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About

Morphogenica

The elephant in the room, or should I say the elephant sitting square a squat the Yellow Brick Road is what comes after the Warp & Woof book series that I've been working on for over a decade. The Universal Warp is an exploration of the nature of the universe and world that we are a part of. The Human Woof focuses on the nature of humans and the societies we inhabit. The Warp & Woof is both prelude and the act of looking the assumptions we make about the world square in the eye and make statements that can be backed up empirically, rhetorically and aesthetically. Wordsworth never got beyond his prelude, and something about that is just not right. Preludes should be a set up, a preparing of the ground that sets the reader up for the money shot.

I have tried all sorts of approaches but none felt right. Each approach was either too ambitious to complete, such as using the same approach as the Plan of St Gall, or fragmented into so many parts that they couldn't come together into a satisfactory whole.

This afternoon I may have hit on an idea that may provide a solution which I will call Morphogenica, from the term morphogenesis (from the Greek morphê shape and genesis creation, literally "the generation of form") which is a biological process that causes a cell, tissue or organism to take its shape. We will use the term throughout YBR to describe the result of any emergent process that results in a recognizable whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

A morphogenica (a compendium of morphogenica is a morphogenicon) is a kind of possible scenario that stems from an inevitability, as defined by Kevin Kelly, that emerges when a threshold has been crossed. Tipping points open some doors, but they also close others; a narrowing of possible outcomes. An inevitability is neither plan nor prediction; rather it is a continuum of possible outcomes that map & graph broad characteristics of the final outcome but the details can not be known until the waveform collapses. Morphogenica are often at best aspirational, they are visions of what might be possible if all the steaming goat entrails, spilled across the cold polished stone alter align just right.

Our morphogenicon will take inspiration from the architect Paolo Soleri's Arcology: the city in the image of man. The vision behind arcology (architecture + ecology) and the mind bending illustrations for the cities he imagined in the book, each grander and more fantastic than the last, is so total and encompassing that it leaves the reader agape. As William Gaddis wrote, they are "too much for one miserable pair of eyes to take in at any one time."

Soleri's arcologies are quintessential morphogenica, there is scale, there are population numbers, there is climate and context. Each morphogenica is a bit like Christopher Alexander's pattern languages, but instead of each pattern being something that is found reoccuring in buildings and towns, they are patterns-as-scenarios. Morphogenica aren't prescriptive plans for production, but — like concept cars produced by automobile manufacturers — provide a mental model of what something might look like if it was.

This does not mean that they are purely imaginary either. In the Plan of St Gall, Walter Horn and Ernest Born takes a 9th century plan for a paradigmatic Carolinian monastery and conduct an exhaustive study of the monastery as if it had actually been built. It is easy to get lost; the deeper you dive into the work the monastery takes almost palpable form. We experience the world as a mental model made up of a combination of sensory input and stored memories that help fill in the bits we can't see directly and make predictions. A morphogenica is tool for constructing intentional mental models. As Harry Potter asked Dumbledore on the otherworldly King's Cross landing, "is this all real or is it just happening in my head?" to which Dumbledore replies, "of course it's happening inside your head Harry. Why should that mean that it's not real?"

The insight I had this afternoon was that such Morphogenica can be used instead of top down deterministic master plans, blueprints and proposals that don't require precision engineering. This gives builders the freedom to build bottom up, by providing a set of parameters that act as a theme which can be improvised and recombined in countless ways as needed, to conform to and even enhance and become a natural part of an existing geography, biome, climate and culture.

As such, morphogenica can scale as small or as large as one pleases. They can be used to envision and plan a garden, the interior decoration for a bar, provide a shared vision for long term town planning or even soar into the stratospheric architectural visions that Soleri gave us.

Perhaps morphogenica, as envisioned here, could provide a missing piece in Christopher Alexander's approach to building and urban planning and development. His approach is a kind of process philosophy in which buildings aren't designed as intentional (and often personal) expressions, but emerge from the needs, context and constraints that they are built in. Modern architecture and building methodology demands that all context and constraints can be planned for in advance, but this is clearly not how things work in the real world. Precise building to plan and spec bakes in all the things missed or gotten wrong on the drawing board.

Heraclitus' admonition that Man is estranged from that which he is most familiar was a warning that we are drifting from our instinctual connection to Nature. It was at this time when the idea that humans are apart from and have dominion over Nature began to take hold across the ancient world and spread like a contagion. That bizarre belief has fueled our relentless attempts to control Nature. Our buildings, towns and cities are the result of that process taken to its natural conclusion.

Our manufactured environment isolates us from the elements, our pollution sequesters us from the magnificence of the sparkling Milky Way washing across the night sky accompanied by a cacophonic chorus of frogs and insects. We flee in panic at the prospect of even a few drops of rain coming into contact with our skin, terrified that the cheap hair dye applied with with a popsicle stick by the barber or the cosmetic mask we carefully construct each morning, will run. The hum of the air conditioner has replaced the calming rustle of leaves in the forest and the soft shifting dappled light that reaches us through the canopy.

Our human built environment has turned homes in soulless commodities that are little more than shells with a resale value. We are left feeling isolated and alienated from ourselves and can no longer remember why. But millions of years of evolution can not be erased so easily. On a very deep level we still know this and will never be happy or at ease until we have restored our relationship with the larger natural world in which we inhabit. Wordsworth got it right:

How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too,
Theme this but little heard of among Men,
The external World is fitted to the Mind;
And the creation (by no lower name
Can it be called) which they with blended might
Accomplish…

Designing and building bottom up is the best way we can begin the long process of repairing the damage we have done to ourselves and to the larger climate. The problem is that bottom up processes are not legible to those and those institutions who lack the imagination or self-confidence to put their trust in such an approach. A morphogenica, if done right could provide that kind of cognitive reinforcement for that mediated and institutional command and control mindset that can not be ignored or avoided; only placated.

Refs & Rabbit Holes

  • Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M., A pattern language: towns, buildings, construction (1977), : Oxford University Press.
  • Alexander, C., The phenomenon of life: nature of order, book 1: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe (the nature of order) (2004), : CES Publishing.
  • Alexander, C., The process of creating life: nature of order, book 2: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe (the nature of order) (2004), : Center for Environmental Structure.
  • Alexander, C., A vision of a living world: the nature of order, book 3: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe (the nature of order) (2004), : Center for Environmental Structure.
  • Alexander, C., The luminous ground: the nature of order, book 4: an essay on the art of building and the nature of the universe (the nature of order) (2003), : CES Publishing.
  • Alexander, C., The timeless way of building (1979), : Oxford University Press.
  • Horn, W., Born, E., Jones, C. W., & Dupree, A. H., The plan of st. gall: a study of the architecture & economy of, & life in a paradigmatic carolingian monastery (1979), : University of California Press Berkeley, Los Angeles and London. [archive.org: v1 v2 v3]
  • Gaddis, W., The recognitions (2012), : Dalkey Archive Press.
  • Kelly, K., The inevitable: understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future (2016), : Viking.
  • Lightman, A., This is no way to be human, The Atlantic (2022).
  • Soleri, P., & Blake, P., Arcology: the city in the image of man (1970), : MIT Press.
  • Wordsworth, W., & Gill, S., William Wordsworth (1984.), : Oxford University Press.