the context of the site and the selected materials – to discuss design as a process of ontogenesis. Definitely, there is a healthy helping of biological overtones in this discussion – genetics, ecology, evolution, emergence; each word with its own semantic baggage and each, more importantly for me, with its own mis-reading, cooptions and mis-understandings. However, at the root of each of these terms/movements/ideologies is a drive towards the biological and towards an unspoken desire for, a kind of architecture that “becomes,” or “is” in the same way that we see a shell, or a plant or a flock of birds – and this would be the ontological.
Ontogeny as defined by the OED is “the origin and development of the individual being.” There are some other subtleties to it but in general it describes a process of growth.
Ontology is slightly more complex. as Wikipedia will tell you, along with a variety of other sources is most simply stated as the “theory of being as such.” It was originally called “first philosophy” by Aristotle. It is concerned with the nature of being and in some circles of architectural influence biological things are quickly cited as having a kind of ontological purity. Such as an oyster-shell, or a leaf or a flower has a formal truth to it – it simply is – that a Wells-Fargo bank, for example or a mixed-use downtown development may not. Anyhow, this is not a philosophy website…
How we got to this point has a lot to do with the stylistic arguments of the late 18th century, along with architectural education from Beaux-Arts training all the way up to the linguistic shift in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. I won’t get into a more precise lineage of this trajectory here (maybe in another posting), but this should be enough to bring the reader up to speed on the length and longevity of this discussion. The point is that a trend toward biologism, due to an increasing anxiety about the meaning and production of form, has been building for hundreds of years.
Fast forward to today and why my mind is circling on these terms… I just got back from the annual Gulf Coast Green symposium held in Houston. It was an eventful day of talks about passive ventilation, poison free materials and energy savings. There was much talk of the increasingly desperate state of the world’s climate, our rising water levels and cholesterol, and actually quite a lot about biology. Never once was ontogeny mentioned. And somewhere between keynote presentations I thought back to those earlier discussions. The discussion of emergence, ontogeny and later parametricism would have all been well and good except for the fact that at almost every turn either directly or indirectly, they neglected to include and address actual biology. Instead each almost always reverted back to an image or pattern of biologic-ish. But that much is relatively easy to say. Architects have appropriated images, patterns, and textures from nature in design for a very long time. Sure, sure, we know it’s not the tree-itself but an image of a tree is surely almost as good. Yes? Well, probably not. But we’ll get into that as well in a minute.
The much more difficult and stunning realization here, when we look across the trend toward biologism is NOT that of mistaking the image of the tree for the actual tree, it’s that we have almost completely forgotten the biologic HUMAN in all of this chatter. In fact, if we can remove our anthropocentric blinders for a minute and look at what we’ve done, we would see that rather than developing a robust theory or practice in architecture based on an inclusive attitude towards biology we have simply continued to reinscribe and strengthen anthropocentric ideas about the separation of “Man and Nature.”
Despite the rhetoric our buildings and cities continue to turn a cold-shoulder to non-human (and some actual human) life – reducing biodiversity in our cities, poisoning ourselves and our landscapes and consuming more energy than we can produce. And I would say this is less a product of our inability to invent or devise better tools, trades or materials, but rather the simple fact that we continue to see ourselves as separate from the world in which we live.
A truly ontological approach to design would have to come to grips with the unavoidable truth of the biology of humans. That what we do, what we build, what we make, are the products of a biological animal — we are natural! The problem is not that it’s not nature, but that it’s a really shameful nature. I believe that the true ontology of form would be to some how arrive back at the place where the relationship between humans and nature was seamless, where we noticed no difference. Where the word “nature” and “human” no longer had any individual meaning. Our lives would be more closely tied to our locations, and our homes and cities would be more closely tied to ourselves and the lives (human and non) of those around us.
Last point. This will only become more and more dire as the earth warms and urbanizes.